What future are we shaping for ourselves?

As humanity confronts a number of challenges, it has two choices in front of it

Wind turbines are seen near the coal-fired power station Garzweiler, western Germany. AFP
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In Dubai last weekend, several dozen experts, futurists, geneticists, economists and philosophers were gathered by the World Economic Forum to grapple with the following question: what kind of future are we currently in the process of making?

In every arena, from climate action to adoption of technology to the evolution of education, we seem to be standing at a fork in the road. All that is certain is that the path we have been treading has come to an end.

Forum founder Professor Klaus Schwab was optimistic as the Dubai meeting, on what he calls the Great Narrative, wrapped up. It will be "a different world" and one that "we can imagine", Prof Schwab said. "We cannot describe it in all of its details, but we can identify some trends," he added.

At the concluding panel discussion, he said we now live in a world that is in "accelerated transformation" but asked whether we are in the process of creating a better one.

Freeke Heijman, founding director of Quantum Delta NL, the foundation that runs the Dutch national Quantum Initiative, is certain we are. Three main trends are behind Ms Heijman's conviction.

First, she pointed out, digitalisation is shaping the wider industrial revolution, whether it is quantum computing to solve problems, artificial intelligence, the metaverse and virtual reality. Second is the energy transition and the realisation of fusion power by the middle of this century, as well as the development of green hydrogen. And finally, there is biology and the engineering of DNA and personalised medicine.

There are plenty of caveats, however.

Author Dambisa Moyo said that the ability to create economic success underpins all of our efforts to create a better tomorrow. Achieving the necessary levels of growth needed to support appropriate levels of wealth and job creation is by no means certain. For example, fears of a return to the stagflation of 1970s are not unfounded; stagflation is when higher prices coincide with high unemployment. The markers of recession and booms are also simultaneously present around the world today, evident in the economic data as well as in protests on the streets.

At this week's Adipec oil and gas conference and exhibition in Abu Dhabi, the path to net-zero carbon emissions and the energy transition required to get there are being talked about as a huge opportunity for both the industry and the world. There are, meanwhile, worries about energy security amid a supply crunch and record-high gas prices, with some asking what the move away from a reliance on fossil fuels will mean for sustainable economic growth.

Much will depend on how quickly we reorient the future around people – such as changing the way we measure progress to include people's dignity, well-being and also the notion of regeneration, according to Brazilian political scientist Ilona Szabo de Carvalho. Stop treating climate change and inequalities as unaccounted externalities, de Carvalho said, for they can be accounted for. "I believe this shift has started, but of course needs to be accelerated."

There can be a new politics, too.

First, trust has to be rebuilt along with societies to replace old bonds and connections that are now gone. This can be done best at the local level, according to Ngaire Woods, the founding dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and professor of global economic governance at the University of Oxford. "Let that trust in politics, which actually does things to people, percolate up into co-operation at the national level,” Prof Woods said.

At the moment, it seems as if politics is a battle between those who want change and those who resist it.

Perhaps like Schroedinger’s cat in the box, we cannot know our future until we experience it

In their book Covid-19: The Great Reset, published in the summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Prof Schwab and Thierry Malleret argue that humankind is faced with two choices. "One path will take us to a better world: more inclusive, more equitable and more respectful of Mother Nature," they write. "The other will take us to a world that resembles the one we just left behind – but worse and constantly dogged by nasty surprises."

According to Prof Schwab and Mr Malleret, pandemics are a force for radical and lasting change.

Much, of course, will depend on economic and climate justice, essentially ensuring that we look after the most vulnerable no matter where they might be. There is guarded optimism among many that the agreements reached in Glasgow at last week's Cop26 will help achieve this. Others, meanwhile, lament missed opportunities.

At the moment, we seem to be between two paths. It reminds me of Schroedinger’s cat, the thought experiment where a cat in a box is both dead and alive at the same time. Is that not our future right now? Equally likely to be worse or better. Perhaps like the cat in the box, we cannot know until we see it.

It would seem, however, that the doctrine of "profit first" for business, espoused by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman is close to being consigned to the past.

Published: November 17, 2021, 3:21 PM