“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
— Albert Einstein, 1932
The pages of history are peppered with inaccurate predictions. Forecasting is a difficult trade, and pundits claiming to make accurate predictions about the future of society, the economy or political trends should be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is because changes in these areas are underpinned by numerous, complex, non-linear and sometimes unknown mechanisms.
Future “societal” trends, ranging from the future of the labour market to the evolving relationship between citizens and the state, are shrouded in uncertainty, which makes it difficult to develop robust, sensible predictions. For instance, the future status of the labour market hinges on factors such as technological change and advances in management science that have yet to occur.
RAND Europe's approach to mapping a changing world
RAND Europe was recently commissioned to conduct a study documenting the trends that will influence European society in the next two decades. The scope of the work encompassed several themes: the demographic structure of the global population; the rise of a global middle class; individual empowerment (notably through increased connectedness); the changing face of the labour market; and the impact of migration and its changing patterns.
We focused on uncovering the evidence base for 33 major societal trends that had been widely documented, discussed and analysed. Each of these was assessed and classified using a matrix approach focusing on the level of evidence available, and the degree of uncertainty concerning the trend. These two dimensions were selected to obtain a clearer view of plausible major trends, in the face of speculation being formulated in certain foresight exercises and in popular media.
This approach to each trend enables policymakers to get a better sense of which trends to prioritise (i.e. those that are certain to materialise with some impact in the short-to-medium term, as indicated by the evidence). This partly counterbalances the levels of complexity and uncertainty that tend to reduce the ability of policymakers to anticipate changes to the strategic landscape.
To find and assess the evidence, the team conducted a review of more than 1,000 sources available in the literature, followed by data analysis across the themes studied. In a second phase, a Delphi exercise was conducted with over 200 experts from around the globe, as well as interviews, to help delineate the policy impacts of the trends uncovered. We visualised the different levels of uncertainty (i.e. how likely is it that life expectancy in the EU-28 will reach 85 years for men in 2030, or that people's “online” and “offline” identities will merge thanks to developments in communications technologies? What conditions are required for these trends to unfold?) and levels of evidence available to support a given trend.
Policy responses to a changing landscape
During a conference (PDF) in February, the European Commission's President Jose Manuel Barroso stated that “unpredictability cannot be avoided. But unfortunate political choices — or lack of proper political anticipation due to insufficient or poorly understood information — can and should be avoided.” He used this opportunity to call for foresight so that policymakers can benefit from “sufficient and well-informed policy options that allow them to make clear, strategic decisions or proposals for the longer term.” Our research has shown that among all the trends we have discussed, some appear far less uncertain than others.
Results from the analysis, which formed part of the European Union's European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), point to a series of 11 salient future policy challenges. These include the potential for inequality to increase as current and new vulnerable groups develop, and an expanding global middle class consumes scarce resources. In addition, changes to welfare provision are likely to materialise in European states, owing to population ageing and the impact of new technologies on individuals. The 11 policy challenges for the next EU institutional cycle (2014–2019) were classified in our final report under three headings: investing in citizens; developing a new growth paradigm, and reinventing government.
Preparing for these less uncertain challenges could help the EU better face future disruptions, no matter how or why they materialise in the future. In turn, this experience can contribute to the EU's need to anticipate high uncertainty by developing flexible strategies and monitoring major trends, therefore building up its resilience to external shocks. Governments are often advised in uncertain times to develop robust policies which perform well under different circumstances, and to incorporate resilient policies with the capacity to adapt to changing landscapes into their thinking. But framing recommendations in this way may not always be helpful to governments, which need to know what path is indicated. The policy options in the RAND Europe report are therefore presented in a new way: as a means of tackling future uncertainty by developing responses to the major challenges which are most likely to materialise.
Benoît Guérin and Daniel Schweppenstedde are policy researchers at RAND Europe. They are among the co-authors of the report Europe's Societal Challenges, commissioned jointly by the European Commission, Parliament, Council and the External Action Service. The work contributed to the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) set up to develop a lasting framework to assess global trends and to develop policy responses across EU institutions over the next institutional cycle (2014–2019).
This commentary originally appeared on The RAND Blog on March 10, 2014.