Faster, Deadlier And Harder To Predict: Professor Ian Goldin On The Future In 2011

The future, almost by definition, is a scary and uncertain place - and these days there is no shortage of pundits who are willing to go on television and predict the various ways it may end in financial, political or climactic disaster.

But for some academics, pretty much the only thing you can predict about the future is that prediction is going to get more difficult.

So argues Professor Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School, an institution dedicated to promoting technological and scientific solutions for the problems of the future.

Goldin, who is also a former vice president of the World Bank, the former chief executive of the Development Bank Of Southern Africa and a former advisor to Nelson Mandela, says that for all the advances made in prediction technology there is still no reliable guide to what the future will hold.

"Obviously if you predict a very large number of things across a spectrum someone's going to be right some of the time," he said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post UK.

"But what's been very interesting in the financial crisis is the number of people who pop up afterwards and say 'I told you so', and when you actually go to their documentation it tends to be one sentence out of a thousand, and hedged by all sorts of other things."

Goldin argues that there are structural changes taking place in the world, among them economic globalisation, migration, technological innovation and broadening access to travel, which when combined mean the past is a very poor guide to to the future.

"That's because we're moving into a period of turbo-charged connectivity," Goldin says. "The number of factors that will influence any outcome are growing extremely rapidly, and with it the difficulty of predicting is increasing. So it's not just that you have to predict what's going to happen in a certain area, say finance, commodities, politics, you have to understand how things will jump barriers between different areas."

As the head of a well-funded and influential institution that gathers together some of the top frontier-science researchers in the world, Goldin is well placed to watch those trends develop.

Computing power will continue to grow exponentially, he says. Long term life-expectancy trends are likely to continue rising, and migration - given the opportunity - will continue to fuel new growth and social mobility.

But while his Goldin's mission statement is mindfully positive - it aims "to foster innovative thinking, interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative activity to address the most pressing risks and realise important new opportunities of the 21st century" - he warns against the illusion that things will only get better.

"The good thing about connectivity is that it leads to the spreading of good ideas," he says. "But it also allows for the super-spreading of bad things.

"If you trace for example the spreading of the swine flu out of Mexico, there is no doubt that the speed of propagation around the world [had changed]. And it's also true of the financial crisis. Oxford City Council where I live had exposure to Iceland, and pensioners in Finland were suffering because of the sub-prime crisis in Arkansas. That is new."

"We are going to live in an era of more frequent systemic shocks," he continues. "The financial crisis was the first of the 21st century, but a lot of its attributes will be repeated and amplified going forward. The attributes of very rapid contagion and spreading, of dual-use technologies such as derivatives that were developed to slice and dice risk, distribute and reduce risk actually had the unintended consequence of amplifying risk."

Goldin denies that the Oxford Martin School, in attempting to provide solutions for future problems, runs the risk of falling into the same prediction fallacy as everyone else with a stake in the future. The school is not in the prediction game, he says. It just has a duty, and a privileged vantage point from which to look to the frontier.

"We would never say that we're designed to predict the future. That would be a contradiction but it's not what we're about. We are trying to bring some of the best brains in the world together who are working in new ways on issues that will shape the future."

The governing structures of the world - from the United Nations down to local governments - will have to adjust to a quicker and more connected world, Goldin says.

Ultimately, he adds, it may be the case that bottom-up power structures will have to evolve in tandem with established ones.

This actually nearly happened over climate change, Goldin points out. And with obvious limitations there are signs that the 'Occupy' financial protest movement is also pointing in that direction.

"There is no longer a G1 willing to run the world. Europe is completely inward looking, China is not ready to lead, and so we are in a very interesting and dangerous time in which global leadership is not there," he argues.

"I'm increasingly convinced that the leadership is going to have to be bottom-up. In other words it's the mobilisation of public opinion through evidence that scientists produce, through the media and through people basically forcing their leaders to take a stand on issues that they regard as important."

And as for the UK, Goldin says, our future success will depend on whether we learn the deeper lessons of the financial crisis - namely that such things are very likely to happen again, and much more often.

"It is inevitable that we will move down the ladder in terms of relative performance," he admits. "But what's really critical is how the UK responds. Because we could go negative, we could contract, or we could become a very dynamic economy which is a centre for thriving skills at the high end."