Imagining tomorrow: possibilities, probabilities and potential in 2025

There’s been a lot of fuss about digital forming technology – that is physically printing anything from plates and cups to medical equipment and cars. But it is worth the fuss since it will radically impact on the world economy when it comes into fruition. The technology would give us the capability to manufacture just one product at a time, which would wipe out the need for cheap mass labour in emerging markets. This could leave these economies struggling to find work for their burgeoning populations.

David Rowan estimates that up to 2003, human civilisation generated five hexabytes of publicly available data. We now generate this much information every two days. Though some worry that this could lead to Big Brother-style abuse of private information, others argue that this creates new opportunities to utilise valuable data for the benefit of mankind.

The internet has transformed industries already: online trading platforms are diminishing the role of the stockbroker and music file-sharing is reducing the role of the record label. This could happen to banks and government services in the future. Businesses will have to constantly re-think how they can continue to add value and justify their existence as industries change. As data becomes more and more readily available, corporations will become increasingly transparent and accountable for their actions. As a result, reputation will become an ever more precious commodity. Some argue that these developments will also lead to power slipping away from state institutions, and cite the unrest in the Arab world as an example of the disruptive potential of social media. Others like Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, argues that the internet provides as much opportunity for state oppression as emancipation.

The world’s nations face a shift from predominantly young societies to predominantly old ones. This will be driven by a fall in fertility rates as well as people living longer. And this trend isn’t just happening in the West, populations are aging across the globe. Take Pakistan: half its population is under 15 years old at the moment, but by the middle of the century this proportion will fall to less than a fifth. This tells us a lot about what the world will look like in the future because through the twentieth century the West has depended on immigration to provide the necessary labour for its industries as its own population growth fell. As developing nations in Latin America and Asia become richer and older, their younger workers are less likely to leave. This tightening of immigration flows challenges growth prospects in Europe and the US.

With most countries in the West – although not the UK – facing a severe decrease in population in the next 20 years, capitalism may struggle to sustain “normal” growth rates. We have become accustom to the idea that each generation will generate more wealth than the generation before them. This could be about to change.

The good news is that Britain, with its strong universities and relatively open economy, may be given an advantage by a global marketplace that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship. But as an ageing population leads to increased competition for skilled workers, Britain will have to develop immigration policies that attract world-class talent.

The coming decades may continue to loosen the ties between national governments and the new “digital natives” generation. They may be more inclined to establish loyalties among each other, horizonally, and globally. In Britain, this could force a re-think of the current model of representative politics. We could even see the relationship between London and the rest of the United Kingdom come under stress. London – economically vibrant with a global population – could grow in identity and influence and become geopolitical actor on the world stage.

Leo Von Bulow-Quirk works for Chartwell Partners, the specialist speaker bureau, which organised this meeting.


David Rowan is editor of Wired UK. He has edited The Guardian's websites, written tech and trend-watching columns for The Times, made TV films for Channel 4 News, and produced features for The Telegraph Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer and elsewhere. He trained at The Times, edited The Guardian's op-ed, education, analysis and Saturday features sections. Most recently he edited The Jewish Chronicle.

Professor Sarah Harper is professor of gerontology at Oxford University, the director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and the director of the Clore Programme on Population-Environment Change. She has a masters from Cambridge and a DPhil from Oxford. Her research focuses on globalization and ageing.

Dr James Bellini is a futurologist and author. James spent more than twenty-five years as a TV broadcaster, futures analyst and writer with a focus on social, economic and technological trends. After an academic career James joined the US-headquartered futurology think tank the Hudson Institute. He then moved to the BBC to present The Money Programme, Newsnight and Panorama. He has a Masters in law and history from Cambridge and a PhD from the London School of Economics.