The invisible hand has finally vanished

Yesterday evening I took part in a wide-ranging discussion in London that included a number of senior civil servants. Although I need to respect the anonymity of the participants, I do have permission to mention one fairly abstract point that caught my interest.


A view was expressed that rising complexity in an instantaneously interconnected and interdependent world has reached the point where governments can no longer exert control. Now, without debating the point about whether governments were ever really in control, I would agree that the complexity of what they deal with is certainly increasing...

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Derren Brown predicts lottery!

The UK’s celebrated TV illusionist Derren Brown appeared to get the future right on Wednesday this week when he predicted the outcome of the National Lottery on live TV. As this blog is concerned with the future it seems appropriate to comment. Setting aside the temporarily beguiling explanation offered on his Friday night TV show, on this occasion he was given away by a slight error. If you look very carefully at this clip of the prediction and step between 6:05 and 6:07 you will see that the ball on the extreme left jumps up very slightly. This is almost certainly the telltale for a split-screen illusion which allowed the balls to be changed by assistants, who unfortunately failed to pack all the new balls down flat. The constant camera movement could preclude split-screen, but if you look carefully you can see there is no parallax displacement of the background behind the balls, suggesting that this was not camera movement but a video effect. This is a curiously elaborate way of doing things, as radio receivers inside the balls and e-paper on the outside ought to have been easier. Sad really, as it would have been much more fun if he really had predicted the future.

Crisis over? Time to look deeper

Last Monday, Nouriel Roubini, writing in the Financial Times, said there are now three open questions about the economic crisis: when will it end, what shape will it be, and are there risks of relapse? Clearly these are pertinent questions, but they reflect a general tendency for commentary to be framed in terms of a desired return to normal, a restoring of economic growth. The assumption that this is a ‘normal’ crisis, not much more than a really nasty lurch in business as usual, has meant that the reforms deployed so far have been relatively superficial, and possibly even counter-productive. 

Obviously, an urgent response was necessary to rescue normal functioning. But now that this seems to have staved off the worst, this is the stage to be asking about neglected deeper aspects of the crisis. Particularly if they hint that this has been just a foreshock of something larger – meaning there are still things that must be mended to avoid a much worse crisis later...

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Predicting the future of the economy

In the last week, the Economist and the Financial Times have both told us that macroeconomics is in a state of meltdown because it failed to prevent or predict the global financial crisis. This is more than a spat in the corridors of academe. In the real world, it actually makes it harder to predict the future of the current financial crisis, and potentially increases volatility.

The problem is that we always rely on some kind of interpretative theory to anticipate the future. If everyone agrees on the appropriate macroeconomic prescription then the future outcome looks predictable. But if the macroeconomists advising governments are divided into two warring factions, who should investors – on whom a recovery partly depends – believe?

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Incandescent bulbs not dead yet?

In 2007 Australia announced plans to ban incandescent light bulbs from November 2009 onwards, and in March this year the EU adopted a regulation that will phase them out from September 2009 onwards. Several other countries are also planning phase-outs. Much of the credit for this is attributed to a campaign called Ban the Bulb, which has been arguing for the banning of incandescents since 2005 on the grounds that it is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to save energy and carbon emissions. 

In the US, where market-based solutions are the preferred approach, a 2007 law simply called for light bulbs to use 25–30% less energy by 2014, which appeared to rule out incandescents. In fact, it has stimulated a burst of innovation that seems to show that the old bulbs are far from dead...

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What global climate models say and don’t say

There seems to be a widespread perception that global climate models capture all the important factors that will determine the future of the global climate. The previous post showed how changes in the underlying assumptions can cause the models to indicate less change, at least in the short term. But it is also relatively easy to show how things could be much worse than any model can currently capture.

What if the global system is now so stressed that major system shocks are triggered in much shorter timescales than we are currently expecting. What might they be?

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Well, is it warming or not?

Just as climate scientists finally succeeded in convincing everyone that global warming is imminent, the latest versions of their models seem to be leading them to take a more cautious line.

In May last year, a study led by Noel Keenlyside of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Germany reported that due to multi-decade-long changes in ocean currents, "global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade, as natural climate variations in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific temporarily offset the projected anthropogenic warming." This was significant enough for Nature to include it in their year-end summary of...

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Base of the pyramid food strategies

On Wednesday this week I attended the GAIN Business Alliance Forum in Amsterdam, where I gave a presentation on the future prospects for global food production. I was not aware of GAIN before receiving the invitation to present at the forum, but it turns out to have a tightly focused and potentially very effective purpose. GAIN stands for Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and is a Swiss foundation that aims to reduce malnutrition through food supplementation and related strategies. It was created in 2002 at a special UN session on children, and funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The premise is that malnutrition stunts the physical, cognitive and economic development of almost a billion people worldwide and can be prevented for about 10 cents per person per year. Micronutrient deficiencies – such as iron, iodine and zinc – can be remedied by...

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Hidden consequences of the financial crisis

Since late last year there has been a critical shortage of a key chemical solvent, acetonitrile. This chemical is produced as a by-product of plastics manufacturing for the car industry, and as the global financial crisis caused demand for cars to collapse, supplies have all but disappeared. Acetonitrile is vital in the testing and production of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals, and prices have rocketed...

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Over-dependence on globalized info-systems?

The UK's Daily Telegraph carried a story today about the possibility that the satellites of the Global Positioning System "could begin to fail as early as next year." As is often the case with news stories, this is not a useful statement about the future – they could break down next week, or not for years, as the actual substance of the story is simply that a number of the satellites are more than four years past their design lifetime. But I digress – the interest of this story is what would happen if they do start breaking down. Increasing pressure on public finances makes it quite probable that there will be further delays in putting up replacements, even though as space systems go, this must be a major priority. Curiously, once a system like this is up and running, businesses and governments start using it as if it will simply be there forever and give little thought to what would happen if it suddenly went down for an extended period. Each individual user is taking their own usage for granted, and no one thinks about the enormous overall dependence we develop without noticing. Maybe there should be a GPS-free day once a month, to make sure the old skills and tools don't completely atrophy.

The habit of thinking as if there is no box

Starting in May 2009, this blog will reflect on the changing state of the future, ranging from the global to the local – spanning global issues, cultural change, economic events, new science and technology, and critiques of strategic thinking. It will represent a resolutely cross-disciplinary perspective, because that is what the challenge of making sense of our collective future requires – plus unending curiosity and the habit of thinking as if there is no box.