In the era of information overload, it is difficult to find a study that presents in a nutshell the global situation as a whole along with potential future perspectives. This is exactly what the 2013–14 State of the Future, a new report by The Millennium Project, tries to do in a comprehensive and readable way. Launched at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, this report about the future of humanity is a distillation of the work of over 2,000 international experts contributing through the 50 Nodes of The Millennium Project around the world, from Argentina to Azerbaijan, from China to Colombia, from South Africa to South Korea, from the UK to the USA. It is “an informative publication that gives invaluable insights into the future for the United Nations, its Member States, and civil society” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and “the most influential annual report on what we know about the future of humanity” notes Paul Werbos from the National Science Foundation.
Half of the report covers the 15 Global Challenges that were defined by The Millennium Project in 1998, after an international Delphi expert survey, and were used as additional input for the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Since then, The Millennium Project has been assessing the yearly evolution of these challenges with quantitative indicators and comprehensive qualitative analysis. But why are these global challenges so important? Well, as my friend Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University, likes to say: “the greatest challenges are also the greatest opportunities”. Indeed, with every challenge there is a huge opportunity to improve the human condition, as well as create new businesses, jobs and economic activity.
Let’s consider quickly these 15 global challenges, not in any specific order, since they are all equally important and fundamental to the long-term development and survival of humanity:
1. How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?
2. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
3. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?
4. How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?
5. How can decision-making be enhanced by integrating improved global foresight during unprecedented accelerating change?
6. How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?
7. How can ethical market economies be encouraged to help reduce the gap between rich and poor?
8. How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune micro-organisms be reduced?
9. How can education make humanity more intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise enough to address its global challenges?
10. How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction?
11. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?
12. How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises?
13. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?
14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
15. How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?
If there are global challenges, let’s solve them, and let’s make money in the process, while saving humanity along the way. This is part of the Silicon Valley mentality, where every problem is also an incredible opportunity for new ideas and solutions. Think of Google and its technology “moonshots”, or the new X Prizes, among several such initiatives around the world. Exponential technological advances are giving us incredible tools to solve many of these challenges, if not all of them.
For example, let’s consider the energy challenge (global challenge 13 in the The Millennium Project list) and the critical condition of 1.3 billion people who still have no access to electricity around the world. Without any doubts, this is a major global challenge, but it is also a major global opportunity. The energy industry is worth about eight trillion dollars every year, and it will be radically changed in the coming years, moving from fossil fuels to renewables, from centralized to distributed systems. These are totally disruptive changes, similar to what has happened in telecommunications during the transition from fixed-line telephones to mobile telephones. For the first time in history, today is possible to think that in less than 20 years, every human being in the planet will have access to electricity. The energy industry is just starting a similar technological disruption to the one with cell phones reaching every corner of the planet in the last 20 years.
The opportunities for both developed and developing countries are enormous. My friend Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian-American technology entrepreneur and academic, has written extensively about the incredible opportunities that technology will bring to solve the global grand challenges of humanity. He not only talks about the positive prospects for the USA, but also around the world, including his original India. Wadhwa believes that “technology can unleash India’s full potential” through smartphones, Internet transparency, health care revolution, cheap tablets for education, new water sanitation, agricultural automation, and harnessing the impressive talents of the young. Such ideas are not just valid for India, but all over the developing world, and even in some parts of the developed world.
We are truly living through incredible times, and thanks to technology, we will probably see more changes in the next 20 years than in the previous 200 years. Now is really the time to “make poverty history” as the United Nations and other international organizations try through the global campaign to eradicate poverty over the next two decades. In fact, even Bill Gates wrote in his 2014 annual letter that eliminating poverty is finally within our grasp by 2035. This time is for real, and those global challenges are also the greatest opportunities for humanity.
José Cordeiro, MBA, PhD (www.cordeiro.org)
The 2013–14 State of the Future is available at http://millennium-project.org/millennium/201314SOF.html and realtime updates of this work are in the Global Futures Intelligence system at GFIS.