A Peek at 2025: Data Barons, Icefree Poles, Nanosolar and Stem Cells


For our summer 2012 Duke Futures Institute, I taught a module on scenarios, part of which was a full-class exercise to create a group of four "scenario-lets" for the six class teams to consider as they developed their solutions for 2025. As the teams had each already begun sketching the outlines of their various innovation concepts, having a top-line world narrative for 2025 helped refine (or, as in some cases, threw a wrench/spanner into) the assumptions the teams were building their plans around. The impact of fitting their best-laid plans into some fairly alien worlds was eye-opening for them and fascinating for us as instructors and facilitators (scenarios were randomly assigned, not chosen by groups, adding an element of the unexpected). 

Having established a list of uncertainties, one hot, humid evening the class spent a few hours working out the axes upon which the scenarios would be generated, landing on the not-unexpected pairs of "Top Down/Bottom Up" and "Abundance/Scarcity". This gave Justin Pickard and me a few late night hours in which to concoct some basic narratives to spring on the class the next day. What follows is the text of these mini-scenarios, which I'm posting for general entertainment and edification now that the dust of the class has largely settled. No personal politics were harmed in the writing of these short pieces :) Bear in mind they were also the product of severe sleep depravation, piped-in bhangra, and moderate dehydration. At some point, I'll also (finally) post some of the final project visuals. Enjoy. 

Top-Down Abundance

2008 to 2019 was a Lost Decade, marked by political stalemates and repeated failures to re-inflate the asset bubble and lift global economies to their pre-2010 state. During this time, however, a small class of technology entrepreneurs had amassed enormous fortunes—growing to the billions in the late 2010s—from proprietary technologies, trading algorithms and explosive growth in machine-only electronic markets. By 2020, a group of several dozen business leaders and technology entrepreneurs had amassed over $1 trillion dollars, and, with the global economy facing utter ruin, as a group stepped forward with a deal. In return for loaning the government nearly the full $1 trillion, they took over large parts of public services and inserted their own presidential candidate, in what was effectively a leveraged buyout of the US economy, reducing Congress to mostly ceremonial body, rubber-stamping decisions handed down by this new “Billionaire Cabinet”. The corporatization of national economies is mirrored elsewhere as other groups follow suit with such open deals, capturing the apparatus and infrastructure of state government.

By 2025, the private government services platform is in place, new private investment markets have been formed to raise capital from a small class of new investors, and R&D experiences the resulting boost from the “Kickstarterization” of innovation. Economic conditions improve for the ruling “B-Class” with privileged access to data and networks, leaving much of the middle class remnant, barely a shadow of where it stood in the 1990s, living life hand-to-mouth. Power is largely focused on the US West Coast, where foreign entrepreneurs flock following the elimination of visas for foreign investors. Thiel Business School, created from the remnants of Google, Singularity University and University system of California, becomes the libertarian intellectual seat. The promised liberation of public education through technology still only benefits those with access, however.

Data is now the lifeblood of the economy, leveraged by the B-class to control both international business and consumers. A new discrimination is driven by extreme transparency of the lives of the average person—with government “Gattaca-izing” individual risk profiles, only allowing the “clean” access to well-paid jobs, good schools, public services, and shunting most others into an immobile servant class. Public transportation strains as this group is barred from or priced out of most of the country’s private roads. Health services are parcelled out based on highly detailed health profiles. Sponsorship becomes an important source of support for many in the underclass. Environmental conditions vary widely based on wealth, with a few focused “Enzones” created on the West Coast, NYC, DC and Atlanta, characterised by hybrid-only vehicles restrictions and strict recycling and water filtration schemes.

Elsewhere in the world, foreign governments take America’s internal focus and laissez-faire attitude as license to do as they wish, strengthening more oppressive governments who turn a blind eye to corporate and public sector corruption. Money flows freely, but only to those of means, and to further cultivate other B-Classes worldwide. Perhaps ironically, China’s wealth distribution now approaches something more like the US in the 1950s and 1960s, managing a stable (though highly leveraged) middle class expansion despite a series of economic shocks. Likewise with Greater Brazil and parts of Africa, which have grown through internal innovation, and relied less on global capital to build their economies in recent years due to difficult access to markets.

Bottom-Up Scarcity

What started as a sequence of increasingly hot summers across the northern hemisphere in the 2010s turned into a pattern of continual temperature rise, with average global temperatures rising 2C by 2025, 50% higher than forecasted. With stores of methane gas released in the Arctic from retreating polar ice caps, global emissions rose to approximately 1,000 megatons—40% over rates in 2010—in carbon emissions from newly exploited oil sands. Arctic shipping lanes were nearly fully open by 2020, but commercial exploitation was mitigated by a lack of cargo, with commodity raw materials and food stocks curtailed by rapidly falling yields of 25% or more of wheat, potatoes, corn, rice and soy. With shifting weather patterns, the traditional global breadbaskets were alternately hit by heat, drought and monsoon-like rains.

The upset to world economic markets was severe as the cost of basic staples quadrupled over the space of a few years. This had the effect of accelerating development of alternative food sources, synthetics, and in particular aquaculture in the few remaining areas still free of algae and bacterial blooms triggered by water temperature rises. With fewer producers controlling synthetic alternatives to natural food sources, a re-awakened DIY synth-food movement kicks into gear in Western Europe, Japan, coastal China and the western US, working on small-scale grain and protein alternatives. In fact, a great deal of technology R&D shifts into climate mitigation, food science, and alternative fuel production.

Political instability ripples round the world as populations agitate for lower prices and greater food access. At-risk populations, such as children, the elderly, and the ill, suffer greatly due to protracted heat conditions, drought and higher living costs. In Western Europe, a movement starts to shift whole populations into less inhabited parts of Scandinavia, driven by re-settlement from parts of France, Spain and Italy into parts of Sweden, Finland, and the southern edge of the Baltic. North and Central African refugees fleeing worsening environmental and agricultural conditions pushes into Central Europe, and, by 2025, European governments move to support the development of vertical, small-scale farms in cities as a means of feeding an even more dense population.

Ground-based transport suffers due to drastic carbon reduction rules in the US, Europe and parts of East Asia (though, crucially, not in India and China). Single driver vehicles are heavily restricted and subject to costly permits to cut down on CO2, with many large cities in US, Europe, Japan and South America turning into mostly HOV zones or car-free zones. With public funds scarce, mass transportation doesn’t receive commensurate investment, altering employment patterns away from lengthy commutes and closer to suburbs and city centers.

Consumer life becomes more restricted as many stay close to home, grapple with falling incomes, facing down a need to deal with local food and energy issues. Personal technology becomes increasingly important as a way to shift work closer to home, managing small-scale energy generation, micro-climate management, and local agriculture. By 2025, the middle class has re-emerged from the fallout of rapid climate deterioration as 21st century digital farmers and producers. For those below this point, economically, it’s a hard decade ahead, relying on those above them to create new income opportunities and local resources—a stark reversal of the globalized economy of the 2000s.

Bottom-up Abundance

President Romney's first 100 days see him opening US territory to oil exploration and shale gas fracking, and the part-privatization of FEMA. With his popularity rapidly waning, the 2014 midterms see the balance of power falling to a handful of independents and legislative activity grinds to a halt. Then, a month before the 2016 election, high-pressure fracking activity triggers a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in West Virginia, contaminating much of the region's water with benzene and methane. With Tropical Storm Otto moving northeast in off the Gulf of Mexico, four governors of affected states declare a regional state of emergency. Hours later, a cooling tower at Virginia's North Anna Nuclear Generating Station explodes. In its response, FEMA struggles to manage various private subcontractors, and Romney’s lack of guidance over-stretches all available resources. With Otto threatening to spread nuclear material further up the Atlantic coast, the media goes into overdrive, and miscommunicated policies and procedures run rampant.

After the mishandled evacuation of DC, Baltimore and NYC, the president attracts criticism from all sides. The Democrats win the November election with over 65% of the popular vote. With the North Anna disaster blamed on an inept presidency and corporate greed, the 27th Amendment devolves a number of presidential powers to state-level government and the US cabinet. After North Anna, fracking and nuclear fission are as good as dead. Nuclear power plants are mothballed across the US. Removing nuclear R&D condemns much of the West to years of brownouts and energy rationing, as people are forced make do with less. Japan, France, Canada and South Korea—the countries most reliant on nuclear technology—reach out to their citizens for energy solutions.

The Democrats are easily re-elected in 2020, winning a second term on the promise of establishing hi-tech homesteading as a “New American Dream.” Lacking plausible opposition, the party descends into in-fighting and factionalism, and the breakneck reformism seen from 2016-2020 slows to a halt. In 2021, a Cuban grad student at MIT posts the blueprints of a cheap hybrid carbon/silicon solar cell on the net, blowing the whistle on external funders' attempts to suppress the technology. MIT pulls the site, but it's too late. With the plans mirrored on a thousand torrents, the missing student becomes an overnight sensation.

2023 sees the White House broadcasting directly through its web channel, encouraging municipal, state and local governments to step up and fill the widening ‘governance gap.’ With no political talent stepping up to fill ineffective offices, the 2024 election sees a turnout of barely 20%. Unclear results are compounded by rumours of electoral fraud, and Americans are still waiting on results several months into 2025.

With few barriers to entry, nanosolar reaches 40% of domestic energy generation in the US. Most households have a rack of hybrid cells on-site, and a wave of young, entrepreneurial solar farmers head for the deserts of SW US or North Africa. In China, localised energy production allows the emerging middle class to loosen their reliance on central government. Struggling to safeguard its legitimacy, a baffled CCP turns to the world of big data, tracking public satisfaction with government policies and the performance of senior party figures. On the global stage, sharing and creation win a victory over consumer culture. Increasingly weird and volatile weather systems issue new demands of infrastructure and logistics; biomimicry is huge; and self-starting individuals can quickly build a reputation by getting things done.

Top-Down Scarcity

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014 sees the US 'officially' at peace for the first time in fifteen years. While covert drone strikes continue in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, the DoD faces pressure to scale down their activities, spending and budget. After the PRC conducts a series of high-profile naval exercises to assert control over the South China Sea, US military lobbyists agitate for the US to intervene in the region, supposedly on behalf of the economically thriving Pacific Rim Bloc. While the public appetite for war remains low, Obama gains enough support to take the case to the United Nations to secure a Security Council resolution for multilateral intervention.

As America and its allies move naval forces to their bases in the region, China retaliates by withdrawing from the UN. President Xi Jinping restricts international access to China's deposits of the so-called 'rare earth' metals, spooking the markets, and nudging the world back into recession. While the situation remains unstable, the US opposition lobbies from the sidelines and skirmishes and blockades are barely contained from outright war.

In 2017, a French research team working with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) makes a breakthrough, figuring out a way to slow many of the more debilitating symptoms of biological ageing. In clinical trials, participants' lifespans remain more or less the same as control subjects, but many hail the research as a cure for the snowballing Alzheimer's epidemic. A wealthy middle-aged cohort influence the bulk of privately funded research towards high-profile biotech and healthcare projects. With Obamacare being approved by the Supreme Court back in the early teens, stem cell treatments get FDA approval in 2020 and first gen anti-ageing therapy reaches the private healthcare market in 2021. Despite the high costs and severe side effects of iPSC therapy, these are a price that many are willing to pay.

While the 2020s were anticipated to be a clean break for the global economy, the world continues staggering from crisis to crisis, as the death of another major company occurs monthly: Apple, ExxonMobile, PetroChina, Wells Fargo, AT&T file for bankruptcy in the 2020 financial year, following thousands of others before them. Surviving businesses band together for security, relying on vertical integration and diversified income streams for protection. With the remaining mega-corporations jostling for a bigger share of a still-shrinking pie, the quest for any competitive advantage becomes an American cultural obsession.

The drive to automate manufacturing helps offset the increased price of scarce resources, doing away with a huge number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. An entire generation grows up without ever knowing regular employment. Education and networking catapult some young adults up into the knowledge economy, but many kids fall prey to decriminalized soft drugs and virtual reality gaming.

With low-level conflict continuing in the South China Sea, a new president attempts to make her own stamp on the world, throwing her political support between a public-private moonshot to help the United States transition to a “clean” hydrogen economy. Though motivated by the best of intentions, a light touch government approach sees the project being used to channel money from tax revenues to a handful of cumbersome, inefficient, and increasingly risk-averse mega-companies—draining the pot of money set aside for public spending, and strangling the innovative capacity of universities and small companies alike.