How to read the macro-environment in the 21st century

In order to accurately forecast the future, you need to understand the factors affecting the macro-environment. These are the nine key macro-trends that will impact our society in the 21st century.

1. Connected world: the internet of people, the internet of things

Digitisation and the internet are inventions as important as Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440. 

By changing data from analogue to digital, it has become far easier to measure, monitor, track, compare and improve much about our lives, from business data, such as customer interaction, to our personal lives, such as how many steps we take or how many calories we ingest each day, or how our blood pressure changes relative to time and location. Consider the DietSensor, which analyses and records the food you eat, or Clue which tracks a woman’s menstrual cycle.

We are more connected than ever before. There are more than 1.9 billion people on Facebook (that’s more than the population of China or members of the Roman Catholic Church). In a single minute, around 21m Whatsapp messages and 150m email are sent, there are 2.4m Google searches and 1m Vine loops.

And our things are more connected than ever before too. With 50 billion connected devices – including phones, chips, sensors, and implants — by 2020, the internet of things (IoT) stands to revolutionise our world. It enables, for instance, people to access cars rather than own them: think of Zipcar. And it means you soon won’t lose anything ever again — thanks to IoT startup Tile, which raised $18m in a funding round in May 2016.

2. Democratisation — from the pyramid to the pancake

There is a general trend in our society from a feudal, fixed, closed, “top-down” system of power and information, to one that is democratised, fluid, flatter, open, and “bottom-up”. 

Consider the transfer of information over the years. Mail systems were considered so important they were often controlled by the monarchy. In the 20th century, we got our news from a few sources: the TV, newspapers. Now, we are as likely to get our information via the web, from blogs, Twitter, and SnapChat.

Or think about fame: celebrity was once controlled by Hollywood, and the big TV stations. Today, it’s possible for a Youtuber to rise to fame from their bedroom.

3. Automation — AI, the blockchain, robots

Since prehistory, technology has been enabling humans to achieve more than they could with their bare hands: from sharp stones to the plough, the wheel, the bicycle, and the aeroplane. Technological advance has speeded up since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, robots took over manual, blue-collar workers’ jobs. Now in the 21st century, software is likely to take over many clerical, white-collar worker jobs. In total, 11m jobs across the UK are at high risk of being automated by 2036, according to accountancy firm Deloitte.

Driverless vehicles will be one of the most visible, and important, shifts. Just as cars replaced horses, so driverless vehicles will change our streets, our attitudes towards ownership (access not ownership), and jobs. The trucking industry in the UK employs 2.2 million people 600,000 people have HGV licences. And there are just under 300,000 taxi driver licenses in England. What will all those people do once driving is done by machines?

Computing power has increased incredibly quickly in recent years. It has increased a trillion times between 1955 and 2015. The iPhone 4 was as powerful as the world’s most powerful computer in 1985. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will continue to become ever more powerful — and may well surpass human intelligence sometime this century. Estimates range from not long after 2020 to sometime in the 2040s. Google and New York-based startup have released early versions of personal assistants to run our diaries.

The blockchain, the revolutionary technology underlying BitCoin, is another development with threats and opportunities. A system of distributed authority, it removes the requirement for third party authority. Just as it threatens the current banking system, so it could change the way, for instance, contracts are made. With blockchain, as Vinay Gupta, software engineer and release co-ordinator at Ethereum Project (which is a “decentralized platform for applications that run exactly as programmed without any chance of fraud, censorship or third-party interference”) contracts could be far more complex and fluid. Rather than remunerate a person based on the time they put in, they could be paid according to the value they add, and that could be calculated, re-calculated, and topped up over time. 

4. Experientialism

Our fundamental value system is shifting from materialism to “experientialism”: instead of looking for happiness and status in material goods, we are finding them in experiences instead. The Office for National Statistics, for instance, reports that on average people used 15 tonnes of material in 2001 compared with just over 10 tonnes in 2013. Henry McVey, CIO of KKR Balance Sheet at US investment firm KKR, wrote in a recent report: "we believe that a major decoupling within retail sales is now occurring, with consumers choosing to spend on “experiences” rather than “things.” 

5. Amortality

Humans are living longer than ever before. A baby born in 2016 can expect to live to around 80 (male) or 83 (female). Many of those will live far longer lives than their ancestors. Of the 2,000 or so children born each day in the UK, more than half are likely to be alive in 2116.

These longer lives will have significant implications on our society. Just as teenagers were “created” in the 20th century with mass education, and the gap between childhood and working, so these longer lives will create new life stages — as London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott point out in their new book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. Instead of the three stages of education-work-retirement, they propose that we’ll be living seven or eight stages. (Which makes it sound as appetising as an 8-course tasting menu, as opposed to the 3-course set menu.)

As a result of life-extension, and coupled with life-enhancing technologies like the ability to freeze eggs, our cultural norms about life-stages are changing. According to cultural commentator (and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party) Catherine Mayer, this is leading to an age of “amortality”, when people live agelessly and “rarely ask themselves if their behaviour is age appropriate because that concept has little meaning for them”. In this new era of longer lives, the answers are changing dramatically to questions which previously were obvious, such as: what’s the best age to have children? When should I retire? When should I settle down? Because in the much longer life, there’s really no rush.

6. Crowd-based capitalism: the sharing / gig economies

Work used to be a place we went to from Monday to Friday. In a world enabled by the internet, and where platforms such as Lyft, eBay, Etsy, and Airbnb enable people to not only work when they choose, but also be both consumers and producers, people are able to work when they want and how they want. 

This sharing economy is growing, at pace. It will be worth $335 billion by 2025, and is growing faster than Facebook, Google and Yahoo combined. This has the potential to be good news for workers, as Arun Sundararajan, at New York University’s Stern School of Business, argued in his recent book The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism.

“The shift back to crowd-based capitalism will be fundamentally empowering for labor,” Sundararajan wrote, “because it moves the current system from big employer/employee relationships, to a smaller, more entrepreneurial system.”


7. New realities: VR, MR

Two of the most exciting technological advances in the 21st century will literally change the reality we experience. Thanks to its ability to immerse people in new, imaginary worlds, virtual reality (VR) takes entertainment and marketing to another, far more exciting level. 

VR is catching on very quickly. While 350,000 VR headsets shipped in 2015, and more than 9m will be shipped in 2016, around 65m will a year by 2020 according to analyst firm IDC. (Note that these figures cover devices like HTC’s Vive and Oculus Rift, but do not include headsets lacking electronics, such as Google's Cardboard viewer. As of January 2016, more than 5m Cardboard headsets had shipped, 25m VR apps for Cardboard had been downloaded.)

Mixed reality (MR) — as augmented reality (AR) is increasingly being called — layers digital information onto the real world. The stand-out examples of this are Microsoft’s HoloLens and the startup Magic Leap, which is valued at more than $4.5bn — despite the fact that it hasn’t launched a product yet. “We are creating a new world where digital and physical realities seamlessly blend together to enable amazing new experiences,” says Rony Abovitz, founder, president and CEO of Magic Leap. 

Because of the practical, commercial, and fun value of mixed reality, it is likely to be more important than VR. Together, their market value will increase from less than $10 billion annually now to more than $150 billion by around 2020.

8. Tribalism

Tribalism is on the rise. Here's a useful perspective from an article on the Huffington Post called The New Tribalism and the Decline of the Nation State by a named Robert Reich, who is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • "We are witnessing a reversion to tribalism around the world, away from nation states…" 
  • "… technology has whittled away the underpinnings of the nation state"
  • "News and images move so easily across borders that attitudes and aspirations are no longer especially national."
  • "Nations are becoming less relevant in a world where everyone and everything is interconnected. The connections that matter most are again becoming more personal." 
  • "Religious beliefs and affiliations, the nuances of one’s own language and culture, the daily realities of class, and the extensions of one’s family and its values — all are providing people with ever greater senses of identity."
  • "The nation state, meanwhile, is coming apart. A single Europe — which seemed within reach a few years ago — is now succumbing to the centrifugal forces of its different languages and cultures." 

9. Eco disaster?

It now seems way beyond reasonable doubt that humans are causing a precipitous change in our planet's climate. The Paris COP 21 agreements suggest that the governments of the world are finally doing something — yet it is hard to understand exactly how extreme their demands are. If we are to remain within 2C increase by 2100, human culture will have to become a carbon sink by 2070. 

Source: The Geography of our Future: Understanding the consequences of the Anthropocene, a lecture given by Mark Maslin and Danny Dorling, Royal Geographical Society, April 25th 2016. For more,  click here .

Source: The Geography of our Future: Understanding the consequences of the Anthropocene, a lecture given by Mark Maslin and Danny Dorling, Royal Geographical Society, April 25th 2016. For more, click here.