Welcome to the Future

Recent Forecasts from the World Future Society for 2006 and beyond

Bush inauguration
Some things never change

* Urban heating waves will get hotter and last longer. Large urban centers like Chicago and Paris will experience an average of 25% more heat waves a year in the twenty-first century compared with the twentieth, according to the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. And those heat waves will last, on average, nine days longer.

* Designer plants will be more salt tolerant, reducing strains on freshwater supplies. Agricultural researchers in the United States are studying a range of salt-tolerant, or halophytic, flowers. Commercial species of flowers that can grow in salty environments could reduce costs for the cut-flower industry, preserve freshwater for more critical uses, and improve the efficiency of nurseries and greenhouses. The new technology will be of particular benefit to plant cultivators in coastal regions who must continually contend with salt water seeping into freshwater sources.

* Cell phones for compost. Discarded cell phones are a growing environmental issue and problem, so researchers in the United Kingdom have developed phones with biodegradable materials. They even implanted a seed in the phone casing so that eventually flowers will bloom from the abandoned devices.

* Undoing humans’ damage to lakes could take a thousand years. Extensive fertilizer use in the past six decades has led to a buildup of phosphorus in soils that runs off into lakes and chokes off their oxygen. The damage, called eutrophication, is so extensive that it could take a millennium to repair. Proposed solutions include maintaining larger buffers between lakelands and agricultural land and restoring wetlands.

* Ocean-based energy is the wave of the future. Current and potential markets for offshore wind and tidal power will grow considerably in the next five years. Researchers have projected 5,800 megawatts of offshore renewable-energy capacity will be installed between 2004 and 2008, of which 99% will be in the form of offshore wind farms. Worldwide, the offshore wind market is expected to grow to $3 billion a year by 2008. -Anthony T. Jones and Adam Westwood,

* Pulling the plug on electric utilities. The rise of hydrogen technologies that give households and businesses more energy independence could send utilities scrambling. Energy may become a “cottage industry” as companies add an assortment of technologies to their portfolios, including solar, wind, wave, and biomass sources for powering their own hydrogen production.

* The clean-energy economy is coming. There is only about 40 years’ worth of oil left in the ground, so action is needed now to plan for a smooth transition to alternatives, notably hydrogen, according to industry analysts. A three-phase strategy for launching the world into the Hydrogen Age would include deploying all currently available energy technologies and expanding research, then expanding the hydrogen infrastructure beyond core cities, and then transforming entire societies into hydrogen consumers and providers. -Julian Gresser and James A. Cusumano, “Hydrogen and the New Energy Economy,” Mar-Apr 2005, p. 19

* Less supply, more demand for food will threaten the global economy. As the world economy continues expanding, future populations will demand a higher quality of food. But meeting that demand will be problematic, as farmers leave the profession for richer opportunities in cities and as climate warming impairs productivity of dwindling agricultural lands. -Lester R. Brown, “Pushing Beyond the Earth’s Limits,” May-June 2005, p. 18

* Power plants and greenhouses could double as desalination plants. As the demand for fresh water increases worldwide, desalination plants will need to dramatically improve their efficiency. Researchers have recently demonstrated a system that can process salt water into fresh using excess heat from electric power plants. In another system, seawater used to cool condensers in a greenhouse is then converted into freshwater. -World Trends & Forecasts, July-Aug 2005, p. 12

* Superconducting solution for meeting tomorrow’s energy demand. Global demand for energy will likely double in the next 50 years. One proposed solution for meeting this growing demand without destroying the environment in the process is to build a superconducting pipeline, or SuperGrid, that would transport electricity instead of petroleum. The key is the use of superconducting cables, which would be buried underground to provide more protection against weather-related blackouts. -World Trends & Forecasts, Sep-Oct 2005, p. 7

* Job boom foreseen in solar industries. The job outlook looks bright for solar industries, with some 42,000 new U.S. jobs by 2015. In the next decade, the U.S. solar industry could generate more than $34 billion in new manufacturing investments. Solar power could displace 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas by 2025, saving U.S. consumers approximately $64 billion. -Futurist Update, Mar 2005

* Mass migration will redistribute the world’s population. There are about 80 million international migrant workers in the world today, and the widespread movement of people from poor countries to richer ones is exacerbating social and economic problems in the host regions. Immigrant workers who perform poorly become a strain on social security systems, while those who do well often divert their financial resources back to their home countries, creating resentment among their new neighbors. -Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, “Trends Now Shaping the Future: Economic, Societal, and Environmental Trends,” Mar-Apr 2005, p. 29

* The classroom of the future will have no walls, no clocks, and no age segregation. More and more high-school students are leaving the classroom in favor of age-diverse workshops and seminars that focus on their specific interests. Additionally, the traditional 9-to-3 school day will fade as more students learn to take advantage of real-time technology and the availability of distance education to schedule their “class” sessions on their own terms. -John C. Lundi, “Learning for Ourselves: A New Paradigm for Education,” Nov-Dcc 2004, p. 22

* Instant messaging and e-mail will bring kids to the head of the class. Cell phones and personal digital assistants might be considered distractions to some teachers, but in one trial at Kansas State University, such devices helped some students become more actively engaged with teachers and classmates. In digitally enhanced classrooms, instructors will be able to give real-time quizzes and get instant feedback so they can adjust their lesson plans. -World Trends & Forecasts, July-Aug 2005, p. 9

* People will enjoy better sex, and do so for many more years. Researchers at Stanford University and corporations like Immersion are developing virtual-reality technologies that promise to radically augment our sex lives. Due to changing social attitudes, our discussions about sex will be more open, more tolerant, better informed, and less chauvinistic. Additionally, because medical technology will likely expand the average life span beyond the age of 95, the average person in the future will be sexually active for almost 80 years. -Eric Garland, “Reinventing Sex: New Technologies and Changing Attitudes,” Nov-Dec 2004, p. 42

* Osteoporosis epidemic ahead. By 2020, half of all Americans could be at risk for fractures due to osteoporosis or low bone mass. Researchers believe that far more people have the condition than are diagnosed with it. Bone diseases that impair physical movement often precipitate a health decline, and about 20% of senior citizens who suffer a hip fracture die within a year. Prevention includes a diet rich with calcium and vitamin D, 30 minutes a day of physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight. -World Trends & Forecasts, Mar-Apr 2005, p. 11

* Healthy bodies yield smarter brains. Kids who are more physically fit may perform better on academic tests than their more sedentary peers. Brain researchers have discovered that fitter children can process stimuli more quickly and make fewer errors on tests than less-fit kids, suggesting that physical activity could have a positive role in education. -World Trends & Forecasts, Mar-Apr 2005, p. 11

* Death by global warming. Climate changes alone could cause a 4.5% increase in the number of summer ozone-related deaths in the New York metropolitan area by 2050. -Futurist Update, Dec 2004

* Life expectancy in the U.S. could reverse due to the obesity epidemic. Predictions about Social Security’s tenuous future don’t consider the possible effects of rising obesity, now poised to begin reversing a long-term trend toward increased longevity in the United States. Life expectancy may shorten by two to five years by the middle of the century, and the dramatic rise in obesity is considered the primary culprit. -Futurist Update, Apr 2005

* Terrorist acts will become more frequent, more violent. The forces contributing to militancy in Muslim lands-overcrowding, underemployment, and resource scarcity-are becoming more severe. Because Western nations’ policies are often perceived as the underlying causes of these problems, countries such as the United States should expect to be the targets of more acts of terrorism for at least the next 20 years. -Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, “Trends Now Shaping the Future: Economic, Societal, and Environmental Trends,” Mar-Apr 2005, p. 33

* Frightened out of our privacy? Security may trump privacy in the age of terrorism. Fear of both terrorism and violent crime has contributed to growing acceptance of surveillance in public areas. In Britain, some 1.5 million surveillance cameras now monitor a wide range of public areas, including schools, office buildings, streets, and shops. -Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, “Trends Now Shaping the Future: Economic, Societal, and Environmental Trends,” Mar-Apr 2005, p. 37

* Smart surveillance cameras could thwart crime. Future surveillance cameras will not only catch a criminal, but also stop the culprit from committing a crime. Closed-circuit cameras equipped with expert-system image analysis will be able to recognize unusual activity, such as violent behavior or glass breaking. Then the smart cameras will call the police to investigate. -World Trends & Forecasts, May-June 2005, p. 10

* Lasers could soon be used to detect explosives safely, quickly, and inexpensively. A team of University of Florida researchers has developed a new device that detects TNT using photoluminescence spectroscopy-casting light on objects and measuring the wavelength of the light that returns. The technology could allow security professionals to identify explosives faster, more accurately, and at safer distances. -Tomorrow in Brief, Jan-Feb 2005, p. 2

* Security threats extend beyond cities. Future terrorist attacks may target rural areas and not just cities. Among the most plausible or devastating attacks identified by U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

* Blowing up chlorine tanks.

* Spreading disease in airports, sports venues, and train stations.

* Infecting livestock with diseases.

* Detonating a nuclear device in a major city.

* Releasing nerve gas in an office building.

* Bombing a sports arena.

-Futurist Update, Apr 2005

* Nanomedics will come to the aid of wounded soldiers. Researchers at MIT are developing nanobots as part of an Objective Force Warrior Program. These microscopic robots may one day be able to transport specific drugs directly to affected tissue to perform precision elimination of damaged cells. Nanobots could also broadcast timely information about a soldier’s health to medics miles away. -World Trends & Forecasts, Now-Dec 2004, p. 16

* Let there be light-emitting diodes. Energy-efficient sunlight-simulating LEDs will provide 90% of the world’s lighting by 2025. LEDs last 20 times as long as ordinary light bulbs. Because they use gallium nitride rather than expensive sapphire, they could cut in half the cost of lighting homes and offices. -Tomorrow in Brief, Mar-Apr 2005, p. 2

* Interactive reality TV will make you the star. The next generation of interactive video technology will blend the viewer’s image directly into the action on screen. A camera pointed at the viewer would take that image and superimpose it digitally into a video playing on television. Such technology could also improve training of doctors, athletes, soldiers, and others who could benefit from the realistic simulations. -Tomorrow in Brief, May-June 2005, p. 2

* Roll-up displays for TV, cell phones, pocket computers. Flexible electronic thin film could soon make it easy to roll up the TV or computer monitor and put it out of the way. Electronic paper using the thin-film display technology would also be used in signs that need to be changed quickly, such as in-store displays or traffic notices. -World Trends & Forecasts, May-June 2005, p. 9

* Fly us to the Moon. Lunar vacations may become a reality by the 2020s, creating all new industries and jobs. Public-sector thinking about space commercialization has traditionally focused on manufacturing, energy production, and the like, but private-sector development of space tourism is more likely to capture the public’s imagination, proponents believe. -World Trends & Forecasts, May-June 2005, p. 11

* Smarter, safer, cleaner transportation. Automobile designers will produce more-efficient vehicles, and by doing so will begin to reduce the demand for oil by 2008. Smart-car technologies will also begin reducing deaths due to automobile accidents in Europe by 2010, and in the United States slightly later. -Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, “Trends Now Shaping the Future: Technological, Workplace, Management, and Institutional Trends,” May-June 2005, p. 39

* Dining with nanotech. Among the possible uses for future nanotechnology will be to rearrange the atoms of materials in the waste stream into consumable products like milk. Countertop synthesizers could one day create meats and vegetables without killing animals or destroying habitats. Food would be synthesized with the correct vitamins and minerals, and even created already cooked. -J. Storrs Hall, “What’s Next for Nanotechnology,” July-Aug 2005, p. 29

* “Super Tech” scenario: Drugs, not exercise. Who needs a personal trainer when drugs can keep us fit? In a “Super Tech” scenario, pharmaceutical technologies could be so advanced by 2050 that humans may never need exercise again, suggest Joel Barker and Scott W. Erickson, authors of Five Regions of the Future. -“Racing Toward a Super-Tech Future?” Book Review, July-Aug 2005, p. 59

* Virtual mirror reveals your future self. What will your lifestyle choices today do to your looks in the future? A new simulation tool created by Accenture Technology’s laboratory in France produces a digital visualization of what junk food, excess alcohol, and lack of exercise will do to your looks. One goal of the “virtual mirror” is to reveal the future consequences of choices and behaviors that can be altered now. -Futurist Update, Mar 2005

* Ethical travelers may leave gentler footprints. International travel is on the rise, and the industry is now carving out an ethical niche for tourists who want to visit other places responsibly. Types of ethical tourism on the rise include ecotourism (visiting conservation sites), pro-poor tourism (engaging in experiences that benefit impoverished citizens of host sites), and responsible tourism (minimizing negative impacts on the local environment and culture). -World Trends & Forecasts, Sep-Oct 2005, p. 14

* In the future, we will have more control over our use of time. More-flexible work schedules and 24-hour services will allow people to customize their daily and weekly use of time, and technologies such as digital recorders will let people consume television when they want to and not according to broadcasters’ schedules. -John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, “Time in Our Hands,” Sep-Oct 2005, p. 22

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