Commentary: 'Challenge Network'

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  May 17, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- The British-led Challenge Network attracts thinkers about the future, companies geared to 2020-40 and former government leaders with future scenarios based on their experience of muddling through.

On the bridge of Challenge Network is Oliver Sparrow, a former head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell and a former director of Chatham House, Britain's most prestigious think tank. He put together a set of scenarios for the year 2040 and invited futuristic brains from around the world to react to them.

One of those asked to participate is Richard O'Neill, who heads the Highlands Forum, a one-time Pentagon think tank that has brought together a brain trust of some 500 out-of-the-box thinkers from all forms of human endeavor --from astronauts to spelunkers -- and from all sciences.

What the world needs urgently, says O'Neill, "is a number of new institutions and mechanism to cope with easily foreseeable difficulties." And the Challenge Network explains why this probably won't happen.

"Emergent economy middle classes will outnumber the entire industrial world population by several times" by 2025, "which will give rise to its own forms of friction." And "the primary impact will be on those least able to pay or least able to deploy technology."

"The quality of their lives," says the Network, "will be diminished by 2025, whatever the ostensible economic growth (and) the result is predictably fractious."

"The prospect for rapid solidarity among the Asian proletariat is augmented both by information technology and a tradition of solidarity," it explains, and this could have "momentous consequences (such) as the unionization of China that would then have major impacts on labor and politics in the West."

Those with "neither mass solidarity nor good prospects may look to other means -- the more focused and technologically-aware use of terror," says the Challenge Network document.

The Network has come up with three scenarios for 2040: Waking Up, Yesterday's Future and Neglect and Fracture. They explore "two key dimensions." At the "crudest level, the wealthy world must accept radical curbs on its accustomed behavior and the billions of poor aspirants must submit to a degree of external management and narrower horizons."

Their "negotiating strength, which their demographic and economic numbers imply, and the moral high ground that they occupy in negotiation, imply that the rich, powerful world has to cede the most."

Yesterday's Future is "a long twilight period in which 9 billion people learn to live together, doing so under more and more pervasive transnational control of the choices that are open to individual lives. People in the poor nations have few bright horizons, middle-income lives are bound up with restrictions on mobility, energy use; middle-income lives are bound up with restrictions on mobility, energy use; the rich world is preoccupied with maintaining stability around growing demand and static or costly resources."

The Yesterday's Future world is "of course dotted with locations and situations where negative forces have taken over … dominated by populist voices that deny the need for change and the right of others to impose their views."

If the protection of local interests prevails -- "natural status, commerce, employment" -- a large part of the world "will drift into the probably irresolvable world of N&F" -- "Neglect and Fracture."

This translates into a world "dominated by short-term accommodations, increasingly erratic supply costs and sharp economic discontinuities."

"The poor world is quickly and finally affected and, in some cases, this drift may turn into a catastrophic and rapid downturn for even richer and more established nations."

"A significantly N&F world," says the Network, "would skirt an aptly named archetype: Fearsome Chaos."

The Challenge Network says that Moore's law extrapolated "gives us a laptop with human level processing power in 2026 and the processing power of the entire human race in about 2030. It is not unlikely, therefore, that what we now see as cellphones and tablets will become aware of the owner's general situation and able to hold conversations and dispense advice."

And in 2040, the Network predicts, the world will have something "around 60 times as much deployable science as we have today" and "a commerce that is using tools as distinct from those of today as those of Victorian England."

On the optimistic side, sensors we are told "can now watch up to 7,000 genes turn on and off in real time." And next year, the ability to "sequence a human-sized genome for under $1,000."

There are undoubtedly countless millions -- 60 percent of the world's population is 20 or younger -- "whose life will be getting worse in coming years. Higher costs for the poor do not always mean higher wages."

"A generation in Africa and Central Asia," predicts the Network, "will be immersed in a culture of blame and hopelessness."

"Incoherent anger" is the key ingredient in "terror used as a tool by sophisticated and cynical quasi-criminal or would-be dictators."

The Challenge Network in one of its conclusions says this is a "frightening prospect … that may find considerable resonance in the disaffected of the industrial world."

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