This is just a sneak peek from Jan‘s, Klaus’, Casper’s, and Morten’s feature in SCENARIO 06:2015. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
But one thing is the relatively uncertain and often very unlikely wildcard, another is that there are things that researchers and experts know will happen, but which are neither talked about nor planned for by the public or politicians – either because people are uninformed about them, or because they don’t think in sufficiently long-term perspectives, or because they simply ignore their actual knowledge. These things or events, we might call blindspots in the democratic discourse. In this feature, we will provide examples of such blindspots that will influence our future, no matter whether we are collectively aware of them or not. But let us start with a few examples from the past that changed the world, while people of that time were concerned with totally different agendas.
Blindspots of the past
In the years around 1900, there was heavy traffic in London and New York, leading to problems of congestion and noise not unlike what we see today. There was, however, one dire problem that we do not know today: The vehicles were drawn by horses, and horses crap and urinate in the streets. A horse produces 10 kilogrammes of droppings and one litre of urine a day – and there were more than a hundred thousand of them in New York, and a similar number in London. Every day, a million kilogrammes of manure had to be scraped from the streets and taken away, which was not always done – and where should one put all that waste, anyway? The horse manure attracted ies that led to serious health problems. in an article from 1908, a journalist from Appleton Magazine claimed that no less than twenty thousand New Yorkers died each year because of diseases brought about by the horse manure. An 1894 article in the Times of London estimated that in 50 years, there would be a 9-foot level of manure in the streets. Add to this that more space was needed to stable the horses, and still more farm land to provide feed for them. The future prospects were truly black – or rather, brown.
The solution to these problems did not come from regulating the use of horse- drawn vehicles in the cities, but from a source that the politicians had not expected, namely new technology. Motor vehicles made their entry, and in a few decades, horse-drawn carriages become a rare sight in the cities. it should have come as no surprise, for the modern automobile was introduced in 1886 and became widespread with the ford T in 1908, but still, the cars – and the new problems that followed with them – caught the politicians off-guard. This prompted the writer and social critic H.G. wells – who as early as 1901 predicted wide motor roads filled with passenger cars, busses, and trucks – to talk about the necessity of ‘a systematic exploration of the future’ to prepare society for the great changes – in other words, futures studies.
Still within the transport/infrastructure sector, we find another example of a historical blind spot. The large-scale transportation of goods has nearly always been inseparably linked with water and shipping – on the ocean, lakes, or rivers. in the past, when you had to move a large quantity of goods, they were loaded on a ship and carried on rivers or between sea ports.
The industrial revolution was very much based on the centralisation of production. The factories were placed in the cities, and so, large amounts of raw materials and coal had to be transported there. This called for a new way of thinking about transportation. Particularly in England, this requirement resulted in a large number of enormous canal projects; between 1790 and 1840, this led to 7,200 kilometres of canals meandering all across Great Britain. Long, unmotorised barges were drawn by horses ambling at a leisurely pace along the canals, and all differences of level in the terrain were negotiated by often kilometres-long sluicing systems. By 1840, billions had been invested, the canals dug, and the whole country was connected by waterways – and the development of the canal system was what everybody was talking about.
But simultaneously with the canal projects, a new form of transportation was slowly gaining a footing: the steam engine. The first operational railroad was built as early as 1804; a 16-kilometre track transporting iron ore and workers between a mine and a village in wales. in the following decades, the development was fairly slow, but in the late 1830s, the development of the steam locomotive exploded. The slow machines with their few kilometres of track had been no notable threat in 1830, but now they drove the waterways out of competition within a few years.
During the 1840’s, 10,000 kilometres of railroad tracks were established in Great Britain and rendered the canal system completely superfluous for anything but coal transportation. In a single decade, the volume of transport decreased by two thirds, and before the end of the next decade, many of the canals were already in a state of decay. The shift was brought about so quickly that the engineering companies that had dug the canals could move directly from canal projects to railroad projects. Canal investors, lock keepers, and barge captains were not so lucky.
A world blinded by nuclear war
Another example of a blind spot of the past is the fear of a third world war that characterised the second half of the 20th century, and which was the focus of all security and conflict planning. This was the Atomic Era, heralded by the American Manhattan Project, and the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico in 1945. During the Cold war, nuclear weapons occupied the minds of civilians as well as military planners and the public in general. More and more weapons were produced, and they became more and more powerful. The doctrine behind this ever-growing nuclear arsenal was called Mutual Assured Destruction and formed the basis for the geopolitical security policy for more than two generations.
In the American military, they had the concept of ‘The Single integrated Operational Plan’ (SiOP); a plan whose basic premise was the immediate launching of all operational nuclear weapons against the enemy and its possible allies. During its time, SiOP included between 40,000 and 80,000 individual targets that apparently all deserved a nuclear attack. in the 1960’s, Pentagon analysts expected that SiOP would result in 600 million deaths, and this number did not even include those who would die in the subsequent chaos. Still, this was the plan for the strategic use of nuclear weapons right up to 2003.If the nuclear exchange did not finish off everybody to begin with, it would be followed by a ‘world war’ that would take place in the meeting of East and west in Europe. in 1990, nearly 300,000 American foreign NATO soldiers were permanently deployed in Germany and between 1950 and the year 2000, 10 million American soldiers had served in Europe.
But the September 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the world Trade Center in New york changed the situation radically. A military security system built and trained for global nuclear war now confronted a new and unknown enemy of a few thousand men. Strategies and tactics developed for conventional warfare could not just be applied to the so-called decentralised and asymmetric war. A long and arduous learning curve lay ahead. A learning curve much steeper than it should have been.
Despite the shock effect produced by the 2001 terrorist attacks, the new international terrorism had not arisen in secrecy. for a decade, intelligence analysts had tried to alert security organisations and politicians in various countries to the growing threat from large, complex terrorist organisations. Several books and movies had even been produced on the subject. But instead, the authorities chose to stick to the old threat scenario for conventional warfare. The previous decades had had their terrorism, but particularly in the west, terrorism had generally been treated as police work. Now, one was suddenly confronted with a much more serious threat than the Baader- Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades. Almost from one day to the next, terrorism had become the new global war.
Blindspot #1: Automation
World history is full of blind spots, where politicians and decision- makers should have seen what would happen, but turned the blind eye. This will be the case again in the future, and for our first example of current blind spots, we once again turn to transportation and infrastructure. Today, too, the automobile is an example of a technological advance with the potential to change transportation completely – and once again, politicians and other social actors will probably be caught off-guard. The taxi industry protests at the Uber transportation network, and politicians worry about the lack of parking spaces and the necessity of a toll charge to reduce car traffic in the cities – but the future of passenger transport lies elsewhere, namely in the use of autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars have existed on an experimental basis for many years, but still, the Danish Minister of Transport at the time, Magnus heunicke, was amazed when he was given a test ride in 2014. Later he stated that neither he nor other politicians had taken this new technology into account in their plans for transportation and infrastructure towards the year 2030.
Commercial autonomous vehicles are expected to come on the market maybe as early as 2020 – and after that, the replacement of the fleet of cars by robot vehicles may happen as quickly as the shift from horse-driven carriages did in the beginning of the 20th century. Then, taxi drivers as well as Uber drivers will become redundant, and we will no longer need the same number of parking spots, as driverless cars drive around performing taxi duties when you don’t need them yourself.
Traffic is not the only area where automation will create radical changes that will take most decision-makers by surprise. For years, politicians in the west have worried that jobs will be lost to low-wage countries, and that there will be a shortage of labour when the large generations retire. Neither of these problems will be as signi cant as many people think, for at least half of the jobs we have today will be automated by robots and computers during the next decades – and there is no advantage to placing machines in low-wage countries. in 2013, the Oxford School of Economics performed an analysis that concluded that 47 percent of current American jobs are at great risk of being automated within the next 20 years, and that an additional 19 percent are at a medium risk of automation. So, the threat comes from an entirely different place.
If the developments in computing continue as up to now, we will, as early as 2023, see computers at a price of USD 1000 with a processing capability corresponding to the human brain. The European ‘human Brain’ Project expects to produce a fully functioning simulation of the brain before 2025. These computer brains still have to be programmed or trained, but in principle, in ten years there will be no human tasks that computers cannot learn to perform as ef ciently as humans – or better. Only the best human brains within a specific field – be it law, medicine, teaching, or many other fields – will be able to match the computers. Robots are not only getting better ‘brains’, but also better sensors and actuators (body parts), so they can sense and manipulate the…