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Preparing for the Brave New World of 2050 (1)

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Obadiah Mailafia

When Albert Einstein was 16, he was precocious enough to ask himself a simple question: “What would the world look like if I rode on a beam of light?” At that time, he himself did not know he was a genius. All the schoolmasters had, in fact, written him off; including his own parents. That big question he posed himself, as it turns out, became the biggest scientific puzzle of the century. It set him on the path of discovering Relativity Theory and his famous E = MC2 equation.
Last week we wrote about Nigeria’s 2050 Agenda and its prospects. Today, we peer into the future and try to imagine the world as it will be in 30 years down the road. That kind of futuristic thinking is important if we are to do the right kind of planning and the right kind of policy choices that will enable us to succeed as a country in the coming decades.
There is an entire discipline known as Futurology or Futures Studies. Futurologists are experts who spend their entire lives thinking about the future. Using the tools of social science, long-term perspective paradigms, mathematical modelling and other tools to peer into the future. Some of the most notable futurologists include British physicist and inventor Arthur Clarke, the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal, American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, sociologist Daniel Bell, computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky, historian H. G. Wells, the physicist and nuclear strategist Hermann Kahn, scientist and inventor Nicholas Tesla and the Muslim polymath Ziauddin Sardar.
We define global megatrends as long-term ubiquitous, structural and often irreversible transformations that shape economies and societies. This also means that public policies that normally operate within short-term horizons need to be designed in terms of more long-term, systems-based approaches. There are several key megatrends that we would be considering in this column. Because of space, we shall consider a few today and finalise with others in the coming week.
One of the great megatrends leading up to 2050 is population.  World population attained the seven billion mark in 2010. Today, it stands at 7.6 billion. By 2050, it is projected to rise to 9.8 billion. For the advanced industrial economies, the trend will be that of demographic decline. By 2050 the number of people older than 65 is set to double to about one billion. While today, the population of those aged 65 and above is eight per cent of the global population, that figure will increase to 13 per cent in the coming decade.
Today, 90 per cent of the youth population resides in developing countries. This has profound implications for employment-generation strategies in both rich and poor countries. For the countries with dwindling demographics, public pension systems will come increasingly under pressure while public healthcare spending is bound to increase. For countries with youth bulges such as those of Africa, policies will have to be adopted to accelerate human capital development and for strategies to boost industrial development and jobs.
In 2010, the world’s middle-class population stood at 27 per cent. By 2050, it is forecast to reach the 65 per cent mark. Of this, 80 per cent will reside in the developing countries, with all the implications for global business and world markets. These changing demographics will mean a considerable boost in global aggregate demand and significant expansion in wealth and economic opportunities. Ironically, expanding opportunities will also mean rising inequalities and deepening poverty in those pockets of the world where diminishing expectations are structurally embedded in path-dependent economic systems.
For Nigeria, in particular, our population is set to dramatically increase from the current 206 million to some 263 million in 2030. We are projected to become the third most populous nation in the world, behind India and China, with a population of 410 million people by 2050.
Another megatrend is urbanisation. In 1950, some 30 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban cities. According to some forecasts, some 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. In the case of developing countries such as those of Africa, rapid urbanisation is the norm, but by 2050, urban dwellers are likely to constitute 50 per cent, up from the current 30 per cent. In the advanced industrial nations, the trend is likely to exceed 70 per cent.
A remarkable trend in the current urbanisation process is the phenomenon of megacities, defined as cities with more than 10 million people.  We might also see what are known as gigacities, i.e. super cities exceeding 50 million dwellers. For example, China is planning to connect five cities into a massive urban conurbation, such that Greater Shanghai could exceed 170 million.
Megacities are vortices for business, money and capital. They will have a capacity to wield economic power well beyond their national frontiers. Several of those cities have a GDP higher than many countries. New York’s economy stands above US$1.5tn while that of London is US$845bn. Lagos is projected to become a megacity of 32.6 million, with a GDP higher than that of many African countries.
Urbanisation will push demand for greater infrastructure, housing and public social facilities such as education, health and public transport. The challenges of pollution, floods and other urban problems will also intensify. Governments will have to design urban management solutions that will enable the new megacities to flourish; otherwise, they will be dens of iniquity and strife, with all the implications for governance, security and social stability.
We will also witness the phenomenon “smart cities” that are innovative and creative. Drones will be widely used. Waste disposal networks by way of tubes will carry wastes from building to building into recycling plants for production of biogas. Driverless cars and buses will gain increasing acceptability while maglev subways will become one of the popular means of transport.  But there will be substantial differences in the demographic mix of the megacities. In Asia, the population of over 60 will outnumber the young while in Africa, it will be the opposite.
By 2050, the global information revolution would have reached its mature stage. The so-called “digital divide” would have been reduced.  Rudimentary technologies of today — robotics, nanotechnology and sustainable energy systems would have made quantum advances. Intercontinental maglev trains traversing oceans should be possible. Supersonic flights will be back after the disappearance of the French Concorde. Electric cars would be the norm while hydrocarbon fuelled vehicles may be consigned to museums. The Age of Big Data would reign supreme, including use of blockchain in business, finance and public communications. Unless governmental authorities take measures to curtail it, electronic money will threaten the survival of some national currencies.
The technologies of the future will shape transport, communication and energy systems. Manufacturing will also be greatly influenced by artificial intelligence and robotics, with all the implications for labour and employment. Increasing sophistication in financial technology will increase risks for cybersecurity particularly in the banking and investment world. There will be further advances in biotechnology by way of manipulation of DNA to produce new organisms. There will also be production of artificial tissue and advanced nanotechnology for surgery and remote monitoring of patients.
Governments that care about their people will accelerate policies to manage the demands and expectations of mass publics. More vigilance will have to be paid to cyber-security to ensure that banking systems are safe and technology-based digital money transfers are secure. Just as new jobs will emerge in technology and communications, many more will be lost. Governments must therefore invest in human capital and skills while updating the technical competencies of young people to ensure that they are well placed to enjoy gainful employment in the emerging new industries.

Source: The Punch

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