A few weeks ago I spent 3 days in Amsterdam, at Shell’s offices, taking part in a workshop for their Scenarios team. Shell produce new scenarios every three years, and use them to facilitate planning and investment decisions in all five of their business groups. The Amsterdam workshop focused on the impact of technology over the next five years, with other workshops in Europe and the US focusing on social and economic/political impacts, although these distinctions seemed pretty artificial by the end of the workshop.
Over the last 10-15 years, Shell’s scenarios have shifted significantly. Like all futurism, they’re as much a litmus test for their time as they are insights into the future. The 1980’s scenarios focused on the oil crisis and its impacts, but by the ’90s the seductive ‘end of history’ rhetoric of Fukuyama led them to ‘TINA’ – ‘There Is No Alternative’ – where the forces of technological progress and globalisation would sweep all before it. The only question to be considered was *how* globalisation would happen, not *if*. Most of the 90’s scenarios focused on exploring the TINA theme, but by 2000 the cracks start to appear, and Shell recognise the three ‘Rs’ that complicate the TINA scenario – The regulations behind liberalisation, The rules of globalisation, and the restraints on technology.
The current scenarios focus on two stories – Business Class, about a connected global elite harnessing the power and mobility of technology for their own benefit; and Prism, in which ‘multiple modernities’ exist in parallel, rooted in local cultures, histories and values. In both scenarios, technology is a key driver, connecting the global elite in ‘Business Class’, or enabling translation and exchange between the multiple communities of ‘Prism’.
Our Amsterdam workshop set out to look at the impact of technology through four key themes:
How everything and everyone shares information proactively, reactively, overtly or covertly
Sensing and making sense
How we and our environments acquire information about each other and how we use and visualise this data
Smaller and distributed
How multiple micro and nano technologies will impact our world and what they will enable
Future of business
How the way in which individuals, organisations and societies will operate, interact and transact in the future
I’ll be posting up some summaries and comments from the workshop over the next few days, but generally the outcome was that technology will not be as important a driver in the next 20 years as it has been for the last 20. The workshop group – about 20 people – included experts from a range of technologies, including media/communications (Nokia, BT, BBC), material science, nano-technology, food, the built environment (Ove Arup) and neuro-science. Particularly in the media/communications sectors, there was a feeling that we have seen all the radical technological innovation over the last 10-15 years, in particular the growth of the web and mobile communications, and that the next 15-20 years will be about innovation in services and business models.
There was more significant innovations likely in neuro-science and nano-technology, but this would still be limited to lab work, and would only start to have a market impact at the end of the scenario period in 2025. Innovation in food/health cross-overs was potentially the most likely, as there are huge market drivers for this, with consumers wanting convenience, but without the negative impact on health. But scalability was an issue here – most of the innovation in the food industry over the last 20 years has been about mass-production and distribution, so although the technology is there to produce niche or personalised products to address specific health problems, the economies of scale will mitigate their impact on the market. Lower-cholesterol margarine is a reality, but we’re not about to see Tescos organising their supermarket aisles according to your health profile.
The dominant theme of the 3 days was the impossibility of separating technology drivers from the social or political drivers that surround them. This is really the story of a post-revolutionary society, after the ground-breaking explosion of a new technology, having to deal with aftershocks and attempting to understand what has changed. Regulation was a real issue – how will we understand what kind of regulation we need to adjust to new social behaviours, or to old social behaviours translated onto new technological networks? How do we ensure fair and open markets where these markets haven’t yet formed into stable economies? How do we define and protect public values when we are only just begining to see mass public use of these technologies?
One of the problems of the workshop was its western focus. The questions above are important to developed, western economies struggling to adapt to new information economies. Apart from the possibility of using information technology to ‘leap-frog’ development stages, most of the discussion of developing countries focused on the sustainability of their economies and use of resources – not ‘technology’ questions at all. A speaker from Shell showed a fascinating slide linking resource use and GDP per capita. Most developed economies have seen a gradual increase in resource use as GDP increases, with the strange exception of the US, which has seen resource use decline, albeit from a x3 height compared to EU countries. China currently is going through a huge surge in resource use, but with little increase in GDP. Is this an acceleration effect, like flooding the engine with petrol before starting a journey, or is it an unsustainable curve? One model would predict that this is only sustainable if the effects start to impact on GDP per capita – as this increases, more of China’s population can start to engage with global markets, opening up cultural and economic exchange opportunities. With a centralised economy that doesn’t pass benefits of investment to the wider population, growth depends on state planning rather than entrepreneurism.
Anyway. I’ll try and cobble together some vaguely cogent highlights from my scrabble of notes, pdfs and memories, and post them over the next few days. One thing that did work well – Innovaro, who did a fantastic job of facilitating the sessions – gave us all a 64mb USB keydrive with copies of all the presentations and digital photographs of the working notes. That’s a highly recommended way of capturing the outputs from such an intense workshop and distributing them to the participants. So much better than walking away with a hangover, an ID tag and a bag full of tchotchke.