With the passing of 2011, we wave goodbye to a season marked by deep economic uncertainty, violent summer riots, persistent questions about public institutions and a general belief that, surely, things can only get better.
But what challenges can we expect to face as a society in 2012? It’s been said that the only way to control the future is to shape it today.
As a social futurist, my interest in the future is not merely in its technological, economic or political dimensions. I’m interested in what they might mean for groups of people – in families, companies and communities of all kinds. Based on my study of the past couple of decades, combined with ongoing research into current emerging shifts in technology and culture, here are my predictive picks for the 12 biggest social shifts we might expect to see in 2012.
The list is not intended as an exhaustive one – there are a number of possibilities I’ve left out. But hopefully it will stimulate your thinking and, in the process, get you engaging the future before it happens.
Hyper-Tech & Refuseniks
2012 will see a growing role for professional ethicists in corporate and government strategic planning, as new developments in medicine, bio-tech, genetics and other sciences stretch traditional ethics paradigms to the limit. Ethics and values will come to the fore in boardrooms and planning meetings across all sectors of civic leadership and industry.
At the same time, we will see the gradual emergence of vocal and well organised groups of ‘technology refuseniks’, people who call for a moratorium, or at least a slower pace of change, within technological research and development – especially in the medical, bio-tech and genetics industries. Formerly disparate interest groups will come together around a concern that we may be concentrating more on means than ends, with technology moving faster than measures to protect the quality of human life and the environment.
We can expect to see more aggressive debates about the melding of human physiology with medical hardware and perhaps a rise in demonstrations against bio-tech and genetic R & D.
De-Gadgetisation & the Neo-Frugals
Related to concerns about hyper-tech generally, 2012 will see a drive to recalibrate our reliance on digital communications. Social networking services will continue to play an important role in introducing people to new acquaintances and in facilitating ongoing communication with existing friends. However, people will become more aware of the limitations of cyber-communication and will try to invest more in building face-to-face friendships.
New studies will emerge further showing the challenges posed by Absent Presence and Constant Partial Attention, which limit human ability to interact meaningfully in real-time environments. New psychological terms will be introduced to describe fresh symptoms of psychological or social disorder derived from a heavy reliance on gadgets.
While digital communications devices will continue to grow in sophistication and demand, we can expect to see the burgeoning growth of new genres of publishing and media products dealing with the discipline of digital behaviour. We will also see more general public discussion about the need for a less digital, more human-centric social order.
Meanwhile, education and employer groups will set out to better train young people in real-time communication skills. Linked to this will be a neo-frugalism movement, which will urge a simpler, less consumer-driven lifestyle with greater levels of physical human interaction. The new frugalism, while given fresh impetus by the ongoing economic strains, will be centred around a core commitment to promoting human relationships.
Employment - Skills Gaps & Time Starvation
Greater longevity of life through medical advance, combined with continuing low fertility rates will to lead to gradually widening skills-gaps within various industries. Older workers will move toward retirement taking valuable skills with them, particularly in specific manufacturing sectors. There will not always be enough time or finance to allow these skills to be replaced through automation or re-education. This will prove a challenge at a time when manufacturing once again needs to become a core part of the economy.
As result, we can expect to see employers’ organisations seeking more government support for apprenticeship and other training-at-work schemes and calling for radical reforms in education, to enhance practical skill levels. In some sectors, companies may fund apprenticeships with support from private investors only.
Meanwhile, increasing levels of remote working and flexi-hours, driven by economic necessity for both businesses and employees and the possibilities of constant Web 3.0 connectedness, will bring a rise in ‘time starvation’. People will find it increasingly difficult to leave their work behind at the end of the day. International studies already reveal a growing challenge in this area.
Some corporate groups, recognising the detrimental effect this has on workers, will institute new work rules and training schemes to help people switch off after hours. Some bosses will insist on digital-free zones in the workplace, where the emphasis is on ‘eyeball time’ and face-to-face interaction. They will see this as a cost-effective way of improving productivity.
Generations: Expectation Gaps & New Opportunities
2012 will see the beginnings of strong social influence for the so-called Millennial generation, especially those aged between 16 and 30 years. Tension points will emerge as this digital-thinking generation merges with an analogue world.
A more vocal and organised activism will emerge within this highly collaborative generation in an attempt to engage political decision-making and solve problems such as the ‘expectation gap’. Having been raised to believe that they will inherit a high quality of personal and professional life, in a world where opportunities abound and their talents are in demand, Millennials will increasingly find these aspirations are not met.
For some, this will be further exacerbated by the cost of higher education and ‘pension pain’, the knowledge that they will be responsible for the pensions and healthcare of a huge number of Boomers and Generation Xers within the next decade or so. A wider debate about pensions and the need for self-reliance as opposed to reliance on the State, will emerge.
For some Millennials, a growing sense of frustration will lead to burn-out, with attendant mental and physical health issues. For others – perhaps the vast majority – a natural generational optimism – a product of relatively high levels of parental nurturing – will push them toward mass collaboration and the invention of new industries, particularly in areas of technology and the creative arts and crafts.
We should expect to see the emergence of well-organised lobby groups calling for radical change on economic, education and housing issues relating to the young. We may also see strikes, demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience that run along generational rather than merely industrial lines. The Millennial generation will also become much more vocal via the traditional press and media, knowing that their case cannot be carried via web-based services alone.
Housing-Haves vs. Housing-Have-Nots
In 2012, a more strident debate will begin to emerge about the shortage of housing stock in both the buyers’ and rental markets - and the growing wealth gap between those who own homes and those who cannot get a start on the housing ladder.
Groups of would-be home-owners will form new co-operatives to highlight the problems associated with buying a house and to pressure governments and banks. At the same time, calls will emerge for a greater involvement of professional town planners in local development schemes, to ensure a better built environment and the smarter use of space. Governments will also face pressure to better regulate developers, to ensure higher quality builds and to prevent housing stock from remaining empty for long periods of time – for example, where owners reside in other parts of the country or abroad and use housing only for brief visits.
We should also expect to hear strong demands for major changes to renting laws, giving more rights to tenants and providing for more rent-to-buy arrangements and strata titles.The gap between the housing-haves and the housing-have-nots has the potential to become one of the major tension points in this country.
Urban Expansion & Public Works
Public services will come under significant strain in 2012, not only because of the economic situation, but due to the growth of urban populations, especially in regional areas. In this regard, the UK will reflect a global trend. By 2030, more than five billion people will live in cities worldwide. Even today, 100 cities provide an estimated 30 percent of the world’s economic output and 90 percent of its innovation. In time, cities will take on some of the role traditionally played by nation states, with regional transnational alliances playing a more central role in setting overall economic and social policy.
In the year ahead, in spite of financial constraints, we should expect to hear fresh demands from business and citizens’ groups for forward-thinking public works programmes, to provide the infrastructure for future urban needs. Politicians will come under pressure to demonstrate that they are future-minded, having clear strategies to enhance employment, travel, housing, public services and quality of life in the light of population growth.
Plans for a new airport for London will be just the first in many high-profile schemes presented as options for future development in various cities, large and small.
Cohesion & Tribalism
Next year will likely bring a widening in social gaps in terms of wealth distribution and access to education, full-time employment and cutting-edge technology. British society is already experiencing its widest wealth gap in more than 40 years. Today, widespread use of global communications, together with levels of world travel that remain high despite economic hardship, mean that people are made more aware of the disparities than in the past.
As globalism increases, so too do will tribalism of one form or another. As barriers fall to trade and cultural exchange and diversity increases, people naturally try to find others who share their values and background. Online social networking will continue to allow benevolent forms of tribalism to grow, bringing some benefits in terms of cultural identity – especially where online contact is an adjunct to physical interaction.
However, new expressions of negative tribalism will emerge in some communities as alliances form around a sense of marginalisation, frustration and, in some cases, entitlement. Access to housing may start to match unemployment as the major trigger point for unrest in poorer areas. Police and other services may be stretched as they deal with confrontational aspects of this new tribalism. Yet the public will continue to demand swift and adequate action to quell disorder. There will be continued public calls to update the court system as it deals with crimes related to feelings of social exclusion.
A strong, stoic form of British optimism will find expression in many parts of society throughout 2012 and there will be a greater trend toward self-reliance. However, insecurities regarding the economic landscape, combined with the generally rapid speed of change in technology, social structures and environmental issues will lead to a rise in anxiety and other forms of psychological distress.
In 2012, there will be strident calls from mental health groups for greater investment, from public and private sectors, in making counselling and therapy more readily available to all sections of society. According to two of Europe’s foremost mental health groups, as many as 38 percent of Europeans suffer from some form of mental illness. I suspect that their definition of illness is a wide-ranging one, but other reports have suggested that as many as 25 percent of Britons may already suffer from some kind of irrational fear. In the US, depression is costing companies $31-$40 billion in lost production each year.
British governments, regional and national, will need to provide more mental health care under the NHS, including education on what mental health means. Government will also need to provide support for transition counselling for those who lose their jobs and need help in reinventing their personal stories.
Some corporate groups will set up mental health units of their own, to provide at least low level counselling for stressed workers (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy). Other such units will be underwritten by business collectives and housed in industrial estates.
As 2012 opens up new possibilities for perceived breakdowns in public order and social structures, a growing discussion will emerge about the need to protect and promote family life. The particular challenges facing young adults will add to the sense that answers are not found merely in state intervention, but often in the home.
The benefits to children of stable and long-lasting family relationships are well documented in international studies. These will be increasingly highlighted by groups who are concerned about what they see as the postmodern ‘redefining’, or weakening, of the family unit. Meanwhile, other groups will increasingly call for a widening of the very meaning of ‘family’, to include a range of non-traditional relational possibilities. The debate will focus on issues of child welfare and adult rights.
We can expect to see the emergence of politically-savvy alliances between ‘neo-traditionalist’ parenting and child welfare groups across cultural, political and religious lines. These will proactively lobby government and media for a rethink, or at least a wider debate, on family and marriage issues.
Leadership & Public Trust
Aspects of the great British house-cleaning of 2011 will continue into 2012. Major public institutions will continue to be placed under the microscope over the ethics and accountability of their leadership.
People will require a more altruistic, values-driven and transparent version of public leadership to replace the pragmatic, grow-the-bottom-line approach of the last decade. Leaders of public institutions, as well as major corporate and civic bodies, will be required to be visionary – able to provide a positive context for change – and highly visible in tough times. Because of economic pressures and the instantaneous nature of digital communications, leaders will be required to take more personal responsibility for mistakes made under their watch.
In business, a new entrepreneurialism will emerge even within well established industries. Managers will be required to take initiative, relying less on established procedures and benchmarks and more on proactively finding out-of-the-box solutions. Management of present resources, whilst important, will not be enough; leaders will be expected to get ahead of the change curve, creating an environment in which their people have confidence to invent and innovate for future success.
We can expect to see educational institutions, the courts and organs of local and regional government being held to account by a much more engaged and proactive public. Debates about the proper roles of the media and press will continue. These will centre not only on the way news is gathered and the relationships between news-tellers and news-makers, but the role of media in shaping of the national mood in difficult times.
Innovation vs. Information
The continued explosion of data in the post-digital age will mean that the value of our contribution will not be judged according to how much we know, but how much we are able to innovate with what we know.
A new drive for innovation will emerge in 2012, within business (large and small), government, education and local community organisations. Driven by the need to solve problems with fewer financial resources, entrepreneurs will emerge with new approaches to seemingly intractable problems in every sphere of activity from manufacturing to medical technology.
Rapidly turning ideas into concrete realities will be greatly enhanced by new platforms for online collaboration, particularly by a more ubiquitous use of cloud-based personal computing. It will also be helped by ‘crowd funding’ – online venture capitalism which allows relatively large amounts of money to be raise by many small donors on the internet.
Governments, national and regional, will need to invest more time in encouraging, facilitating and supporting cultures of innovation. For example, local governments will need to pull together diverse business and community interests to brainstorm strategies for building clusters around certain industries – e.g. in renewable energy and technology sectors.
We can expect to hear much more discussion in the public square about the need for innovation and a greater political debate about generating funds for innovative solutions. Employers and parents will also push schools to teach problem-solving methods and skills and develop innovation in students.
Debates about potential invasions of privacy will continue, both in relation to public figures and private individuals. Debates about celebrities and the public’s right to know will continue, though little of any consequence may come from them. When it comes to the privacy of everyday people, however, discussion will centre on the increasing role of social networking and mobile phone services in providing data-mining opportunities for marketing companies. Lifestyle logging is set to become big business, allowing consumers to have products pitched at them via their phones, based on their established interests and current location. There will be strong public pressure to see that opt-out clauses for these services are clear and that they are respected.
Meanwhile, ID-theft will be made much easier by much more widespread use of wave-and-pay and other RFID-driven technologies. Well-organised and more vocal streams will form within Facebook and similar communities, calling for much tighter controls over how private information is utilised and stored. In the workplace, employees will seek greater levels of disclosure about how company’s monitor emails, social networking services and even keystrokes.
The only thing that is certain about the future is, of course, its uncertainty. The best we can do is draw upon past experience and currently emerging shifts to make educated guesses about what tomorrow may bring.
Every New Year is malleable and brings with it an eclectic bundle of challenges and brilliant opportunities. The future we collectively draw out of those raw materials will not primarily be a product of economics or technology. It will be the result of human choices, of deliberate actions and reactions to events.
By taking a proactive stance toward 2012 and committing to an optimistic outlook – one where realism is tempered with a dash of idealism – we can make choices, individually and collectively, that will call forth what Abraham Lincoln called our ‘better angels’. We, as conscientious people, have the opportunity to shape 2012 more than it will shape us.