Rockefeller Foundation: Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development

August 3rd, 2010

This Rockefeller Foundation report lays out four possible scenarios for the near future. I’ll just clip a few passages from each of the four. You’ll love this.

Via: Rockefeller Foundation:

LOCK STEP – A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback

In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain — originating from wild geese — was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 percent of the global population and killing 8 million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults. The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: international mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.

At first, the notion of a more controlled world gained wide acceptance and approval. Citizens willingly gave up some of their sovereignty — and their privacy — to more paternalistic states in exchange for greater safety and stability.

Citizens were more tolerant, and even eager, for top-down direction and oversight, and national leaders had more latitude to impose order in the ways they saw fit. In developed countries, this heightened oversight took many forms: biometric IDs for all citizens, for example, and tighter regulation of key industries whose stability was deemed vital to national interests. In many developed countries, enforced cooperation with a suite of new regulations and agreements slowly but steadily restored both order and, importantly, economic growth.

CLEVER TOGETHER – A world in which highly coordinated and successful strategies emerge for addressing both urgent and entrenched worldwide issues

The recession of 2008-10 did not turn into the decades-long global economic slide that many had feared. In fact, quite the opposite: strong global growth returned in force, with the world headed once again toward the demographic and economic projections forecasted before the downturn.

India and China were on track to see their middle classes explode to 1 billion by 2020. Mega-cities like Sao Paulo and Jakarta expanded at a blistering pace as millions poured in from rural areas. Countries raced to industrialize by whatever means necessary; the global marketplace bustled.

But two big problems loomed. First, not all people and places benefited equally from this return to globalized growth: all boats were rising, but some were clearly rising more. Second, those hell-bent on development and expansion largely ignored the very real environmental consequences of their unrestricted growth. Undeniably, the planet’s climate was becoming increasingly unstable.

Sea levels were rising fast, even as countries continued to build-out coastal mega-cities. In 2014, the Hudson River overflowed into New York City during a storm surge, turning the World Trade Center site into a three-foot-deep lake. The image of motorboats navigating through lower Manhattan jarred the world’s most powerful nations into realizing that climate change was not just a developing-world problem.

That same year, new measurements showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were climbing precipitously created new urgency and pressure for governments (really, for everyone) to do something fast.

A functioning global cap and trade system was also established. Worldwide, the pressure to reduce waste and increase efficiency in planet-friendly ways was enormous. New globally coordinated systems for monitoring energy use capacity — including smart grids and bottom-up pattern recognition technologies — were rolled out.

HACK ATTACK – An economically unstable and shock-prone world in which governments weaken, criminals thrive, and dangerous innovations emerge

Devastating shocks like September 11, the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake had certainly primed the world for sudden disasters. But no one was prepared for a world in which large-scale catastrophes would occur with such breathtaking frequency. The years 2010 to 2020 were dubbed the “doom decade” for good reason: the 2012 Olympic bombing, which killed 13,000, was followed closely by an earthquake in Indonesia killing 40,000, a tsunami that almost wiped out Nicaragua, and the onset of the West China Famine, caused by a once-in a-millennium drought linked to climate change.

Not surprisingly, this opening series of deadly asynchronous catastrophes (there were more) put enormous pressure on an already overstressed global economy that had entered the decade still in recession. Massive humanitarian relief efforts cost vast sums of money, but the primary sources — from aid agencies to developed-world governments — had run out of funds to offer. Most nation-states could no longer afford their locked-in costs, let alone respond to increased citizen demands for more security, more healthcare coverage, more social programs and services, and more infrastructure repair. In 2014, when mudslides in Lima buried thousands, only minimal help trickled in, prompting the Economist headline: “Is the Planet Finally Bankrupt?”

These dire circumstances forced tough tradeoffs. In 2015, the U.S. reallocated a large share of its defense spending to domestic concerns, pulling out of Afghanistan — where the resurgent Taliban seized power once again. In Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, more and more nationstates lost control of their public finances, along with the capacity to help their citizens and retain stability and order. Resource scarcities and trade disputes, together with severe economic and climate stresses, pushed many alliances and partnerships to the breaking point; they also sparked proxy wars and low-level conflict in resource-rich parts of the developing world. Nations raised trade barriers in order to protect their domestic sectors against imports and — in the face of global food and resource shortages — to reduce exports of agricultural produce and other commodities. By 2016, the global coordination and interconnectedness that had marked the post-Berlin Wall world was tenuous at best.

With government power weakened, order rapidly disintegrating, and safety nets evaporating, violence and crime grew more rampant. Countries with ethnic, religious, or class divisions saw especially sharp spikes in hostility: Naxalite separatists dramatically expanded their guerrilla campaign in East India; Israeli- Palestinian bloodshed escalated; and across Africa, fights over resources erupted along ethnic or tribal lines. Meanwhile, overtaxed militaries and police forces could do little to stop growing communities of criminals and terrorists from gaining power. Technology-enabled gangs and networked criminal enterprises exploited both the weakness of states and the desperation of individuals. With increasing ease, these “global guerillas” moved illicit products through underground channels from poor producer countries to markets in the developed world. Using retired 727s and other rogue aircraft, they crisscrossed the Atlantic, from South America to Africa, transporting cocaine, weapons, and operatives. Drug and gun money became a common recruiting tool for the desperately poor.

SMART SCRAMBLE – An economically depressed world in which individuals and communities develop localized, makeshift solutions to a growing set of problems

The global recession that started in 2008 did not trail off in 2010 but dragged onward. Vigorous attempts to jumpstart markets and economies didn’t work, or at least not fast enough to reverse the steady downward pull. The combined private and public debt burden hanging over the developed world continued to depress economic activity, both there and in developing countries with economies dependent on exporting to (formerly) rich markets. Without the ability to boost economic activity, many countries saw their debts deepen and civil unrest and crime rates climb.

The United States, too, lost much of its presence and credibility on the international stage due to deepening debt, debilitated markets, and a distracted government. This, in turn, led to the fracturing or decoupling of many international collaborations started by or reliant on the U.S.’s continued strength.

Makeshift, “good enough” technology solutions — addressing everything from water purification and harnessing energy to improved crop yield and disease control — emerged to fill the gaps. Communities grew tighter. Micro-manufacturing, communal gardens, and patchwork energy grids were created at the local level for local purposes. Many communities took on the aura of co-ops, some even launching currencies designed to boost local trade and bring communities closer together. Nowhere was this more true than in India, where localized experiments proliferated, and succeeded or failed, with little connection to or impact on other parts of the country — or the world.

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2 Responses to “Rockefeller Foundation: Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development”

  1. jon Says:

    Maybe I listen to too much Alan Watt, i.e. typos like this aren’t unintentional, but why is leadership misspelled on page 16 of the the .pdf? “LOCK STEP – A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian eadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback”

    Is “eader” a non-English word? If so what does it mean? The closest I could find in English is eider which would be a sea duck.

  2. soothing hex Says:

    Will orchestrated chaos spread ? I’m referring to drug-related/paramilitary violence in Columbia/Venezuela, which may become very convenient to the promoters of police state schemes. Could be a powerful tool if one’s inclined to disrupt a “smart scramble” trend (scenario 4).


    “J’y pense et puis j’oublie” – Dutronc

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