Shape of things to come

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2008, 12:00am

Paralympic events, such as those now being staged, will be a thing of the past by the middle of this century, predicts Ian Goldin, director of the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford. 'Those issues will have been solved through medical miracles, certainly for younger people,' he said.

The 'miracles' include the ability to regrow nerve fibres so that people regain control over their limbs, to clone organs, and to genetically identify and eliminate diseases that lead to physical disabilities.

'These things are not science fiction,' Dr Goldin said during a visit to Hong Kong. 'These things are in development. It's a question of when, not if, they will come to the market. Crucially, it's also a question of for whom? Will they be available for the whole of society or only for the super rich or the richest countries?'

Such questions peppered his presentation to a seminar last Saturday organised by the Hong Kong Foresight Project, a new group that aims to encourage new thinking and public policy development.

Researchers at Dr Goldin's school believe there is already someone alive today who will live to be 150. He said the key question was what would the quality of life be for people who lived well beyond 100. Even if they are still sharp and fit - his school is working on new approaches to dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's - what are the implications for society?

He predicts that, by 2030, there will be only two workers for every pensioner in wealthy countries and that the retirement age will be abolished. 'Young people had better not rely on pensions would be my advice,' said the South African-born economist. 'And don't expect to inherit your parents' house when you're 40. You might inherit it when you're 80. And don't expect to get your boss' job when you're 30 because they won't leave their job until they're 75.'

Dr Goldin, a former World Bank vice-president and adviser to former South African president Nelson Mandela, expects the dynamics around housing markets, public finances, health systems and pension plans to change fundamentally.

His school's 85 full-time staff work in 15 institutes on areas of research selected for their global relevance and scale, such as ageing, environmental change, emerging infections and international migration.

Dr Goldin describes the school's interdisciplinary approach as 'revolutionary' and 'unique', as well as practical in terms of having an impact on public policy, business and society.

He highlighted ethical issues that will accompany future technology breakthroughs such as boosting IQ and concentration by 10 per cent and enhancing all parts of the human body. Will it be just the wealthy who benefit? It appears so, at least in the short term. Then there is the possibility of creating computers that are smarter than humans; another 'when' not 'if' scenario, according to Dr Goldin. He also has concerns over using microscopic machines - about one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair - and which may be toxic if used in medicine.

'We need to understand it [nanomedicine] and the potential regulatory implications before we start using it too widely,' said Dr Goldin, whose school has a programme specifically dedicated to the ethics of the new biosciences.

The 21st Century School, founded in 2005 with a US$100 million endowment from computer scientist, social entrepreneur, author and futurologist James Martin, is a fount of intriguing data.

Dr Goldin is in his element talking about futuristic subjects such as the brain power equivalent of computers and animals. 'Currently, for US$1,000, you can get about the computing power of a lizard,' said Dr Goldin. 'But you will, in about 10 years' time, have a mouse and probably, in about 25 years' time, a human brain, although this is a controversial subject.'

Such is the exponential growth in computing power that Dr Goldin noted: 'My Blackberry has more power than the first Apollo space craft, for a tiny fraction of the cost.'

Ardent about globalisation and development, on which he has written extensively, Dr Goldin cited income and longevity improvements over a long period to illustrate that 'everyone is moving up very rapidly to a better situation'.

The exception is the world's 'bottom billion' who, he said, were stuck because of 'too little rather than too much' globalisation.

Life expectancy, he said, was increasing globally at the rate of about three months per year, illiteracy had halved from about 50 per cent in 1970 to about 25 per cent now, and the number of absolute poor, living on less than US$1 a day, had dropped from 1.3 billion in 1970 to 860 million - despite an increase of more than 2 billion in the world's population in that time.

Dr Goldin, who last week was discussing collaboration with leading universities in Beijing, regards China as the major source of this explosive growth. It is 'absolutely central' to both future global trends and to finding solutions to the challenges that arise, he said.

Before leaving the World Bank in 2006, he forecast 'basically stable' growth patterns to 2030, though he still sounds a cautionary note.

'Can exponential growth keep on increasing? Can there just be a continuation of the good news? Or, is something very different going to happen?' he asked. Like many, Dr Goldin worries about supranational threats from climate change, pandemics - a subject on which he sees scope for closer collaboration with Hong Kong's 'terrific group' - and bio-terror caused by individuals bent on causing large-scale destruction.

In particular, he is concerned that the world's governing institutions and risk-management systems, which were mostly established 60 years ago in response to crises and disasters of that time, are not up to this century's challenges. 'I would argue that the biggest risk facing the world is not that we don't understand the technologies or the hazards but that we don't have a global management system in place which is capable of responding - not after the event, but before the event.'

Dr Goldin said his school was trying to raise awareness and spark policy discussion.

This has been a bumper year for visits by celebrated 'thought leaders' on the world's future. Among them have been pioneering environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell, who also directs the policy foresight programme at the 21st Century School, best-selling futurist Wolfgang Grulke and British management innovation guru Charles Leadbeater.

The latter two were invited to address the government Efficiency Unit's biennial Public Sector Reform Conference in March.

'We thought all civil servants should have a sip of that futurist thinking to reinvigorate their day-to-day management, to bring them out of their day-to-day chores so that they can reflect not upon the past but really think into the future,' said unit head Kitty Choi Kit-yu.

She noted that Mr Grulke spent a Saturday morning 'locked up' with Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his leadership team. 'It shows the importance our government attaches to using the future to drive change in Hong Kong,' said Ms Choi, whose unit's job is to equip the civil service, especially senior management, with knowledge about world trends and new thinking.

Ms Choi said that futurists helped to frame issues in new ways that encouraged new thinking. 'We have been living in a world of legacy. We have inherited what our predecessors have been doing and their way of doing things. We need not just to do things right but always to ask ourselves whether we're doing the right things.'