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The considered art of trying to predict 2022’s trends before they are seen as inevitable

Illustrative image: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yuri Gripas) | Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ROMAN PILIPEY)

What will be the big events and trends for the new year that deserve serious consideration, but are right alongside any black swans that can overturn those predictions?

‘Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” is the famous observation about life attributed to everyone from physicist Neils Bohr and Mark Twain to baseball’s king of malapropisms, Yogi Berra. But black swan events can also crop up and confound us. As those recede into the past and we see them in our rear view mirror, they eventually are judged as the inevitable outcomes of what has gone before and intriguingly we begin accepting them as part of the historical landscape.

The challenge is how to see trends in such a way that we can understand the antecedents – before they are seen as inevitable. This, then, is the political and economic analogue of what psychologist William James famously described as the “booming, buzzing confusion” of sensations that assail a newborn child.

Clem Sunter, the South African scenario planner, explained his methodology for developing scenarios about the future as follows. His team used a roster of triggers and red flags to help weigh alternatives and provide those “heads ups” about problematic developments and policy choices.

When I asked what the most significant red flags were, he said to check the interest rates on a government’s long-term bonds: are they going up or down? The higher the interest rates demanded and paid, the more it is a predictor for future instability.

For another approach, Foreign Affairs now asks panels of recognised experts to judge the likelihood of a particular trend that they have identified among international issues in order to “crowdsource” predictions. It publishes the distribution of opinions on the back page of each issue. Meanwhile, The Economist, in its annual look ahead to a new year, uses another version of crowdsourcing, asking influential scholars, commentators and analysts for their views of the key trends for the coming year.

But crowdsourcing is not infallible. Stanford University’s Amy Zegart, in a recent Foreign Affairs article on open intelligence efforts such as Bellingcat cautions that “…a thin line separates the wisdom of crowds from the danger of mobs. The herd is often wrong – and when it is, the costs can be high.”

Nevertheless, syncretising the ideas collected by The Economist, Tom Standage, in his introduction to that publication’s annual edition on the coming year, has pointed to the key trends to pay attention to in 2022. Naturally, the impact of the Covid pandemic, especially as it affects everything from working circumstances to international travel, is obviously going to continue. Similarly, the likely rise and rise of China economically and politically, and climate change will almost certainly have profound impacts as well. But for 2022, the publication has highlighted 10 key trends.  

First is a deepening, globalised competition between democracy and autocracy that will be starkly visible between the contrasting rhetoric of America’s mid-term elections and the speeches at China’s Communist Party congress.

This broader competition will also appear in places like France where Emmanuel Macron will face strident opposition from the country’s right-wing nationalist party, riding popular economic discontents.

Concerning the rivalry between the US and China, Standage notes: “Which is better at delivering stability, growth and innovation? This rivalry will play out in everything from trade to tech regulation, vaccinations to space stations. As President Joe Biden tries to rally the free world under the flag of democracy, his dysfunctional, divided country is a poor advertisement for its merits.” This topic increasingly preoccupies Americans, as can be seen when Foreign Affairs devoted a full issue to the challenge of China.

Second is the manner in which the pandemic shifts into becoming an endemic disease. Standage wrote: “New antiviral pills, improved antibody treatments and more vaccines are coming. For vaccinated folks in the developed world, the virus will no longer be life-threatening. But it will still pose a deadly danger in the developing world. Unless vaccinations can be stepped up, Covid-19 will have become just another of the many endemic diseases that afflict the poor but not the rich.” That judgment will hold unless Covid mutates into a more dangerous variant, even beyond the just-identified Omicron one, something that may provoke new stringent measures globally and then knock-on effects on society, the economy, and even the survival of some governments. In short, we ain’t out of the woods.

Then there is inflation. While most readers have been living peaceably without rapidly rising inflation, the world is now confronted by just such a possibility – and the resulting economic and political strains – flowing from supply chain disruptions and rapid rises in the demand for energy. 2022’s big question, therefore, is whether this current inflation is a special bump coming from a reopening after pandemic shutdowns or a more sweeping inflationary spiral. Historically, such spirals have destroyed fragile governments, often leading to populist authoritarians who promise: “I will make the trains run on time.”

Further, while the jury remains out, many experts are beginning to believe a fundamental change in the nature of work is now ongoing that may be as fundamental as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when production moved decisively from homes to factories. With so much work now doable electronically from anywhere: “There is a broad consensus that the future is ‘hybrid’, and that more people will spend more days working from home. But… [h]ow many days, and which ones? And will it be fair? Surveys show that women are less keen to return to the office, so they may risk being passed over for promotions.”

So, 2022 will see more elaboration on this theme exacerbated by the pandemic.

Simultaneously with these changes, there will also be a growing backlash against tech giants. “Regulators in America and Europe,” Standage writes, “have been trying to rein in the tech giants for years, but have yet to make a dent in their growth or profits. Now China has taken the lead, lashing its tech firms in a brutal crackdown. President Xi Jinping wants them to focus on ‘deep tech’ that provides geostrategic advantage, not frivolities like games and shopping.” A revolt against the tech giants will have unintended consequences, especially as these technologies become ever more deeply insinuated into lives. How this contradiction is resolved, so far, remains a big unknown.

Similarly, 2022 may be the year the cryptocurrency world moves out of the shadowy landscape of the digital wild west to where it is tamed by governmental regulators. Nations like El Salvador are already issuing their own cryptocurrencies. With more consequential nations, however, “…central banks are also looking to launch their own, centralised, digital currencies. The result is a three-way fight for the future of finance – between the crypto-blockchain-DeFi crowd, more traditional technology firms and central banks.” No one knows, yet, how this will turn out, no matter what those financial investors on social media attempt to tell you.

Then, of course, climate is an issue that may well supersede everything else, even if it does not do so decisively within 2022. Despite the increasing near-biblical frequency of giant wildfires, heatwaves, paralysing polar vortexes, massive floods, and other extreme weather, Standage argues, “a striking lack of urgency prevails among policymakers when it comes to tackling climate change. Moreover, decarbonisation requires the West and China to cooperate, just as their geopolitical rivalry is deepening.” Still, despite naysayers, 2022 may finally make believers out of almost everyone, perhaps even those self-aggrandising politicians who remain captives of the coal mining sector.

As far as climate issues go, the black swan might arrive in the shape of a massive hurricane, wreaking havoc on a major coastal city. The destruction could lead to the breakdown of all civic services, dwarfing the effects that Hurricane Katrina visited upon New Orleans, and leading to major political and economic impacts.

One of the dangers of a list like this one for a new year is that unexpected events suddenly arise; witness the new wave of travel shutdowns with the emergence of the Covid Omicron variant. The Economist has argued that travel was beginning to pick up as economies reopened, even as some nations with a zero-Covid ‘suppression’ strategy, such as Australia and New Zealand, face the tricky task of managing the transition to a world in which the virus is endemic”.

“Meanwhile, as much as half of business travel is gone for good. That is good for the planet, but bad for tourists whose trips are subsidised by high-spending business travellers.” But with Covid Omicron arising just before Christmas/New Year’s travel, the pandemic has again kicked out the supports for a gradual reopening. Such an unexpected wrinkle can cause havoc and lies outside earlier predictions.

Space exploration – both close in and further out – will have increasingly big impacts within the year. Rival space tourism companies may well transport more paying customers into space than direct government efforts. In 2022, China will complete its own version of the International Space Station, and there will be filmmakers creating movies in space, not just soundstage/CGI versions. Nasa, meanwhile, will crash a probe, launched in late 2021, into an asteroid to test ideas that have already served as the plots of blockbuster movies. By the beginning of 2022, the new James Webb telescope will be sending data to Earth on all manner of questions about the universe – or raising new ones.  

Inevitably, too, there is the near-certainty of ructions connected to global sports events — first Beijing’s Winter Olympics, and then football’s World Cup in Qatar. While sports can bring people together, it can also be fertile soil for geopolitics. Anticipate protests aimed at China and Qatar as a result, even if actual team boycotts are not – yet – being scheduled.

These 10 trends are based on what The Economist informants relatively confidently predict. But what about those pesky black swans? Among the more obvious will be all the impacts stemming from the American midterm elections. If Republicans gain control – at least – of the House of Representatives, forget major legislation supported by President Biden, such as immigration and tax code reforms, let alone any items left out of the social infrastructure bill awaiting a Senate vote.

There are two international tangles that might become unintended but open conflict between great powers. On the Ukraine/Russian border, Russia’s support of separatists and its marshalling of major military forces on its side of the line increase chances a provocative or accidental clash might lead to wider fighting. At that point, America’s and Nato’s reactions become crucial.

Similarly, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea offer conditions for accidental, or accidentally-on-purpose actions that could tip things into actual hostilities. This is true even if the Chinese believe they are not yet capable of launching a full-scale action to gain control of Taiwan. But who really knows?

As far as climate issues go, the black swan might arrive in the shape of a massive hurricane, wreaking havoc on a major coastal city. The destruction could lead to the breakdown of all civic services, dwarfing the effects that Hurricane Katrina visited upon New Orleans, and leading to major political and economic impacts.

While we are thinking about cybercurrencies, consider the impact of a sophisticated multi-point, cyberhacking of the international banking and financial system (let alone the internet more generally). No one really knows how much resilience there is in this complex, interconnected network, but there are some states and non-state actors that might wish to find out. 2022 could be the year we learn the answer.  

As the world continues to struggle with Covid, we should expect to see the first major works of art and culture, embracing the impact of the pandemic, reaching our bookshelves, our television and cinema screens, and our theatrical and terpsichorean venues. The analogue, of course, was how HIV/Aids captured the attention of the creative class a generation ago. If the economic and political consequences are already here, the cultural ones are not far behind.  

Finally, how about this for the ultimate black swan? The new James Webb space telescope, or the earlier Kepler one, may well find indisputable indications of an Earth-like planet from among the thousands of planets already identified – and indications life exists – or existed – there. If ET phones us, even if just to say “Hi, welcome to the universe,” the impact on politics, society, culture and religion will be enormous.  

By their nature, black swans are unseen until they swim by, so we must be ready for the unexpected impacts of cross-fertilisation among those trends we can identify. Check back in a year to see how well we did. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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