Richard Watson is a futurologist who believes it's impossible for us to predict the future, but that it is vital that we keep an open mind about what is possible and think ahead.

Watson, an author and business strategy consultant, delivered the first of the Addleshaw Goddard City Lectures 2015, on the subject of "The future: A few things you really need to know".

James Salford, Partner and Alison Goldthorp, Partner, Addleshaw Goddard

One of the most striking things that we need to know, Richard Watson argues, is that back in 1980, when doctors first diagnosed anxiety-related conditions, it was thought that about 2% of the US population suffered from them. Watson says: "Today, they think it's about 20%, and the reason is that things are just moving too fast for most people to deal with."

Such mental health concerns are just one of the many ways in which the massive changes that Watson went on to talk about will impact the workplace and business owners the world over.

Forces for change

More than 100 Addleshaw Goddard clients and contacts gathered in early November to hear Watson speak, as part of our programme designed to allow us all a unique opportunity to consider future trends and their impact on our organisations. Watson highlighted five fundamental forces for change that we should all be mindful of: demographic change; a global shift of power; worldwide connectivity; climate and resources; and GRINN technologies, namely genetics, robots, internet, nanotechnology and neuro-tech.

Of these, demographic change is the most certain, as the global population has increased from six to seven billion in the last 12 years, and with that comes pressure on key resources and infrastructure. Rapid ageing has been a key feature of the 20th century – in the US there are now more people aged over 65 than under 45, and 50% of the people that have ever reached the age of 65 throughout human history are still alive.

Watson adds, "There's a bit of a demographic double whammy going on here. If increasing longevity was a key feature of the last century, declining fertility is a key feature of this one. Most countries have a fertility rate below the replacement level. They are shrinking – including some countries you might not expect."

With ageing populations and falling fertility, if the economy is reasonably buoyant, comes a serious war for talent. Businesses may need to redesign their working practices to suit older employees, and think more about older consumers, incorporating places to sit down into retail units, for example, or developing low-tech or low-functionality phones. At the same time, there is a whole new generation of 'millennials' entering the workforce, with new expectations of flexibility, connectivity and mobility, whose very modus operandi at the current pace of change may set them miles apart from older members of teams.

Global power and connectivity

Watson talks of a global economic rebalancing leading to a growing global middle class, potentially adding another three billion middle-class people to the planet in the next two decades. That means many people buying cars for the first time, for example, and further pressure on key resources like energy, food and water, with water being the key one in Watson's view.

The big question is what China will do next, with all indications being that it will be the world’s largest economy by 2050. Asia is forecast to have 50% of global GDP by 2050, as it had in 1820, and Africa will grow in significance. The only current member of the G7 still likely to have one of the world’s top economies in 35 years' time is the US.

Alongside this global power shift comes global connectivity, with the acceleration of complexity in just about everything. "There's a strong argument that today we are on the cusp of very fast change," says Watson, "exponential in some instances." It took 76 years for half of US homes to acquire a landline telephone; with cell phones it took just seven years. It took 30 years for electricity and 25 years for telephones to reach 10% adoption, but less than five years for tablet devices to achieve the 10% rate.

Such connectivity raises challenges around data security, privacy and reputational risks, along with the development of what Watson terms "constant partial attention", where we only ever give anything our partial attention as we shift to working fully on screens rather than paper.

On climate change, Watson notes pressure on energy, food and especially water, alongside the increasing frequency of severe weather events and a potential shift in disease and migration patterns. What we don't know with any certainty is how humans will react, though the issue is political and not scientific. He says: "I think the reason we are still here as a species is that we are inherently inventive. We tend to leave it to the last minute, but we will sort this out."

Science and technology

Finally, Watson talked about the GRINN technologies, considering genetic prophesies and the personalisation of medicine; robots acting in supportive, security and social roles; the internet of things, including wearable technology and smart sensors; nano-materials with novel properties; and neuro-tech, which includes mind reading and modification capabilities.

He says developments in genetics are moving even faster than computing, and robots are becoming a very real threat to the global workforce. "We are genuinely on the cusp or robots becoming quite common. But the problem isn’t robots in the sense of causing mass unemployment; the problem is unseen automation and intelligence."

In a world changing so fast, it is little wonder human beings are struggling to keep up. And predicting the future is nigh-on impossible: Who could have envisaged Facebook, Google or Twitter 15 years ago?

Watson worries about economic inequality, but says the good news is that family support networks are making a comeback: there is a trend towards three generations living under one roof again, as elder family members move back for support, and children leave home later. When Spain suffered massive youth unemployment, for example, Watson believes there was no rioting on the streets because families stepped in to support the 18-25s who could not find work.

Watson concludes: "We should spend less time worrying about what the future might bring, and more time discussing what kind of future we would all like to live in."

The City and the Future

The City and the Future lectures series was conceived to bring together influencers and businesses so that we can all learn, share and form opinions on future thinking within the City. It is clear that the most successful businesses in 2030 will be those that were forward looking and willing to implement changes ahead of their competitors.

We also welcome award-winning economics editor Robert Peston and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone as speakers as part of the series.

We hope all our clients found Richard Watson's talk as thought-provoking and inspiring as we did.

Contact us

For more information about our activity in the City, to register your interest to receive insights on City trends from our experts, or updates on "The City and the Future" including upcoming lectures, you can email us.

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