(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 20/20 Foresight: A Futurist Looks Ahead to the Ten Trends That Will Shape the World of 2020, that I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson, host of www.futur1st.com. This chapter covers how unexpected events and “unknown” unknowns might adversely affect the future.)
At 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. Less than seven minutes later a massive tsunami traveling at 500 miles per hour slammed into the northeast coast of the island nation destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings. It left little in the area untouched, including one of the world’s largest nuclear facilities–the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex. The partial meltdown of four of the facility’s six reactors has reignited a serious debate regarding the long-term viability and safety of nuclear power. In addition to affecting the continued expansion of nuclear power, the event could prove to be a boon to the future development of cleaner, safer and more distributed forms of energy such as fuel cell, solar or even wave/tidal power.
The Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster also serves as a poignant reminder that forecasting trends is a complex task because so often unexpected and unforeseen events have a way of altering how trends unfold in the future. Consider, for example, how the events of 9-11 (and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) spurred the development of robots and unmanned aerial vehicles or how the 2008 sub-prime mortgage fiasco caused the capital markets to dry up for 18 months and lead to the enactment of many new restrictive financial regulations on banks and financial institutions.
To consider how a series of similar low-probability but high-impact events might shape the world of 2020 in some unexpected and surprising ways, let’s watch “A Decade of Disasters,” a retrospective of the past decade (2010-2019) produced by CNN and released on December 31, 2019. The report began with an overview of the 2010 BP “Deep Horizon” oil spill and how it slowed off-shore drilling in the United States, and quickly moved on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and discussing how it spurred the creation of radical new building and architectural designs.
Below is an abbreviated synapsis of the report beginning with the year 2012:
In November of that year, a freakishly large solar storm–classified as a once-in-a-100 year event–disrupted a number of global telecommunications satellites. In the ensuing blackout, a commercial iridium satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite. The cloud of wreckage created thousands of new pieces of space debris that, in turn, knocked out three other critical communications satellites. For the better part of a week, vital military, financial, business and logistics facilities had little to no access to satellite service as hundreds of the satellites were repositioned to avoid the new debris and further damage.
In addition to disrupting the global supply chain and depressing the retail industry’s sales and revenues expectations for the 2012 Christmas holiday season, the accident revealed the vulnerability of the global satellite network and highlighted the growing problem of space debris. The event lead to the development and creation of a series of new “nanosatellites” and renewed interest in various lower atmosphere communications platforms including high-flying solar planes that provided more localized coverage.
In January, 2013, operatives of an organization covertly funded by the Syrian army electronically hijacked an American unmanned aerial vehicle and fired its missiles at an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. Seventeen civilians, including ten school-aged children, were killed. The attack triggered a new round of tension in the Middle East and sent gas prices soaring toward $6.00 a gallon for the first time in American history. In response to the pain consumers were feeling at the gas-pump, Congress approved a $3 billion advanced battery program and ten companies received grants in excess of $150 million to improve the capacity and charging times of power storage units in electric vehicles.
In a related development, a number of international organizations called for a review of the role of robotic devices in warfare. No discernible course of action was agreed upon but the stock price of a number of leading robotics firms suffered declines of up to 60 percent and the production of next-generation military robots were delayed as a result.
Later that year thousands of previously classified diplomatic files were released by OpenLeaks, a group operating in the tradition of WikiLeaks. Among the disclosures was a video clip showing members of a Middle Eastern royal family engaging in sexual relations with western prostitutes in London. The disclosure triggered a violent public uprising. The resulting upheaval, which was brutally put down by that government, pushed oil prices above $200-a-barrel and gas prices spiked to $7.50. The event was later credited with being the impetus that finally caused American consumers to embrace hybrid and all-electric vehicles in a major way.
The oil shock also caused the Canadian government to offer generous incentives to developers capable of converting the Alberta tar sands into oil. Environmentalists’ concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and polluted water went unheeded over the chorus of consumers’ clamoring for government to “do something” about high energy prices. In a related development, the U.S. Congress approved a $10 billion initiative to pursue advances in synthetic biology in hopes that a breakthrough in the field could reduce the nation’s reliance on oil. Four years later Exxon Mobil opened the first large-scale synthetic biology oil production facility in southern Arizona.
On the Friday before Memorial Day in 2014, the world’s financial markets were shocked when a grouper of hackers located on the outskirts of Moscow infiltrated the computer systems of both the Paris Bourse (the French stock market) and EDF, the country’s largest public utility. The latter attack plunged 17 million French citizens into darkness for an entire weekend and spurred the European Union to establish a 50 percent mandate for the production of distributed forms of energy by 2030. The former attack caused an estimated $250 billion in market capital to be wiped-out as skittish investors pulled their money out of the market.
The two events, in combination with a series of other lower-level and less damaging attacks against one of the world’s largest insurance company’s “cloud” databases earlier in the year, further heightened concern over cyber criminal’s ability to penetrate systems previously believed to be invulnerable to them. It also dealt a serious blow to the “cloud” computing industry as companies raced to revisit their approach to information management in wake of the high-profile attacks.
Across the Atlantic in the fall of 2014, a prestigious medical journal released a study linking the spread of carbon nanotubes–which were small enough to penetrate the blood-brain barrier–with slower than normal mental development of children under the age of five. Although the study was later found to be flawed, the damage to companies using carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles was serious as numerous states rushed to pass laws severely restricting how the materials could be used. Among the industries hardest hit was the pharmaceutical industry.
After a relatively quiet 2015 in which global stock markets appreciated an average of 17 percent, the most serious pandemic in a century began in the small rural city of La Barca, Mexico in January 2016. From there, the infections spread undetected to Mexico City. Due to the Mexican government’s unwillingness to impose a quarantine on international travel for fear of what it would do to the country’s tourism industry, hundreds of infected business travelers carried the disease to their home countries. The speed and the deadly nature of the pandemic stunned the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization and by June an estimated 1.5 million people–primarily children and the elderly–had died.
Global demand for the hastily produced vaccination soon overwhelmed the pharmaceutical industry’s limited capability. An uproar in the developing world was sparked as upper-middle class residents in the developed world received the majority of vaccinations. The ensuing crisis brought to light long-festering problems in the United Nations and further eroded the effectiveness of the international governing body.
The pandemic also once again highlighted how corporations, industries and governments in their never-ending quest for efficiency had created a “just-in-time” global supply chain that valued short-term efficiency over long-term endurance. The vulnerability of this strategy was quickly exposed as critical shipping, air, rail and transport logistics facilities were shut down for weeks on end when employees refused to report for work. As a result, a number of life-sustaining drugs could not be delivered to hospitals and pharmacies–even in areas not directly affected by the pandemic. It was later estimated the breakdown in the global supply chain resulted in additional 400,000 deaths–mostly in the first world.
The deaths did not go unnoticed and were credited with spurring a renewed worldwide interest in supplementary “just-in-case” supply chain management. The pandemic was also credited with sparking the creation of numerous rapid diagnostic technologies. Interestingly, many governments also raced to repeal laws restricting the use of carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles because many of the best diagnostic tools had been inadvertently banned under the legislation.
In July 2017, just as the global economy was recovering from the “Great Pandemic of 2016,” Mount Merapi, a volcano in Indonesia erupted and spewed an estimated 15 billion metric tons of ash into the atmosphere. The ash reflected so much sunlight back into the outer atmosphere that scientists later calculated the overall temperature and the earth for 2017 fell a full a degree Fahrenheit. The temperature differential, while seemingly small, was enough to cause drought conditions in Europe, Russia, Australia and Argentina and the global production of wheat plummeted 23 percent and created major food shortages around the world. In response, European governments, desperate to feed their populations, agreed to remove their decades long prohibition against genetically modified crops. The action was not enough, however, to prevent a series of serious foods riots in Moscow, Paris, Brussels and Rome and, shortly thereafter, the progressive governments in Italy, France and the United Kingdom–which had only a year earlier rode to power in the wake of their predecessors inability to meet the threats of the global pandemic–fell to their more conservative counterparts.
The combined effects of the pandemic and volcano eruption spilled over into 2018 as food shortages also lead to unrest in China. The large number of new nanosatellites created in the wake of the 2013 “space disaster” made it difficult for the ruling party to control communications and, fearing an overthrow of its government, Chinese government officials launched a brutal crackdown on its own citizens. As a diversion, the state also began making boisterous claims against the government of Taiwan which it said was inciting the opposition. As the situation between the two Asian adversaries grew tenser, the United States sent three carrier battle groups into the Sea of Taiwan. The talk of a “Cold War II”–between the U.S. and China–played directly into the hands of the Republican Party and it was able to parlay its platform of “strong national defense” into a solid majority in the House and Senate. The first act of the new Congress of 2019 was to pass the largest ever defense budget in America history. At a staggering price of $1.7 trillion, China responded in kind and also announced its intended goal of “dominating outer space.”
No sooner had Congress approved the 2019 defense budget than a small but well-trained group of eco-terrorists–claiming the Brazilian government was destroying the Amazon Basin–released a deadly nerve agent in the administrative offices of the Brazilian parliament killing 160 people. It was the first large-scale bioterrorism attack and its impact reverberated around the globe as scores of governments began investing in various bioterrorism defenses as well as cracking down on the civil liberties of dissidents and opposition groups.
The program a “Decade of Disasters” concluded with the host saying, “If the past decade taught us anything it is that we must continue to beware of the unknown and expect the unexpected.” She then closed by reporting on two recent stories. One discussed how experimental samples at the Exxon Mobil synthetic biology facility in Arizona were believed to be responsible for contaminating agricultural crops in Mexico and were causing a serious rift between the governments of Mexico and the United States. The second item reported how groundwater polluted by the tar sands was leeching into American rivers and affecting drinking supplies from Minnesota to Louisiana. Not only was the problem causing a strain in American-Canadian relations, a new scientific study had just been released linking the contaminated water with an abnormally high number of babies being born with genetic defects along the affected waterways. Her final words were, “The world continues to grower smaller and more interconnected, while the pace of technological change is accelerating. The forecast for the future remains hazy with a good chance of scattered catastrophes.”