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Futures Week 2021: Significant disruptors on the horizon

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Policy Horizons’ Director General, Kristel Van der Elst, explores significant areas of change, and how the potential outcomes of those changes may alter our strategic landscape and systems.


Kristel Van der Elst, Director general


KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: So looking to the future there’s a few areas of change right now that are framing our strategic landscape. The outcomes of those changes could in fact radically alter our human and natural systems. The idea of change at this scale can feel overwhelming, especially after this very difficult year, but we believe that there is hope and it is by exploring what could happen that we can be better prepared and that we can possibly, as policy makers, as the Government of Canada influence what will happen and so that’s really at heart of our mission here at Policy Horizons Canada. So let’s get into some of those areas of change over the next decades.

The pandemic has caused more than three million deaths worldwide, and despite vaccines, there is still a lot of uncertainty about our ability to control the virus and its mutations, and everywhere in the world. But beyond COVID-19, climate change and environmental stress can really cause a domino effect of worldwide health crises and other emergency, and we could thus find ourselves in a perpetual state of preparations and response to emergency situations.

All of that will of course have economic impacts, as we are already seeing. Supply chains are being revamped to increase their resilience, and the outlook for economic growth and world trade is uncertain. Meanwhile, local and global inequalities are widening more and more, and COVID – and the pandemic – contributed to that.

So another area of key change that we’re seeing is digital technology. Sure digital technology has been with us for quite some time and digitization has greatly accelerated through the pandemic. But there’s so much more to come because there’s a whole global digital infrastructure that is taking shape with maturing technologies going from the internet of things, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and so forth.

So imagine now, imagine what would be the impact of large scale capacity 3D printing. How that could have an impact on millions of people that do not have access to affordable living right now or imagine, that you’ll be trying out your clothes in a virtual space and get them delivered to you, custom fitted, by a tailor halfway across the world who was found by you, for you, by your artificial intelligence powered virtual personal assistant. Isn’t that a dream? Being able to produce these raw materials goods and services at very low costs and with few human intervention radically changes the parameters that define our market economics.

It will influence which business models will prevail. It will also change prices of goods and services, but also for wages, interest rates, rents, and it will deeply change the nature of work. But as these technologies become more and more mainstream, we can also see how humans will be removed from the supply chains, not just with the rationale of optimizing profits in relation to employee costs, but in order to lessen the risks related to human health and behavior and then we can wonder what that would mean for employment rates.

But digital technologies are not only affecting our material world and our build environments. We’re seeing digital technologies and biological science is merging and it’s really acting as a reinforcing loop. With places is really at the cost of a revolutionary expansion in life science and technology and biotechnology, so again imagine. Imagine what it would mean if you had the power to change bodies easily. Imagine if you could create new organisms cheaply or if you could change or redesign our ecosystems of part of that at a large scale or in a profound way.

The biodigital convergence really has the potential to disrupt our economic and trade models, it can also transform entire sectors. It can eventually lead to the collapse of some regional strategic competitive advantages, but biodigital innovations can also be an importance source of job creation and wealth creation. Just like digital economy, the biodigital convergence raises concerns about security, privacy, trust, equity, and human rights.

But beyond all these technological changes, were also charging very profound social transformations. COVID-19 has shown us that social connections are really a cornerstone of social resilience. And loneliness was pervasive already way before the pandemic but the feeling of loneliness combined with social isolation can have serious consequences in the future on physical and mental health of the populations and it can lead to stress on health care systems, on social services, but also overall productivity and well-being.

There’s also big shifts happening in how we find information and how we take that information and transform it into actions and decisions, or in the way we make sense of the world. It’s our biases, our ways of getting that information and our perspectives that all appear to be becoming a lot more polarized and competing, at least the polarization is more visible. And that is occurring at different levels in society as we’re seeing it happens among individuals, it happens among groups in society, and it happens amongst nations.

Yet, sense-making plays a key role in trusting institutions. It defines what we think we want. It defines what we find acceptable on a wide range of areas, whether we’re talking about open data, the ethical limits of bioengineering, and equality immigration, just to name a few.

Restoring some form of social cohesion becomes all the more important when we haven’t even figured out how, or even if, we can live within the limits of the carrying capacity of our ecosystems. Physical aspects of climate change should intensify over time, certainly in the 2030s, and that reality intensifies migration pressures, precipitates new health challenges and increases political instability and humanitarian disasters.

Finally, global governance seems to be at a crossroads. The way the future unfolds will influence markets, standards and our ability to respond to these global challenges, For example, the polarization of values and economic upheavals could be the basis of an emerging strategic competition between nations or blocks. That competition could also foster changes in international alliances and to a silo effect in technological development and innovation.

So these six big areas of change, they’re not independent from another, they’re intertwined and they involve stakeholders with very different values and priorities, and perspectives. But it’s the combined systemic impact that might transform the way that Canadians make sense of their economic and social choices. It might change their capacity connect with each other and relate to each other. And it might impact how our individual and our collective capacities evolve to navigate some of that big change that is happening. And it’s to foster the resilience throughout our economies and our social lives that Canadians will need to develop, not only the technical and the professional know-how needed for the changing environment but also the human and social skills that you need to flourish in these areas of uncertainty and change.

So as public servants, we all need to practice foresight, we all need to think about what might happen in the future and we all need to think about what futures we’re creating for Canadians. Especially now, so the pandemic has accelerated quite a lot of those trends, it’s been a real catalyst and yes it did open the realm of the possible and it has exposed a lot of the vulnerabilities in our systems. But so while we think that the window of opportunity, that we’re having now, may seem broader. The time that we have to actually prepare for or to react to, the accelerating changes that frame our strategic landscape, has also been shortened.

So we need to get ready for a big change, significant change, it will permeate all aspects of our lives but we as public servants now have a role to play. We have a role to play in shaping the outcomes of that change for the Canadians of now and for all future generations.

To learn more about foresight and read our latest reports, please visit horizons.gc.ca.

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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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