The e-mail command popped up on screen. 'Tell us,' said the boss, 'what the future is likely to hold for Hong Kong in 2047, and make it forward-looking, will you? We don't want just a recap of past events.' So I decided to get it deliberately wrong and look back to 1947 instead. Well, why not? The boss needs someone to yell at, doesn't he? But there is a reason for starting in 1947. I want to imagine what I would say if I had been employed by this newspaper in 1947 and asked to make a forecast of what Hong Kong would be like in, for argument's sake, 1977. I think I would have looked around me and come to the conclusion that there really wasn't much future for the place. It was poor, people had deserted it throughout the war and even the Royal Navy hadn't much use for it any longer. Perhaps there was still some potential for China trade, but otherwise agriculture and fishing would have to do. Hong Kong and the Falklands - backwaters of the Empire, both. How wrong can you get? Now let's shift forwards to 1977 and I shall imagine myself with the same assignment. What will Hong Kong look like in 2007? I look around me and say, 'Well, I got it wrong last time, but it's pretty obvious where we're heading this time.' Then I would forecast that, in 30 years, Hong Kong would be the world's biggest noise in garment production, taking advantage of the closed mainland economy's inability to compete. The city would become to ship-owning what Greece had once been, and unemployment would stay low because of the vast demand for Hong Kong seamen. Look around you. The words 'spot on' hardly strike you as the most appropriate comment on that 1977 prediction, do they? Yes, wrong again - and not just a little wrong, but way off the mark. Here I am in 2007, trying to predict where Hong Kong will be in 2047. I'm pretty certain that looking around me, to see where we are, would be the wrong approach. Taking that approach, I would predict that in 40 years' time Hong Kong will be the world's biggest banking and finance centre; its entrepot economy will sit astride the crossroads of world trade with the mainland; and it will have established itself indubitably as Asia's World City [got the point, cut the poetry - Ed] - except for one thing. Everyone has left because of the air pollution. OK, let's do it a different way. Let's look at two cities that are ahead of us on a path we are treading - London and New York. They are still financial centres and will probably continue to have a stronger position in finance than we can ever hope to have. But they have lost their port business, lost their manufacturing business and become weaker in trading businesses. Yet they are clearly wealthy cities and becoming even wealthier. Banking and finance alone cannot have done this. Then what has done it? And there we have the difficulty: just how do you describe what people do when they put their brains to work rather than their muscles? What you get is a wide range of activities that don't always strike you as commercial, but which prove to be so in the aggregate. To some extent you can call it the arts, and both London and New York are very obviously centres of the arts in every way - music, theatre, literature, film, take your choice. But that is still not enough. You can also see these two as centres of applied sciences - engineering, architecture and the like. They are media and publication centres; they are research centres, education centres. They are many things and it is not always easy to pin down just what those things are, but you know that they all contribute because you can see the physical evidence in London and New York. I think Hong Kong in 40 years' time will be a centre of the creative arts in a way that we cannot now imagine. I think our film industry will revive; that this town will be the publication centre of Asia with an incontestable lead over other Asian cities; that it will be the first place Asian artists will want their paintings shown; and that even in music it will make a name for itself. This progression is simply natural. For creative achievement you need unfettered talent, not just unfettered in the creative arts but in the political and economic spheres as well. Hong Kong is well ahead of other Asian centres in this regard. Bangkok could be in contention because of the tolerance that characterises Thai society, but Bangkok is not wealthy enough, and prosperity is required. Tokyo might do, but only for Japanese society. Singapore? Hah! Tolerant, unfettered Singapore, yeah, right. I am fully aware that conceiving of Hong Kong as a centre of the creative arts in 2047 seems a long stretch. But think again of 1947: who would have thought that, 30 years on, this would be one of the world's biggest garment-making centres and a ship-owning centre as well? Who would have thought in 1977 that Hong Kong in 30 years' time would make an almost complete transition from a goods producing economy to a services economy grown wealthy on mainland trade and finance? The only way you could possibly have made those forecasts is by looking not at Hong Kong, but at what London and New York had done earlier. The parallels are admittedly not exact. But they are close enough to suggest that a creative arts centre is the next stage, and that Hong Kong is all the readier for it because we have those civil liberties that are so essential for the transition to it. Obviously, the creative arts alone will not sustain us in 2047. I imagine we will still have a strong presence in banking and finance. We have the rule of law and we have the experience in finance: both are necessary and not easily established. I don't think the regional competition will squeeze us out very much. I also think we will see Hong Kong further establish itself as a centre for publication, education and research. But I don't think it will be a shipping centre. In 2047, I expect that what is now the Kwai Chung container port will be a huge residential complex called LKS Estates (work it out yourself). The ships will go directly to mainland ports. And I don't think air pollution will be as serious as we may now expect. I think this problem will be recognised and addressed, both here and across the border. I place one caveat on these predictions, however. If in 2047 we have extensive government subsidies for the creative arts with the usual strings attached - because they always are - then this town will not be a creative arts centre. To be all that it can be, Hong Kong will need a government that keeps its distance. It always has done so in the past, but I am not quite so sure about the future. And that is so banal an ending for a discussion of the future that I shall just have to put a stop to it right now.