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Aspen Digital

Constructing Possible Futures

Insights from the 2023 Foresight Group

An abstract image of a horizon in shades of purple, where the center radiates light in a horizontal line.
June 7, 2023

Aspen Digital

What we did

From Spring 2022 to Spring 2023, Aspen Digital, with support from Autodesk, assembled our first Foresight Group. The Group is a diverse assembly of experts with a mandate to look 20 years into the future, exploring major shifts and trends that will re-shape our world. Although Aspen Digital has employed foresight techniques in work that spans from cybersecurity to disinformation, to help leaders imagine and prepare for possible futures, the Foresight Group was an opportunity to engage in this practice with a longer time horizon: 20 years. This timescale offered an incredible opportunity to delve into topics in an entirely different light, pushing beyond what might seem like obvious causes and effects to explore second- and third-order effects and interactions among multiple changes.

Aspen Digital brings together thinkers and doers to uncover new ideas and spark policies, processes, and procedures that empower communities and strengthen democracy through ethical technology and quality information. We inspire collaboration among diverse voices from industry, government, and civil society to ensure our interconnected world is accessible, safe, and inclusive – both online and off. These are complex and multilayered topics, with competing or even contradictory goals. In order to facilitate these conversations with nuance and to drive toward actionable insights, we employ a range of strategies.

Foresight is an established field of inquiry that employs critical analysis, structured prompts, and discussion to develop and explore possible future scenarios and to inform present-day decision-making. Strategic foresight,the practice of foresight for informing policy and business decision-making, has gained popularity in many institutions including national governments and Fortune 500 companies. The Foresight Group drew on similar strategies to explore possible, probable, and preferable visions of what the future might hold.

Although Aspen Digital’s work frequently engages with how emerging technologies may shape the future, equally important are questions of how the future may shape the emergence of new technologies. With this in mind, the Foresight Group was convened to discuss possible futures that might be touched by two major themes representing significant challenges and opportunities in the years to come:

Old World, Young World: Bridging Demographic Divides

There are major demographic shifts taking place. In places like Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, populations are growing older. In other parts of the world, younger populations are booming with more than half of the population under 21 years of age, especially in the global south. Even within countries, the global pandemic instigated significant movement between, into, and out of cities. These population shifts present new challenges and opportunities for our interconnected world.

Breakthroughs & Conflict: Life on a Changing Planet

From escalating geopolitical conflict to devastating weather events, we face evolving challenges that may upend the way of life for people around the world. In this context, how will societies and systems change, and what would it look like to adapt and thrive? And what do we need to think about now in order to develop resilience for uncertainty and to mitigate growing risk?

Given the scope of the questions the Group would explore, the composition of the Group was especially important. We made a concerted effort to recruit individuals with unique and diverse experiences, backgrounds, and viewpoints, representing various sectors, and reaching across the globe. The 2023 Foresight Group included members from ten countries, across four continents, with perspectives from fields spanning architecture, diplomacy, finance, aging, human rights, and international development.

No group will be perfectly representative of the global population—and ours certainly was not—but the participants often considered the impacts on those not at the table, and acknowledged the limitations we faced. To help address some of these gaps in perspectives, we engaged with additional experts in virtual meetings, and augmented the makeup of the Group for each convening by including specialists with particular deep expertise in each of the two major themes we explored.

Over the course of several months, the Foresight Group met both online and in person, explored topical readings, consulted with experts on the thematic areas, and built a working rapport with each other, which would serve them well through difficult conversations and disagreements. While it was not the prescribed goal, we were heartened to find the Group developing a warmth and camaraderie that persists to this day in a culture of appreciation and support.

Throughout the work, we developed insights about the future, and also about how to conduct foresight convenings. We share these insights both to provoke and inspire. In 8 Trends & Possible Futures, we present some of the possible futures explored by the Foresight Group and the present-day trends that point in their direction. In Insights About Foresight, we discuss learnings from the Group in the hopes that these learnings will help others to engage in this longer time-horizon thinking. 

8 Trends & Possible Futures

Over the course of eight months, the Foresight Group collectively contributed over 700 hours imagining futures we believe could plausibly come to pass. The goal was not to make a prediction of what would take place, but to imagine what the shifting dynamics could be, so we can plan for them or intentionally steer away from those possible futures. We began from the familiar past and present and then led the Group through a discussion of both what might come next, not only in the near-term but as a result of reactions and responses to those possible changes.

The possibilities discussed varied widely, and touched on a variety of interrelated themes including migration, geopolitics, and the environment. The Group articulated a range of scenarios and drew connections to historical patterns as well as highlighted possible dislocations from the cyclical trends of the past. What follows are eight possible futures articulated through the collective deliberations of the Foresight Group and the signals today that might point in their direction.

1

Energy production is moving away from fossil fuels

As the risks and realities of climate change set in, paired with the dramatic reduction in cost of renewable energy in the form of solar and wind power, the world is beginning a process of turning away from fossil fuel in favor of renewable power.

The “resource curse” is rewritten

Historically fossil fuel-rich nations that have economies reliant on resource-extraction may be forced to diversify, while countries that have deposits of newly desirable materials key to the new modes of energy production and storage must wrestle with the tradeoffs of short-term economic gains from extraction versus long term environmental harms.

Themes:

Environment

Economy

2

Digital identities & biometrics are becoming more widespread

The growing affordability and ease of biometric data collection such as fingerprint, voice audio, face geometry, and more has led to widespread adoption of biometric identification, even for mundane activities like unlocking a phone or entering a building.

Ubiquitous biometric checkpoints create new barriers

The pervasive incorporation of digital identity and biometric identification into elements of everyday life creates additional burdens on those for whom such systems don’t work reliably and creates an underclass of “invisible” undocumented people who are driven further underground.

Themes:

Emerging Tech

Migration

3

Private actors are becoming more indistinguishable from states

From international tech companies throwing their weight around to shape global regulations to the deepening industrial policies of nation states, corporate power is growing in global influence.

Governments regard private actors as competitors & even adversaries

Even where goals might be aligned (for instance fighting disease or educating people), governments and corporate and other non-governmental actors might find themselves jockeying for power within countries as well as between them.

Themes:

Geopolitics

Economy

4

AI models are enabling new ways of interacting with information

New machine learning models and large datasets are opening new avenues for translation of text, video, and audio and transforming the way people think about data as diverse as computer code to the human voice.

Greater AI-enabled interspecies understanding

Data-processing tools may unlock new ways of interpreting and interacting with audio, visuals, biometric information, and other signals from plant, animals and fungi, encouraging people to think about the natural environment in new ways.

Themes:

Emerging Tech

Environment

5

Reactionary immigration policies are shutting out immigrants

Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, global migration was falling due to restrictions on immigration. Even as global travel has resumed, many richer countries have continued to tighten their immigration policies—with, perhaps, the exception of refugees from Ukraine—and refuse entry to migrants from areas of the world anticipated to be impacted most negatively by climate change.

The bottom falls out as aging countries scramble to attract immigrants

The social and economic systems in many wealthier aging countries may be pushed past their breaking point with so many more older people than young people to support them. Countries that did not act sooner may be faced with a dramatic reversal in immigration policy, a rapid influx of climate refugees, and new demands for international remote work and e-citizenship.

Themes:

Migration

Aging

6

People exposed to global news are experiencing crisis fatigue

Increasing numbers of people, from policymakers to everyday citizens, are confronted daily with a deluge of information on world events and humanitarian disasters. People feel overwhelmed by the constant inundation of information, and news of disasters is losing its impact on people’s sense of urgency and emotional resonance.

Multilateral institutions falter as countries turn inward

Numb to the overwhelming amount of international news, people may disengage from international coordination and multilateral institutions, weakening their power. Governments that wish to control information flows may seize on the opportunity to restrict access to information beyond their borders, leading to a more fractured global information ecosystem.

Themes:

Geopolitics

Emerging Tech

7

People are living and working longer

In the last 50 years, the average adult life expectancy around the world has risen by ten years, and the median age of the global worker has risen as well meaning that people are staying in the workforce longer.

No room at the top in old systems of power

In governments and corporations, older people who hold power take longer to step down or retire meaning that young people may have to look outside of traditional structures for leadership opportunities, producing greater generational disconnects in the economy.

Themes:

Aging

Economy

8

AI tools are dehumanizing conflict

Generative AI is lowering the barriers to generating synthetic media like deepfake videos while other AI capabilities have made it easier to weaponize autonomous vehicles like drones, making it more difficult to accurately attribute violence.

Democratizing anonymized violence

Open source tools, hyperlocal manufacturing, and improved automation may enable everyone to wield relatively anonymous weapons. In response, there may be backlash against tech and more attempts to regulate upstream inputs like battery and circuit materials.

Themes:

Emerging Tech

Geopolitics

Insights about foresight

In the process of leading and delivering a foresight program that supported the Group’s discussions, we learned a few things about how we approach this work, and how it can be used in strategy, policy development, and program design. Here are three of our most salient insights:

1. You have to look backwards to look forward

We opened each session with an exercise designed to explore change as we’ve experienced it already. Describing those changes we’ve seen, learned about, and lived through, helps to put our mind in the frame of how change happens. What does it feel like? How does it emerge? Does it happen all at once? Can you see it coming? How long does it take to appear? At our first in-person convening in Aspen, CO, the Group filled the walls with dozens of historical moments–from technological advancements like the smartphone, to global crises like the AIDS epidemic. Looking back helped the Group extend their view over a longer timeline to recognize how much (or how little) might change over the course of two decades and to think about the interconnected ways change manifests and spreads.

2. If you extend out the timeline, all lines intersect eventually

The Group met in-person twice over the course of the year, exploring two expansive but defined topics: Old World, Young World as well as Breakthroughs & Conflicts. Regardless of the starting point, complexity and interconnectedness of the topics quickly became evident. For example, a discussion which started on rising life expectancy across the world shifted into issues around healthcare and social safety nets. This then moved into discussions around civic engagement and the changing nature of family while circling back to redefining the meaning of “youth.” Traversing across these various paths is not a failing of the discourse that should be avoided. Instead, it is a key feature of how a vibrant discussion about scenarios elucidates different perspectives and decisions that may ultimately reshape society. The art is to give the group space to follow the various threads, and then to find ways to stitch them all together into a coherent story.

3. Both desirable and undesirable scenarios can help you plan for the future you wish for

One early tension in our Group appeared as some contributors would compose dystopian scenarios and describe negative outcomes driven by bad actors. Other participants struggled with these possible futures because they wanted to frame our discussion around a world they hoped we’d achieve together. In the end, both sides were “doing it right.” A hopeful scenario allows you to imagine the world you want to achieve, and work back to describe the conditions that will allow it to (or ensure it does not) come to pass. A negative scenario creates the opportunity to imagine a world you wish to avoid, and to walk through the failures and missteps that would permit it to happen, or describe interventions that could prevent it. In every case, the scenario creates a platform for discussion and exploration of the future, and insights that we can use to influence what we do next.

Conclusion

In hindsight, when we look back on history, we can more easily see how the specific conditions and decisions led to the outcomes we have lived. In foresight, we explore the many possible paths that lie ahead of us. The best foresight scenarios may challenge us but are believable, even if they run completely contradictory to each other. The Foresight Group brought together many disparate perspectives on both the present and the possible futures. The Group was successful because they were able to hold these many possibilities simultaneously. As time unfolds, we hope that the scenarios explored by the Foresight Group will serve as guiding stars and warning signs to political and social leaders and anyone else who finds themselves yearning for a more equitable and inspiring future, as one Foresight Group member put it, “homesick for a place that doesn’t exist yet.”

An abstract image of a horizon in shades of purple, where the center radiates light in a horizontal line.