Scenarios for the future of transport

The UK government established a new horizon-scanning unit in its Office and Science and Technology a few years ago, and this has now issued its first report. This takes a look at likely scenarios for transport infrastructures over the next fifty years, but since transport and communications are so central to our economy these scenarios form a fairly comprehensive look at how new technology might change the way we live. In particular, they cover three big questions about technology and the future:

  • Where will the energy that currently underwrites our lifestyle in the developed world come from?
  • How will we exploit the growing amount of information processing and communication power we will have at our disposal?
  • Will the world carry on its trend to centralisation in manufacturing and energy generation, or will we see a switch to increasingly decentralised modes of production?
  • The web-site has links to lot of excellent material, including many interesting, specially commissioned background papers, but perhaps the most interesting things are the Project overview (54 page PDF), and the Scenarios (89 page PDF). The latter bring the subject to life with four plausible, but highly contrasting, scenarios for how things might turn out.

    The techno-optimist’s scenario is called “Perpetual motion”. Here it’s assumed that technology has managed to overcome the problems of sustainable energy with some combination of the hydrogen economy, nuclear fuels, coal and carbon sequestration. Everything and everyone is plugged in to the information grid, and the major problem the world faces is workplace stress. There’s a green nirvana too: “Urban colonies” imagines a future of sustainable urbanisation, where personal transport is discouraged by heavy taxation. Energy comes from microgrids, there is universal recycling and reuse. People are prosperous, but the economy revolves around fewer goods and more services. Iin short, it’s a vision of the future in which everywhere looks like Copenhagen, rather than Seoul. But, on the principle that the statistically most accurate way of predicting the weather tomorrow is to look out of the window today, what is considered the most likely scenario is called “Good intentions”. This is a world in which hard decisions have been put off until too late. Transport is both highly congested and highly priced; there’s been some progress with biofuels but accelerating climate change is leading to increasingly frequent weather disasters. Both prosperity and personal freedom are compromised.

    Techno-optimists think that the accelerating pace of technological advances will determine how the world changes, while green-tinged social liberals believe that the future can be deliberately shaped by human, democratic values. There is a third, much uglier, possibility; that we will be unable to prevail over overwhelming societal strains imposed by external shocks. This is the world of the most pessimistic scenario, “Tribal trading”. Here an early end to the era of cheap energy has stripped the veneer from our globalised world. A decline in oil production has led to spiralling oil prices. Economic depression has ended with the near-complete collapse of world and national financial systems, with resource wars and environmental disasters adding to the gloom. It’s a world of walls and borders and vegetable gardens, in which the 90’s experience of Cuba offers some of the best coping strategies. Some technology survives, and with travel over even modest distances prohibitively difficult and expensive, robust communications are more important than ever. For advice, we’re directed to the poet Gary Snyder:

    “What is to be done? Learn to be more self-reliant, reduce your desires, and take care of yourself and your family”.

    8 thoughts on “Scenarios for the future of transport”

    1. I having been thinking about radical new economic structures. This has lead me to realise that human being are not RATIONAL! The basic fact of humanity is we are adapted to live in a less than optimal enviroment!

      This insight has lead to a serious loss of faith in naive liberal democracy! My belief is that China is a good example of the 21st Century in regards to the future.

      There will be futuristic enclaves like Shanghai and Beijing, but most of humanity will live in an enviromental disaster zone! The only way out that I can think of is some sort of RADICAL competitor to Capitalism.

      An amateur mathematician

    2. Well, in the “Tribal trading” scenario Shanghai is underwater and Beijing is rendered uninhabitable by dust-storms. Even in less extreme scenarios, it is clear that China does have some very serious environmental issues to deal with.

    3. Zelah, how do you ensure dictators are more wise than is your average population? If a dictator could be found that enacted a human rights charter and proceded to implement sound economic policies, great. What is to stop the next dictator from tanking the country? At least with liberal democracies, a really stupid leader (like Canada recently elected) is checked by the population.

      I think hydrogen will save the day regarding personal transport. If industrial CNT prices come down another order of magnitude, I will seriously consider starting up a wind-turbine business utilizing some sort of CNT-composite.

    4. I’ve just finished the articles. The 1st one describes a sort of Kaizen just-in-time transportation system, which will bring some marginal energy savings and quality-of-living time gains. What is frustrating about the 2nd article’s sketching of future scenarios, is that no mention is made of actions now that would increase Britian’s chances of achieving favourable scenario traits. A phased in gas-tax with revenues channeled to nanotech R+D, for instance.

      Global warming is featured prominently but the most important ramification has not been mentioned: Greenland’s ice-caps will melt over the time-frame of the reports and issue UK continental winters. Transportation planning needs to accomodate this eventuality. Ireland is soaring up the nanotech competancy ladder and they offer free University tuition. I don’t think that is a coincidence. If the political capital is not there to further tax oil, at least funding education is a somewhat efficient way to promote nanotechnologies.

    5. Phillip, don’t forget that the UK currently already has one of the highest rates of gas tax in the world (it’s around 90p a litre in my local garages now, that’s 6 US dollars a (US) gallon). Following the fuel protests a few years ago, I think it is believed that this is now at the politically acceptable upper limit, and further discouragement of cars will come from congestion charges and road charging. I don’t want to sound too much like an apologist for our government, but it is fair to point out that they have doubled R&D spend since coming to power.

      It’s true that the documents don’t have very strong policy recommendations, but I suspect that is deliberate, because they are government documents issued with the backing of the OST. And, in the niceties of how government works, OST doesn’t have the power to make policy for, say, the department of transport. What one can say is that the Government chief scientist (Sir David King), who launched this study, is believed to be both very influential in government and very outspoken. You may recall that it was he who caused a diplomatic incident a year or so ago by going to the USA and saying that global warming was a bigger threat than terrorism.

    6. “You may recall that it was he who caused a diplomatic incident a year or so ago by going to the USA and saying that global warming was a bigger threat than terrorism. ”

      Where does it say that in the Bible?

      I didn’t know Brits were gas taxed to the max. Okay, how about compiling a list of modular nanotech infrastructures (clean room space, metrology equipment, nano manufacturing processes, etc) and deeply subsidizing their purchase price for any British nanobusinesses? Looks simple enough.

    7. What the UK can do in terms of direct corporate subsidy is limited by the state aid rules of the EU, which are intended to slightly dampen the natural tendency of many EU countries to try and bail out their failing entreprises with state subsidies. But the DTI’s current policy certainly does include developing generic infrastructures for industry, such as clean room space, though being cheapskates they’ve generally done this by snapping up some of those semiconductor fabs that became surplus to requirements after the dot com bust.

    8. The free trade policies which work well when initiated among mature industries and actors but defeat attempts to ramp up emerging industries; can UK get around them by offering the subsidies to educational institutions instead of commercial enterprises? Is education covered by the same EU regulations that hamper (in the context of nanotech) industry?

      I’m sure UK universities already have some adequate nanotech facilities. But the excess nanotech infrastructures purchased with Phil-subsidies could be mopped up by co-op programmes with British companies, or if regulations screw that up, mopped up by collaberations with international universities without such infrastructures.

      UK is the Western nation best positioned to lead the way: debt is tiny. These nano options won’t be available when everyone starts to retire ten years from now.

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