Written by Eamonn Noonan, Global Trends Unit
No one can know for sure what 2030 will look like. There is plenty of debate on the matter, with at least two differing camps. Some stress the positives – the prospect of better lives, less hard work, new solutions to global pollution and chronic disease. Others stress the negative: greater problems with employment, conflict and climate change, and a new threat of super-intelligent machines moving beyond human control. Where does the balance of probabilities lie? What opportunities represent hope, not hype? Which challenges are existential, and which are mere bumps in the road?
The ESPAS Annual Conference is an inter-institutional strategic foresight event that brings together experts and practitioners from around the world. Drawing on the insights of the 2015 ESPAS report on Global Trends to 2030: Can the EU meet the challenges ahead, this year’s two-day event focuses on society and governance. The first day, at the European Commission, examines what divides and unites societies in the digital age. It considers the impact of new technologies on democracy, security and trust, and discusses the role of connectivity in delivering sustainable prosperity.
The future of governance is the theme for the second day, at the European Parliament on 17 November. Sessions address issues such as the role of universities, democracy, inequality, the importance of strategic foresight, and the future role of cities. Speakers include Benjamin Barber, Mary Kaldor, Jeanette Hofmann and Joseph Weiler.
At university level, changes are needed to serve the needs of tomorrow’s economy and society, notably to improve competence in science and technology. Yet the idea of scaling back social sciences and humanities meets strong opposition. How can we find the right balance of skills to meet long-term challenges?
Democracy faces multiple challenges, with signs of a decline of trust between the governments and the governed. Ethnic and religious diversity has increased, and there are risks that can prompt increasing social division. At the same time, new technology offers the prospect of wider and deeper participation in public affairs, and new possibilities of bringing decision-making closer to the people. The difficulties of recent years have encouraged a return of social engagement and political activism; how will this impact the nature and direction of our democracy?
Increasing inequality is on the agenda. The view that economic growth will inevitably lead to lower levels of inequality has been challenged. An opposing view is that action to reduce inequality is a prerequisite for economic growth. Which side has the stronger case? In the coming decades, how will inequality affect governance – and how will governance affect inequality?
The proportion of the population living in cities will increase further, and the issues mentioned above will largely be played out in the urban arena. Cities can lead the effort for sustainable environmental, transport and energy solutions, but also face challenges to social cohesion and security. Urban poverty is also a key issue in many parts of the world. Historically, cities have often been in the vanguard of innovation and economic growth; what conditions will allow this to happen again in the coming decades?
Investigating the future
Machiavelli wrote that the wise ruler is one who can anticipate problems before they appear – and that few can do this. Many agree that the EU needs to be better prepared for future challenges – including those that are not already pressing or obvious. This conference aims to tease out the dimensions of different social challenges in coming decades, not as an academic exercise, but as part of an effort to improve the EU’s collective ability to respond rapidly, both to overcome complex problems and to exploit new opportunities.