Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.
There has been much discussion lately of the need to turn the green agenda from a negative to a positive one. I think that an important part of this is developing some more positive visions of what living in a sustainable future might be like. My organization, Forum for the Future, has set itself this task. Partly because we think the green movement needs more credible and aspirational stories of the future if we are to take people with us. And partly because we become the future that we imagine — it is to an extent a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, we are trying to take different parts of the future and imagine what they might look like. We now have a series of projects looking at different aspects of future living.
Our recent report, "Low Carbon Living 2022," asks how might our lives be better if we get the response to climate change right. A low-carbon Britain doesn’t have to mean cutbacks and sacrifice. Low Carbon Living 2022 looks forward 15 years and shows ways in which a low-carbon future could deliver: stronger communities, a cleaner local environment, more money, better transport, a healthier lifestyle, and a thriving economy.
The project sets out nine products and services — from "virtual windows," allowing meetings with people anywhere in the world, to luxury airships — which would be doing well in a low-carbon future. The adverts for these products of the future can be seen here.
Another recent project, Retail Futures, offers a glimpse of what the shopping experience of 2022 might involve. Through four radically different visions of the future, “Retail Futures 2022” explores many of the issues the retail sector will have to face in the years to come.
Taken together, the scenarios provide valuable tools to help the retail sector develop robust, future-proof strategies that will deliver more sustainable retail in a time of radical change.
In one of the scenarios, a bright glass building shimmers in the setting sun, crowned with wind turbines and coated in solar panels. No one lives there; it used to be a car park. Now it’s a vertical farm, a shining example of the new urban agriculture — climate controlled, filled with fruit and vegetables, and even a few pigs. It generates all its own energy, harvests water from the rooftop, and markets produce on the ground floor to local businesses and residents.
In another, communities are increasingly turning to bartering and other peer-to-peer exchange schemes to cope with an economic slowdown. Many consumers have become traders in their own rights, making a living through selling goods and services online directly to others.
Then again, in a different scenario, people have stopped shopping altogether — at least for everyday staples. Instead, customers receive milk, bread, pasta, washing powder, and toilet tissue whenever they are needed, triggered by messages sent automatically to the retailer direct from their cupboards and fridges.
These scenarios aren’t science fiction: the future could contain elements from all of them.
None of these pieces of work are predictions of what will actually happen. Predicting the future is a perilous affair. Remember back to when you were a kid and what you thought the future would be like. So, who today is wearing rocket boots, eating meals in tablet form, or living on the moon?
We do, however, try to describe possible futures, so that we start to see the opportunities. And we are working with the strategy and product-development parts of major companies like BP, Cadbury Schweppes, First Choice, and Unilever to start innovating the products and services that will be successful in such futures. We hope that by bringing such products to market, the companies will help create the kind of future we want.
Between now and 2022, there’s not much time. But there’s time enough for a metamorphic shift. Just think of the mushrooming of the internet in the 15 years since 1992.
Over the coming year, we intend to look at the future of holidays, commuting, city living, and, in another soon-to-be-published project, we have asked what following a low-carbon economic strategy might mean for one of the U.K.’s regions.
So, what do you think the products of the future will be? Who will be making money out of what? And where would you invest?