The Economist's Robin Bew, who opened the conference yesterday by reminding us of exactly how deep the s*** is we're in, posed what are perceived to be the four trends (or challenges for business) that will shape tomorrow's world.
Sir George Cox (former Design Council Chairman), in his calming, measured, reassuring way, offered some reasons why we shouldn't all start panicking and freak out. This was a nice reflective antidote to the information overload of the last two days, and perhaps the most genuinely insightful session for those business leaders who had attended to learn what they should be planning for.
So, the 4 Trends:
1. the shift to emerging markets
2. rich world ageing
3. carbon pricing
4. a lack of capital
What Sir George Cox had to say about each, more or less in his own words:
1. The Shift to Emerging Markets
The world is being reshaped by powerful forces, forces which interact. This interaction makes the future unpredictable. He referred to a recently published book documenting 100 years of british business: 'from dynasties to dot.coms.' saying that in the past a lot of organisations that had the world at their feet suffered because they just didn't recognise it.
Of all the changes taking place, it's important to differentiate between what is permanent and what is cyclical. Economic growth has been a constant, and especially rapid over the last 10-15 years before the financial crash, and there will be economic growth again. (A cyclical change). People will continue to innovate and be entrepreneurial, whatever the situation (and here he referred to witnessing entrepreneurial activity between displaced persons in a camp in Darfur), technology will continue to make things more efficient and bring prices down, increasing accessibility.
What is permanent however, is the shift in where the wealth is coming from. And the political power that goes along with that. He said the notion that China will be happy to continue to take the low-skilled jobs while we continue doing the nice high-skilled jobs is 'a lovely scenario and totally unrealistic'. Why should the nation, that for thousands of years was at the forefront of civilisation (a record of progress on which the last century has been a blip), want to continue to supply low grade labour to the rest of the world?
Their attitude is positive and forward looking, and we are scuppered because there is nothing that we can do cheaper than anyone else. Unless, and what is particularly relevant to this audience, we take advantage of our creative skills, which we have in abundance. Currently we don't make enough use of them, and he warned that this myopia will lead to the UK being nothing more than a theme park. Benefits will go to those nations that have the wit and the balls to do something, who are looking for the opportunities.
2. The Rich World's Ageing Population
We need to rethink the entire shape of our lives. People are spending longer in education, and living much longer after they retire (instead of 'doing the decent thing and popping off after a few years'!) The working share of our lives is out of proportion, and that, somehow, needs to change.
But there are upsides to having an ageing population. That demographic offers new markets for leisure, healthcare, services. (Robin cited a Japanese example of a nappy manufacturer turning to pet nappies for the dogs and cats of elderly widows who liked the company of an animal but couldn't get out to walk it very often. Apparently the company prides itself on owning the IP to a waterproof seal that fits round a tail.) Yes people are living longer but they are also leading much healthier and more active lives. People in their 50s and 60s are going back to University, genuinely interested this time round.
3. Carbon Pricing
We're not running out of energy, the issue is the cost of accessing and using it. And we waste energy on a huge scale. Whole cities are lit up at night. Echoing what Steve Evans said yesterday, 'the problem is we don't recognise it yet.'
There are three things that he said will affect our energy use: availability, price, and society's attitudes. This third he predicted was the most significant, comparing the analogy of smoking in a theatre, or drink driving. These are things that once went unchallenged, but are now totally socially unacceptable.
We still haven't changed our attitude to energy use, but it will happen, he said, citing his own feelings about his car: a mixture of embarrassment and pride.
4. A Lack of Capital
At the height of the boom, getting hold of capital was just far too easy. At the moment, there is certainly a lack of access in the West (less of a problem in the emerging economies), but this is one change that is to some extent cyclic.
That access will return, albeit probably not to the same ridiculous degree, but in the meantime it will be hard for small companies. On the other hand, he said, when we have a surplus of capital we waste it by not thinking, not using it intelligently, so perhaps a dearth of it for a while will be no bad thing for triggering some good design thinking.
[Blogged live at the end of The Economist's Big Rethink Conference]