Africa leads in clean tech innovation, teenage entrepreneurs hack Ben & Jerry’s factory, and your best friend is a robot... find out how a bunch of thinkers imagine our world in 2020.  

In 2010, futurist Rudy de Waele asked a number of influential doers and thinkers in the mobile space to imagine what 2020 would look like given tech trends of the time. He’s now gone back to those thinkers, plus others from outside the mobile space, and updated this into Shift 2020 – a collaborative book. 

The book is just over 80 pages long, and it’s in need of an edit in places, but nevertheless there are some interesting ideas in there from fascinating people including Gerd Leonhard of The Futures Agency, Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission, and Kate Darling, researcher in Intellectual Property and Robot Ethics at Harvard/MIT.

It’s important to note that these are projections, not predictions. And whilst the ideas in here will be built on extrapolating from existing trends and signals, there’s also a lot of creativity involved. But if you’re interested to be challenged by how different our world might be in 2020, keep reading. Here are just a few of the ideas that I found most interesting...

ONE: Africa is leapfrogging the developed world

African businesses and governments are making an advantage of their relative lack of infrastructure. In the telecommunications space this means lack of hard wired cables, particularly in rural areas, so mobile is now king. Moving money around has traditionally been a barrier for African entrepreneurs but innovators have developed new digital transaction systems that give credible IDs, thus credit ratings, and this gets the money flowing to small businesses.

Everyone has access to information, and can create it too. This is a powerful weapon against corruption and has unlocked the “power of billions of brains”. Africa is exporting her innovation and ideas – think cleantech and medical breakthroughs.  

TWO: Beyond 3D manufacturing

A day doesn’t seem to go by when there isn’t another article about 3D printing and how it’s about to revolutionise our lives. By 2020 this will have materialised. Yet some suggest that the open manufacturing trend might have gone further, with bigger, traditional manufacturing supply chains being disrupted and being opened up to people with good ideas.

“What bloggers did to mass media will have its parallel in what amateurs will do to the Sonys and Toyotas of the world.”

Does this mean we’ll simply be producing loads more stuff (and waste), or will we be smarter about our making? Could we see teenagers hacking Ben & Jerry’s manufacturing capabilities to develop their own products with radically lower carbon footprints?


THREE: Guilt-free consumption

Greater transparency and access to information, the negative effects of our choices being experienced by more people (think climate change) and a better educated global population – will this mean a new era of consumption? Guilt-free consumption could be the new luxury for consumers and “the Holy Grail” for businesses – those who can deliver goods and services that have a net positive impact on the world will be loved.  

Her Flickr

FOUR: Machines are our friends

I haven’t watched Her yet, but the central premise of a man falling in love with an operating system is explored here too.

It’s suggested that machines could be so intelligent as to run our lives and become our best friends – indeed, know us better than we know ourselves.

It does beg the question: what is true friendship? Shouldn’t it include an element of mystery and sometimes hard truths – things that robots may struggle to provide?

One of the most interesting bits of the report for me was the contribution from Kate Darling. She noted the need by 2020 of thinking about, and perhaps legislating for, our interactions with robots – from children’s relationships with robot toys, and adults’ sexual practices with robots that would be illegal with other human beings. 

FIVE: Hyperbeings

But with or without the robots, our lives are increasingly dominated by digital technology and we’re facing more and more choices about whether we plunge into or hold back from ‘high-digital’ lives. Some suggest there will be a growing divide between those who do and those who don’t. ‘Hyperbeings’ will start to emerge who fully embrace it and others who choose to go ‘off-grid’ – how will these groups interact and how will society serve both?

SIX: Power

All this brings us to a shift in power. The digital revolution and associated benefits (transparency, access to education, the ability to have a voice) will continue to challenge our political systems – in many cases positively.

It’s predicted that citizens will play ever more important roles in science, peer-to-peer funding models will flourish, and ‘smart cities’ will be built through public-private-people partnerships. Will trade flow through Googlecoin and what will that mean for our governments? How will we ensure big tech companies don’t own our lives? 

SEVEN: Artists & philosophers as politicians

There are many positive changes suggested in this report, but it also brings up many dilemmas and ethical decisions ahead that will challenge us deeply.

This is a world of blurred lines and those in positions of power will need to be creative, and be leaders of great ethical and moral courage. It raises the prospect of our statespeople coming from non-traditional political backgrounds – could we see artists, philosophers and scientists taking the reins? 

What will this mean for our slow-moving political institutions? 

Will we have a Global Council for Robot Relations, an international citizen science platform, or a peoples’ movement which wrests control on climate change from governments and business? 

And at root in all of this – how will we build happy lives?  

Whilst it feels that the pace of technological change gets faster by the day, it is ultimately up to us how we respond to and wield the power that is increasingly being put in our hands. Will we use it to create a better world for all, or will it simply divide and fragment us, leading to more social and environmental problems? Let’s aim for the former.

See what you think for yourself – find Shift 2020 here.