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:
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”.