At ULI’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, two noted futurists presented startlingly different—though not necessarily conflicting—visions of where they think the world is heading as the 21st century unfolds.
Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Global Development, described a world in which steady progress is being made on several fronts: scientists are solving health problems such as childhood mortality; people in developing countries have improved access to education, personal communication, and economic opportunities; and democracy seems to be spreading. And despite the continuing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, armed conflict and deaths from violence have decreased markedly over the past 60 years, making the planet overall more peaceful than at any time in recent history.
Kenny cited World Bank data to make the case that prosperity is rising across the globe. The proportion of the world’s population living in poverty—those living on $1.25 a day or less—has dropped from 55 percent in 1950 to just 10 percent today, he said. That trend line is a result of a growing global economy, with the greatest progress being made in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
“Global economic output has doubled since 1990 to $10 trillion, and developing countries account for half of it,” Kenny said.
He also cited growth in electricity use and the availability of mobile phones as other signs of upward mobility around the world.
That positive direction directly benefits Americans, he said. “The rest of the world getting richer is good for us, because the majority of U.S. exports go to developing countries,” Kenny said. “More wealth for them means that they’ll invest more here, and there will be more opportunity for us to invest there.”
The most worrisome trend cited by Kenny is climate change; but even on this issue, he sees positive indications. “Last year, more renewable energy was added to the grids than fossil-fuel energy worldwide,” he noted.
“While there are still billions of people leading lives of deprivation in other countries and even in the U.S., that we’ve seen all this progress is reason to think it will continue. It’s reason for hope.”
Kenny was followed on the program by Jack Uldrich, author of books such as 2012’s Foresight 20/20: A Futurist Explores the Trends Transforming Tomorrow. He described the world as being on the verge of startling changes caused by the rapid advance of transformational technologies.
The internet-driven economy is about to undergo yet another massive transition as advances in virtual reality technology take hold and alter the way people shop for products, Uldrich said. He described future consumers strapping on virtual reality (VR) headsets and entering a virtual shopping mall in which they can look at and handle three-dimensional simulations of products.
“Will all of us shop that way? Not all of us, but some will,” Uldrich predicted. He envisions VR commerce being particularly popular among some seniors who have decreased mobility and said it would cause developers to rethink plans for shopping malls and whether there will be a need for as many physical retail locations.
Uldrich also predicted that 3-D printing technology would reshape the economy, trade, and even land use as it emerges as a cheaper, easier way to produce goods than sending work offshore to factories in the developing world. “Instead of making products in Asia and then shipping them here, we’re going to be making them here in your backyard,” he said. Uldrich said that everything from aircraft engines to houses will be made through 3-D printing.
Uldrich also envisions advances in nanomaterials as having an equally huge impact on society. He said researchers are working on developing self-healing concrete that repairs itself from wear in the same way that skin heals, and are developing building materials that will be able to lower the temperatures inside structures. Such advances could dramatically reduce the cost of operating and maintaining real estate.
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence—and the growth of the “Internet of Things,” in which sensors gather enormous amounts of data that can be analyzed to aid decision making—also will alter the real estate business, Uldrich predicted. He cited the example of a French building equipped with 10,000 sensors, which have enabled its owners to reduce energy consumption by 80 percent. He expects to see more such success stories over the next decade as the number of internet-enabled devices soars to reach an expected tens of billions.
“A supersmart world is a $17 [trillion] to $19 trillion business opportunity,” Uldrich said.
At the same time, though, such advances threaten to widen the gap between adopters of new technology and those who cling to traditional methods. “If you’re not already thinking about how to make your buildings smart, you’re behind the curve,” Uldrich warned.