Each year – like many people – Futurist.com Chief Futurist Nikolas Badminton writes his predictions for the following year. These aim to draw attention to areas that maybe haven’t been considered and to ignite some thinking. Let’s dive into his 2021 predictions – the year of transcendence. (Glen Hiemstra, ed.)
Denial is not a river in Africa.
But, it’s a human condition that’s truly defined the years that have come before 2020. Climate change isn’t real. Big tech isn’t going to take on every industry. Global pandemics aren’t coming. Our lives are assured and safe. What I call the ‘OSTRICH MANTRA’.
It’s that time again when I reflect on the signals of change that I see out in the world and make my predictions for 2021.
Futurists are often quick to say we don’t ‘predict’ things and that we “analyze trends” or “develop foresight”. But in reality we do in fact often ‘speculate’ on the future. So, these are my speculations on trend areas that have a higher degree of certainty (and gaining pace through funding, research and consumer uptake) due to the signals I see gaining pace – many of which I discuss within each trend area. They are generally more assured due to the fact that they will likely happen in the next 13 or 14 months.
Note: I don’t claim to be ‘right’ about what’s coming, so relax and consider WHAT IF these come to pass.
From Industrial to Human Revolution
Since 1760 or so the Industrial revolutions that have thrust society and culture forward (mostly, and in terms of business and evolution of the human race) have done so through advancements in Energy, Transportation, and Communications. And, through the combination of two or all of them.
Today, we’ve been thrust into the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ where everything is connected and exponential (shouting that out for the fanboys/girls/folx waving their arms in the direction of the absolute, technocratic future). But we have a problem. Many will be left behind in this technological revolution. Many will profit from closing that gap. And everyone has experienced the abject failure of this trajectory in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the failure in our industrial complex in a chaotic way across all cultures and places on the planet. Energy, Transportation, Communications (and info-demics), food supply, healthcare and support for the vulnerable, schooling, policing, Equality and equity, democracy, globalization and so much more has been shaken and we’re seeing change across these in complex and challenging ways.
I’m suggesting that we must recognize a fourth dimension of change in our industrial trajectory and an abandonment of the term ‘industrial revolution’ in favour of human revolution – or, INFINITE HUMANITY as I like to call it. The dimension we must consider is biology/ecology – the evolution of living organisms and the interactions among them and their biophysical environment.
The interplay of biology/ecology, energy, transportation, and communications gives us a more holistic foundation for considering the futures that lay ahead of us. It roots us in nature and that will become increasingly important as we march ahead.
And we know this to be true as many parts of the world are still in lockdown due to the pandemic.
Each of the following three areas aims to get you thinking broadly about the implications of actions of ourselves, our communities, nation states, and companies. I do not aim to be extensive in my analysis or provide complete rationale – that comes in the year following the publishing of these ideas as I track the signals of change around each.
I invite you to challenge them, add your thoughts to them, and create your own predictions and share them.
One more note before I go into these areas – I’m not going to touch on the pandemic, vaccination programs, ‘herd immunity’, the future of work, ‘the great reset’, disruption cycles, or anything else that many futurists go into.
We are in collapse – and have been for hundreds of years – and we need a way out. Maybe the areas I discuss here will aid in the ascension out of that? There are three areas of focus that I will spend time researching and advising clients on through 2021: Shifting platforms and algorithms, Transcendent social media, and the emergent geopolitical theatres of Water-Food-Energy. Emergent geopolitical theatres
In each I outline some tertiary thoughts. These are starting points for greater exploration and discussion.
1. Shifting platforms and algorithms
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” so said Marshall McLuhan. We’ve co-created the perfect combination of systems, input, transformation, and output. We are complicit.
The evolution of information into an info-demic form has created an ever-renewable viral loop that feeds society and feeds back to input provided by software platforms and the people that design, build and nurture their growth.
But the platforms we see have been created by the few that choose to control who we are and to colonize how we live our lives through technology. Those few rarely care about us – humans – and our rights. Here lies the problem that few discuss.
One of the biggest problems we’ll see in 2021 (and beyond) is that tech companies are gaining billions of dollars in funding to make every damn thing into a service – effects into retail, education, healthcare, policing, freedom of expression, the birth of our children and the deaths of our elders. Their aim is totality of consumer ownership and the zero sum game.
Many (mostly unqualified) futurists, governmental representatives and executives wax lyrical about the need for ethics, frameworks of regulations and responsibility with a true lack of knowing how to make this work, and how to implement them in the real world.
But, I am heartened as those that wrangle with philosophy, ethics, human-centred design and responsible approaches to building equity in the world start to gain pace.
Overall, I think that we need to establish a truth and reconciliation commission on the platforms that have become ubiquitous, including, but not limited to email platforms, video platforms, social media, messaging apps, chatbots, productivity tools, the advertising platforms that lay amongst them, and maybe even the trauma of spreadsheets.
That leads us on nicely into the next prediction
2. Transcendent social media
In 1993 I joined the ‘Internet Club’ in my first year at university where I started a degree in applied psychology and computing. It was then I saw the potential of global connection by connecting to university archives worldwide. Within a couple of years I was seeing brands, bands, and people tapping into it as a platform to tell their story and share the work they were doing.
In 1994 Geocities popped up as a virtual, cyber-geo-located platform where people selected a ‘city’ in which to list the link to the web pages they owned and operated. The ‘cities’ were named after real cities or regions according to their content. ‘Silicon Valley’ and those dealing with entertainment were assigned to “Hollywood” etc. It was a mindset shift towards spaces beyond ‘cyberspace’.
Around the same time a wild Internet businessman called Josh Harris started PSEUDO which was an “online television network.” that started out netcasting 40 radio programs and throwing parties in New York City. In 1999, Harris launched his art project ‘Quiet: We Live in Public’. This was a real social experiment where more than 100 volunteers were contained in a three story loft on Broadway in New York City surrounded by over a hundred surveillance cameras that captured every move, and every ‘resident’ had their own channel through which to watch each other. An Orwellian, Big Brother concept with “a neo-fascistic element.” It also had a steady supply of drugs, alcohol and a gun range.
Both Geocities and ‘Quiet…’ indicated that the Internet could be a congregation and culmination of experiences re-lived through content and connection.
Through the 2000s we saw social networking explode – virtually and literally – MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and other platforms resonate with influencers, creators, brands and ordinary people as places to be who you’ve always wanted to be, rant, celebrate, overshare, and show the hyperbole of their imagined lives. Oh, the field day Freud, Jung, Maslow and others would have had.
In 2020 we’ve seen a mass adoption of digital platforms for connection and we have Zoom as the new, reluctant and sometimes painful social network and now something interesting is happening.
We’re transcending beyond platforms into worlds of personal influence, business and a true representation of ourselves online. There are two interesting observations.
The first is how we’re seeing a Twitter + Only Fans ecosystem where expression, sex and free thought can truly exist. Sex workers are fighting for and finding legitimatization and independence finally. This is good, and long overdue.
The second is the mass-migration from Facebook, Youtube and Twitter to alt-networks like Rumble and Parler where they can have ‘free speech’, or unfettered, unchecked, unmoderated freeform content mayhem – a conspiracy and a mental asylum for ‘free thinkers’. This is very, very bad and is a direct affront to the well-known journalism adage – “We don’t make the news, we just report it.” It’s flipped…
“They make the news, they report it, they accelerate it. They are making their echo chamber the chamber of public discourse.”
Transcendence? Absolutely, and we’ll see more polarity of opinion in society than ever before fueled by the networks that we discuss in the first trend area. They are interlinked and oversight will be needed – as will a liberal and moderate government that creates balance.
In 2021 we’ll have to choose our actions and expressions online wisely.
3. Water-Food-Energy: Emergent geopolitical theatres
The third trend area I am tracking is more existential and essential than the first two. It’s about resources vs. information and networks. It’s old world and the constituent elements are being maneuvered into position to political gain and populace control.
2021 will see the acceleration and public recognition of global ‘Resource Wars’ – water, energy, and food.
Each will become a more important foundational chess piece for the geopolitical struggle and global unrest that start to gain pace through investment, R&D and innovation. Of course, these will also be linked to climate change and what I outlined in my 2020 predictions.
“Water is the driving force of all nature.”
Leonardo da Vinci
70% of the earth is covered in water and only 1% of that water is usable. Most water on the planet is either saltwater or locked away in glaciers so there is scarcity. That drives demand, which drives prices, which drives political discourse and the need for control. And, with an expected 6 billion people suffering from clean water accessibility by 2050 and droughts increasing in severity, water will grow more and more valuable.
Global water demand for all uses, presently about 4,600 km3 per year, will increase by up to 30% by 2050, up to 6,000 km3 per year. So, we need to follow the nexus of water with both food and energy. The three of them are interlinked, interdependent and make up what I call emerging geopolitical theatres.
Canada will transcend to be a world water superpower because we have about 20% of the planet’s freshwater resources, sits astride the largest freshwater body of water in the world — the Great Lakes. This is good for us but we need to determine how best to manage these resources and share them with the world. Water tankers replacing oil tankers to address drought in other regions – maybe – and with nefarious business models potentially.
The water-agriculture nexus, and the demand of water to grow food to feed the planet will increase by 60% by 2025 and with that comes the opportunity to invest in water-rich farmland away from large governmental and infrastructural limitations. Michael Burry – yes, the investor featured in the film ‘The Big Short’ – won out of the back of the subprime crisis and he’s going deep into water:
“What became clear to me is that food is the way to invest in water. That is, grow food in water-rich areas and transport it for sale in water-poor areas.”
On top of this, the technology of food production has become one of the most exciting areas I speak about and it truly touches every part of our lives, much like water. I am seeing significant effort and investments into the following areas of R&D and exponential growth:
- Farmer social, content, and trading platforms;
- Electrification of farm machinery and use of sustainable power;
- Automation through self-driving, small robotics and swarm farming;
- The extensive use of the Internet of Agricultural Things to optimize usage of water, fertilizer and other resources;
- Better tracking of logistics through blockchain-based systems;
- Cultivating protein and the rise of plant-based foods;
- Vertical farming, aquaculture and uban-based farming;
- And other areas.
Global tech players will not likely step up to try and master the business of water (initially) however they are stepping forward in areas of food production as it gets more technical.
I expect there to be a boom from 2021 to 2025 in agritech, and with that disruption to the very nature of how it works globally. Governments will be slow to act so start to see their concern rise post-2021 and look for signals in investment, R&D, and consumer preference changes through 2020.
Lastly, there is the water-energy nexus.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) states that “by 2035, the world’s energy consumption will increase by 35%, which in turn will increase water consumption by 85%,” and there expected to be a projected 40% shortfall of available water across the globe by 2030 with an effect on 98% of global electric power generation.
Renewable energy technologies, providers and networks will need to be invested in. I want to make it clear at this point. Renewable energy for me is solar, wind, run of river, and geothermal heat.
Note: I do not consider nuclear-generated power to be a future-proof solution. Regardless of the investments and new technologies I feel that nuclear just will never truly be cheap enough nor safe enough to provide a foundational energy source that is worth the risk to create harm on life and the environment. (This opinion tends to upset many – so be it).
By 2040, renewable energy sources will make up 75% of the $10.2 trillion invested and the game changer within the energy industry will be not how we generate it but how it, but how it is transmitted. In 2018 Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program stated, “By the year 2050, electricity generating industries will no longer be charging for electricity. They will simply be trying to recover the return on capital expenditure.”
So, focus switches to the grids, or the future secured through ‘Super Grids’ distributing clean, abundant renewable energy. Super grids are wide-area transmission networks, generally trans-continental or multinational, that make possible the trade of high volumes of electricity across great distances.
The Asian Super Grid (ASG) is one to carefully watch and it’s born of big tech thinking. In 2011, Masayoshi Son, founder and visionary of the SoftBank Group, came up with the idea of interconnected energy after seeing the devastation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Son, and his partners, founded the Renewable Energy Institute soon afterwards to help develop and promote renewable energy and to start the establishment of the ASG to connect China, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Russia, and Japan. The energy will be provided using solar and wind power generated in Mongolia as the main power supply.
This is a welcome development as super grids could support a global energy transition to clean energy and it will be a key technology to mitigate global warming. And the global energy industry – with the potential to be a significant employer – will be the biggest industry by 2050 (I predict) and control of it will be on the chessboard of global geopolitics.
This idea is contagious – and sound business sense – and we see a collaboration between EU member-states, UK and Norway to create an integrated offshore energy grid to link wind farms and other renewable energy sources across the northern seas of Europe in the North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative (NSCOGI).
The real truth of the matter here is that China and the European Union will become the game changers in the arena of energy production and will forge strong alliances between themselves to do so.
Countries that don’t step forward (most likely those looking backwards at fossil fuels and nuclear as energy solutions) will likely be left behind and even annexed by those country networks (created through political alliances) providing energy. These energy and geopolitical networks will create incredible friction and challenge the ideas of organizations like the United Nations, World Health Organization as well as the International Monetary Fund.
I personally believe that if Canada and the USA do not step-up efforts to create renewable energy infrastructure and the ability to plug into super grids then they will be left behind from a supply and political power perspective. And, come 2030 a movement towards annexation of North America – especially by China and its Asian-Russian allies – could become a reality.
What comes next?
There are myriad other areas of development and change that could be worth our attention but I only have a few thousand words for this article to explore three areas I wanted to bring to your attention.
I’m always happy to speak with publishing houses if they’d like to discuss a longer form book that explores these (and other areas) more, but only if they want to expedite the release, and I’m definitely excited to speak to documentarians and filmmakers that want to advance thinking and tell human stories.
To end things for now I want to say that it’s not all doom and gloom – just a long, slow look into the darkness. We can all choose to find light and hope – that’s what I strive to do as a futurist and foresight practitioner.
Here’s to 2021. It’s going to be a tough year to watch unfurl. A year of transcendence.
About Nikolas Badminton, FRSA
Nikolas Badminton is a world-renowned futurist speaker, consultant, researcher, and media producer. He helps trillion-dollar companies, progressive governments and the media shift their mindset from “what is” to “WHAT IF…” The result is empowered employees, new innovative products and incredible growth that leads to more revenues and a more resilient future.
Nikolas advised Robert Downey Jr.’s team for the ‘Age of A.I.’ documentary series, starred in ‘SMART DRUGS – a Futurist’s journey into biohacking’, and features on CTV, Global News, Sirius XM regularly. His mind-expanding research and opinion can be found on BBC, VICE, The Atlantic, Fast Company, Techcrunch, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Forbes, Sputnik and Venturebeat.
Nikolas provides the opening chapter – ‘Start with Dystopia’ in a new book – ‘The Future Starts Now: Expert Insights into the Future of Business, Technology and Society’ for Bloomsbury. He is currently researching and writing a new book that equips executives and world leaders with insights and foresight tools to imagine disruption, strengthen strategic planning, and see unforeseen risks. Nikolas is a Fellow of The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – The RSA. The organization has been at the forefront of significant social impact for over 260 years with notable past fellows including Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, and Tim Berners-Lee.