by futurists Richard Worzel & Kit Arrow
What kind of a year are we headed into? Well, some things are obvious, like continued conflict between Russia and the West, and the importance of technology. Others are less certain. So, what should you watch for in 2015? What are the unexpected things you might want to prepare for in the year ahead? Here are some of our thoughts.
Technology: Dude, where’s my hoverboard?
In 1989, Robert Zemeckis sent Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox back to the far-off future of 2015, and showcased some amazing technology. Most of it has failed to materialize, and the biggest disappointment of all has been the lack of hoverboards, especially since there have long been rumors of their existence (proven false, unfortunately). There have been attempts (most recently Hendo released video of Tony Hawk riding their magnetic induction hoverboard, fantastic for everywhere you have metal-plated sidewalks and people with $10,000 to burn), but with the deadline fast approaching, we’re not holding our breath.
However, that doesn’t mean the future doesn’t have some exciting technology waiting for us next year:
- 1) Flying robots – Let’s start with something high profile, even stratospheric. The US Congress has mandated that the FAA come up with rules for safe integration of drones by September 30, 2015. This means that consumer and commercial use of drones (as is planned by Amazon.com for delivery) could be airborne by this time next year. There’s already a ruling to allow drones to be used on movie sets, and the market seems to be primed to explode in this area (assuming the FAA doesn’t strangle this budding industry in red tape, which is an unfortunate possibility). But keep your eyes on the skies next year for flying robots.
A bigger question is: what will flying robots do for you? Well, how about be your camera? The Go-Pro trend, with the tiny, portable cameras that end up taking lots of abuse and keep working, has certainly become popular with skydivers, drivers, and protestors all using them to record their lives. The next obvious step is to have a camera follow you around and take pictures of you, rather than have you wear it. This has the advantage of including you in the shot, as well as some other benefits. A Go-Pro can only face in one direction, so it couldn’t see behind you. A drone camera could see the entire area around you, not only taking pictures, but also potentially warning you of imminent danger. This does raise issues of privacy invasion, but we are increasingly living in an open society (whether we wish to or not), and picture-taking drones are going to be part of that.
- 2) Health care robots – It’s not just drones that will get our attention in the coming year. iRobot, the makers of the Roomba automatic vacuum, are releasing a new robot called RP-VITA, a telepresence healthcare robot. This robot can automatically do rounds in a hospital, accessing patient history, monitoring current data, and checking vitals (if the patient is wired for that), collating the data and sending it to the physicians and specialists involved in the care of that patient. RP-VITA would enable specialists to consult with on-site nurses, make recommendations for care and treatment, and keep the family in the loop much more easily. These robots are currently running a pilot program, and good results will see these units widely utilized, to help counteract the growing shortage of physicians in the health care system.
- 3) Broad spectrum testing – A large, non-virtual health care issue is testing for the presence of disease or emerging health problems, which can be expensive, slow, and even painful. Last spring, Elizabeth Holmes launched a new health technology company, Theranos, and produced a system that allows lab testing for 30 different tests from a tiny sample, eliminating many of the problems with traditional lab testing. Unfortunately, only a few tests of the potentially hundreds done in the lab can be run with this system, but it’s still a great step forward, and Theranos isn’t the only company working in this space, such as 1DropDiagnostics.
Theranos has started expanding across the US, thanks to a deal with Walgreens pharmacies, where Theranos units will be stationed. The pilot program has already started, with 40 units station near Phoenix, AZ, and one in Palo Alto, CA. We are fast approaching a time when these fast, cheap, and reliable diagnostic units are not only able to identify a wide range of ailments and conditions, but will be affordable in the home, and as simple to use as a diabetes tester.
This is important because early detection of many types of cancer makes them more treatable, dramatically increasing survival and recovery rates. Indeed, most diseases are simpler and cheaper to treat before the symptoms fully emerge, meaning that these units will check for emerging health risks as well as gauging your current state of health.
- 4) Wearable computers – Not all new technologies have been as much of a success (Elizabeth Homes has a personal net worth valued at $4.5 billion by Forbes from the Theranos launch this past spring). Google Glass, despite the huge amount of attention it garnered when it first came out, has not caught on. This is partly due to its high price tag and lack of ergonomics, but even more because it seems to convey a form of social leprosy. Many places have banned Google Glass, and people are hesitant to let someone wearing a camera on their face look at them, for fear of being recorded, or having their online presence uncovered through facial recognition.
Instead, smartwatches seem now to be taking the lead as the best form of wearable computers, despite being described a few years ago as having all the inconvenience of a phone, but with a harder to use interface. There are several key reasons for this.
First, market competition is rapidly enlarging the capabilities of smartwatches. Google Glass was in a class of its own, with no direct competition, but a quick search will show a dozen different smartwatches on the market, with Androidwear and the Apple Watch having the two highest profiles. And smartwatch makers have learned from the perceived failings of Google Glass, making a more user-friendly, less intrusive product. Smartwatches won’t be the last word in wearable computers, but they are where it will be at for 2015.
- 5) The decline and fall of cable & satellite TV – In a technological evolution, cable (and satellite) TV’s popularity is slipping to an all-time low. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime providing massive online content, as well as many over-the-air channels putting their content online after the broadcast, cable is losing its audience fast. The only reason that cable is still pulling reasonably good numbers is that live news and sports have exclusive cable contracts, and HBO and Showtime are only available through cable.
But next year, HBO GO and Showtime Anytime are going to start up and allow you to watch through your computer, removing another prop under cable fees. By the end of 2015, ESPN’s locked contract with the cable companies will be one of the only things keeping cable TV solvent. This will result in cable bills once again being raised, to a whopping $123 per month, still lower than the average car payment, but the cost of cable is rising faster.
Accentuating this trend is the fact that all broadcast channels are digital, and can be picked up off-air (and for free) with a digital antenna. Retailing for between $30 and $100, various indoor antennas can receive broadcast TV without subscription, and don’t need an appointment to set up (though you may have to move them around to find the ideal location). You’ll even be able to get big sporting events, like the Superbowl and the Olympics, even if you can’t wall-to-wall coverage of all professional sports.
As other streaming options become available, the cable companies will eventually have to respond, perhaps by lowering their prices, as well as offering exclusive content. Aside from news, live sports remains the cable companies’ biggest draw. Cable and satellite now have to come up with a new business model, and soon – or go into bankruptcy.
So, we still don’t have hoverboards, and cable TV is hanging on by a thread, but as for the rest, from a technology standpoint, 2015 is looking sweet.
In geopolitics, 2015 will see trouble as usual, but in an unusually large number of places: North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, Russia, the Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites, the South China Sea – and those are just the spiciest hot spots.
So, if we can expect trouble in these places, where are we likely to be surprised by what happens in 2015?
- 6) Iran – The timing is right for Iran to find a face-saving way to move off of its plan to build nuclear weapons. The crashing oil markets are putting enormous pressure on an Iranian economy already stressed by international sanctions. Iran would love to get some relief from those sanctions, but must have a deal to do so. The U.S. is likely to be more open to some form of rapprochement with Obama as president than if a Republican gets elected president in 2016, so Iran has more reason to want to strike a deal with Obama than to wait. And Iran is already fighting alongside (at least notionally) the United States against ISIS, although neither side wants to talk about it. So there are reasons why Iran could come to terms with the West (but especially America) over their nuclear program. We’re not sure we’d place chunky money on it, especially as Congress could botch the deal, but it it’s a plausible scenario, and would certainly catch many people by surprise.
- 7) Israel – Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling frisky and free of his American antagonist, Barack Obama. Netanyahu neither likes nor respects the American president (and the feeling’s mutual), and takes little account of his opinions. And Israel is in much better shape economically, financially, and in energy terms than it has ever been in its history, so Netanyahu doesn’t feel the threat of the withdrawal of American financial support as keenly as his predecessors did.
Meanwhile, he’s just precipitated a new Israeli election (albeit not until March), and probably expects to win again, with a new coalition that excludes some of the moderates he relied upon before. Indeed, an Israeli columnist believes this is a crucial election for Israel. Ari Shavit, writing in the Ha’aretz newspaper, is quoted as saying “The importance of the 2015 election cannot be too highly emphasized. … This time the question isn’t about the price of an apartment or cottage (cheese), but whether there will be a home for us at all. This time the struggle isn’t about convenience but about the core of our existence. Because this time the forces threatening Israeli democracy and the Zionist enterprise from within are unprecedented in their power.”
If Netanyahu wins, we would expect him to be even more hostile towards peace with the Palestinians, and to accelerate Israeli building in the occupied territories. We would also expect this to precipitate a crisis, probably including escalating violence from Palestinians – and may put a spoke in the wheel of any talks between the US and Iran. The surprise here is that people are expecting this conflict to continue to muddle along, whereas we might get a much more dramatic, and explosive, result.
- 8) Russia, or rather macho man Vladimir Putin, is trying to bring back the Soviet empire through traditional Soviet techniques: lying, cheating, killing, intimidating, and creating mayhem. He’s done this in Georgia, and now in the Ukraine, and we would not be surprised to see him try his luck in other former satellites, including NATO allies Estonia, Luthuania, and Latvia. He would do so much the way he has in the Ukraine: through proxies, through doublespeak and outright lying, and by promoting odious puppets in national elections. What would be surprising, then, is not more of the same, but if the roof fell in on the macho man: the double whammy of Western sanctions, and falling oil prices might just cause a collapse of the not-terribly robust Russian economy, fomenting unrest and a “Russian Spring” at home. So, two possible surprises here: if Putin is booted from power, or, being cornered, steps up his challenge to the West by launching a real shooting war somewhere to cover his domestic shortcomings. We think the Russian status quo is not sustainable, and will degenerate far faster than most people expect.
- 9) Cyberwar – Meanwhile, we might very well be surprised by revelations of a hidden cyberwar going on right now, and right under our noses. And while I’m sure Russia and China feature prominently, other players have joined is as well, including the United States, Israel, some EU countries, South Korea, North Korea, and even some African nations. And national “patriots” in countries like China might launch unofficial attacks, not sanctioned, but not unwelcome, against foreign powers seen as standing in the way of their country.
Countries are finding that cyber-aggression is easier, cheaper, and deniable, meaning the consequences are much lower than other forms of spying and aggression. Lot of countries go after industrial secrets, but Russia in particular is likely to try to wreak havoc with the U.S. economy in a deniable way as retaliation for sanctions.
America is undoubtedly in this war, but, according to a cyber-unit associated with the U.S. Army, probably playing catch-up. Moreover, in America, anyone with those kinds of skills is more likely to be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur than a government hacker. Nor are companies immune: look at Sony’s embarrassment over being hacked and having its secrets exposed, probably at the hands of North Korea. This is just starting, and no one is safe, from national governments, to the military, to individuals. Cyberspace is the battleground, and if you’re there, you’re fair game.
- 10) China – With hot spots erupting around the world, we expect China to continue its evident strategy to take as much territory as it can in southern Asia, notably in and around the South China Sea. It will try to avoid a major show-down, but will continue to practice salami tactics – taking one small piece at a time – and engaging in intimidation, shows of force, sweet-talking, misdirection, construction on disputed territories, and deception – anything to get what they want, even if it takes years to achieve. What would be a surprise, then, would be if they made a miscalculation, and wound up in a major confrontation with one of their neighbors, possibly drawing the U.S. into an unwanted face-off. We don’t think this is probable, but it certainly is a possible outcome of the high-risk poker game China is playing.
Economics & finance
- 11) The EU is, in our view, likely to experience a renewed crisis this year. The root causes of the original crisis, tracking back to the end of 2009, weren’t just financial nor economic (although there are clearly financial and economic problems), but demographic: Europe has too many old people, and they have promised themselves too many benefits yet haven’t saved enough money to finance them. Because it was a demographic crisis, the most they could do was paper over the cracks – which they did. Now global growth is slowing, Germany’s growth is falling, and the European Central Bank is running out of headline-grabbing pronouncements with which to bluff nervous investors into continuing to lend to the weaker members of the EU.
We reckon that at some point, the EU is going to return to crisis mode, and possibly a break-up of the Euro. A number of high profile economists, such as Paul Krugman, have commented on this, and we believe they are correct. Germany needed to embrace expansion rather than belt-tightening, and the ECB needed to be given real powers to reflate the EU economy. Neither has happened. It may now be too late. The EU seems to be drifting into deflation, and is probably in a liquidity trap to boot.
- 12) China’s slowing growth has grabbed a lot of print ink, but to our mind, most people are missing the point, and hence the magnitude of the change ahead. Potential growth in GDP arises from the sum of labor force growth + productivity growth. And while it’s clear that China has a lot of productivity growth left to exploit, its labor force is actually declining in absolute numbers, and will continue to do so for at least 20 years into the future, and quite possibly forever. It is our view, therefore, that this is not a temporary slowdown, as many commentators believe, but a permanent slowing in China’s growth rate. The days of 10-12% growth in GDP are over, future rates of growth will be closer to 5-7%, and trending even lower over time. In turn, this will mean slower growth in the global economy going forward, plus lower demand for resources. This will harm resource countries like Australia and Canada.
- 13) Oil – Which brings us to oil. In 2012, we wrote an article for the Conference Board of Canada, stating that we thought oil prices were likely to decline because of the emergence of American shale oil. In October of this year, we tweeted that e thought oil could fall below US$30/bbl. We continue to believe this is the case, for two reasons.
First, American shale oil has caused a permanent shift in the oil markets, regardless of what happens within the next year or so, and has quite a bit of momentum built up. As a result, there is an oil supply now overhanging the market that threatens more expensive oil projects, such as Canada’s bitumen from northern Alberta or the heavy oil from Venezuela (which probably push that country to default on their debts), and imperils many new off-shore drilling projects, such as that off the coast of Brazil, that have high production costs.
And second, Saudi Arabia has multiple reasons to want to see the price of oil drop dramatically, and is (in our view) happy to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to oil prices.
Saudi clearly likes being the biggest frog in the strategically important oil pond. We believe it is willing to use some of its reputed $900 billion in financial reserves to finance lower prices in order to shake out some of the more expensive players from the game. And we also believe it’s probably quite happy to teach some of the other OPEC members a lesson: why should Saudi put up with the other members pumping as much as they can, ignoring cartel discipline while expecting Saudi to finance their market share grabs?
And Saudi probably would be quite happy to knock the American shale oil industry on its ass, ruining its wildcat financing, and setting it back several years. The Saudis probably don’t believe they can get rid of American shale oil permanently – but they are, we’re sure, more than happy to give shale financial backers reason to be more cautious in future.
And finally, some of the oil producers that will suffer the most are no friends of Saudi Arabia: Iran, Russia, and Venezuela in particular, plus the emerging renewable energy industry everywhere.
Saudi is, in short, killing several birds with one stone. And because of that, we believe the oil market shakeout has a ways to go, both in terms of how low the price will go, and how long it will stay down. We would not be surprised to see oil fall below $30 a barrel, and to bump around between $30 and $60 a barrel for a couple of years. We might be wrong – but that’s the way we think prudent investors should bet.
This will help global growth, especially in the developed world. It will cause significant damage to efforts to move to renewable energy. And it will sideswipe those players, like Canada, who are not antagonistic to Saudi, but who just happen to get in the way.
J.P. Morgan was once asked what he thought the stock market would do. His reply was that they would fluctuate. That’s still the best commentary ever given on markets, but it’s not terribly useful. That being said, what will influence the markets, and where might there be surprises?
- 14) Canadian markets – First, the obvious comment, based on our earlier thoughts on oil: Canada is identified as it being a petro-producer, and possessing a petro-currency, which means that 2015 is likely to be a rocky year for both Canadian stock markets and the Canadian dollar. This could well produce bargains in the Canadian market, but the oil & energy sectors generally will do poorly – which may well make them a good investment for those with a longer investment horizon.
- 15) The US markets – The U.S. markets seem likely to have a V-shaped year. At the start, markets are likely to be dominated by fears of slowing growth in the global economy, plus the collapse of profits from the major petroleum companies. Yet, the decline in the price of oil is like the repeal of a burdensome tax: it will boost growth, increase disposable income among consumers, and beef up profits among most non-energy-related companies. And it will help growth in places like Japan, China, India, and other major consumers of oil. All of this will take some time to work through the various economies, but will eventually become obvious, which will be pivotal in producing the bounce-back.
Meanwhile, there is an enormous amount of cash sitting on the sidelines of the stock market, waiting for lower prices to enable it crowd in. Much of this money missed a big chunk of the moves over the past 2-4 years, and wants to make up for it. Accordingly, I think that while markets will suffer for all the obvious reasons early in the year, the suffering will be limited and transient, with prices eventually popping up again. This may eventually bring a bigger crash, but the underlying economic fundamentals don’t show a lot of excess in economic terms – yet.
These are some of the things we believe will surprise or affect us in 2015. Of course, there will also be things that no one has considered that occur, from pandemics to politics to pacifists and beyond.
And there are futurist techniques for dealing with the unexpected, and preparing for uncertainty. If you’d like to explore these, and prepare your organization for the surprises of 2015, contact us. We’d be happy to chat with you.
In the meantime, we wish you all the best for the holiday season, and good health and prosperity for the New Year!
© Copyright, IF Research, December 2015.
 Friedman, Thomas L., “This Israeli Election Matters”, New York Times website, 16 December 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/17/opinion/thomas-friedman-this-israeli-election-matters.html