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Martin Wright looks back at the future

Sensemaking / Martin Wright looks back at the future

The founding Editor of Green Futures reflects on early predictions featured in the magazine, and asks what trends will shape the world in future.

By Martin Wright / 10 Sep 2014

In the future, in 2014 say, we could be driving our hydrogen cars to a microwind-powered community telecottage deep in the countryside, where thanks to the magic of ISDN lines we will be able to connect to the World Wide Web and enjoy the holographic telepresence of distant colleagues…

Such might have been the picture conjured up in the mind’s eye of an early reader of Green Futures. Although we were careful not to trade in predictions, we enjoyed speculating as to possibilities, projecting technological breakthroughs that were just on the horizon into everyday life, and asking what it would look like as a result.

Some distant glimmers on the horizon have shot towards us far faster than we could have imagined. The internet and mobile communications, in particular, have transformed the world at a pace and scale few predicted. I can well recall one early subscriber (and fervent environmentalist) decrying the spread of ‘yuppie phones’ as a symbol of all that was wrong about modern Britain. Today there are more SIM cards in India than there are people.

On the sustainability score sheet, the social impact of mobiles, particularly in Africa and Asia, has been stunning. They are arguably the single most effective piece of intervention for development of the last 30 years – and delivered for the most part by the market, not by any aid programme. But in terms of environmental impact, the ‘digital dividend’ of which we talked so much in the 90s has yet to appear. Confident predictions that IT-enabled ‘dematerialisation’ would decouple economic prosperity from environmental degradation haven’t really materialised. Yet…

Because, as a cursory glance through those early editions of Green Futures reminded me, it can take a while for bright ideas to shine. That dream of decoupling is now at the heart of Unilever’s business strategy. Other trends, too, are on the slow burn: concern for energy and food security is shaping geopolitics; the potential of local energy generation to disrupt the world’s power networks is emerging; and the question of our wellbeing, even – whisper it – our spirituality, is becoming a legitimate concern for responsible business.

When it comes to the future, it’s still early days.

Martin Wright is Founding Editor, Green Futures.

Image credit: John Lloyd / Flickr

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