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Shaping the world of 2030

A US intelligence report to the president on global trends to the year 2030 is generally upbeat. But like any futuristic study, its foresight needs hindsight in the reading.

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Tarahumara Indians in Mexico stand in line to receive a government donation of food in 2011. They have seen a severe shortage of food and water and destroyed crops caused by its worst drought in seven decades. Such trends are part of a new US intelligence report to President Obama.

Reuters

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Every American president needs to keep a pinch of salt in the Oval Office. It can come in handy when reading an official report on “global trends” that has been given to every incoming or returning president since 1996.

The forecasts, which are compiled by the National Intelligence Council from “experts” in nearly 20 countries, come with their own pinch of salt. They include a critique of past reports. The current 167-page study, titled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” admits to “blind spots and biases” in previous forecasts – one lapse was not paying enough heed to new ideologies.

The reports themselves fit into a decades-long trend of trendspotting. Since World War II, rapid changes in society and science have driven a demand for “futurists,” or people who use various methods from historical analysis to polling to supercomputing to offer up probable scenarios. Some, like Alvin Toffler or Herman Kahn, achieve pop-star status. Most, however, work in the trenches of places like the RAND Corporation, academia, and hedge funds. Their work goes by different names, such as strategic planning, technological foresight, or trend extrapolation.

Futurists are prone to an odd mix of audacity and humility, or a willingness to stick their neck out and then have it chopped off if they are wrong. In the case of hedge funds and their complex modeling of high finance, wrong forecasts can sometimes shake entire industries, such as housing.

Futurists are usually quite aware of their own biases in values or the risks of unexamined assumptions. Their jargon includes words like megatrends, paradigms, trajectories, and tipping points. They know that forecasting the future cannot be the same as envisioning it. Their work needs to span almost every discipline, thus not easily allowing their own work to be called a discipline.

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