The Perfect Storm 2020-2025
In October 1991, three hurricane-force storms converged off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This ‘Perfect Storm’, the most powerful in recorded history, created an apocalyptic situation in the Atlantic Ocean, where boats encountered waves of over 100 feet — the height of a ten-story building.
I first used this metaphor in 2004. It became pervasive during the 2008 financial crisis. The idea is simple: storm systems converge and coincide in time. They are not, at least initially, linked, or synchronised.
Take the Arab Spring. The emotionally charged and linear Western narrative was about the overthrow of an authoritarian government in favour of democracy. The underlying reality was that after a five-year drought, food shortages and mass migration to cities that turned out to offer no jobs for growing numbers of young people (a clear demographic trend), the system failed and revolution followed.
What academics call ‘inter-systemic’ failures (and successes) are looming again on the near horizon.
Sometime between 2020-2025, new ‘storms’, some similar to this, will break around the world, driven by disruptive climate change, accelerating and radical science and technology, demographics and conflicting cultural, socio-political values. The convergence of waves of change will create major turbulence and discontinuity.
The storms may begin at the foundational level of human life: the climate, biosphere and sea-level rise. Alternatively, storms may be triggered at the other end of the hierarchy, at the level of the most sophisticated system of human activity, through runaway artificial intelligence that undermines media, politics and the trust that is fundamental to human communication.
Ten simple narrative sequences will shape the next decade. Each one can be categorised as a ‘given’ and broadly certain. In strategic terms, ‘high impact, certain’ driving forces such as these should be met with strategic action. They cannot be ignored.
Each of these narratives has the potential to trigger inter-systemic failure. Taken together they may, without urgent, concerted and determined political and public action, create waves of major shocks before the systems find a new stability. They may lead to collapse, but may also contain the seeds of a revolution in long-term thinking and pre-emptive, strategic action.
The ten narrative sequences, starting at foundational level:
- Climate change, biosphere degradation, sea-level rises and associated storm surges create chaotic impacts on regional and global systems.
- Inter-dependent urban infrastructure systems, from water, food, oil and nuclear energy, to sea terminals and airports, already fragile, vulnerable and underfunded, begin to fail.
- Mass migration accelerates, some to higher ground, even in the US, with the realisation that sea defences are unsustainable and the prospect of uninhabitable cities emerges on the horizon. Some in responses to water shortages in north and west Africa drive migration north to Europe. Others in response to war and conflict.
- The centre of gravity moves from West to East, destabilising the world order and international trade.
- After a long period of relative stability, geopolitics becomes a primary driver of strategic risk. The Western alliance continues to fragment, international institutions fail to fill the vacuum in global leadership and national self-interest—not global governance and mutual interest—become an established reality.
- The financial markets, dominated by the short-term and slow to re-invent themselves after the 2008 crises, become fragile, increasingly opaque and vulnerable to minor, symbolic events that destroy confidence and faith in the system.
- Mass automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and systemic innovation in everything from remote manufacturing to trade both increase productivity and efficiency, but destroy jobs.
- Machines ‘learn’ to read and write, undermining the media and human communication, consolidating the ‘manipulation industries’ and when integrated with total surveillance, shape everything from emotional experience to consumer behaviour, political engagement and public security.
- The convergence of bio-nano technologies, sensors and the Internet of Things accelerates, amongst other things, the emergence of ’care world’ and health creation, bringing decentralised, remote and personalised virtual services and step changes to longevity within a generation.
- Capital dominates labour, with the result that inequality and social unrest rise before consumerism and finance adapt. The consumerist, debt dominated economic system remains in conflict with the biosphere and public interest.
Of course, these narratives may not play out. As George Soros often says, human systems are reflexive: people can respond in advance to an imagined future state and change course. Looming crises sometimes drive structural change. Yet major disruption, for good or ill, may emerge at any time. This may not be because the endgames have emerged, but because large-scale shifts in public and political feeling can change abruptly and drive action, in anticipation of longer-term events. The sheer complexity surrounding politicians and the public alike may itself become overwhelming and lead to crises in confidence.
Even so, political leaders are not passive observers. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, flagging a central theme for the G20 agenda he will host in 2019, has made impassioned calls for more urgent action on the climate and the sustainability agendas. Amongst other things, he has called for ranking corporate performance based on ‘future-oriented technologies’ and rewarding them for investing in the long-term.
Yet for political leaders, policy-makers and corporate strategists, climate is just one of the intractable ’grand challenges’. For some, the underlying, emotionally charged meta-narrative is fear, fragility, helplessness and even defeated resignation. To others, faced with the same evidence: a narrative focused on creative, imaginative and inventive responses and a determination to take resolute action.
Over the longer term, these narrative sequences may lead to large-scale violence war and social unrest of the ‘Dark Ages‘ scenario or the drift towards ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times‘. Alternatively, they may create the sense of unity necessary to build a positive pathway towards ‘Renaissance‘ or ‘Walled Gardens‘.
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