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Horizons Talks: Exploring sustainable futures in 2050

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The Horizons Talks speaker series brings experts from Canada and around the world to share their forward-looking research and ideas with public servants.

What will the world look like in 2050? Arup has developed four plausible futures that explore the intersection of planetary health and societal conditions.

Chris Luebkeman, Director for Strategic Foresight at ETH-Zürich, formerly of Arup, presented insights on the 2050 scenarios work completed at Arup. He shared why they developed the scenarios, what the results were and what insights have come from this work.




Kristel Van der Elst, Director General of Policy Horizons Canada

Chris Luebekman, Director for Strategic Foresight at ETH Zürich

Claire Woodside, Outreach and Engagement

CHRIS LUEBEKMAN:  Well, first of all, Kristel, thank you very much.  Merci beaucoup.  It’s a pleasure to be here with you, absolutely.  And as you have learned from me, I have learned from you as well, and it has been great over the years.

So first of all, it is a great pleasure and an honour to be here with all of you today, and I am going to do the following.  I am going to be showing a presentation and then I will be very open for questions at the end.  And I know — I think, Claire, you were saying that they could send in questions either in the chat box — is that where they do it — or they send it in the Q & A, or how do they send questions in?

CLAIRE WOODSIDE:  For the Q & A, I will collect questions if you can put them in the chat, and then I will call on you to ask them and we will unmute you.  And then if we run out of time, I’ll do kind of a summary of a few questions that clearly are coming up from multiple people. 

CHRIS LUEBEKMAN:  Great.  That’s super.  So I’m very happy to entertain those in the end. 

So I’ll begin and blend in the slides now.  So I’m going to share my screen, so you need to give just a moment for the — this is the Zoom moment, which we all read and we hope everything works, and then we see — there it goes.  Okay. 

This is an image which I took out of the side of an airplane, and for three months, none of us saw this.  And it’s quite interesting to me because for a long time, I was actually quite obsessed with contrails.  They really annoyed me, frankly, because every one of those is water vapour that Mother Nature didn’t really intend to be there.  They create shadows which they reduce the production capacity of our planet by between four and seven percent. 

At the same time that those have disappeared, we have also been able to notice other things.  As Kristel said, for the past 20 years, I was working with Arup and part of that job was to fly around the world meeting offices, our staff, our clients, looking down at our planet to see what we have done to our earth so that we — you and I — cannot just survive but to thrive; to create the housing; to create the food, be it livestock or grain that we need in order literally to survive and to thrive. 

And what is really interesting to me is, no matter where we go, we also see lots of — I would suggest — unintended consequences, just like those contrails were unintended consequences of the jet exhaust, and these massive carpets of concrete and asphalt covering over productive land are unintended consequences of our need, our desire to have homes, schools, economies. 

So the big question for me as a foresighter is, if we look at all of this, what is our path forward?  We can look back and try to project a way forward and imagine a straight-line projection, which lots of economists might want to do, or scientists, but I would suggest that that’s not necessarily going — our future is not necessarily going to be what we’ve seen in our past. 

For many, it will seem to be a winding road, just like that wonderful song, “The Long and Winding Road”, kind of scary on those curves, and you’ve got to be careful how fast you go because you can do it if you don’t go over too fast.  And man, you would need to have the right vehicle or a skateboard or something to make sure you’re going up or down. 

And for many others, the path forward is a blue sky, just as here in the Pacific West.  You don’t really know exactly which path to take, and it actually doesn’t really matter which path, because you know where your destination is.  You’re going over there to those hot springs and how you get there is actually then irrelevant.

What is interesting for me when we’re looking at the future, we have a little bit of all of that at the same time.  And as a foresighter, the challenge is how do we deal with this increasing uncertainty?  We feel this every day.  All of us do, all of us have.  And for many, this is a source of fear.  For others, it’s a source of inspiration.  For many, it’s paralyzing.  For others, it’s just energizing.  It’s quite fascinating to see how one reacts to the future, the thoughts about what is to come.

And so when I look at this and when I think about this, there is something that is really critical is how do we envision where we want and need to go?  And to me, those are two different things, where we want to go and where we need to go.  They’re — often, they’re looked at as being the same thing, but they simply are not.

Now, when we’re doing this and we’re trying to look forward, we can do this with lots of data.  I’ve got hundreds of graphs about where things are going, about how things are changing, you know, it’s very scientific.

On the other hand, we also need emotion, storytelling, the belief.  There are things that each one of us believe that are completely and totally irrational, and yet, you could argue, “No, no, no, I have everything perfectly rational.”  I bet we could find something which is in-irrationably, but it’s okay, because this is what is beautiful about us as humans, because we have this data and emotional capacity.  The science and belief, when they come together, they can help us find a path, find a way. 

And this, to me, is really critical, because when we look in foresight, there’s this what we call the “cone of the possible”.  When we look forward, the variability just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger with time as we go out. 

But then we actually do know there’s this probable part, this middle of that bullseye.  This is the business as usual case.  If things kind of keep going like we expect them to go, this is what we’re going to get. 

But then there is this, which is our preferable future.  And this is where policy can come in, where we can begin to set different rules of the game, where design paradigms can come in so we can change the way we build or think about a building or a city, or perhaps, our lives where we think our preferable future is this, and how do we start working towards that? 

And that’s very interesting for me and why at Arup we created these 2050 scenarios.  Now, these set of scenarios was the second time I had done this set of scenarios.  The first — big ones — and this is — the first one was in 2008-2009.  And these again, I realized — or I thought about two years ago that the world was looking to be in such a tough place that I needed to find a way that we could help envision what a positive future was going to look like, because it’s easy to imagine the negatives.  It’s gotten much harder to try to imagine where we’re going to land in a positive way.

And so we looked at two axes.  There’s the classic scenario exercise.  We did a whole thing with what are the critical factors, and it actually comes down to well, what is this, the human condition, this is the health of our society?  Is it increasing or is it decreasing?  And upon what do we depend, as people?  We depend upon our planet, the health of our ecosystems, the health of our oceans, the health of our air, the health of our ecosystems to support us, for us to be a part of.

So we took those two axes as our critical axes, if you will, as the most fundamental critical axes to look at the human condition, the planetary health on the planet as a whole.  And so we came up with four worlds, and I’m going to give you the names very quickly, then we’re going to go through them in a little more detail afterwards.

The first, where the human condition is increasing but the planetary is decreasing, planetary health decreasing, we call “Humans Inc.”.  So it’s kind of like the business as usual case, where we are right now.

The “double negative” is “Extinction Expressed”, that’s the spiral downwards.  You can see some parts of the world are already in that.

And then we’ve got “Greentocracy”.  It’s where society is then living in service of the planet, of the restoration of the planet, so we lose some of our freedoms, lose some of our self-centredness so that our planet is doing better.

Then of course, the “double positive”, which we really all hope — I hope all hope for, is “Post Anthropocene” where humans are doing great and people are doing great, and so then sort of a happiness forever. 

So this is the graphic which is in the report, which one can take a look at.  

So to dig into those just a little tiny bit deeper, Humans Inc., when we’re doing the scenarios, I believe it’s very important that we engage all of the different learning styles.  So there are those who learn by text, learn by image, learn by saying, learn by visual engagement.  So we need to make sure whatever we’re doing is engaging all of those in a meaningful way.  And so here, we can get an idea of what that might look like.

We also created a graphic with a similar graphical style for all of them so that one could imagine what our city might look like in business as usual.  And here, we get to see already — which is kind of surprising — not for smog — or I meant for smog and not for viruses, our little face masks, which have become part of our image.

But in Humans Inc., some of the big, big markers, if you will, that cities are adapting to flooding and other extremes, so we have learned how to adapt, as we’re doing now.  Flood walls are going up.  We’re dealing — you know, all these — we’ve adapted. 

Life expectancy is increasing.  Education is on the rise.  And yet, water scarcity is increasing.  We’re extracting more from our aquifers because we’re worried about us, not worried about the ecosystem.  And they have a much stronger welfare system, upgraded housing, and even the introduction potentially of a UBI, a universal basic income.

We also try to show some figures.  We really looked at what could our population be?  What is the wealth gap?  We tried to actually — we went through about — as I said, about a two-year exercise looking in detail at all of these different factors and what they could be, and used what is called the morphological method to really, in a very rigorous way, try to pull these together.  And I’m not going to go into all the — so here we’ve got some of these, right here. 

And then we created a timeline.  We said, “What could the story be if that world came to pass?”

And I know this sort of looks like the yellow submarine from the Beatles, but it wasn’t intended to be so.  But here we made up some opportunity moments, if you will, during which — this is kind of the fun part, the super fun part.  I just want to — I’m going to show two of them.  One was — here is Seoul’s ambulance fleet stands still.  And someone asked, “Well, what is that about?”

Say, “Well, if you go to full electric batteries, you know, if it gets too cold, then the batteries don’t work, so okay, and this is why in Seoul, there’s a cold snap that lasted two weeks and the batteries all popped out.”

And then the last one is, Lima runs out of water.  I was talking to a friend from — who is in the water business South America.  He said, “That’s not going to be 2048, that’s going to be 2028.”

And so even some of these scenarios, it’s a way also to create conversation.

We also felt that the sustainable development goals was key to this, and we used those as one of our primary markers to understand what this world could look like.  So what had happened with each one of these goals — because as a company, Arup had determined to align this business with these goals, so we needed to understand what the implications were on each one of these.  And these are all in the report, which you can get. 

The next one was Extinction Express, so we’re doing this clockwise.  The Extinction Express is a very uncomfortable world where everything is a double negative.  And we can see again, we have domed cities where people have sort of moved into the haves — they’ve created enclaves — and the have-nots are left to either serve those who have or try to just struggle to survive.  We have very highly de-stabled natural systems, and the resources are pretty — resource shortages are pervasive.  We called these “controlled hells” where large refugee cities have been created because of the extreme, extreme lack of water.  There’s no longer refugee camps.  They’re actually refugee cities. 

Then we have — isolationism has become the new norm, so if you will, it’s a world of thugs and a world of really deep suspicion and hard, hard orders. 

And the food is quite interesting.  It’s all industrialized and controlled by monopolies. 

So that world, we have a much higher population, a very high wealth gap.  We have increase of temperature by 2.5 degrees C, if we’re lucky; low operation; and very low penetration of clean energy.  There, our timeline looks something like this where we’ve got some very interesting things here where smog domes for the wealthy are introduced in two years’ time. 

We know in Beijing we already have quite a few smog domes being put over schools.  That becomes a much bigger introduction across other cities and I see there in 2039 a ban on foreign students.  Interesting how that has ratcheted forward by 19 years.  Very unfortunate.

And then the other one to point out on this one is the Zika outbreak in Toronto, because Zika requires a certain climate, and under some of the climate scenarios, Toronto will then become a place where Zika could easily thrive, which is very scary. 

And also again, with the indicators, we can see by being at the bottom where they’ve decreased the SDGs, the only thing that’s really gone — well, it’s all bad, that’s all. 

So let me start getting up to the good side.  So we have Greentocracy.  Now, Greentocracy becomes quite interesting because when I did some workshops with some young people and some older folks in Arup before I left, we had about 40 individuals and we asked them, “What do you think of these scenarios?”  And I’m only done with half of them right now. 

And they said, “Yeah, we think these are pretty real.”

And I said, “Well, which one do you think we’re going to see next?”

And all of the older folk said, “Well, we’re going to see extinction express,” and the younger folks all said, “We’re going to see Greentocracy, because only through Greentocracy will we get to where we want to be,” where the older folks all were like, “Well, we’re never going to agree to this, so why?”

You know, that was really quite fascinating, being kind of — in German, (German word) with that description, but that really was what happened. 

And here, you can see through the image, there’s a lot of sort of green, quite literally, green everywhere.  This is the greening of the cities, the densification where “happy planet, happy people”, becomes the mantra for every government, where the planet comes first, and we — as I mentioned before — have to live in servitude to the planet, where the environmental degradation for the first quarter of the century really resulted in an outcry and people demanded, went into the streets like they have in the past few weeks for other issues, for to demand action. 

And there was a lot of restoration.  The cities became dense.  We no longer bulldozed over arable land.  And what is very interesting, a lot of that land which was used for farming was now given — rewilded.  This was part of the thing so that we would use a lot more synthetic food, which is kind of interesting, and that was a huge, a huge debate, I must say, as we talked about how to look at this. 

So there, the population is still up around 9 and a half billion, there is still a high wealth gap, but the good thing is there the decrease — the increase in temperature has decreased to 1.5 degrees and we’ve got more cooperation because of the agreements with the sustainable development goals and the science-based targets, and a lot of clean energy in order to allow the air to catch back up to itself. 

Here, the timeline looked a bit different, and I’ll just — to call out a couple of things here.  In 2032, the first eco re-education, which is kind of interesting thinking that what does that — what did we mean by that? 

It was like, okay, well, to begin to be state sponsored eco courses, so you have to go back and be re-educated how to live your life, which is why we are saying, “This is where you’re beginning to lose our freedoms, as we — the freedoms we have perceived.”  And so that, again, in service to the planet. 

But then in 42 expansion, the re-protected areas, the MPAs, and the great thing is with all of this, the greenhouse gas targets have been achieved.  So by 2050, we’ve actually been able to bend that curve, in this case, for all our greenhouse gases.

The indicators look a little bit better.  You know, not everywhere is really great.  Some of the things which we believe would probably still be quite bad.  There’s gender equity, and we say no poverty.  There would be more poverty, actually and how we define poverty in our terms, in some of the infrastructure, sustainable infrastructure, not so sustainable, but you know, this is — but the planet is doing really well, so this is kind of interesting. 

Then the last one, this is Post Anthropocene, and what is fascinating to me was when we were creating this, how to create something which didn’t look like Disney World?  And you could actually look at it and say, “Okay.  I could imagine that.  I could imagine that actually happening.” 

And this was actually the hardest one for me in my head to get — to grasp.  You know, that was really interesting.  And yet, some of the concepts around it, I could totally understand, where we have a lot more freedom to move around the world, where consumers are now consuming at a 1.0 planet instead of the 3-point planets or 16 or 30 planets that we are now, depending on where you are; that our societies are now balanced again; and that the wealth gap between the highest paid and the lowest paid is no longer in the hundreds but it has been reduced perhaps to twenties; a circular economy is then real.  Carbon accounting is included in everything that we do, as is water.  And sustainable consumption is linked tightly to the environment and there’s a real private/public partnership to support these planet-first initiatives. 

And as we were looking at this, and we were all kind of going, “This is great.  This is where we want to go,” and after about six months we could finally start to believe this is potentially possible, the 1.3-degree increase, high cooperation, getting our weather stable again, we created the timeline. 

But then, what was interesting to me is, I didn’t believe that we would ever see this unless there is some kind of catastrophe, unless there is some kind of large-scale climate change consequence, as you see there in 2021, which would make the planet pause.  I never imagined that we would have a pandemic which would also give us a moment to pause or in 2028, the great climate march as we’ve seen just recently with Black Lives Matter and the rights of all, the marches which we have seen.

So this is really, for me, when this happened in the past three months, it gave me for the first time in almost two years hope that we could really maybe get to this Post Anthropocene within my lifetime. 

The last little red circle here, I would say, is a plastic patch museum.  I just love that little idea that in 2047 we have a museum to that awful floating morass of plastic, the two of them, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic, and that would just be amazing.

So of course, the indicators are all up on the upper quadrants where everything is improved, not — you know, not everything perfect, but it’s really — poverty is at all-time low, the GMO that’s helping reduce our hunger, et cetera, et cetera.  So it’s really — that was the world we’re trying to get to. 

Now — and I’m kind of blitzing through this because this is all — the entire thing is available online to download.  There’s a free PDF for anybody, you know, because we did this not for us, but for anybody. 

So there’s also a big comparison there you can see.  I sometimes think we could have pushed it harder, some of the population.  You know, the population growth and decline is a very difficult topic; to talk about the need for reducing population to one child per couple is something you just can’t do in polite company, you know?  So we kept them all up at high numbers.

The wealth cap is a lot easier.  The temperature increases as well.  These — the other ones, you can always read.

Within those, we also had — I hired a writer, a science fiction writer, to try to create some stories about individuals and what their — a day in their life looked like, because it’s one thing to read a bunch of numbers and to imagine these stories; it’s another thing to try to put yourself or somebody, a human being, into that world and trying to think into that life. 

And so these are just some quotes out of the four individuals who were written up.  And I think that what is kind of fascinating to me is when you read those quotes, as I’m sure everyone is doing, all of a sudden, in your own mind, you can create an image of a street, of a place, of some news that you might have seen or someone you’ve talked to who might have said something close to that, and it makes it just that more plausible that that world could come to pass. 

And that’s where I meant the difference between or these two parts of data and emotion, where we’re trying to, you know, to really, with these, you touch on both.

So the question we always ask is, “Which world would you rather live in, and which world do you think we’re going to move into next?”

Now, there is no such thing as singularity on our planet, and I guarantee you in your beautiful country or in Switzerland, I could go probably and probably find each one of these four worlds in a little microcosm, right? 

But the question is, for the majority, which one do we want to go to?  Where do we want to go?  What’s the story we want to write? 

And to me, the other part is to help make sure that we’re empowering individuals to believe and have the tools to also help write that story, right, because at the end of the day, the future is fiction.  It is a story which all of us write, and we write it together, as in this, for me, an amazing picture which my team found is which path do we choose, the railway, the straight railway, the straight road, the curvy road, the little walking paths in between? 

We get to choose those paths, and I think — and this is very important to me. So we did those scenarios and I have more behind it.  I could show you some more but I thought I would stop here and see if you wanted to ask some questions or some comments, you know, just stop there for a few minutes.

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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