Will the real megatrend please stand up? Insights from a scan of scans

January 31, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Filippo Artuso and Irene Guijt introduce their new Oxfam discussion paper

When it comes to global futures, we have information of what could be, yet are largely in the dark about what will be.

To shed some light, we compared 22 recent scans of powerful global trends – or megatrends. This helps give us some tools for thought about options, alarm bells and priorities for reducing inequality and injustice. Here are the four clusters we found.

1. Technology. Two forces are reshaping how we talk, work, relate and connect: technological innovation and hyperconnectivity.

New technologies (think AI, AR, blockchain, drones, IoT, robotics VR, 3D printing) offer ever-increasing opportunities, to the point of reshaping what it means to be human . Who could have imagined living-robots would exist today? Automation and IoT (the internet of things) have the potential to make some jobs and lives much, much easier. Social media is doing wonders to connect people in new, virtual geographies. And medical technology is literally saving lives.

Global trends

But technology comes with trade-offs. Automation in the short term will likely increase the inequality between the owners of technological capital and means of production, and those can only offer their labour. This is particularly true for low- and middle-income countries (LICs and MICs) where labour, because of its relatively repetitive and predictable nature, is particularly vulnerable to automation. While the gig economy is making work more flexible, it might (further) reduce workers’ rights in a ‘race to the bottom’. And for women the gig economy means perpetuating old structural barriers locking them out of economic empowerment and decent work. Social media is increasing fake news, mass-manipulation, and political polarisation, raising overdue questions of governance for regulators (see: Facebook’s Mood Experiments, Cambridge Analytica, and the Rohingya genocide). Tech companies are becoming more influential – and better informed – players than nation states, while totalitarian governments use technology to enhance their surveillance.

2. Demography. Societies are shaped by the age, movement and location of their people, greatly affecting all other trends. The world needs to deal with four main changes:

  • Demographic shifts – ageing populations and demographic dividend
  • Urbanisation
  • Migration
  • Health challenges – a mix of ageing population, people’s movement in a globalised society, and technological advances.

While the world is getting older, most LICs and MICs will have a burgeoning young population able to offset ageing – a demographic dividend, but only if they have jobs. In most HICs, a shrinking workforce will need to pay the bill for growing healthcare costs as people age. But the demographic dividend might destabilise societies if young people are left without decent work – or options to create their own future.

The age-old trends of migration and urbanisation offer great opportunities for economic and personal development. But if infrastructure is absent or slow to adapt, it risks an explosion of precarious living conditions in low income settlements.  Impacts won’t affect all equally – women can be at greater risk of exploitation or abuse during urbanisation or migration.

3. Environment. Two main trends will affect people and planet: climate change and resource scarcity.  Climate Change was not mentioned as often as technology in the sources we analysed. But for us, it should be the first and utmost concern. Not just because global heating is close to irreversible, but because people are already suffering – so much so that the risk of climate change is now accepted as a reason for seeking asylum. Rising temperatures augment displacement by endangering food production and water cycles and increasing incidence of climate-related disasters. Resource scarcity and biodiversity loss, while exacerbated by climate change, are driven by an economic model based on over-exploitation and over-consumption. We need to drastically rethink our economic model if we hope to stop climate change and reduce resource scarcity.

Four key trends connecting climate change and population displacement
Credit: UN DESA

4. Power. The fourth cluster describes socioeconomic and political trends, including multipolarity, economic inequality, crumbling social cohesion, along with rising divisive narratives and distrust of institutions, and conflict.

New actors like China and India are (re)emerging, with economic influence gravitating to south and east Asia. With the growth of populist politics in many countries, a new wave of protectionism might clash with globalisation (read Trump’s trade wars). And while the US puts up walls, China builds bridges (and roads).

The economic post-2008 crisis, combined with climate change and technological innovation will likely increase both in-country and between-country inequality. Impacts won’t be equal for all. Women will be most affected – as they are today, with a gender pay gap that is expected to persist for more than a century, global higher rates of unemployment, and more unpaid care responsibilities.

Interacting megatrends have been and will continue to be recipes for conflict: climate change that escalates resource scarcity and increases uncontrolled migration, rising inequalities that destabilise economies, and increasing polarisation that threatens social cohesion.

While the megatrend literature makes for bleak reading, it also highlights where choices are possible to make the most of opportunities and dampen threats. So, here’s a listicle, six questions to ponder to help INGOs and others plan for the future.

  1. Identify trends not on the radar. Which megatrends are on the organizational radar in terms of possible implications for thematic, geographic and operational choices? Which are being ignored and should be taken more seriously?
  2. Focus on (virtual) geographies that matter. How do these megatrends play out in each region and country? Might megacities and virtual communities become more powerful ‘change hubs’ than geographic communities?
  3. Think through impacts on different groups of people. For whom are impacts of megatrends happening now or in the near future—and what does this mean for working with people struggling under conditions of poverty or social marginalization?
  4. Figure out opportunities and challenges using a systems perspective. It is in the interaction of trends that the real effects will be felt. What do we assume about each megatrend and how it will affect, or be affected by, others? What new options can emerge within these interactions to tackle poverty and inequality?
  5. Decide which trends to take on and what roles to play. All these trends will affect any change efforts; all are inherently political. What kind of agent of change and what kind of change does an organisation want to support in relation to each megatrend?
  6. Reimagine partnerships, roles and possibilities. With the emergence of new global powers, economic drivers and geographies of action, are new partnerships being spotted and fostered effectively to shape the role of NGOs?

And here’s the link to the full paper

January 31, 2020
Duncan Green