Trends 2024: facing the future, mastering the probable, managing the unpredictable

PHOTO/Pixabay/Gerd Altmann
photo_camera Pixabay/Gerd Altmann.

The simple fact of questioning the future is already a not insignificant way of shaping it, and today more than ever we are more concerned about doing so.

In Trends 2022, I said that our countries, our governments and our societies were facing a set of trends that entail an urgent and important need for change. In Trends 2023, I identified six trends in the West that would accelerate change and require preparation for a new era, which gained momentum and acceleration with the war in Ukraine.

In Trends 2024, I project that we are facing a future dominated by the improbable that requires managing the unpredictable. This is what the Interfutures report tried to do 50 years ago, when the world economy was struggling to get off the ground and was at its worst, as a consequence of the 1973 Yom Kippur or Arab-Israeli war and the so-called oil crisis, which hit the industrialised economies so hard, remembered as the crisis of the seventies.

At that time, the Government of Japan, aware of the critical moment and the urgent need for all industrialised countries to align their long-term economic policies, took an important initiative in May 1975: to propose within the OECD the Interfutures project, a unique prospective report aimed at studying the future of advanced societies in harmony with that of developing countries, in which Professors José Luis Sampedro and Emilio Fontela, my teacher, took part. From this initiative, in addition to Interfuturos, came the FAST project of the European communities at the end of the 1970s, and in our country, Spain, in the 1980s, directed by Professor Fontela, who updated it with the Tentación proteccionista.

The reasons that gave rise to Interfutures are very topical: "The new problems that have emerged in recent years, with important implications both for advanced countries and for relations between them and developing countries, the difficulties in achieving both growth and full employment, the imbalances between supply and demand for essential primary products, inflation, the unprecedented balance of payments problems, the concern about the new structures of monetary relations in terms of trade and investment, and the growing imbalances between developed and developing economies".

Today, some of these reasons are present in the global economy, where volatility, instability and complexity have set in. Added to this are political, technological, environmental and social factors that confirm that we are already in a new era, triggered and accelerated by successive crises: the US subprime mortgage, China's COVID-19, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and, more currently, the enormous uncertainty unleashed by Hamas's attack from the Gaza Strip on southern Israel, precisely on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur attack. When the world was bipolar, the two world powers, the United States and Russia, disputed planetary hegemony in a Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent complete disappearance of the USSR and all the socialist republics. 

The historical milestone of the fall of the communist regime ushered in the "end of history", as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed. The international liberal order, which emerged after the Second World War, defined as a set of structured relations based on rules founded on political liberalism (liberal democracy), economic liberalism (free markets) and commercial liberalism (free trade), involves cooperation through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, and is constituted by the principles of human equality: freedom, the rule of law, the rule of law, human rights, collective security, free markets, and the promotion of liberal democracy.  

The international liberal order had fully triumphed over the political dictatorship and planning of the communist economy. However, the end of history has zigzagged and the international liberal order does not reign, according to Fukuyama, rather we are facing an international liberal disorder, in which major geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-strategic transformations are overlapping, where the energy transition takes on a relevant importance, just as climate change is the first priority to save the planet. In this respect, the Club of Rome's report The Limits to Growth (1972), whose updated conclusions 20, 30 and 40 years later reaffirmed what was stated in the first report: "If the present increase in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and exploitation of natural resources continue unchanged, the absolute limits of growth on earth will be reached within the next 100 years".

All of this has been accompanied by the appearance of black swans, i.e. the impacts of highly improbable events, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them, which generate uncertainty about the durability of the rules governing politics, economics, finance and trade on a global scale, giving rise to a spiral that increases the rivalry between two increasingly differentiated blocs: democracies and autocracies. The first, led by the United States with Europe as a (junior) partner, and the second, led by China with Russia as a (forced) partner, not forgetting the global south, where India stands out.  

Concern for the future has always been present in human history. Fifty years after Interfutures, we may ask ourselves whether it is not time for Interfutures 2.0. Professor Fontela said that the simple fact of questioning the future is already a not insignificant way of shaping it, and today more than ever we are more concerned about doing so. Concern for the future has always been present in the history of humanity, whether through imagination, science or art, or as a methodological resource. What is certain is that the interest in knowing the future characterises human beings and is linked to the need to transcend and give meaning to their existence (Barbieri, 1992). Interfutures 2.0 stands out for the urgent need to study the future of advanced societies in harmony with that of emerging and developing countries. And even more, much more, now in an increasingly altered world, where we see that we have created results that nobody wants, but which persist, imposing the determination to leave them behind, establishing a more prosperous, fairer and happier society, as Immanuel Kant invoked in "Perpetual Peace" (1795). The question is, could it be the G20 or the G7 who propose within the OECD Interfutures 2.0? Or rather, emulating Japan, which country could take up the baton? Readers and friends, I wish you all happy holidays and all the best for 2024.  

Ramón Casilda Béjar, lecturer on the IEB's Master's in IR. Author of Capitalismo Next Generation, Tirant Humanidades, 2021.

Article published in El Confidencial