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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The best way to prepare for the future is to create it yourself

The world is considerably healthier, wealthier and less dangerous than it was 50 years ago, but where will we be in another 50 years? asks Gavin Esler at The National's Future Forum

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of a number of films made about a futuristic universe. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of a number of films made about a futuristic universe. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When it comes to thinking about the future, politicians and film makers inhabit different worlds. Politicians tend – or perhaps pretend – to be optimists. Ronald Reagan famously campaigned in the 1980s on the slogan "it's morning again in America”. In Britain in the 1990s, Tony Blair’s team promised “things can only get better”. And in last year’s German election Angela Merkel – with typically sombre understatement – still managed to promise a better future with her slogan “for a Germany in which we live well and feel good”.

On the other hand, filmmakers, sci-fi writers and journalists tend to be pessimists. How many future-based films or news reports have you seen about robots fighting, controlling or replacing humans? In the cult movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer Hal turns to the spaceman Dave and says simply: “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

There is nothing new in being terrified of the future. Back in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis wasn’t about robots taking over. It was about humans being treated as if they were working robots. Between the optimists and the pessimists, what might life really look like in 10, 20, even 50 years' time?

Most of us know from experience that our future will tend neither to be the worst of science fiction dystopias nor the best of the promises of political dreamers. There are plenty of bad things in our world. Syria reminds us of this every day. So do school shootings in the US or poverty around the world.

But we also all know that our world in 2018 is considerably better than 50 years ago. Since 1968, the world has become healthier and wealthier. We live longer than ever before. Fewer babies or mothers die in childbirth. More people can read books. Wars and suffering continue, the casualties are horrific but statistically you are less likely to die in combat now than ever before.

And so it is with a degree of cautious optimism that The National celebrates its 10th birthday this year with an ambitious Future Forum conference. Some of the top brains in the world are gathering here in Abu Dhabi to offer insights into the kind of society we, our children and grandchildren, might inhabit in 10, 20, or more years in the future.

In 2008, when The National first came into being, the worlds of Google, Facebook and smartphones were beginning to transform our lives. But where will technology take our homes and businesses in 2028 – or even half a century from now? How will the human brain be able to compete with computers which can already defeat even the best human chess players? What will be the impact on jobs?

When the newspaper launched, the world was entering a great recession and yet wise investors took advantage of the gloomy days to begin new projects. What then will be the future of money and investment in 10 years' time? Will money – in the sense of cash in your pocket – mostly cease to exist? Will human financial advisers still have a big role when computer programme trading even now often outperforms human stock traders? Will the oil economy finally be drawing to a close?

And where and how will we live? For generations, the story of mankind has been a movement from a nomadic life (and extreme poverty) to a better life on farmed land and then the search for human prosperity in cities which have grown to be, in the case of Mexico City or Sao Paulo, bigger in population than many countries.

But with increased pollution levels and traffic gridlock combined with easy internet access, will the future mean more of us will be able to live outside cities and work from home in the countryside? And as Cape Town suffers from severe water shortages, how will cities in the future cope with the increased demand for resources?

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Read more from Gavin Esler:

The Republicans' secret weapon is loyalty but it will be sorely tested in the midterms

I stand with Elon Musk: meetings at work are the enemy of creativity

Who would want to join politics when it is so riven with nasty factions?

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All of these topics form the core of the Future Forum deliberations. In my case, I will be concentrating on the future of money and investment. I’m particularly interested in hearing expert opinion on whether capitalism can become more inclusive and whether – as some predict – corporations in future can be valued not just for profit and loss but also for their contribution to society.

Some big accountancy firms already wonder if traditional accounting practices have to give way to an assessment of environmental impact, employment practices and benefit to the community. But so far the impact has been disappointing. Some businesses claim to be “socially conscious” — but do we believe investors in Google, Facebook and others ever truly care about anything other than the bottom line?

While no one can be sure what awaits us tomorrow, in our unpredictable world there is one guide to the future which is worth considering. The future is not just the creation of other people. We all have a stake in shaping the kind of future we want. Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, the best way to predict the future is simply to create it.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter and will be speaking about the future of money at The National’s Future Forum tomorrow in Abu Dhabi

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