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Global Trends 2030: What Does the Future Hold?

National Intelligence Council Projects Global Trends 2030

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has released its quadrennial report forecasting global trends that have a major impact on our world, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” in shorthand, GT2030. While many organizations, both inside and outside of government, as well as pundits of varying stripes attempt to project what the future may hold – with varying degrees of success – GT2030 does this and does it extraordinarily well. And this is an especially important time to leverage this analysis. As the chairman of the NIC, Christopher A. Kojm puts it in an opening letter to readers:

Under the watchful eye of a North Korean soldier, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter tours the Military Armistice Commission Building in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, Panmunjom, July 26, 2012. Global Trends 2030 suggests there will be a growing democratization globally. DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Under the watchful eye of a North Korean soldier, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter tours the Military Armistice Commission Building in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, Panmunjom, July 26, 2012. Global Trends 2030 suggests there will be a growing democratization globally. DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decision makers – whether in government or outside – to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.

A word about this document and about NIC: NIC has been around for decades and represents the primary way the U.S. intelligence community (IC) communicates in the unclassified realm. Initially a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the CIA, the NIC now works for the director of national intelligence and presents the collective research and analysis of the entire IC, an enterprise comprising 17 agencies with a combined budget of more than $60 billion a year – and growing.

In a sentence, there is no more comprehensive analysis of future trends available anywhere, at any price. It’s not an overstatement to say this 160-page document represents the definitive look at the future

Government and industry should look to GT2030 in order to determine future requirements to address threats against the United States and its interests. Why? Because this will drive future platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons needed by the U.S. military and other agencies, such as the departments of Homeland Security and State. Indeed, technology represents a huge focus of GT2030, and this makes the report especially valuable for industry, as Kojm explains:

In this volume, we expanded our coverage of disruptive technologies, devoting a separate section to it in the work. To accomplish that, we engaged with research scientists at DoE laboratories at Sandia, Oak Ridge, and NASA in addition to entrepreneurs and consultants in Silicon Valley and Santa Fe. We have also devoted strong attention to economic factors and the nexus of technology and economic growth.

 

Shanghai at night. A major projection of GT2030 is that China will overtake the United States economically, and the report also states that one of the six "tectonic shifts" facing the world is a growing urbanization, of which China is a prime example. Photo by Jakub Halun

Shanghai at night. A major projection of GT2030 is that China will overtake the United States economically, and the report also states that one of the six “tectonic shifts” facing the world is a growing urbanization, of which China is a prime example. Photo by Jakub Halun

The GT2030 report begins by describing megatrends, those factors that will likely occur under any future scenario. It then addresses game-changers, those critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain but which could affect world events in profound ways. Finally, acknowledging the diversity and complexity of various factors that can affect megatrends, GT2030 has gone beyond what the NIC provided in previous reports and put increased attention on scenarios or alternative worlds we might face.

Among the major projections in GT2030: China’s economy is set to overtake that of the United States in the 2020s, but China will not challenge the United States’ pre-eminence or the international order; Asia will become more powerful than both North America and Europe combined (based on GDP, population, military spending, and technological investment); the United States will achieve energy independence with shale gas; and wider access to disruptive technologies – including precision-strike capabilities, cyber instruments, and bioterror weaponry – could increase the risk of large-scale violence and disruption.

Global Trends 2030 is the fifth Global Trends publication in the NIC’s series, which aims to stimulate strategic thinking among decision-makers rather than seeking to predict the future. It is the most collaborative effort to date, incorporating input from government officials, businesses, universities, think tanks, and experts in 20 countries. The release of this quadrennial report intentionally coincides with the election of a new (or in this case, returning) administration, to “Assist … in its strategic review.”

The report first lists four megatrends, considered “relative certainties” that are expected to shape the world out to 2030. The first is “individual empowerment,” which will come with the rise of a larger global middle class that is better educated and has wider access to health care and communications technologies. The report states that “for the first time, a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished, and the middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector in the vast majority of countries around the world.”

Mugunga I and II (in the foreground) and Bulengo (in the background) camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), as seen by the members of a task force comprised of the representatives of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), Disarmament Demobilisation, Repatriation, Resettlement and Reintegration (DDRRR) division, Public Information Officers, the World Bank and Government officials, during a flight to visit the combatants of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), April 4, 2008. According to GT 2030, mass migration, for many different reasons, will likely continue. United Nations photo by Marie Frechon

Mugunga I and II (in the foreground) and Bulengo (in the background) camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), as seen by the members of a task force comprised of the representatives of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), Disarmament Demobilisation, Repatriation, Resettlement and Reintegration (DDRRR) division, Public Information Officers, the World Bank and Government officials, during a flight to visit the combatants of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), April 4, 2008. According to GT 2030, mass migration, for many different reasons, will likely continue. United Nations photo by Marie Frechon

The second megatrend is the “diffusion of power among countries.” As stated previously, Asia will surpass Europe and North America combined in terms of the indices of overall power, but no country – whether the United States, China, or any other – will be a hegemonic power. Instead, the report projects that the United States will remain “first among equals” in a multipolar world. Even greater than the shift in power among nations will be the shift in the nature of power as the world is increasingly characterized by “multifaceted and amorphous” networks and coalitions. Combined with the trend toward individual empowerment, this diffusion of power is projected to lead to a growing democratization globally.

The third megatrend is “demographic patterns,” which posits that most countries’ economic and political conditions will be shaped by aging, migration, and growing urbanization. On a positive note, GT2030 posits that the demographic “arc of instability will narrow.” But on a negative note, it predicts that economic growth might decline in “aging” countries. It notes that urbanizing trends are accelerating and that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urbanized areas by 2030. It also notes migration will increase due to a variety of factors.

The fourth megatrend is the “growing nexus among energy, water and food.” GT2030 notes that scarcity of these three resources will be exacerbated by a growing demand as the global population increases from 7.1 billion today to about 8 billion by 2030. Key to the report is the stipulation that tackling problems pertaining to one commodity will be linked to supply and demand for the others.

These four megatrends are underpinned by six “tectonic shifts,” or “critical challenges to key features of the global environment.” One positive shift is the NIC’s assessment that the United States will achieve energy independence by 2030, and even become a net energy exporter through shale gas and new technologies allowing access to difficult-to-reach oil deposits. However, a more ominous shift is the growing access to lethal technology. Although the report predicts that Islamist terrorism will ebb by 2030, it also warns that the tactics of terrorism are unlikely to die completely. Instead, individuals with niche area expertise, for example, in cyber systems, might sell their services to the highest bidder. The resulting threat is less one of casualties in the hundreds or thousands, and more of the millions severely affected by damaged infrastructure. The other “tectonic shifts” are: the growth of the global middle class; the definitive shift of economic power to the East and South; unprecedented and widespread aging; urbanization; and food and water pressures.

U.S. Army and Botswana Defense Force engineers improve an existing pond used for watering livestock and some agricultural needs in a small village near Mkankake Range in Botswana, Aug. 20, 2012. The engineers were participating in Southern Accord 2012, an annual joint exercise to enhance military capabilities and interoperability. GT2030 warns that scarcity of resources such as water will be exacerbated by growing demand. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. James D. Sims

U.S. Army and Botswana Defense Force engineers improve an existing pond used for watering livestock and some agricultural needs in a small village near Mkankake Range in Botswana, Aug. 20, 2012. The engineers were participating in Southern Accord 2012, an annual joint exercise to enhance military capabilities and interoperability. GT2030 warns that scarcity of resources such as water will be exacerbated by growing demand. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. James D. Sims

Although these megatrends and tectonic shifts are expected to shape the world out to 2030, the report acknowledges that critical “game-changers” have the potential to largely determine “what kind of transformed world will be inhabited in 2030.” These game-changers are questions regarding the health of the international economy; global governance; conflict; regional instability; technological breakthroughs; and the role of the United States.

Within the “technological breakthroughs” game-changer, the report identifies the following new technologies’ current status, potential for 2030, issues and impact. For the government research and development community and especially for industry, this technological breakthrough section of GT2030 is especially germane. It is organized in four primary sections:

Resource Technologies

• Genetically modified (GM) crops

• Precision agriculture

• Water management

• Bio-based energy

• Solar energy

Automation and Manufacturing Technologies

Robotics

Remote and autonomous vehicles

• Additive manufacturing/3-D printing

Information Technologies

• Data solutions

Social networking

• Smart city technologies

Health Technologies

• Disease management

• Human augmentation

Finally, the Global Trends 2030 report builds on the precedent set by earlier editions of Global Trends in identifying four possible future models of the world out to 2030 – but takes this alternative world futures analysis to a new level.

Based upon what we know about the megatrends and the possible interactions between the megatrends and the game-changers, GT2030 has delineated four archetypal futures that represent distinct pathways for the world out to 2030. It precedes these models with the caveat that “none of these alternative worlds are inevitable and in reality, the future will probably consist of elements from all the scenarios.” The four posited alternative worlds are:

Terraced rice fields in Yunnan Province, China. GT2030 specifies GM crops and precision agriculture as resource technology breakthroughs that will be of prime importance to countries such as Russia and China. Photo by Jialiang Gao

Terraced rice fields in Yunnan Province, China. GT2030 specifies GM crops and precision agriculture as resource technology breakthroughs that will be of prime importance to countries such as Russia and China. Photo by Jialiang Gao

Stalled Engines, the most plausible worst-case scenario, is one in which the risk of interstate conflict rises due to a new “great game” in Asia. Although the NIC does not foresee a “full-scale conflagration” along the lines of a World War, this scenario is still a bleak one, with the United States and Europe turning inward and no longer interested in global leadership; a eurozone that has unraveled; and a global pandemic and recession causing a retrenchment from globalization.

Fusion is a scenario at the other end of the spectrum, representing the most plausible best-case scenario. The United States and China successfully manage their relationship and together halt spreading conflict in South Asia. GDP accelerates in both developing and advanced economies, and technological innovation mitigates resource constraints.

“Gini out of the Bottle” is a world of extremes, in which inequalities within and between countries dominate and major powers remain at odds, raising the potential for conflict. Economic growth is far below the Fusion scenario, but not as grim as in Stalled Engines.

In the last scenario, Nonstate World, new and emerging technologies (such as ICTs, information and communication technologies) spur the increased power of non-state actors, including nongovernmental organizations, multinational businesses, academic institutions, and wealthy individuals. In addition, subnational units such as “megacities” flourish. These networks manage to solve some global problems, but security threats such as the increased access to lethal technologies pose an increasing challenge.

In summary, while those in government, industry, academia, and elsewhere have their own resources and opinions regarding what the future holds, Global Trends 2030 represents the consensus view and analysis of not only the United States intelligence community but also of the national and international experts through which this report was vetted. GT2030 should be of enormous value in attempting to make our knowledge of the future less opaque.

Continue to Part 10: Global Trends 2030: What Does the Future Hold?

This article was first published in Defense: Winter 2013 Edition.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...

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