Five Trends That Will Transform Society

Author Richard Watson examines emerging patterns and developments and society, politics, science and technology, media and entertainment, and other industries in his book Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years -- and makes educated, and witty speculations as to where they might take us.

Globalization Globalization used to mean Americanization, but these days it means exposure to people, products, and ideas from everywhere. Globalization impacts on the sourcing of products and services, and on market-expansion opportunities. It also means connectedness and mobility. Everything from countries and computers to gadgets and global banking will be hyper-linked together. In the future, this trend will accelerate even faster, thanks to devices such as GPS, RFIDs, sensor motes, and smart dust (all essentially tiny wireless transmitters and/or receivers of some kind). Hence privacy will all but disappear, but transparency and risk may increase.

Localization Localization (or re-localization) is a perfect example of a trend creating a counter-trend. Localization will occur because people don't like globalization or homogenization. The European Union will therefore splinter and ultimately collapse. This new tribalism will drive city states, locally tailored products, economic protectionism, and the sale of flags.

Polarization The future is an either/or kind of place with most things polarizing in some form or another. First there will be multiple futures, some of them speeding up and others slowing down. Some people with embrace technology, while others will reject it. Industrial markets will split between luxury and low-cost options, with access to services like health and education, transport, and security similarly polarizing, depending on your ability to pay. The middle class will eventually disappear in most developed countries, with people either moving upwards into a new global managerial elite or downwards into a new enslaved working (or not working) class.

Anxiety If 'they' don't get you, a global pandemic probably will. At least that's how many people will feel in the future. Trust in institutions will all but evaporate, and the speed of change will leave people longing for the past. This insecurity is to some extent generational, but whether you are eighteen or eighty there will be a growing feeling of powerlessness and a continual state of anxiety that will fuel everything from an interest in nostalgia and escapism to a growth in narcissism, localization, and tribalism.

Meaning One of the most fascinating questions about the future is whether religion will be a victim or a beneficiary of change. Some people predict that faith will decline because the spread of information will undermine the mindset necessary to support belief. Physics will produce a unified theory of everything and this will destroy old-fashioned superstitions such as religion. In other words, science will become our new religion. I'm not so sure. If science, technology, and complexity become key ingredients of the future, this will drive change and uncertainty. And the more this happens, the more people will seek out safety, comfort, and guidance from religion. This could just lead to an increase in individual spirituality, but I suspect that globalization, mixed with a general feeling of powerlessness and anxiety, will drive group actions and beliefs. Hence we will witness an increase in tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia, which at the extreme will fuel Islamic fanaticism and muscular Christianity.

This article is the first chapter from Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years by Richard Watson, who advises organizations on the future, focusing on innovation and scenario planning. He is the author and publisher of What's Next, a quarterly report on global trends, and is a columnist for a number of magazines, including FastCompany.com.

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