The two big uncertainties shaping our future

United Nations University Uncertainty

The Empire State Building (United Nations University, 2012 from Tony Fischer, 2007)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Olivier Woeffray, Project Lead, Knowledge Networks and Analysis, World Economic Forum Geneva

When we think about the future, most of us try to predict it by extrapolating from a wide range of assumptions that we make about today. But most predictions tend to be wrong, from the automobile being written off as a “fad” in 1903 to a 1977 article querying why anyone would want a computer in their home.

A context of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity only exacerbates the likelihood of error.

We propose a different way to explore the future, using the concept of critical uncertainty. This allows us to consider a few plausible futures and become more resilient to the challenges they hold. It reduces the risk of blind spots and unwelcome surprises. It can also help us identify ways in which we can proactively shaping the future.

We have aggregated the results of a call to identify critical uncertainties. We analysed more than 90 answers and articles shared by members of our network of experts, using text-based software. Several patterns and commonalities were identified. The two most significant ideas are explored below.

Scale, scope and type of AI adoption

AI remains an underdeveloped scientific capability, owned by several large companies. There is uncertainty as to how far AI might permeate society, as well as around who will own the capability, according to Mark Esposito, Fellow at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Current debates around AI typically focus on how it empowers large organizations, while displacing a large number of workers from their jobs, highlights David Li, Founder of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab. However, these debates often overlook the potential of AI to empower smaller groups or disruptors that are yet to emerge.

As machines become smarter than us, they are taking over jobs and tasks historically done by humans. We rely on them more and more to make decisions. Whether or not we will trust them remains unclear, writes Vyacheslav Polonski, Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The uncertainty around AI also reflects the emergence of China as a leader in the field. China had four times as many AI-related patents in 2017 as the US, according to the Startup Genome Report 2018. Others have pointed out the importance of the ecosystems that emerge around AI. These can be very different, depending on context, and may have their own sets of diverging applications and implications.

Reallocation of power and the ability to collaborate

After the Second World War, we moved from being ‘subjects’ to ‘consumers’. Now we seem to be moving from ‘consumers’ to ‘citizens’. People are taking a much more active role in shaping society. Key to this is healthy public debate, and the extent to which citizens’ voices are heard and taken into account by organizations shaping the development and use of technologies, says Hilary Sutcliffe, Director at Society Inside.

The structures and institutions that have traditionally allowed each of us a voice also face increased uncertainty. The efficacy of democracy is being questioned. Increasing numbers of people, particularly youth, have lost faith in democratic systems and structures, says Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director at the Science Gallery International. Seventy-two per cent of Americans born before the Second World War state that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, while only 30% of millennials do. This pattern is found across all long-standing democracies, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand (Foa and Mounk 2017). There is an urgent need for the reform and evolution of democratic systems. Whether or not we will succeed, or create alternative systems, remains to be seen.

More generally regarding the role of the citizen, one principal uncertainty is whether or not we will be able to work collectively towards greater sustainability. This includes developing a common vision that can be embraced by different sectors of society and geographies across the world. It is unclear whether or not SDGs represent this vision, says David Bray, Executive Director of People-Centered Internet.

So what?

Which different directions could these critical uncertainties take? What could be the implications for individuals, organizations, regions and the world? Exploring and discussing these alternative pathways will not only make us more prepared and resilient, it will offer opportunities to shape these developments towards the future we want.

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