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Mega-trends between present, past & future

August 2023

Mega-trends between present, past & future

Our summer reading continues with more reflections on how to think about the future. Think about it as a realm of endless possibilities, which feed our imagination. While we cannot predict the path it will take, we can discern certain patterns and trajectories that provide valuable insights into what lies ahead. Mega-trends serve as guideposts as they help to contextualise changes happening around us and navigate uncertainty. They are also anchoring points for discussing desirable futures. By understanding the big picture painted by mega-trends, we can spot opportunities that have the potential to shape our world.

Earlier this year, SITRA published a report on mega-trends (Opens in a new window) which exactly does this. It helps to get grip on some mega-trends and to discuss them in terms of opportunities rather than unescapable external forces.

Understanding Mega-Trends: Peering into Tomorrow's Landscape

Mega-trends are broad, overarching developments that span across industries, cultures, and geographies. They are powerful currents of change that emerge from the convergence of various factors, such as technological advancements, societal shifts, economic fluctuations, and environmental concerns. Observing these mega-trends allows us to anticipate the direction in which our society and economy are moving, and recognise opportunities.

In recent years, most mega-trend reports focused on issues such as technological advancements & innovation, demographic shifts incl. ageing and migration, climate change, biodiversity, sustainability and environmental challenges, changing consumer behaviour, global connectivity and trade.

Looking very much at the same trends, the SITRA report presents them differently. It puts focus on the interlinkages between trends and the opportunities they might hold. It takes the starting point in five mega-trends:

  • Nature's carrying capacity is eroding. The ecological sustainability crisis stands as a pressing challenge that demands immediate attention. Our planet's carrying capacity is eroding as the effects of climate change, declining biodiversity, resource over-exploitation, and mounting waste threaten both our economy and well-being. Urgent action is required to reconstruct our relationship with nature, transitioning to a society that harmonizes with and improves the state of the environment.

  • Well-being challenges are growing. Societies are grappling with a multitude of changes that impact daily lives. Population ageing, concentrated growth centres, shifts in working life, ecological concerns, and the ongoing war in Ukraine are all factors that are exacerbating mental health issues and testing resilience. Recognising the interconnectivity of human and environmental health is vital for ensuring a holistic approach to well-being.

  • Battles of democracy identifies. Democracies are undergoing a complex phase as they respond to accumulating crises. Recent events, such as geopolitical tensions, have both weakened and strengthened democratic systems. While challenges persist, civil society movements are arising to defend democratic values, particularly in the face of external threats. Trust erosion and information manipulation are complicating this battle for democratic ideals.

  • Competition for digital power gears up. The digital revolution is reshaping how we interact with the world. Technology and data are becoming ingrained in our daily lives, driving rapid developments and introducing new possibilities. Amid this growth, disputes over digital regulations, resource allocation, and technological directions have emerged. The influence of tech giants and the need for critical resources are central concerns in this contest for digital power.

  • Economic foundations are cracking. Global inequalities and ecological challenges are prompting a reevaluation of economic systems. As wealth concentrates in the hands of a privileged few, extreme weather events and ecosystem degradation undermine the economy's resilience. The shift towards sustainability encompasses not only environmental concerns but also human rights and well-being, forcing us to redefine the role of the economy itself.

In a world characterised by rapid change and interdependence, these mega-trends intertwine and shape our thinking of the future. They capture our attention by showcasing the changes unfolding around us.

Present, past & future

To understand the intricate web of interconnected changes, we must dig deeper. Looking beyond mere trends, we enter the realm of change trajectories, path dependencies, mindsets, and future perceptions.

Unpicking this complexity, it helps to differentiate between the push of the present, weight of the past and pull of the future. This can help to understand which factors influence what lies ahead:

  • Push of the present. It illuminates the ongoing transformations that demand our immediate focus. Often, this forms the core of trend reports, culminating in consensus among various analyses. Amidst the apparent turmoil, mega-trends rarely undergo sudden metamorphoses. The ecological sustainability crisis, technology's rapid evolution, and demographic shifts persist. At the same time, certain changes accelerate, like the surge in remote work, reshuffling the balance between competing forces. Understanding the push of the present, helps to go beyond conventional trend listings, and to see the interconnectedness of changes and the narratives surrounding them. What synergies and tensions emerge among these changes? How do diverse perspectives shape the interpretation of these shifts?

  • Weight of the past. It allows us to uncover the roots that have led us to the present juncture. A fundamental rule of forward-looking thinking is that to glimpse a decade ahead, we must scrutinise at least two decades past. Historical insights unveil path dependencies and the repercussions of prior decisions. While these historical trajectories might somewhat restrict present possibilities, they also serve as a foundation upon which to construct our desired future. While the push of the present spotlights change, the weight of the past exposes the barriers that impede change. The future is not an open canvas. It comprises an array of obstacles, from tangible constraints imposed by our physical surroundings to viewpoints so ingrained that they go unexamined, even if they no longer serve our aspirations.

  • Pull of the future. It encompasses these diverse future outlooks, ranging from aspirational to cautionary. Desirable visions inspire progress and inform what kind of change we seek. Conversely, threat scenarios force us to identify priorities and what we are unwilling to give up, provided they do not paralyse us with fear.

Adapting to change by looking at futures of opportunities

The present can be daunting, partly due to unfavourable trends and partly because viable alternatives to often dystopian scenarios are lacking.

While we delve into the mega-trends that dominate our present and the echoes of history that linger, the future's uncharted possibilities should not escape our attention. Understanding the intricate interplay of past, present and future can help to see possible futures that offer opportunities.

Focusing solely on the push of the present and the weight of the past might blind us to the fertile ground of alternative futures. Recent crises have proven that seemingly unlikely developments can swiftly become reality. Hence, our gaze should not be restricted to the broad strokes of change. It should extend towards shaping the possibilities ahead and the actions that lead us towards a desirable future.

Following SITRA’s report, this way of thinking points at a big picture of future opportunities, which include among others:

  • Ecological reconstruction. It comes for a shift away from fossil fuels and excessive resource consumption. To realise this transformation, intergenerational decision-making, sustainable lifestyles, a digitally enabled green transition, and the embrace of a circular economy are essential.

  • Holistic well-being. It puts the focus on sustainable lifestyles that acknowledge the symbiosis between human welfare and the environment. Long-term investments that nurture health and bolster social connections, are in integral components of this journey. It includes the economy as a catalyst for positive change.

  • Restorative and regenerative economy. This ensures that the positive impact of economic activities surpasses their ecological footprint.

  • Building trust. The crisis of democracy fuels concerted efforts to rebuild trust in democratic institutions and empower individuals. This rejuvenation demands innovative democratic practices, fresh avenues for civic influence, and the cultivation of digital literacy.

  • Fair digital world. This stands for striking a balance between individual, business, and societal interests. This fairness can foster prosperity, competitiveness, and societal development.

Envision desirable futures

Discussing mega-trends is less about predicting what is to come, than about actively participating in the creation of a better tomorrow. As Fred Polak, a pioneer of future studies, noted, societies thrive as long as they can envision desirable futures. Presently, the need to imagine inspiring alternatives is pressing. However, these visions must remain grounded, avoiding abstraction or representation of a narrow viewpoint.

by Kai Böhme (Opens in a new window) (Opens in a new window)
Topic Trends
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