Issues Magazine

Guest Editorial

By By Ian A. Maxell

Ian Maxwell Consulting

An overview of what's in this edition of Issues.

What are megatrends? The answer is very dependent upon your point of view. Most people, when asked to nominate a megatrend, will correctly point to global warming or diminishing resources. Other less obvious megatrends require more esoteric insider information – an example is virtual reality and the impact it will have on humans over the next half century or so.

Indeed, the timescale by which megatrends are nominated also varies from expert to expert. I have seen megatrends couched in terms as short as a decade and as long as a few centuries. A “few” decades is most common, since this encompasses causes and effects that will be observed within the lifetime of many current observers. And we humans seem to be most interested in events that will take place in our own lifetimes rather than events that will take place generations hence.

The term “megatrend” is very new. It has become a standard media go-to category for “serious” journalistic efforts where such are required. We like our jingoism and catchy titles; “megatrends” seems to have caught on and it looks like the term will stick around.

To answer the original question, a megatrend is generally considered to be a big issue that is currently emerging and will affect pretty much all the people on the planet. Mostly megatrends are negative issues – ones that cause concerns regarding the quality of life as we know it.

Many megatrends are human issues, either directly impacting us through our own actions (e.g. machines that replace human labour) or indirectly through our own impact on the planet and the resultant impact on us. Although most megatrends are negative issues, our efforts to address them represent opportunities for the brave and the forward-thinking.

Megatrends exist because we are not in a steady state with our planet. A steady state, in terms of our society and environment, is where the inputs and outputs are equal and constant, and no discernible change is seen over many generations – much as was the case centuries back. Since the industrial revolution we have moved away from a steady state. Numerous megatrends have already come and gone (but were not always labelled as such), some remain and new ones emerge. It would be fair to say that the number of destabilising megatrends that we are facing is multiplying rapidly as the number of people on the planet also multiplies and our technologies allow us to become increasingly adept at consuming resources.

This edition of Issues brings together experts in a range of fields. Together, they distil the concerns and opportunities related to what we believe are the most important megatrends.

  • Water, land degradation and food (pp.6–17): these important issues in many ways speak for themselves because they all relate to the nutrients that humans need to survive and the paradoxical destruction of the ability to do so as we overpopulate the planet.
  • Population (pp.18–24): we include a discussion of the massive shifts in population balances in Asia and some of the impacts of these.
  • Energy (pp.25–28): in a similar vein we discuss options to keep us supplied with energy without ruining the natural environment.
  • Global warming (pp.29–32): with a focus away from the hows and whys, this essay critiques a proposed solution to global warming, namely climate engineering.
  • Politics and our economic systems (pp.33–40): these will face some serious challenges as we enter a period of diminishing resources.
  • Computer technology and IT (pp.41–52): these and related technologies have ever-increasing importance, and a few of the megatrends flow from this revolution. Privacy is discussed in great detail. Issues related to ownership of digitally created “goods” are an emerging IT megatrend. Looking further into the future are discussions of virtual reality and of machines that can replicate without human intervention, both of which may profoundly change how humans live.

It is especially important that these issues are understood by as many people as possible, especially the younger members of our society who will have to deal with the fallout from the megatrends. The more people that are across these issues, the more informed our public debate and hopefully the more intelligent the development of private and public policy.

In Australia we are already suffering in an environment where public policy at the political level has been “politicised”, and in the process the outcomes are being dumbed down to fit the needs of the media machine. This is less possible when more people are informed and can reject either the process or the outcomes.

I hope you enjoy these thought-provoking essays and that they inspire you to contribute to solving some of the issues described herein.

Ian Maxwell is a consultant and Adjunct Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University. Find out more about Ian at http://au.linkedin.com/in/maxwellian