Ever since humans began thinking about the future, we’ve been stricken by the fear of doom and societal collapse. Religious or secular, people have always made predictions about an eventual downfall.

Global megatrends

Global Megatrends: Seven Patterns of Change Shaping Out Future, by Stefan Hajkowicz.

A new book from CSIRO Publishing, Global Megatrends: Seven Patterns of Change Shaping Our Future, doesn’t seek to predict humanity’s downfall, but rather our next period of ‘freefall’.

As described by author Stefan Hajkowicz, freefall is a point of inflection for any organised group of humans, where ‘business as usual’ no longer holds any relevance. Hajkowicz highlights many of such moments throughout human history across a range of different societies and organisations.

Rather than trying to pessimistically gauge the extent of damage such an event may cause, Hajkowicz’s book instead tries to unpick the major trends that are likely to trigger the next freefall moment in the next 20 years, while also providing some insight into how individuals and organisations can seek to prepare themselves for it.

These seven patterns of global change are: resource scarcity, the challenge to protect biodiversity and the global climate, the world’s aging demographic, digital technology transformation, rapid economic growth and urbanisation, societal and consumer expectations for experiential goods and services, and finally, a world where human innovation makes almost anything possible.

Wild recently interviewed Hajkowicz to learn more about his ideas and how we should think about our impending crisis.

Stefan, your book highlights seven key megatrends that will lead to global freefall, do you feel this is an exhaustive list?

The aim of the book was to be fairly comprehensive when it comes to listing these drivers of change, but of course not everything could be covered. For example, one that wasn’t really fleshed out concerns human governance at multiple levels, as well as considering the future of government and democracy.

The world in which humanity survives beyond our next freefall moment is one in which people will, by necessity, govern themselves differently. But that may have to be the subject of the next book.

So you believe current models for government aren’t working? Democracy needs to be reconsidered, for example?

Modern governments are increasingly overwhelmed by the weight of demand on their services, while inversely, technology is also providing more ways for direct dialogue between government and individuals.

These trends lead me to believe that we may not need to radically overhaul a system like democracy, but we do need to consider recasting it in such a way that it meets the needs of our current paradigm. I think there’s a strong argument for decreasing the size of government, if done correctly.

Dr. Stefan Hajkowicz.

Author and principal scientist in Strategy and Foresight at CSIRO, Dr. Stefan Hajkowicz.

You mention several historical moments of freefall, but can any of these really compare to the scale that your predicted, global freefall? Wouldn’t we be facing something truly unprecedented?

To a certain extent, yes. We live at a time when digital and global commercialisation are both following exponential growth curves, whereas humans have a cognitive bias to think about the future in a much more linear sense. Certainly, we may find that the once these trends reach a critical mass, we witness some truly unpredictable outcomes that humanity has never seen the likes of.

However, you’ll notice that the dedication at the beginning of my book is given to my grandparents. They lived through World War II and that event in itself could be described as a global period of freefall that was truly unprecedented. So the fact that they survived through that time gives me hope that we can also navigate whatever the next such event brings.

You mention the potential for a technological explosion. Does this encompass current concerns regarding artificial intelligence?

I do believe we will have made some headway along the path to artificial intelligence in the next 20 years, but I don’t see this as a significant driver of change in that time frame. However, it’s worth noting that there are credible experts who do.

Some people are beginning to call the rise of a super artificial intelligence a ‘multiplicity’ rather than the ‘singularity’ that it once was. I take this to mean there will be any number of factors and players that contribute to that next wave of digital progress. The science-fiction author William Gibson said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” and I believe that to be true. Some areas of our lives will be completely transformed by future technologies, but I also think some things will remain very much the same.

Where does Australia sit in the global playing field? Are we particularly vulnerable to your seven megatrends or are we somewhat insulated against them?

I would say that Australia is vulnerable, but there’s also massive opportunities being presented to us.

We can’t consider ourselves to be insulated or isolated in any way anymore due to the integrated nature of global communications, markets and society in general – every year we’re more deeply embedded into a worldwide structure.

As we can already see in the global marketplace, the entire world economy has moved into our backyard. Yet as these developing questions become increasingly competitive, we should be seeking ways to ensure we’re rising to meet them in a meaningful way.

What do you hope this book achieves?

I hope this book challenges individuals, companies and governments to questions their behaviours and structures, and assess whether they’re ready for the kinds of changes I suggest are beginning to arise. I’m not sure that many yet grasp the extent of what is likely to occur once the moment of freefall occurs, but we need to ensure we’re moving towards a position of strength in order to maximise our success as we transition beyond it.

Preparedness will likely come down to utilising more agile political systems, but there will also be a reevaluation of our social values in how we want to live within that. In some ways, the latter part of the book is couched in a vision that asks, “What is humans got smart? What if we harnessed the best of our science and technology to better the lives of everyone?”

In asking these questions, the question of wealth inequality arises. Specifically questioning whether our current system is the best way of running things may well be the best way we can prepare ourselves for whatever may come.

Ultimately, it’s all about drawing focus to the innovation imperative. We want to move towards a world where we’re doing things smarter. The question is whether or not we can motivate positive changes before our hands are forced by crises.