Friday, December 27, 2019

It’s 2020 — here comes the future

By Adrian W J Kuah

26 December, 2019

As someone who works in the field of scenario planning, I find that every end of year brings no shortage of amusement and more than a little dose of humility. This is because this is the season for us working in the field to review forecasts and predictions made 12 months earlier, and see how hilariously and hideously we got them mostly wrong.

In a matter of days, we will welcome 2020, marking not only the end of a year, but also an eventful decade.

More than that, 2020 is one of those time horizons that Generation Xers like myself thought would always be distant and mythical enough that it could be the basis for long-term scenarios.

Indeed, the first-ever set of national scenarios that the Singapore Government crafted more than two decades ago used the year 2020 to imagine the nation’s future. But more on that later.

Growing up, I always thought of “the future” as 2020. But now, here 2020 comes.

Poring over past reports by think tanks, pundits, experts and so forth, I notice that many of them have “2020” in their titles — ranging from utopian forecasts of permanent bases on the Moon for human settlements (this gem by the Rand Corporation in 1969) to dire warnings of catastrophes of kinds, for instance population, food shortages and so on.

Why do we not only persist in producing such predictions, but more importantly, lap them up?

The writer Daniel Gardner, in “Future Babble: Why expert predictions fail — and why we believe them anyway”, suggests that it is human nature to want to know the future.

What is more, there is an innate desire in us to try to reduce uncertainty. Alas, the world is a complex place — and the complexity is increasing — and the simplistic and simplifying narratives of the experts which we imbibe do nothing to help us see into the unknown.

If anything, they create a false sense of security and precision.

As Mr Gardner puts it pithily: “Fundamentally, we believe because we want to believe.” And because of that, we make all sorts of excuses for when predictions fail.

A good example comes from the late stand-up comic George Carlin, who pointed out that a near-miss is really...a hit. One of the standard excuses we hear from experts is: “I was almost right.” Which essentially means you were wrong, and therefore of no consolation or use whatsoever.

Another example is how growth forecasts are constantly revised with the terse phrase “better than expected”. Once you unpack this phrase, you realise that this forecast superseded a previous one, and that there is no guarantee that this latest forecast might not itself turn out to be wrong and have to be superseded by a “better” forecast.

Given how we cannot help but think about the future, and also given the embarrassing futility of forecasts, and of trying to “get it right”, how then should we carry out the enterprise of strategic foresight? How should we use scenarios of the future?

I would suggest the scenarios, the stories we write about possible future states of the world, be used as learning spaces, for us to better know ourselves in the present.

The stories we write about how the world might look like in the distant future, in a sense, teaches us about our present hopes and fears, our values and our blind-spots.

Instead of trying to “get it right”, we can use scenarios to ask ourselves: “What if we’re wrong?” Wrong about our present assumptions, our conventional wisdom, and our current policies. It is as T S Elliot put it,
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

To think about the future, in a sense, is to learn about ourselves in the now.

An example of this more fruitful learning approach can be found closer to home to those national scenarios that the Singapore Government developed in the mid-1990s using the newly-adopted Shell scenario planning methodology.

Two of the scenarios were made public, or at least some elements of them: “Hotel Singapore” and “Home Divided”. 

Deliberately positioned not as forecasts, the scenarios instead served as cautionary tales, opening up the Government’s mindset to considering the broader and possible unpalatable consequences of its economic policies and global city strategies of the 1990s.

More importantly, the scenario planners started asking these questions at a time of great optimism and prosperity, both in Singapore and in the region (recall that this was before the Asian Financial Crisis).

It is a testament to that team of futurists’ courage to ask the inconvenient “what if we’re wrong” questions at a time when it seemed to be smooth sailing ahead.

The titles of the scenarios alone are instructive. The “Home Divided” scenario warned of widening income gaps and emerging cleavages along not just ethnic lines but socio-cultural and ideological ones, despite overall prosperity.

And the “Hotel Singapore” scenario highlighted the possible unintended consequences of its “global city” strategy, where the flipside of openness, flows, and speed were the loss of rootedness, the displacement of solidarity by transactionalism, and the growing contestation over the Singaporean identity.

Are we “Hotel Singapore” and/or a “Home Divided” now, as imagined in the mid-1990s?

Did we do enough to pre-empt and mitigate the excesses described in those two scenarios? Did the courage to imagine differently translate into the courage to act and to change course where needed?

So while those two scenarios were never meant to be predictive, but for learning purposes, we can't help asking if maybe they came "true". Perhaps we succeeded in staving off those two dystopias?

Well, whatever tentative answers we have had all this while, we are about to find out for sure, because we are all about to check into 2020.

Dr Adrian W J Kuah is Director, Futures Office, National University of Singapore. This is his personal comment.

Why 2019 was not as bad as you think

By Robin Harding

26 December, 2019

Wildfires in Australia and California; terror in Christchurch and Colombo. Refugees fleeing Syria and Venezuela, repression in Xinjiang and protests on the streets of Hong Kong. Trade wars, impeachment and seemingly, for many people in rich countries, a pervasive sense of regression and decline. 2019, at least according to the news, was not a happy year.

Yet we deceive ourselves easily, feeling our losses more keenly than our gains, and mistaking the anecdote of events for a trend in the data.

Analysts such as Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, Hans Rosling in Factfulness and Max Roser on the website Our World in Data show how our tendency towards pessimism belies some spectacular gains in human welfare during recent decades, with declining violence, poverty and ill health. In that spirit, it is interesting to ask: did the world get better in 2019?

It was certainly not a vintage year: global growth of 3 per cent was the weakest since 2009, with expansion of just 1.1 per cent in world trade, according to the most recent estimates by the International Monetary Fund. Economies — and therefore living standards — in Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Zimbabwe all contracted amid economic or political crisis.

Nonetheless, output grew. Most people became a bit better off. Unemployment fell to a record low of 4.9 per cent.

There are risks — such as build-ups of debt, trade tensions and the future functioning of the eurozone — but 2019 ends with no obvious imbalance to menace the global economy.

In certain countries where many poor people live, output grew fast. It rose by 7.8 per cent in Bangladesh, 6.1 per cent in India and 7.4 per cent in Ethiopia. For low-income developing countries as a whole, per capita growth was 2.7 per cent.

There is variation in how per capita growth translates to falling poverty but the effect is usually more than proportional. Given the estimated 650 million people living in extreme poverty in 2018, therefore, it is highly likely that more than 10 million escaped that state this year, with all the improvements in health and happiness that entails.

Conflicts continued to take lives in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. But primary school completion rates keep rising, while the latest global reports on malaria, Aids and tuberculosis all showed progress, albeit slow.

The eradication of wild poliovirus type 3, announced in October, demonstrated the wonder of vaccines; outbreaks of measles in rich countries, because of low vaccination rates, showed the folly of rejecting science.

It was, then, another year of material progress. Against that, however, we must set threats to the security of humanity and its ongoing prosperity.

Foremost among these is climate change. Carbon dioxide concentrations at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii hit a new peak in 2019 of 414.7 parts per million. Emissions of carbon dioxide, which must fall to zero to stabilise global temperatures, are still rising: Up by a projected 0.6 per cent in 2019 according to the Global Carbon Project.

There are glimmers of hope. Most encouraging is the falling cost of solar and wind power, to the point where it is competitive without subsidy in some US states.

But these are only glimmers: hope is not a plan and there is as yet no sign the world is willing to adopt one. Recent United Nations talks achieved little and this year’s election in Australia, following last year’s in Brazil, showed voters still reject the costs of action. The environmental risk to long-run human prosperity, of which climate change is an important part, got worse in 2019.

Certain existential risks diminished: 2019 brought regulatory approval for an Ebola vaccine and every year of growth and development improves defences against disasters from disease to earthquake to an asteroid strike.

But others got worse.

North Korea spent another year enhancing its nuclear arsenal and the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. That need not be an error if it brings a new deal on arms control, one including China, but it could equally lead to a new nuclear arms race.

The risk of a nuclear conflagration may be small in any given year, but it is rising every year, with more bombs in more hands. If that trajectory does not change, it leads inexorably to disaster.

Perhaps most concerning of all is threats to the liberal world order that brought the last three decades of gains.

For the 13th consecutive year, United States think-tank Freedom House reported a decline in its index of global freedom, with stress on democratic institutions in even the wealthiest countries. This can be overstated — democracy always was imperfect — but if 2019 did mark the year globalisation went into reverse, future gains in prosperity will be harder to come by.

So did the world get better? It depends on some impossible calculus of gains and risks.

But I know my answer: A year when millions rose out of poverty, when more children survived, got an education, ate proper food and lived in decent houses — that was surely a good year, no matter the risks stored up for the future.

So this festive season, be of good cheer: 2019 was not bad at all. Let 2020 be even better.


Robin Harding is Financial Times' Tokyo Bureau Chief. Until 2015, he was based in Washington covering the US Federal Reserve, the Treasury and the International Monetary Fund.

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