Unlike previous reports, the GT2030 report tries to account
for predictions made in previous versions. What it doesn't do is grapple with
the serious flaws in its overall approach. While some of this year's predictions
are worthwhile, the report fails to account for how badly this same process has
served previous reports.
The Global Trends reports tend to be two-sided. They offer specific,
big claims that are almost always wrong on the one hand, while smaller, more
vague observations about how the world is slowly changing tend to be more
accurate on the other. In this sense, NIC predictions read like a Fareed
Zakaria book: the really interesting parts that matter never turn out to make
sense, while the very obvious things are written about so broadly they can't
help but be right.
This year, GT2030 predicts that "Asia," defined broadly,
will surpass the combined economic and military might of the Europe and the
United States. If the rise of a multipolar world doesn't seem very new, that's
because it was the thesis of Zakaria's most recent book, The Post-American World, written in
2008. In it, Zakaria predicted that the U.S. would experience a relative
decline as other countries, particularly those in East Asia, catch up.
That the United States will be "first among equals" in the
future isn't a terribly fresh prediction for NIC to make, but it does have the
virtue of being likely. Similarly, the claim that the BRIC countries (Brazil,
Russia, India, and China) are not unified by ideology and are focused on their
regional power bases is also likely to be true.
The report does have an important role to play, though. In being
published by the NIC, it enjoys immediate credibility among policymakers and
politicians -- the ones responsible for making important decisions about the
planet's future. The broad trends GT2030 identifies are happening right now,
and it is vitally important our leaders understand those trends and try to
adapt to them. When GT2030 writes, for example, about conflicts over access to
water and the challenges posed by climate change, it's not exactly breaking new
ground -- but those are both critical issues that leaders need to understand.
But ultimately, what do these sorts of reports accomplish?
The NIC is hardly the only group that publishes studies about future trends.
There is an entire industry devoted to futures studies: their acolytes, called
futurists, give PowerPoint presentations and write books about how the world
will change in the future. I used to work for one: Alvin Toffler, who wrote a
groundbreaking book in 1970 called Future Shock. His book, four decades after the fact, remains a
fascinating artifact: his description of "information overload" (a term he
invented) rings especially true in an age of Twitter and Facebook, but his
description of cities running out of oxygen, and disposable clothing made of
paper, sounds a bit silly.