For something as unknown as the future, it appears to have become surprisingly predictable. A Google search of ‘future 2030’ yields more than 97 million results, all more or less claiming similar things: that 2030 will see a more connected, yet fragmented world, with hazardous shifts in demography and energy, and dangerous changes in technology, environment, and politics.
The future, while overall negative, appears to be a rather certain place.
This illusion of definitiveness is created by two dynamics: first, the pessimistic tone that runs through the vast majority of foresight reports. This is a common feature when it comes to future thinking, with one study showing that all studies undertaken on the future over the last 70 years have one thing in common: pessimism.1 The reason for this is simple: although both optimism and pessimism are natural human dispositions, the latter is more prevalent by far. Humans are, genetically speaking, biased towards the negative – some studies even indicate that this is particularly the case for Europeans.2 Second, pessimism in foresight is encouraged by the grave air that surrounds it: in general, negative statements are given more attention than positive ones. That said, more pessimism in foresight does not equal greater accuracy, as one study shows.3 In addition, it is precisely the seriousness and inevitability that often accompanies pessimism that is dangerous in foresight: taken together, they can easily promote paralysis and fear rather than action – the exact opposite of what foresight seeks to achieve.
Why is this so? Paradoxically, the more catastrophic the news, the less likely humans are to act – a phenomenon known as the Cassandra Curse. For instance, showing images of patients dying of cancer has not stopped people from smoking or tanning. The reason for this is that the change required to address the challenge is so fundamental that humans are paralysed when confronted with the task.4 The abstractness of forecast facilitates this further: a number or phenomenon often does not lay out graphically what this means in detail for the individual reader – but humans act mainly when they understand (indeed, can imagine) what a certain development means precisely for them.
In this sense, successful foresight is not one which terrifies: it is one which promotes action. After all, foresight is not, as is sometimes claimed, the art of predicting the future (and being consistently wrong about it, some say). Prediction, like pessimism, is deterministic and static. Instead, foresight is an intellectual exercise where we imagine different alternatives of the future – and tracing how we end up there. This is because whenever humans ponder the question of the future, they do so not merely to predict it, but, more importantly, to shape it. Indeed, the future is not just an idea of an upcoming state of the world – it always includes a method through which this idea can come about.5 Therefore, foresight is to the future what memory is to the past: an organising yet selective principle creating order in complexity. Just as memories, the future is therefore a discussion space where meaning is created, not an (un)predictable set of events.6 Consequently, foresight is never about one future, but about different possible futures.
Foresight is much more about shaping the future than predicting it.
The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) was created precisely for this purpose: it provides a uniquely (but not exclusively) European space to identify and analyse the key trends and challenges, and the resulting policy choices, which are likely to confront Europe and the world in the years ahead. Similarly to its predecessors, this report is the outcome of a year-long consultation and review process identifying and discussing trends and options, involving representatives from the European Parliament’s Research Service, the European Commission, the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, the European External Action Service, the European Economic and Social Committee, the European Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank, as well as the European Union Institute for Security Studies, think tankers, academics and experts.7 It builds upon a vast array of reports and studies produced by the European institutions and third parties such as international organisations and research institutes.8 It is, in that sense, a European discussion space where not only 2030 is imagined, but also the different roads which can lead us there – and what can be done to influence their trajectory.
In addition to providing a concise overview of what we already know, this report also seeks to inject new elements into the discussion. What are the dynamics we are missing? Are there ways to think differently about the forecasts we are ‘certain’ about? Are there interlinkages and knock-on effects that we could explore further? What different futures can we imagine within the framework of what we know – and do not know? And most importantly, what does it all mean for Europe?9 With this in mind, this report seeks to be as tangible and concrete as possible for European decision-makers, so that they do not lose sight of policy priorities during their day-to-day work.
Rather than predictability, we seek surprise to challenge our thinking; rather than ending in paralysis, we look for actionable possibilities; rather than pessimism, we write this in the spirit of constructive optimism about what we can and want to change – in Europe and the world.
It is important to note that this report does not aim to be globally comprehensive: not every trend the world will see by 2030 will be captured here. Instead, we focus on those global trends that matter most to Europe. This means that this is not a report on global trends generally, and it is not a report on European trends: it is an analysis of what global developments affect us, to what extent, and what we can do to shape them.
To do this, we need to create order in the seeming infinity that is the future by essentially using two tools: the present-day, and creative logic. After all, tomorrow will be a consequence of today, so clues as to what it will be like can already be identified in the now. We reduce the unknown with the many measurable trends we observe, and root our analysis very much in the factual. These are the elements of certainty we have. But simple extrapolation would not be foresight: the unknown dimension of the future is hidden in the new, be it developments we are unable to see today, or interactions between trends we did not expect. These unknowns can be reduced by thinking creatively about what possibilities for development there are. Armed with these categories, we can then zero in on the most important aspect: what can be done to shape these futures.
All three categories are interlinked – not just in real life, but also in this report. It therefore does not have to be read from cover to cover, but also through using the links amongst the different sections. This allows for an individualised reading experience depending on interest and time available. Those who are short on time, can jump straight to the mega-trends – or, those who are even busier, straight to the two scenarios resulting from action or inaction.