20 trends for the 2020s

Today's global elites won't deal well with the coming disruptive forces, says Robert Moran, a partner at the Brunswick Group.

The future is curious. While it is plural, open and makeable, we tend to think of it in the singular. As we enter a new decade, leaders will naturally consider the future. But when they do, they should examine the metaphors they use and the assumptions they hold.

Do they think about it as a roll of the dice, meaning randomness, or a wheel, meaning it’s cyclical. The term incline plane signals progress. But the word radar suggests the future is an inbound threat and if it’s an open canvass that means it might be makeable.

The metaphors we use to think about the future unmask our biases. Of course, the best way to predict the future is to make it.

Here is a brief horizon scan of the 20 trends that will define the 2020s — the largest waves on the ocean of the makeable future. Most of them can be categorized into three basic forces: demography, scarcity, and technology.

Demography: The largest waves are demographic. Barring a global depression, a younger, urban, growing and global middles class will drive global demand for everything from transport to telecommunications to food.

Emerging market demand for middle class essentials, like air conditioning, will spike at the same time as many developed nations age. These large, global trends will drive the storyline of the 2020s.

Scarcity: A growing global middle class will spike demand for basic resources, requiring technological advances and conservation. The epicenter will be the demand for fresh water. Many megacities are located in water-stressed environments. How will they manage this resource?

Technology: 100 years ago flight, automobiles, radio, telephones, movies and chemical fertilizer were commercialized, leading to a global boom. Similarly, the 2020s are poised for the scaling or commercialization of many technologies, including AI, autonomous transport, voice and gesture control, virtual and augmented reality, alternative energy, genetics, tissue engineering, and ubiquitous computing.

Three core tech questions are: How quickly will we merge with our technology? How will automation impact labor? Who will lead the new space race?

One constant will be surprised elites. Educated in the same schools, living in the same neighborhoods, occupying the same postwar, industrial, command and control institutions, reading the same media, and sharing similar assumptions, today’s global elite are uniquely blind to uncomfortable ideas and disruptive change.

With this in mind, here are the 20 trends for the 2020s:

  1. Emerging global middle class: How will leaders meet the economic and political demands of the new, global middle class?
  2. Rise of women: How will the increasing economic and leadership clout of women change societies and institutions?
  3. Urbanization and the megacity: How will megacities flex their economic and political muscle?
  4. Aging and extreme longevity: How will slow growth, aging societies operate?
  5. Water scarcity: How will nations, regions and businesses adjust to extreme water stress?
  6. Technological advance and surprise: How will AI, alternative energy, genetics, robotics, tissue engineering and every-ware reshuffle the economy?
  7. Merging with tech: How quickly will we merge with our technology?
  8. Individual empowerment: How will tech-empowered people change longstanding institutions?
  9. Sustainability: How will organizations meet demands for greater sustainability?
  10. Automation and the future of work: Which scenario? Slow Boil, Task Automation or Shock Automation?
  11. Commercialization and weaponization of space: Who leads the new space race?
  12. Globalization vs nationalism: How do multinational corporations navigate nationalism and populism?
  13. Splinternet: How will nations regulate their internets, data and data flows?
  14. Surveillance: How will citizens and consumers react to 21st century surveillance?
  15. Generational power shifts: How will GenX lead?
  16. Information overload and simplicity: How will leaders communicate in an era of attention scarcity?
  17. Truth decay: How do organizations communicate in an era of deepfakes?
  18. Cybersecurity/cyberwarfare: How will organizations secure their knowledge?
  19. Decline of religion, the rise of corporate purpose: How will organizations connect profit and purpose?
  20. Surprised elites: Which assumptions should leaders now question?

Robert Moran is a Partner at the Brunswick Group and leads the firm’s research function, Brunswick Insight. He is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists.

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