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Dienstag, 21. September 2010

Global Interdependencies – Desperately Seeking Knowledge

(English version of my former german post)

Our #fc_org workshop last week and a lecture to students at the University of Bielefeld are only the last two compelling instances that show just how powerful a momentum can be generated by an interdependent view of global megatrends and what kind of incentives are needed to encourage adoption of such a standpoint. Dominating the front of the stage, however, is the question of whether there actually is a dedicated body of knowledge dealing with global complexity, and if so, how this can be most purposefully used.

The research landscape on the interdependencies of global megatrends is limited and may easily be overflown. While there might be a great number of scenarios dealing with possible futures, these are based methodically more on interpretations rather than on empirically verifiable chains of causality. This is readily understandable if we consider the daunting amount of time and effort involved in the full investigation of a single matrix of interdependency. There are indeed individual studies of such interdependencies but even so they embrace a quantitative approach.

If we consider demographics as a megatrend, for instance, and analyze its quantifiable interdependencies with other megatrends, we can refer to a 2007 report by the
WWF which sheds a particularly interesting light on the implications of the dynamics of interdependencies for both government and society alike. In its report the WWF has delivered an in-depth account of the costs of climate change for 2007 in terms of heat stress as a consequence global warming on the one hand and an ageing society on the other. High temperatures in combination with high humidity and ozone levels, accumulation of heat in the cities and an infrastructural lack of air-conditioned rooms were already identified as the primary factors behind the great number of heat-related deaths in 2003 (30,000 in Europe and 7,000 in Germany alone). The causes of death were dehydration, cardiovascular failure, respiratory problems and sunstroke. The correlations drawn by the report between higher temperatures and a rising mortality rate are clear and comprehensible (see, for instance, p. 31 of the report). The somber conclusion reached by the authors is that in comparison to today’s standard figures for an average summer, the annual number of heat-related deaths is set to increase by a factor of 3.4. Yet crucially – and this is the most interesting point made by the report – over half of the forecasted rise in the mortality will fall to demographic ageing effects, in other words to the elderly part of the population whose health is more fragile. In terms of regional distribution, the south of Germany is much more clearly affected than the north of the country. Associated economic costs include a rise in hospital admissions, a general fall in productivity, and the costs of the measures needed to adapt housing and buildings to the changed climate situation. Regretfully though, in its solid quantitative approach and consistent focus on interdependency, this report is more the exception than the rule.

The case cited above is just one of many possible interdependencies between demographics and global megatrends.

The different demographic make-ups in the regions of the world implicitly change power structures and ways consumer goods markets are aligned to consumer preferences. After all, why should the design and functionality of consumer products be solely oriented to the dwindling markets of European or North American consumers?

The increase in the world’s population runs contrary to the amount of land given over to productive agriculture while at the same time the world CO2 footprint is increasing in size.

In many countries in Africa population increase is eroding individual prosperity as growth in GDP (with all this involves for the CO2 footprint!) cannot keep pace with growth of the population.

This in turn results in a worsening of the security situation both on the local and the regional level as poverty leads to social conflict.

Yet the very changes that political decision-makers need to introduce into such a dynamic global environment are becoming ever more improbable in ageing societies which themselves are in dire need of reform. Such a lack of will to embark on reform only exacerbates the crisis in societies which are already struggling to cope with problems of ageing.

Demographic imbalance, poverty and social conflicts raise the pressure on people to migrate which in turn can cause problems in the host countries.
Urbanization and high population density can facilitate the spread of epidemics.

Even though such forms of interdependency are readily apparent, at present it seems as though neither political nor economic decision-makers are addressing such concerns with the attention they deserve. However, such a statement should by no means be seen as a rebuke or accusation – the accusatory tone is completely out of place given the almost complete lack of serious scientific research into such complex interdependencies.

If we now posit the existence of eight megatrends, this gives a matrix with 56 potential interdependencies. In this paper all I have done is to merely touch on the existence of eight one-sided causalities.

The question remains how can humankind now obtain knowledge of these 56 unexplored matrix cells? And how can industry, politics and NGOs use this newfound knowledge as a basis on which to make their decisions?