Some weeks ago, a friend and I had a discussion about what, over the past 20 years, had been the most significant or impactful developments, inventions, changes, forces, events. In short, without limiting the discussion, we challenged each other to pick the top five. Then the question was: “Would you have predicted this twenty years ago?” We then turned to making five such predictions for the next twenty years.
For me, hands down, the Internet and all that it has meant has been the most significant and impactful development of the past twenty years. Embraced within the concept of the Internet is everything from communication, to search engines, access to information, e-commerce, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and so on. The near total demise of printed newspapers and magazines has been an unintended casualty.
My other picks, in no particular order, are:
The rise of China and the decline of the US and Europe;
The impact of climate and weather-related events; and population growth and stresses on the earth, including water, housing and food shortages;
Developments in medicine and biotechnology. Covid is a significant development but it remains to be seen if it endures or fades; and
The rise of authoritarianism, and associated crises of refugees and immigration.
Would I have predicted these twenty years ago? The Internet, yes, and in broad strokes, the rise of China but not so much the rapidity of America’s decline. The rest, in broad strokes yes, but not necessarily that countries would have allowed immigration pressures to spiral out of control due to lack of enforcement. The refugee crisis and unchecked population growth were obvious. The rise of authoritarianism has been an ongoing problem for humanity but the brazenness with which it took hold over the last twenty years has been stunning and sobering.
As we look forward to the next twenty years, what can we expect? It is difficult to limit oneself to five picks so I’ll take the licence of creating broad categories.
Geopolitics, China and the US
The ongoing rise of China and slipping of the US will continue to be the dominant story of the next twenty years. China’s triumph does not have to be inexorable. I have previously written that if we were to start a race between the US and China today, I would pick the US provided I could also pick the jockey. Unfortunately, regardless of who the current or future jockey might be, the danger is that one half of the US population will try to knock that person off the horse rather than cheering on a win. And sadly, for a country of 335 million, there are very few inspiring jockeys.
Although there are limits to what China can achieve due to internal and external constraints, in many respects, the stark rise of China vis-a-vis the US is a direct consequence of America’s self-imposed retrenchment and of distractions at home leading to incoherent policies.
I see China over the next twenty years presenting itself in four major aspects:
(a)China will continue to be a maverick nation, along with Russia, showing no regard for an international rules-based order. These two nations have been willing to use force both to oppress their own people and, as well, to gain territorial advantage. China continues to treat the US with disdain, convinced that its authoritarian, centrally managed governance system is the better model than the fractured “democracy” of the western countries.
To a large extent, one can hardly blame China. As the US faltered in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, China’s aggressive bullying tactics have faced little resistance other than condemnatory words from around the world. Russia’s annexation of Crimea likewise engendered mere whimpering and bleating. And now Putin challenges the US and Europe to give him iron-clad guarantees to get him to back off invading Ukraine.
One is urged by some pundits to treat China as an existential threat to the US but although China will dominate many areas of competition with the US, it is unlikely to be such a high level of threat. Unless there is a major course correction, the US is on a path to destroying its own infrastructure and even its Democracy. The US does not need China’s help.
Just as the defeat of the Soviet Union did not mean that Russia’s power had dissipated, regardless of how much China succeeds, the US will remain a formidable economic and military power for decades to come and one not so easily cabined by China. As well, the Chinese Communists who have parked much of their wealth in US assets, are not likely to want to destroy that value or the billions of dollars of positive cash flows that the US sends to China every year.
Those dollar flows have allowed China to make the investments in its economy that got it where it is and the investments in its military, in space ventures, technology and artificial intelligence that will take it where it wants to be. China cannot afford to lose the US market which is both a buyer of its manufactured goods and the source of much of its technological advancement (even where that knowhow is stolen). Nor is such a loss of the American market necessary as America’s corporate CEOs are all in on preserving their access to China’s low-cost labour and manufacturing.
Russia will re-emerge as a formidable power mainly from supplying energy to the EU nations. I don’t see a Russia-China alliance that is more than a fleeting thought. But Russia will be capable of making trouble in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East.
(b) China will become the dominant power in space and perhaps even the dominant naval power in the world. It already has the largest naval flotilla. The diminished and vanishing US investment in both these areas will be felt soon but the loss of control and its meaning, realized too late.
A digital currency will possibly displace the US Dollar as the reserve currency of the world. Whereas China may be able to accomplish this by fiat, that is by decreeing that all trade will be transacted in a China-sponsored digital currency, most likely the Eurozone nations will join with China and perhaps Russia to bring this about. As Europe becomes more and more dependent on China for its commerce and on Russia for its energy supply, the US will find European countries more focused on their own economic well-being than on preserving the western alliance. The preservation of western culture in Europe will not be a pressing concern. Indeed, one might argue that battle has already been lost.
(c) Geopolitically, China will continue its overreaching domination of the South China Sea and its aggressive efforts to encircle and pressure India as well as surrounding nations. China is not necessarily quite ready to invade Taiwan just yet, but that is not a bet I would take. More likely, China will continue to encroach on Taiwanese air and sea lanes and exert enough pressure to isolate Taiwan from the world. Effectively, Taiwan will be a vassal state of China whether or not there is an actual physical invasion. But make no mistake, we cannot rule out a Chinese invasion.
Just this month, we have seen more evidence of China’s disdain for a rules-based order and basic fairness. Jimmy Lai* at age 73 has been sentenced to 14 months in prison. And the offices of Stand News were raided with about 200 police officers participating. Six directors were arrested and the outlet’s funds of several million dollars were frozen. Stand News has announced that it is shutting down.
The Chinese Communist Party leaders are seemingly threatened by a 73-year-old man and a small web-based news outlet and brook no criticism of their brutal rule.
If this is how they treat their own people, why should the world expect that they will treat outsiders any better? The world needs to wake up to the fact that we have a rogue nation afoot. But it probably will not wake up.
(d) The dependence of the US on China for manufactured goods will continue to grow and China’s dominance of supply lines to the US will present it with an ever-increasing ability to shape the fortunes of American businesses. And all this will be done with the complicity of the American CEOs who put profit first. Simply put, the US economy is as dependent on China. The only question is what price will China exact and for how long?
However, I do not expect this to continue for all of the next twenty years. Robotics in manufacturing will make unit cost manufacturing in the US as competitive as it is in China. Certainly, real estate costs in China are less than in the US for now and overall plant costs lower but again prices in China are unlikely to remain static or to remain low over the next twenty years. Moreover, relocating manufacturing to the US with robotics will become a political and strategic necessity.
Climate, weather and food
Notwithstanding the declarations of good intentions at COP26 to avoid a global temperature increase of 2º C, the road to climate change hell is paved with coal. If you are looking for carbon emissions to fall to zero, the next 20 years will disappoint you unless there is a dramatic technological breakthrough that produces enough clean energy to meet the world’s needs. Don’t hold your breath.
China announced a target date of 2060 and India followed with its own target date of 2070 for achieving net zero carbon. Both dates are so far off as to be meaningless. There is a substantial body of scientific opinion that reducing carbon consumption to zero immediately will not be enough to deal with the effect of the carbon already released into the atmosphere and oceans. Whether that is so or not, the incidence and frequency of severe to catastrophic climate and weather events seem inevitable.
Every new severe or catastrophic event will bring pressure to channel massive additional expense and effort directed to mitigation and adaptation. Whether entire cities can have their buildings raised to deal with floods or be retrofitted with adequate drainage systems remains to be seen. If indeed, sea level rise becomes a reality to the point of flooding coastal cities, the prospect of displacement of millions, even billions of people worldwide will force governments to change their priorities.
A good chunk of the world’s resources will be directed to dealing with the effects of hurricanes and cyclones, tornadoes, massive rain and snow storms, wildfires, and intense heat. Whether these efforts will spawn useful new technologies to deal with the types of devastating effects we have already seen, remains to be seen. Certainly, entire neighbourhoods, towns, and even cities may have to be rebuilt.
Water shortages in sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, and the western United States will become matters of urgent concern. Rainwater harvesting and desalination technology will be rapidly deployed where nations are willing and able to commit the resources. In Africa and India, the possibility of catastrophe from water shortages looms. This has been a problem in the making for decades. The fact that it has been left festering so long is an indictment against governments the world over. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Dubai are far ahead of the rest of the world in desalination solutions.
Food shortages around the world will pose a huge challenge for the next twenty years. China cannot produce enough food to feed its population. Sub-Saharan African countries have persistent problems of famine and drought. The world is said to produce enough food for all, but income inequality, lack of resources, and seemingly endless wars and conflicts, result in severe breakdown of food supplies and distribution.
The UN World Food Programme has a hunger map showing that almost a billion people do not have enough food on a regular basis. The Global Report on Food Crises 2021 notes that at least 155 million people face acute hunger attributable to extreme weather, conflict and other economic shocks including the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Internet and its potential for expanding the way we interact with each other and the world, and how we conduct business, will continue to expand and amaze. The advent of 5G, 6G and Artificial Intelligence (AI), advanced robotics and automation will bring profound changes and with them, the challenge of finding gainful employment for people. At a mundane level, robots will be bank tellers where interaction beyond conducting transactions with an ATM is necessary and different robots will cook burgers and fries at McDonald’s or perform the functions of baristas at Starbucks. Robots will refuel aircraft and monitor patients in hospitals.
The melding of AI and augmented reality will open new worlds for cooperation between experts notwithstanding that they are on a different continent, even on opposite sides of the world. For example, skills used in performing surgery or repairing a jet engine can be demonstrated via such technologies. The knowledge gap between so-called advanced nations and others will shrink and could possibly be completely bridged.
Will we see autonomous vehicles in the next twenty years? Unless we are ready to create dedicated lanes for them, mixing autonomous and driver-operated vehicles on the same road will be a non-starter. Simply put, people are too unpredictable. On the other hand, the sheer number of vehicles and attendant snarls and traffic jams will demand a sea change.
If we are going to maintain traffic flows by using artificial intelligence and robotics, we will have no choice but to switch to autonomous vehicles. This will have two added benefits. Electric vehicles with low battery power remaining will be removed from flowing traffic and recharged, and the ability to call an autonomous vehicle on demand as the need arises or on a pre-programmed basis will reduce the number of privately owned vehicles in favour of a shared fleet.
Electric vehicles will be de rigueur at least in cities, if only to reduce air pollution from emissions. There are hints that a quantum leap in battery technology is in the offing. Obstacles include finding cost-effective ways to acquire cobalt or find an acceptable substitute. Rapid-charge technologies will be part of the answer. If that happens, the world’s fossil fuel powered vehicle fleet can be transitioned to EVs. The process may take all of twenty years and beyond. Even if we could deliver twenty or thirty million EVs per year, replacing 1.3+ billion vehicles around the world is a daunting undertaking.
Universities have learned that they can provide courses online at the same price as in-person classes. Look for online learning to become the default. The fact that “lectures” and classes once recorded can be recycled reduces the need for a large faculty. In turn, education will become less personal, more mechanical, and the humanities will lose some of their humanity. But higher education will become even more of a business.
I don’t see the Covid crisis lasting for more than another year or two before the world learns to live with it. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant may be a means to gaining herd immunity. If not, available vaccines and the rapid increase in producing enough to vaccinate most of the world, lie within our grasp. Of course, this is not a given and there is always the possibility of another more lethal variant.
We can anticipate dynamic changes in healthcare and the delivery of treatment modalities. Active monitoring of important markers of health will become an everyday phenomenon, accepted as much as wearing a watch or carrying a smartphone have become. Early intervention, gene therapy, and the ability to make tailored drugs to suit individual needs seem but a step away.
Advances in biotechnology will be the story of healthcare for the future.
We have not heard the last of the mRNA vaccines or of mRNA technology. Look for a vaccine against malaria using this technology and for new and innovative ways to cure cancer and other diseases. mRNA technology also holds promise for overcoming neurological disorders including Multiple Sclerosis.
The continued rise of authoritarian governments will remain at crisis levels for the foreseeable future. China, Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a host of African countries are unlikely to change their views and suddenly adopt democratic values. If the US perchance upends its Democracy, the consequences are unthinkable.
Refugees and immigration: The worldwide twin crises of immigration (mostly unwelcome) and refugee flows (decidedly unwanted) will continue to haunt the world. This is nothing new, but not to expect this is to ignore history. As of this writing, the world has failed ever to bring to account those governments and dictators who generate conditions that spawn refugees and fleeing emigrants. The world will come to grips with this problem over the next twenty years as we realize that there is no place to put the immigrants and refugees without generating huge and probably unsustainable costs.
Brexit:Britain will realize that Brexit was a major blunder but it remains to be seen if its leaders will acknowledge that leaving a massive market without alternatives, was not the smartest decision. True, much of the decision was driven by concerns over immigration and open borders, but a future British statesman will have to find a creative solution.
nuclear proliferation:Threats of nuclear proliferation remain high. It seems unlikely that the US or anyone else can secure disarmament of North Korea or ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapons capability. Perhaps the Israelis can handle this latter situation. Perhaps not.
The earth is in a fragile state. It is within our power to realize that we are on earth for a short time and that by cooperation, we can increase the chances for all 8 billion of us to have a better life. Will that happen over the next twenty years? That is one question I can answer with confidence and the answer is NO.
Happy new year. Let’s hope that, at a minimum, 2022 is better than 2021. But don’t hold your breath.
* Lai Chee-ying, also known as Jimmy Lai, is a Hong Kong entrepreneur and activist. He founded Giordano, an Asian clothing retailer, Next Digital, a Hong Kong-listed media company, and the popular newspaper Apple Daily. He is one of the main contributors to the pro-democracy camp, especially to the Democratic Party.
* Published in print edition on 31 December 2021
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