What’s on Your Plate: Feeding the Future

by futurist Kit Worzel

The United Nations report on world population estimates a total of 9.6 billion people on the planet by 2050. That’s an increase of more than 2 billion in the next thirty-five years. There have been discussions on how to feed such a large population, but many of those discussions fall short on certain key points.

First off, demographics have changed in such a manner that people are not only consuming more calories, but also higher cost calories, particularly meat and dairy products. The consumption of meat has increased seven-fold since 1950, while the world population has not quite tripled. And meat is the most expensive form of food we consume, since animals need to be fed for years before being turned into food, meaning they are consuming massive quantities of food before becoming food themselves. Red meat tends to require 5 or more kilos of feed per kilo of meat produced, with slightly more favorable ratios for poultry and fish.

Second, climate is changing. This is quite evident, and California is an example of what could happen worldwide. A decade ago, California was the food basket of America. With the ongoing drought now in its fourth year, farmers in California are cutting back, closing business, or converting to less water-intensive plants, moving away from avocados, almonds and citrus fruits. With climate change being a world-wide issue, this means that farmers all around the world will have to adapt to new climate conditions in order to keep producing.

Not only will we need to plan on feeding 2.3 billion more people, but providing much more resource-intensive food as well. This will multiply the resources needed by an equivalent of 2-3 times, all while coping with the disruptive effects of climate change.The question is: How can we manage it?

Green Eggs and Ham

Meat substitutes are nothing new. They’ve been on the market, in various forms, for over a thousand years, with mentions of tofu available as far back as 965 CE, and a vegetable sausage first mentioned in the Western world in 1852. But substitutes that tasted like, and more importantly, had the texture of meat remain no more than a work in progress.

Most meat substitutes only please vegetarians, and fail to impress people who actually eat meat. But the Beyond Meat company has managed to produce a product that they claim does just that. Now, I’m not a food expert, or qualified to judge this product. But Alton Brown, world renowned chef and TV personality, is, and did just that, not being overly thrilled with the taste, but praising the texture. He said that the product, as is, could easily replace chicken in about 30% of recipes out there, and has the advantage of having no saturated fat or cholesterol. If this meat substitute can impress one of the biggest names in food in the world now, imagine what it will be able to do within thirty years?

Beyond Meat is already widespread, sold in a major retail chain in 39 American states, the District of Columbia, and Vancouver, BC. It’s completely vegetarian, and is the start of a partial solution for the high demand for meat through meat substitutes.

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

While the replicators of Star Trek are still just science fantasy, 3D printing has come to food in a big way. Right now, it’s slow and has a host of other issues, but as technology rapidly improves, this is becoming a viable option.

High-end restaurants are already using 3D printers to make fantastic designs from sugar and chocolate as unique desserts, printing off things that no pastry chef could make. At the other end of the scale, certain nursing homes in Germany are using 3D printers to deliver a product called Smoothfoods to residents who can’t chew solid food anymore. It’s an alternative to purees, which tend to be unappetizing. Smoothfoods look much more real, but have the same consistency as a puree, thereby increasing appetites, and helping to prevent under-eating and malnutrition.

Another bonus is the ability to incorporate disliked, though nutritious, ingredients invisibly into conventional foods. Things like duckweed and mealworm are packed with nutrients, but the taste and texture – and the thought of eating them – put people off. Adding them to something like shortbread cookies makes for a pleasant eating experience, coupled with the benefits of those horrible tasting and sounding additions. Considering that even in the developed world, malnutrition is still an issue, any chance we have of getting people to eat healthy, even if we have to trick them into doing so, is a good one.

Lastly, 3D printing of food requires no skill. So in future, when you come home to make supper, you will simply select the food you want from your computer, send it off to your printer, wait for it to print, and you’re done. You’ll be able to program a pizza at home with no more effort than ordering for delivery.

You can always tell a happy motorcyclist…

It won’t just be folks who ride Harleys that have bugs in their teeth if this next idea comes to fruition. Entomophagy, or eating insects, is already a source of protein for more than a third of the world, but certain green factions are pushing for fried grasshoppers to be sold on every street corner. The arguments are strong: to produce 1 kg of usable meat requires between 7 and 20 kg of feed for a cow, depending on breed and type of feed, but only 2.1 kg of feed for crickets. Cricket meat is also lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, and seems to be a greener alternative.

Of course, the natural reaction for the vast majority of the world when they see a bug on the plate is to scream and try and get rid of it. The disgust reflex is hard to overcome, so food producers are looking for a work-around. Producing cricket-flour, or converting bug meat into innocuous cubes is a start, but there are some who look to historical precedent.

More than a century ago, lobster was considered low-class, and it was illegal to serve it in prisons, as it was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Now it’s one of the most expensive things on the menu, after receiving one hell of a PR makeover, and there are those who seek to do the same for bugs. It may be a hard sell today, but if the choice is between eating insects or starving, then pass the grasshoppers.

It’s alive, IT’S…not quite?

Lab grown meat was in the news a few years back, when a team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands produced a burger that was cultured from beef muscle tissue. The flavor was disappointing to the designated tasters, but the texture was spot-on, which was the more important issue. The team that developed the burger says they can add fat to the culture to make it more flavorful. Of course, the other memorable part of the story was that a single 5 oz burger cost $330,000 in US funds, so don’t expect to order one from a fast-food joint anytime soon.

One of the best parts about it is that it’s real beef, and you don’t have to kill a steer. The folks in the lab can play around with the level of fat to make it taste right, and also determine how healthy it is. And they’ve managed to lower the price. The proof of concept may have cost almost a third of a million dollars, but they’ve managed to lower the cost all the way down to $12 for that same 5 oz burger. What they haven’t managed to do is produce it quickly, or in large quantities yet, and they are still estimating decades to iron out the process.

Something said for doing it the old-fashioned way

All of these techniques and technologies are interesting, but none of them can work without resources. We still need farms to grow the produce used, particularly for 3D printers and meat replacements. None of the plans mentioned above are enough on their own. If anything, they are enhancements of a more traditional farming paradigm, instead of replacements. Farming will change, that is unquestionable, but it will still exist. We won’t feed 9.6 billion people with crickets and lab-grown meat alone. Farming will become less labor intensive, more frugal with water and electricity, and will likely have many other changes as well, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Making room at the Table

The bottom line is that we have the resources and know-how to produce the food needed to not only feed this growing planet, but keep everyone happy in doing so. There will still be challenges in growing the food, and distributing it, but the hurdles we have yet to face seem smaller in light of a world where the perfect-tasting cricket and tofu burger is just the push of a button away.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2015.

Links:

Beyond Meat – Alton Brown review

http://www.wired.com/2013/09/fakemeat/

http://beyondmeat.com/

Meatless History

http://www.soyinfocenter.com/books/179

Tellspec food tricorder (not yet on the market)

http://tellspec.com/team/

3D printing food

http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/3d-food-printers-how-they-could-change-what-you-eat/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/is-3-d-printing-the-future-of-global-food/article24981139/

Cloned Meat

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3044572/the-325000-lab-grown-hamburger-now-costs-less-than-12

http://www.gizmag.com/cultured-beef/28584/

Smoothfood

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-04/11/eu-3d-printed-food

Eating Bugs

http://time.com/3824917/crickets-sustainable-protein/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/06/will-eating-insects-ever-be-mainstream

http://www.iflscience.com/environment/will-we-all-be-eating-insects-50-years

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/eating-insects-yuck-factor-un-report

World population projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050 by UN

http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/un-report-world-population-projected-to-reach-9-6-billion-by-2050.html

Meat limit

http://qz.com/93900/we-produce-6-times-more-meat-than-we-did-in-1950-heres-what-that-means-for-animals-and-the-earth/

 

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What’s Wrong with Medical & Drug Research?

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Suppose you were a high school teacher who had just taken a job at a new school, and that you agreed to take over as the coach of the basketball team. You look at your new school’s team record, and find that it’s pretty mediocre, so decide you want to try something new. New school, new ideas – why not?

After looking around and thinking things over, it occurs to you that perhaps there’s a relationship between the kinds of shoes the players wear and how well a player does – and hence how the team fares. After all, a casual observation of the kids on the floor seems to show that those who have better shoes score more.

Since you have such a small sample of kids, you reach out online and get data from dozens of schools around the country, outlining what kinds of shoes their players wear, and how well they perform.

Once you start to analyze the data, the results are confusing. Some schools provide shoes, which are all the same brand, and the players do particularly well, but other schools that do the same do not. Some brands seem to have a slight correlation with good performance, but nothing that’s really enough to hang your hat on. There are hints of some kind of relationship, but nothing really powerful. In confusion, you take your results to one of the science teachers, whom you have befriended since your arrival.

She looks over the data, asks a couple of questions, then says, “Why don’t you look at how tall the players are instead of what shoes they wear?”

In my view, medical research is like that.

Is Butter Bad for You?

You’ve undoubtedly seen conflicting reports about food, for instance. Butter’s bad for you, says one, because it has saturated fats that increase bad cholesterol; you should stay away from butter and eat margarine. No, says another, margarine contains trans-fats and chemicals; butter’s natural and better for your body, so you should eat butter. You’re both wrong, says a third study: cholesterol is irrelevant, it’s all been blown out of proportion, so it doesn’t matter whether you eat butter or not.

None of these kinds of studies talk about the relationship between individual genetics and the studies that are performed. Yet, in my opinion, that’s like ignoring the height of basketball players in trying to identify the factors that relate to success in the game.

Suppose, for instance, that one group involved in a study on the effect of butter accidentally happens include a lot of people who respond badly to butter, for whatever reason. Then the study will conclude that butter is bad for people.

Another study, with a different group of people, may have accidentally included people whose reactions to butter are all over the spectrum. This study will conclude that butter is irrelevant to health.

And a third group may have an unusual number of people who respond well to butter, or who respond badly to margarine. This study, then, will conclude that margarine is bad, and butter is good.

All of these studies would miss a fundamental issue: the importance of genetic differences. And that will invalidate their findings. Worse, from a layperson’s point of view, it gives contradictory signals, and erodes confidence in medical research.

The Implications of Genetic Testing

Genetic testing is still in its infancy, so that even though it has already taken enormous strides, there is still a tremendous amount we can and eventually will learn from it. It will take time for research to come up with clear indications of how particular foods interact with an individual’s genetics, but eventually you’ll be able to get an analysis of your DNA (for less than, say, $100), that will tell you how different foods will affect you.

Some foods (like leafy, green vegetables) will be great for you, and are ones you should eat regularly. This will be your “A” list. Some foods (like fish, chicken, and whole grains) will be good for you, but should be eaten in moderation (the “B” list). Some foods, like hot fudge sundaes, red meats, and white breads, you can eat occasionally, but shouldn’t eat often – this is your “C” list. And some foods may be positively harmful to you, say if you have an allergy to nuts or dairy products, or a food sensitivity to things like wheat gluten or corn. This is the “X” list, and you should always avoid everything on it.

Each list will be different for each person, although there will be large areas of overlap. I doubt, for instance, whether hot fudge sundaes will be on anyone’s “A” or “B” lists. I suspect that genetic variations will probably show the greatest differences in each person’s “X” list, which spells headaches for foodservice organizations, which already have long lists of allergies of which they need to be aware.

The same will apply to other environmental factors, such as the adhesives used in laying carpet, or particular kinds of trees, flowers, or aromas. This may eventually change how you decorate your house, or even which materials you use to build it.

As a result, genetic analysis will affect a broad range of industries, from farming through foodservice, to builders and construction companies, to schools and public institutions, and many more. In fact, I suspect that the more we learn about our genomes and how they work, the more aware we will be of things that have affected us, perhaps without us ever knowing about them.

Imagine, for instance, that we didn’t know that some people are allergic to ragweed or pollen. We’d be mystified by their symptoms. It’s this kind of revelation that we will consistently stumble upon as we learn more about how our bodies (or, more accurately, our biomes) interact with our environment. It will be both revolutionary, as new discoveries lead to blazing insights, and evolutionary, as we learn how to make adjustments in diagnosis and treatment for ever-smaller groups of individuals.

But one industry is already being shaken to its core: pharmaceuticals.

What’s Ahead for Big Pharma

We already know, from drugs like Herceptin, that genetic testing can make an enormous difference in the value and effectiveness of a drug. Herceptin can be very effective for certain kinds of breast cancer – but only if the patient has a particular genetic pattern. Otherwise, the only thing Herceptin will do for them is to empty their wallets.

The ironic part about Herceptin is that it was originally slated to be dropped because it wasn’t effective enough across a broad spectrum of patients. It was developed by drug company Genentech in cooperation with the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Yet, once prospective patients were screened for a particular receptor, the results were remarkably improved. Hence, a drug that was going to contribute only to the cost of failed drug research wound up being a big money maker for Genentech and UCLA.

But until very recently, Herceptin was largely an exception. There are a few, but only a few, other stories like it. And this is largely because genetic screening didn’t fit the business model of Big Pharma.

Until they accepted the inevitable, major drug companies needed to sell millions of doses for billions of dollars with big, blockbuster drugs. They more or less had to do this because they are so big that smaller drugs wouldn’t move the needle on their revenues and profits. Without big increments in income, Wall Street, with its miniscule attention span, gets restless about drug company results, and hence, with drug company managements.

The problem, therefore, with genetic screening is that it can take a drug that either isn’t very effective, or has unacceptable side effects – the two biggest reasons why drugs are dropped after years of development – and turn it into a modest success. Such drugs, once given only to the appropriately screened patients, will either prove to be very effective, or not have anywhere near the side effects that it would have on a broader group of patients.

But Wall Street isn’t interested in modest successes. The problem is that the screened drugs will sell to a much smaller potential market, with tens of thousands of doses bringing in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue – which isn’t enough. Yet, despite this, some drug companies are changing as they get into synch with the broader underlying knowledge of genetics.

Why New Drugs Are So Costly

I believe Big Pharma was ignoring a real opportunity, because revenue is only half of the profit equation.

Coming up with a figure of how much it costs to develop a successful new drug from scratch is difficult and controversial. I’ve seen numbers that range from $800 million to $1.2 billion per drug, and those estimates are several years old. These figures are controversial partly because the drug companies have a vested interest in pumping them up as a means of defending the high prices they charge for new drugs. Hence, a big number is politically more useful than a smaller one.

Yet, no matter who does the counting or what their motives are, it is still true that it’s very expensive to develop a new drug. And one of the biggest expenses in drug development is discarding drugs that seem promising, but don’t prove out for some reason.

Before approval, drugs go through several stages, from lab tests, to animal trials, to four stages of human trials. Each stage of the development and approval process is significantly more expensive than the ones before it. Yet, a drug that fails in human clinical trial Stages III or IV has incurred substantially all of the costs of drug discovery, and usually fails because it is either not as effective with a broad spectrum of people as earlier stages indicated, or because unacceptable side effects (up to, and sometimes including death) are more prevalent than expected.

So drugs that get to Stage III or IV clinical trials have shown that they have a high probability of being valuable. If they fail at that point, they represent the highest costs in the entire drug development process.

Why Lower Sales May Be More Profitable

As the drug companies start to do genetic screening while drugs are being started in human trails, they will inevitably rescue many of the drugs that fail late in the process – and save themselves the huge development costs involved. This would mean that although their revenues per drug might fall by a significant amount, so, too would their costs. In other words, their revenues might go down, but their profits could go up.

That’s not the model that Big Pharma and Wall Street have liked in the past – but increasingly that’s the way that drug development is going. And research results could be improved further by using novel data searching techniques, such as evolutionary algorithms, to further lower development costs.

But first more drug companies have to accept that the old business model is dying, and that the tools that are now emerging should be used to create a better, more profitable model.

And, as our understanding of how our individual genetics interact with our environment, at the very least we’ll find out whether we should be eating butter or not.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2015.

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Paying the Water Piper: The Future of Water, Part III

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

This is the third blog about water. The first two can be found here and here, plus a blog about California’s water situation can be found here.
—————-

Fresh water is vital, and we’re running out of it. Water shortages will disrupt economic plans, sap economic vitality, increase costs, and cause friction and disruptions that range from disagreements between communities to outright war. Yet, despite all this, very few people pay much attention to water. Indeed, as Steven Solomon, author of the frightening book Water, summarizes the issue:

Despite its growing scarcity and preciousness to life, ironically, water is also man’s most misgoverned, inefficiently allocated and profligately wasted natural resource. … Almost universally, governments still treat water as if it were a limitless gift of nature to be freely dispensed by any authority with the power to exploit it. In contrast to oil and nearly every other natural commodity, water is largely exempted from market discipline.[1]

Water is a perfect example of bad habits and bad planning. We have become so used to thinking of water as free that we have fashioned our lives and economic policies on that basis. Yet, even as we run low on water in places, our reaction is to throw temper tantrums because we think of free access to water as a natural right. Of all the commodities that are subsidized by governments, water is the most explosive.

And we are seeing the signs of strain almost everywhere, starting with the Middle East, including Israel, and then on to India, China, most of the African countries, and many other rapidly developing countries as well. But it’s not limited to developing countries; we have problems of our own in the rich world that we will have to deal with.

In America, the Southwest’s growth will depend on its ability to buy enough water rights to allow further growth in its Sunbelt, which attracts retirees from the colder states farther north. The farmers of the Central Valley of California claimed that the historically cheap rates that they used to pay for water, plus their almost unlimited access to water, were theirs by right, and complained bitterly when they are forced to sell water rights to allow California cities to grow, even though the farmers made billions of dollars in profits by doing so. America’s cities are also facing water problems, and not necessarily because of a shortage of fresh water, but because they have consistently underinvested in the infrastructure to gather and deliver it to their residents.

New York City: A Good News Story About What Intelligent Planning Can Accomplish

New York City is a good example of this, but fortunately a good news story as well. They have surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by managing to update an ancient and failing water system after decades of delay and dithering. They were supplied by three aqueducts: the gravity-fed Croton water system drawing water from the upper reaches of the Delaware River and the Catskills, which opened in 1842; and Tunnel 1, built in 1917, and Tunnel 2, built in 1936, both of which drew water from upstate New York.

After being prodded into action by tougher drinking water standards in the 1980s, New York invested something in excess of $7 billion to upgrade their water filtration and delivery systems – and possibly just in time to save the City from a disaster. Some say that had their existing water infrastructure failed prior to their new system coming online, which was a very real threat, it would have produced a disaster far worse than 9/11: the complete inability to provide drinking water to a large fraction of the city’s population, rendering huge chunks of the City uninhabitable. How can a major city exist without drinking water?

The Situation Is Getting Critical

And it’s not just a money issue, either. By overdrawing water from aquifers, we are destroying or contaminating many of them. Some aquifers, when they are overdrawn, actually crack and collapse, and cannot hold anywhere near as much water as they previously did. In other cases, when the water level falls too far, groundwater seeps in that has been contaminated with runoff pesticides from farms and golf courses, plus bacterial contamination from animal farms and human cities, rapidly reducing the usable freshwater available from that source.

The situation in many parts of the world is getting critical, and it’s hard to generalize where. Some areas, like India and the Middle East, are going to experience widespread water problems and shortages. In America, there may be large areas that are affected, like the Southwest and West, but the problems may also skip from one community to another, according to the state of their water infrastructure and investment. What is clear is that the way we use water now is unsustainable, and we will be forced to spend huge amounts of money to remedy our sublime ignorance of the facts.

The good news is that we have a lot of leeway to deal with water shortages in part because we have been so wasteful in our use of it. Merely improving our efficiency would probably be enough to solve many of our problems.

For instance, in farming, Israel has pioneered the use of drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to a plant’s roots, along with computer monitoring of soil moisture so as to deliver just the right amount of water at just the right time. This, combined with the recycling of wastewater, has allowed Israeli farmers to double or triple crop yields per gallon of water.

Likewise, there are other solutions to other forms of water waste, such as New York City’s preservation of parkland in upstate New York to naturally filter water that runs into their reservoirs, rather than to build massive – and more expensive – industrial filtration systems.

Overcoming the Yuck Factor

And I can give you one simple way that cities can implement (relatively) quickly and cheaply to increase the amount of water available to their citizens: recycle sewage into potable water. Yet the “yuck” factor, as it’s called, is likely to cause politicians to avoid this, even though the technology is well known and has been proven through decades of space flight. As astronauts say, “We turn yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”[2]

Yet, of all the problems we face with regard to water, the biggest is that we will have to adopt a very different way of thinking about water, and a major change in government policies around water to solve our looming problems. In particular, we will have to start charging what it costs to supply water, and that will cause major protests among most of the world’s population, including here in the rich world. As well, we will have to invest huge amounts of money in water infrastructure at a time when investment capital is going to be hard to come by. That spells trouble, because we don’t have a choice where water is concerned. We have to spend the money because we can’t live without it.

When water runs out, people behave badly. They never expect the taps to run dry; it’s not a possibility they even consider, so it quickly becomes a major crisis. But it will happen with increasing frequency everywhere, and may prove to be a significant limiting factor to food production, economic activity, and standards of living. Worse, water will become the cause of economic, political, and even military conflict.

What water will not be is free. It won’t even be cheap.

© Copyright, IF Research, July 2015.

[1] ibid. p.376.

[2] Howell, Elizabeth, “Yesterday’s Coffee”, http://www.universetoday.com/110683/yesterdays-coffee-drinking-urine-in-space-could-preview-mars-exploration-techniques/

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Overdrawn at the River Bank: The Future of Water, Part II

This is the second of three posts about the future of water. The first can be found here.

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Water scarcity has several causes, all of which compound each other. First is that of the freshwater available above ground or from precipitation, most of it is either located far from where people want it, or it falls at times and in ways so it can’t be adequately used, such as in torrential rainfalls or blizzards.

Hence, for instance, Canada is a freshwater heavyweight. With ½ of 1% of the Earth’s population, it has about 7% of the world’s renewable freshwater supplies, or about the same amount of freshwater as all of China, which has 20% of global population. But while 84% of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of to its southern border with the United States, over 60% of its freshwater supplies are far north of that, flowing up into the Arctic Ocean.

Beyond these naturally occurring barriers to the world’s fresh water, there are more recent developments that are tightening the water supply. Climate change is raising temperatures in many places, which puts more water into the atmosphere through evaporation and clouds instead of on the ground. It also changes rainfall patterns, which means many dry climates, such as California’s, are getting drier. It is changing the monsoon season in India, where agriculture is dependent on getting just the right amount of rain at the right times, so a changed monsoon season will leave it with either not enough rain, or with flooding, which quickly runs off. Either would severely restrain food production.

Water Abuses

Agriculture is a major factor in water mismanagement as well. Although there are a few farmers who use water wisely, in most of the world farmers abuse water supplies, as when they use it in open-ditch, or large-scale spray, irrigation schemes that can lose half of all the water allocated to evaporation before it ever reaches the crops being “watered.”

Our rising standard of living hurts as well, because, as with energy use, there is very strong correlation between how well we live, and how much water we use. The global trend towards greater urbanization hurts, too, as major urban centers not only use more water per person than rural areas, but waste more of it through aging, leaky infrastructure. In some places in India, for example, it’s guestimated (because nobody really knows) that perhaps as much as 40% of all the water that flows in municipal pipes leaks into the soil before it reaches users. But because water pipes are invisible, no one can see the problems developing or can tell precisely how bad they are. And no one wants to pay more taxes to maintain invisible infrastructure. As a result, water mains are in poor repair almost everywhere, in rich and poor countries alike.

And because surface water is not being used well, farmers, cities, and industry are all pumping a steadily increasing amount of water from underground aquifers. The problem here is that in many cases, these aquifers represent fossil water that has been deposited over periods of thousands or millions of year, and are replenished as slowly, if at all.

The Ogallala aquifer, also called the High Plains aquifer, for example, is one of the largest in the world, and runs through eight American states: Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. It provides approximately 30% of the water used for irrigation in the United States, as well as more than 80% of the drinking water for the people within its boundaries[1]. Yet, while the water level of the Ogallala is estimated to drop by five feet or more per year in places, it is replenished at an estimated rate of about one-half an inch per year.[2]

Nor is this unusual. In the year 2000, the residents in the basin of the Jordan River in the Middle East used 3.2 billion cubic meters of water, but received only 2.5 billion in rainfall, drawing the remaining 22% from the regions’ aquifers. (Three of these aquifers are on Palestinian lands in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the other in coastal Israel, all of which aggravates the political instability and acrimony in the region.)[3]

But perhaps the clearest example of the problems with the future of water comes from India, which has 17 percent of world population, but only 4% of freshwater supplies. There, in the breadbasket regions of Punjab and Haryana, the water table or aquifer is falling by 3 feet a year because of human withdrawals. In the drier state of Gujarat, the water table is falling anywhere from 50 to 1,300 feet a year. No other country in the world pumps as much water from their underground water supplies. As Steven Solomon, author of the remarkable and distressing book, Water, puts it, because of government policies encouraging the careless and profligate use of water, India is, as a nation, committing what amounts to “slow motion hydrological suicide”, with the result that:

Food produced from depleting groundwater is tantamount to an unsustainable food bubble—it will burst when the waters tap out. One warning occurred in 2006 when, for the first time in many years, India was forced to import large quantities of wheat … textile plants have been forced to shut down, and information technology companies have moved away from Bangalore, over water shortages and undependable supplies.[4]

Scapegoating Instead of Acting

India is a clear-cut case where water shortages changed a food exporter into a food importer in order to import “virtual water”, and where industries were forced to move because of water shortages. Partly as a result of growing water shortages, India decided they needed to take action – and did so by fingering foreign corporations as official scapegoats.

Coke and Pepsi are high-profile global companies whose products are water-based. India revoked their licenses to draw water from local supplies on the grounds that they were responsible for the region’s exhausted groundwater. The two companies were eventually forced to adopt a policy that will, over time, become widespread: that of becoming “water neutral.” They have managed to find ways of restoring to community water supplies as much water as they draw from them, which is a remarkable accomplishment, and one that all major corporations should keep in mind in their long-term planning. Water neutrality will join carbon neutrality as a desirable objective, even a mandated one.

But this is also a good example of another aspect of our future: scapegoating, deception, double-dealing, and theft. The history of water is replete with individuals, communities, states, and countries scheming to take possession of scarce water supplies at the expense of their neighbors, from Egypt to Turkey to Texas to China and beyond.

Indeed, at least one military conflict was acknowledged as being caused by water. Ariel Sharon, former Israeli prime minister and a former military commander in the Six Day War of 1967, commented that “In reality, the Six Day War started two and a half years earlier on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan [River]. While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.”[5]

I have one more blog post about water for now, which I’ll put up next week, about how we are are reacting to the coming water shortages.

© Copyright, IF Research, July 2015.

[1] Wikipedia website, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer.

[2] Solomon, p.345.

[3] ibid., p. 401.

[4] ibid. pp.423-4.

[5] ibid. p.402.

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Water Is Not the New Oil: The Future of Water, Part I

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Water is not the new oil; it’s much more important than that. There are substitutes for oil, but there are no substitutes for water, and we are running dry. As that happens (and it will happen at different rates in different places), the conflicts over water will rise, as will the economic consequences.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the drought that is haunting California, and suggested that, should it continue for a few more years, we are going to see water refugees leaving the state. But California is by no means the only part of the world experiencing problems with water, nor are these unusual weather patterns at the core of our water problems. Our real problem with water is us. We have grown accustomed to over-using water supplies for thousands of years, during which time human population has exploded at exponential rates. The combination of these two factors – population growth and overuse – are what will cause us extreme problems with water.

For instance, both China and India are already experiencing major water shortages. This reduces the standard of living of the people affected; increases the costs of everything they do, produce, and consume; and, if things get really bad, may even derail the economic miracles of these two countries. Water is that important.

Water Comes Second Only to Oxygen

Think about it: after oxygen, water is the thing you need most, most often, and whose absence you feel most deeply. If your town or city has its water supply disrupted, or if your water supply is contaminated, this quickly becomes the number one problem you face. In such a situation, stocks of bottled water vanish from supermarket shelves, and people hoard their supplies. People who are denied water become desperate very quickly; a few days without is usually enough to strip off the veneer of civilization to the point where most people will scheme or steal to get the water they need.

How would we grow our food? Indeed, this may be the biggest issue in the next two decades. Some commentators say that countries that import food are actually importing “virtual water.” Countries that import food often don’t have enough water to grow the food domestically, so they are forced to buy food that, had they sufficient water, they could grow for themselves.

And we use water for an amazing range of things. Without water, how would we fight fires? How would we cool nuclear reactors? How would we wash ourselves and our clothes? How would we provide basic sanitation? How would we manufacture most industrial products, from ships to steel to microchips to clothing? How would we extract oil and natural gas from the ground? How would we generate most kinds of power, from hydroelectric to natural gas generators to nuclear, without water? How would we run our cars? How would we prepare food to eat?

Going back over the (very abbreviated) list of things we use water for, it might be possible to work around the absence of water, or use other techniques if water’s not available, but it would be dramatically more expensive to do so. So one of the principal effects of water shortages is going to be economic, and that’s what I want to focus on first.

Where It Comes From, Where It Goes

We’re not running short of water, what we are running short of is useable, fresh water. Almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, but most of that isn’t useable. Of the water on Earth, 97% is saline, mostly in the oceans; freshwater accounts for only 3%. Of that 3%, almost 69% is locked up in ice and snow, and 30% lies belowground (and only a tiny portion of that is available by pumping from aquifers, which I’ll come back to in a later post), leaving only about 0.03% of all the Earth’s water available as fresh, potable water where we need it, typically in rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams.

Now, water is a remarkable substance, one of the most remarkable – even bizarre – in nature. It is one of the very few substances that expands instead of contracting when it freezes. It boils and freezes at a substantially higher temperature, and has a much higher surface tension, than molecules of comparable structure. It is one of the only substances that can act as both an acid and a base. It has been called the “universal solvent” because the large majority of substances are dissolved to at least some extent by water. And it is the one substance that virtually all life on Earth must have to exist.

But one of the most important aspects of this remarkable substance is that it doesn’t get used up, the way oil does, for example. When oil is burned, it changes into something else and is no longer available as oil. On the other hand, when water is used, whether to drink, irrigate plants, used in an industrial process, or whatever, most of the time it returns to water, and goes back into the Earth through the water cycle. So, in one sense, we aren’t using water up.

We’re Using It Faster Than It Can Be Renewed

What we are doing is using water – fresh, drinkable water – faster than it can be renewed. And this is why we are experiencing shortages, and why those shortages are getting worse.

The most important drivers of water shortages are population growth combined with the intensification of water use. Since the beginning of the 19th century, human population has grown from just under 1 billion to well over 7 billion people, while the amount of freshwater used per person has doubled. Worse, as more and more of the Earth’s human population moves out of poverty, and wants to change their diets to something akin to what we eat in the developed world, especially consuming more meat and dairy products, the rate of water consumption per person is accelerating. From 1900 to 1975, America’s population tripled, but the consumption of water increased 10-fold, or more than three times as fast as population.[1]

Much of that increase in water consumption has arisen because of our richer, more resource-intense diet. Here’s how much water it takes to produce some of what we consider our basic foodstuffs[2]:

1 lb. of wheat                                    125 gallons

1 lb. of rice                             250-650 gallons

1 glass of cow’s milk            200 gallons

1 hamburger                         700 gallons

Now, again, water doesn’t disappear when used to produce these things. It returns to the water cycle. But if you don’t have that much water available, then you simply cannot produce these foodstuffs.

Indeed, agriculture is the single biggest consumer of water, absorbing about 70% of all water used by humanity today. In the 60 years from 1950 to 2010, the amount of farmland being irrigated doubled, and the amount of water used for farming tripled. And as I’ve described here and elsewhere, the demand for food, and the demand for more resource-intensive food, is growing far faster than population growth. It required roughly a quadrupling of the resources needed to produce sufficient food to feed a doubling of China’s population from 1960 to 2000 during the period of China’s most rapid growth. I don’t have figures that relate specifically to the amount of water required for that purpose, but I would be very much surprised if it were less than a four-fold increase, and would not be at all surprised if it were actually much higher.

After agriculture, the biggest users of water are industry, which makes about 22% of humanity’s water withdrawals, and domestic activities (cooking, washing, sanitation, and so on), which take 8%. Moreover, industrial and domestic demands for water quadrupled in the last half of the 20th century, or even faster than the demands from farming.[3]

Demand Increases Much Faster Than Population

All of this adds up to dramatic increases in the demand for water in future, even if human population stood still – which it won’t. Global population is projected to continue to grow from about 7.3 billion people today, to about 9.3 billion by 2050. And recently revised UN projections indicate that global population could level out at around 9.5 billion by 2100 – or could continue to increase, to as high as 13.5 billion.

But let’s look at just the period to 2050, and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the experience of the last 50 and 200 years. Let’s assume we will be adding two billion more people to global population. That would, on its own, increase water consumption by about 30%. If we also include a factor for the greater intensification of water use per person, then we get at least a 75% increase in the demand for water in 2050 over today.

The problem is that this is flatly impossible because we’re already using more fresh water than we have available. And that’s where I’ll start the next post.

© Copyright, IF Research, June 2015.

[1] Solomon, Steven, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization”, Harper Perennial, New York, 2010, p.344.

[2] ibid., p. 373.

[3] Grimond, John, “For want of a drink: A special report on water”, Economist, May 22, 2010, p.4.

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What Happens When California Runs Out of Water?

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

California is exceptional. We all know that. Unfortunately, California has become exceptional in a particularly unpleasant way: it’s running out of water. According to NASA, California’s current four-year drought is the worst in 1,200 years, and the state’s reservoirs have only about a one year supply of water left – which raises the question: What do they do if they run out of water?

Pray for rain, that’s what. There just doesn’t seem to be another simple answer. But what is of broader concern is what California’s drought means to everyone else. There are important lessons we need to draw from California’s situation, but let’s start by considering how bad things really are in California.

How Bad Is It in California?

On March 12th, 2015, NASA Earth scientist and hydrologist James Famiglietti wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times stating that “Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” But that’s surface reservoirs. What about underground basins, from which California farmers have been drawing most of the water they’ve needed over the past few years? “Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater [i.e. from basins] during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%,” said Farmiglietti. “But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.”[1]

Another NASA scientist, Ben Cook, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is part of Columbia University, says that this is the worst drought that the western United States has experienced in 1,000 years – or since more than 400 years before Columbus.[2] Clearly neither governments nor residents are prepared for this. They’ve never experienced anything like it, and so do not know how to respond, so their responses will largely be based on their own experiences.

So, if their prayers for rain are not answered, and the drought persists (and California is already through the rainy season for 2015), then California will run through the water in their surface reservoirs within the year. This will be offset by pumping water from underground basins – but those basins are not bottomless, and are, in many places, running dry. Which means that from 2016 and beyond, California will literally live and die based on how much water is stored in their underground basins.

Some commentators insist this isn’t a problem. “The water tables are dropping so the supply is not infinite but there’s enough to get us through a few more years of drought.,” said Hearst Publication website SFGate, “Right now, some 70 to 80 percent of lost surface water in agriculture is being made up by pumping ground water.”[3] [The emphasis is mine.]

But if there’s only enough water below ground to get through a few more years of drought, what happens after that?

The key question here is: Will this drought persist beyond a “a few more years”? The prolonged outlook appears to be that yes, it will, and potentially for many years. There’s a 12 percent chance, says NASA’s Ben Cook, that this is a mega-drought, which means it could persist for 20-40 years or more. And the longer that we keep emitting carbon at our present rate, the greater the odds of a mega-drought hitting the American West. If California is already in a mega-drought, then it is in deep trouble – and the consequences will affect us all.

What California Means to the Rest of Us

California’s economy is the largest of all American states, and would place it 8th among national economies, roughly around the size of Brazil, and larger than Italy, India, or Canada, based on purchasing power parity. A failing California would be an economic disaster for America, with significant repercussions for the global economy.

Getting into the nitty-gritty makes this more concrete.

California is America’s biggest producer of food, and has been for over 50 years, producing more than half of the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables. It is the nation’s number 1 dairy producer, and its leading commodity is milk and cream. It produces 99% or more of the nation’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins, clovers, and walnuts. It produces 83% of the country’s fresh and frozen strawberries, 43% of its green onions, and 25% of onions. And this is just a selection of what’s grown in California.[4]

The problem is that much of this is grown unsustainably, using fossil water faster than it is being renewed. That didn’t seem to matter when the state received rain and snow reliably, but that’s no longer the case. And that means that eventually California will no longer be able to grow these things – or, at any rate, not as much of them.

California’s problems will tear a huge hole in America’s food basket – and that will affect food prices and supplies globally at a time when many farming areas around the world are also running low on water.

But it’s not just fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are at stake, because industries and cities use water as well. I’ve already had reports from people I know in Washington state of Silicon Valley companies moving there from California because of their concerns over water. That’s not a statistically valid measure, but neither is it a surprise.

And this focuses on a simple question that even people concerned about the problem are avoiding: What do people drink, and how do they live, if there’s no water? We’re not there yet, but we appear to be heading in that direction.

Disaster Is Discontinuous

One of the biggest mistakes people make when thinking about the future is that they expect change to be gradual and continuous. But sometimes, especially with disasters, change is abrupt. One day New Orleans was going about its business. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the city was changed forever. One morning, New York City awoke to a beautiful, seemingly ordinary autumn day – then the planes hit the World Trade Towers and the city – and the world ­– changed forever.

People expect solutions to appear as if by magic to long-standing problems, like the over-use of water. But when long-term changes are not instituted, eventually time runs out, and the future jumps from one state to a very different one. It becomes discontinuous. And of all the challenges we face, water is one of those that we have worked hardest to ignore.

That may be about to change in California, and California may be our very big canary in the coal mine. No one is currently saying that the population of California will have to be evacuated to places that have more water. And there are many things that can still be done to avert such an unthinkable result. But the time that would be required for such changes is largely being wasted because we keep thinking that things will return to “normal”.

And there may be a temporary stay of execution. About the only thing on the horizon that might change California’s situation, in the short run, is if the state’s prayers for rain come true, notably through the kind of drenching that the emerging El Ñino might deliver – or not. This could go some ways to replenishing California’s reservoirs and restoring some of its underground basins. But this would be a reprieve, not a rescue.

Drought As the New Normal

If the climate scientists are right, drought is the new normal, not only for California, but for large parts of western North America. NASA’s Ben Cook says there’s a 12 percent chance California is at the beginning of a mega-drought, as I mentioned earlier. But he went on to say that if we continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere, then the chances of a mega-drought, lasting 20-40 years or more, for the American West would rise to 60% by 2050, and 80% by 2100. So what California is experiencing now holds important lessons for all of us to consider: What will our future be if we don’t have enough water?

Many will undoubtedly read this and think that I’m being foolishly alarmist, or far-fetched. I can’t seriously be suggesting that California will actually and truly run out of water, can I?

That is precisely what I’m saying. If present trends continue, and if the state’s prayers are not answered, we will see a mass migration of water refugees out of California. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but avoiding this abrupt disaster will be difficult, wildly expensive, and catch the vast majority of people by surprise, even though the problem has been coming for decades.

But without such actions, difficult and distasteful as they may be, when the last quart of water has been pumped – and fought over – from the last underground basin, and there’s no water left, it will be too late. A disaster that has taken more than a century to develop will have arrived – and its landing will be abrupt and catch many people by surprise.

Some will call this “bad luck”.

I’ll have more to say about our abuse of, and attitudes towards, water in my next blog.

 

© Copyright, IF Research, June 2015.

[1] Farmieglietti, James, “California has about one year of water stored.” Los Angeles Times, 12 March 2015, http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-83043355/

[2] Cook, Ben et al, as quoted in “NASA Study Finds Carbon Emissions Could Dramatically Increase Risk of U.S. Megafroughts”, 12 February 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/february/nasa-study-finds-carbon-emissions-could-dramatically-increase-risk-of-us

[3] Graff, Amy, “10 California drought myths debunked”, SFGate blog, http://blog.sfgate.com/stew/2015/05/29/10-california-drought-myths-debunked/?google_editors_picks=true#photo-644295

[4] http://www.beachcalifornia.com/california-food-facts.html

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We Can See Right Through Them: Transparency and How to Use It

by Kit Worzel, futurist

In 2014, Canada ranked #10 in lack of corruption worldwide, the UK ranked #14, and the US ranked #17. In comparison, Denmark scored as the least corrupt country in the world, India was in the middle of the pack at #85, and North Korea and Somalia tied for last, at #174, and are considered the most corrupt nations in the world. There is direct correlation with the level of openness and transparency in government and lack of corruption in any given nation, leading to the thought that lack of transparency leads to corruption.

These measures come from Transparency International, a non-profit organization that collects data from numerous sources, including World Bank, Reporters Without Borders, World Economic Forum, the Tax Justice Network, and their own research. They are not the only international group that researches corruption across all sectors, but they are one of the largest and most trusted (one would hope. The irony would be painful otherwise).

When it comes to corrupt and closed nations, certain characteristics stand out. We hear about the Great Firewall of China, and how Google refused to continue filtering their search results there as they consider China to be a totalitarian state, a fact that is largely true. North Korea has the most restrictive and corrupt government in the world, and the press is entirely controlled by government propaganda. In Somalia, where the World Bank has essentially said the law has entirely failed and there is zero control over corruption, the press is somewhat less restricted than in China, but reporters still get arrested or killed with distressing regularity. These nations have very low levels of transparency, and the citizens have very little say in governing, which encourages closed and corrupt regimes. So transparency is not the same as corruption – but lack of transparency is clearly a hallmark of corrupt governance.

By comparison, Denmark, which I mentioned earlier as the least corrupt nation in the world, holds that top spot for a number of reasons. They are part of the Open Government Partnership, an international platform dedicated to make government open, accountable and responsible. They have an enforced code of conduct for public servants, and a legal system that not only criminalizes various forms of corruption, but an independent judicial system to enforce it. Not coincidentally, they are rated as one of the happiest countries in the world (#1 in 2013 and 2014, slipping to #6 in 2015, according to the UN World Happiness report).

Coming in 17th, the US has a comparatively low level of corruption. A free press, combined with nearly omni-present civilian recording and online reporting of official actions, make corruption more difficult to hide. And when people are caught stealing or in wrong-doing, they are usually punished for it. There are laws in place to protect people against false seizure of assets by governments or even against large corporations. So while many Americans complain about government corruption, the US is significantly better off than most of the world.

The Shock of Transparency

Yet, even those regimes that deem themselves honest and open are experiencing a form of future shock, as information they consider secret (or embarrassing) is increasingly finding its way onto the public view. And it’s not just governments that are vulnerable to this trend towards transparency. Most major corporations dislike transparency since it tends to tarnish their image when their dirty deals or deeds get out. Examples might be Nestle taking water from drought-ridden California, or similar behavior by Coca-cola in India, as just two examples, both of which have started boycotts over their products. As this affects their bottom lines, such companies strive to keep their actions secret, and prevent outsiders from finding and airing their dirty laundry. Like their government counterparts, they’re increasingly going to be disappointed as transparency continues to spread.

Conversely, companies who are open in their dealings are typically seen as being more trustworthy. Elon Musk’s Tesla open-sourced their patents for their electric cars. SEOmoz, where former CEO Rand Fishkin not only posted his own performance reviews, but also released their funding process, complete with an accurate and reasonably complete financial breakdown of the company and their profit design. Such companies believe that transparency generates more business by increasing trust. Transparency pays, and those who drag their feet on it can suffer.

As new stories of corruption and backroom deals emerge from media – or increasingly from bloggers – people are taking individual action against it. Nick Rubin, a US teen, created a browser plugin called Greenhouse, which recognizes the names of members of Congress and shows where their funding comes from. He uses the data from OpenSecrets.org, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics, a group dedicated to tracing the money in US politics. In India, the website I Paid a Bribe asks people to report where officials solicited a bribe, and for how much, showing the corruption in various parts of the country, and creating a starting point for preventing it in the future. In Kenya and Uganda, the site Not in my Country tracks solicitation of bribes of different types at Universities, and helps guide users through the legal process if they wish to take action. These are but a small sample of websites and utilities designed to expose and end corruption, many of them grassroots, and there are a few official government sites as well. Combine this with ease of access to information, and this is putting a large magnifying lens over any public official, or anyone in the public eye. But transparency and public display are, in themselves, not enough.

The Past Is Gone…the Future Can’t Hide

JFK and FDR were able to get elected in part by hiding serious health issues (Addison’s disease for Kennedy, and Polio, or possibly Guillian-Barré syndrome, for Roosevelt), something that would be impossible today. Now there’s too much media, and too many eyes watching, which would make it impossible to conceal something like that, and attempting too do so unsuccessfully would be seen as an even greater sin by the voters. One of the reasons that John McCain didn’t win in 2008 was because of his known health issues, so that voters feared he would die half-way though his term. Anyone who tried to cover up a serious health issue today wouldn’t even make it to the ballot.

It’s not just health. Financials, one of the issues that hurt Mitt Romney, can leave politicians exposed, as well as the contents of donor lists, voting records and all sorts of data that’s becoming available. Yet the raw data isn’t that useful for most people. It’s the application of it that we are interested in.

We are likely to see an outgrowth of the current technologies like Greenhouse and the corruption websites, and have them tied into social media. Rather than wonder if the real estate agent who is serving you is giving you a fake contract, you’ll be able to take a picture with your phone and know all about their reliability and honest right off. Politicians won’t be able to hide skeletons in the closet any more, they’ll have their failings and broken promises displayed alongside their pictures on your computer or TV screen. We are rapidly approaching a post-secrecy world, where dirty laundry is almost impossible to hide, for politicians, corporate CEOs – or private citizens like you and me.

The Downside of Transparency

Greater openness also means that governments may use this declining secrecy as a weapon to control people, tap their phones, scan their e-mail, even access confidential medical records. This is already happening, as you can see from my links, and greater openness, voluntary or otherwise, will also give people who have an axe to grind more material with which to work.

All governments want to monitor all the data they can on their citizens, even if it is for benign reasons, and the unprecedented level of access, particularly with the proliferation of social media, is a goldmine for anyone who is so interested. It will pay to remember the old political saying that just because you’re not interested in your government doesn’t mean that your government isn’t interested in you.

Seeing Is Not Enough

As recent events demonstrate, we’re finding that even a hint of government cover-up can create a major public uproar. Julian Assange (Wikileaks) and Edward Snowden (release of NSA spying documents) are examples of this in the US. In Canada, Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism bill, has been shown to be a gag bill which would empower the government to silence groups they felt were saying uncomplimentary things. Government prosecution (or persecution, depending on your point of view) Assange and Snowden is wildly unpopular, and the passage of C-51 through the Canadian House of Parliament has been met with wide-spread outrage, but this hasn’t stopped either the desire to prosecute the two whistleblowers, or the passage of the bill. Knowing about something may not be enough to stop it.

Bills that go to Congress frequently have deliberately confusing language, making them difficult for laypeople to understand, and this language is used to hide raises for Congress, changes to voting laws, tax breaks for major donors, and all sorts of sins that governments would rather the voters remained ignorant of. Complication is one way governments have of fighting transparency. And that calls for different kinds of counter-measures.

Beyond Transparency

Which brings me to my second point. We now live in an age where technology is making privacy almost obsolete. We have an unprecedented level of access to public officials, and they are frequently in the headlines for one scandal or another. However, all this exposure is not significantly lowering the level of corruption, which may means that transparency, while important, is not enough. Indeed, in a world where notoriety is often seen as a form of celebrity, many evil-doers will make hay out of coming clean. To keep those who lead and govern honest, we need something more: accountability; and that may be harder to achieve.

So when software can show you a politician’s voting record, that’s great. But it will be better still when that voting record is cross-referenced with their donor records, so you can see that they vote against solar panels when the oil industry gives them a hefty donation. And we are coming to a point when the news won’t just show that a bill sponsoring green energy will be voted on next week, but that the coal and oil industries have donated a total of $5 million to 238 members of congress, buying themselves a majority, and give the contact information for all those members of Congress, as well as that information for the coal and oil senior executives. And, of course, berating your member of Congress is now just the push of a button away.

So, all this information pushing towards greater transparency is largely beneficial, and since it’s already being used against us, there should really be no hesitation in using it for our defense. But without a way to create accountability, this information isn’t going to be as useful as it might – or as we need. Mark Sanford was almost impeached and was formally censured when he was Governor of South Carolina in 2011, but that didn’t stop him from winning the congressional seat for South Carolina’s first district in 2013. In 2010, Representative Charlie Rangel was found guilty of 11 violations by the House Ethics Committee, most involving money mis-management, but he kept his seat. This is just the tip of the iceberg. While we may be able to find out the dirty dealings of those in power, doing something about it will take more than a smartphone. It is not enough to create technology that enforces transparency, we must also find a way to create accountability. Corruption will continue to exist until we can combine transparency and accountability.

Is there an app for that – yet?

Copyright, IF Research, June 2015.

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Fog: What’s Next in Computing

by Senior Futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Cloud computing is now a widespread computing commodity, useful, ubiquitous, and powerful. But Cloud computing is fundamentally a 1970s concept, as it amounts to little more than an adaptation of timesharing, which IBM pushed hard in that era. Moreover, Cloud computing – indeed, any centralized computing network that requires backhauling data – is reaching its limits because of the recent, massive explosion in data.

Fog computing, on the other hand, is a new concept that promises not to replace or supplant Cloud computing, but to augment it and make it even more valuable – even as Fog computing breaks new ground.[1]

And, as with most truly new ideas, Fog is difficult to explain, because it’s not an adaptation of something we already know. As a result, I’m going to give a description of Fog computing and why it’s needed, but then illustrate it with two examples. I believe the examples will actually be of greater value.

The Data Explosion, or Why the Cloud Is Not Enough

For the past 50 years or so, computing resources have expanded faster than data. Processor speeds have increased, and data storage costs have fallen, in accordance with Moore’s Law, which says that computers will double in speed, and halve in cost, every 18 months. As a result, every time we’ve had a problem that involved crunching data, we just threw more computing resources at it, and got it solved.

Now that has changed. Suddenly, data sets are growing much faster than computer resources. Computers are still following Moore’s Law, which means their cost-effectiveness is expanding exponentially. But now, many kinds of data are expanding factorially, which is dramatically faster than exponential expansion[2].

There are two fundamental reasons why data are expanding so much more quickly than before. The first is that we are analyzing data sets that are both new to us, and massively bigger than any we’ve ever considered trying to tackle before. For instance, each human being has a genome, which consists of 3 billion base pairs (being the precise composition of their DNA strand) – or, in data terms, every human genome has 3 billion data points. There are currently about 7.3 billion humans, so if we were going to analyze the entire human genome to search for the causes of disease, the effects of different kinds of nutrition, or many of the other questions that we are now contemplating, we would be dealing with a data set that could be as large as 3 billion x 7.3 billion data points. And if we wanted to analyze the data for all of the billions of species of plant, animals, and other organisms on Earth, we would have to multiply that by many billions more. We would never have even considered this as possible in the past, but we are now edging towards this kind of analysis.

But that’s actually the slower growing of the two kinds of data that are now emerging. The faster growing has to do with how different entities relate to each other on the Internet. This is important because the Internet of Things (“IoT”), which consists of devices attached to the Internet, from smartphones to thermostats to devices to monitor your workout and much more, is exploding. In fact, the year 2015 is the first year when it appears that the majority of communications over the Internet are between IoT devices, communicating with each other, rather than people communicating with each other, or even people communicating with things. Current estimates project that there will be 40 billion IoT devices within 5 years, and that may be conservative.

Meanwhile, a lot of analysis now consists of metadata, which is data about data. As a result, how data are communicated from one entity to another becomes grist for this kind of analysis. So as the number of IoT devices explodes, the number of potential relationships between IoT devices explodes much, much faster.

There is no way that central processing of data, say through the Cloud, can handle these quantities of data. And that’s why Fog computing is going to emerge and be so critical

What Is Fog Computing?

Fog computing is computing done at the edge, where data is first gathered, rather than transmitted to a central computer, where it is crunched before results are returned to the edge. Instead, a Fog computer is structured to allow each data node to compute data where it originates, then pass along the data and the computations to another node, which adds its data, performs its calculations, and passes them along. The result is decentralized computing, with results emerging without a central processor controlling or directing the computation. This is a very different kind of computing than we are used to. Let me illustrate how it might work, and why it will be important.

A Traffic Jam as a Computer Network

I’m sure you’ve experienced this kind of situation: You’re driving along a superhighway through a city, comfortably above the speed limit and making good time, when suddenly you see red brake lights blossoming in front of you. You slow, and then stop, then crawl, then stop, moving forward only in unsatisfying lurches. You have no idea what’s happened, how long traffic will be like this, or how far the traffic jam extends. Worse, you’re coming up on an exit, and can’t tell whether you’d be better off staying on the superhighway, or exiting and trying to push your way through city surface road traffic.

Meanwhile, you look at the cars whizzing by in the opposite direction, and wish that, somehow, they could tell you what’s ahead, how bad it is, and how far you would have to go to get by this stop-and-go traffic jam.

Virtually all contemporary cars have many onboard computers, and newer ones have several different kinds of communications capacities. Now add a Fog computing system.

With cars equipped to participate in a Fog network computer, each car, in both directions on the superhighway, makes available data about the traffic around it to every other car, but with all personal identifiers stripped off for the sake of privacy. Hence, to you and the other cars stuck in traffic, your car quickly learns that the stop-and-go traffic you are experiencing actually gets worse, and that the road ahead is completely blocked about a mile ahead due to a tractor trailer tipping over, blocking all the lanes on your side of the superhighway. Each car then uses this data to calculate its best options, and presents them to the driver (or executes them itself, if it’s a self-driving car).

In your case, as you are coming up to an exit, the car indicates that you will be far better off exiting immediately, and finding a new route around the blockage. The same is true for all the cars around you, as they each reach the same calculation based on the traffic data they have collected.

But now hundreds of cars are exiting the superhighway, and flooding the local surface streets of the city, causing a different kind of traffic jam. Again, each car is broadcasting details of the traffic around it and behind it. And as each car gathers data, each car starts figuring the best routes around this unexpected, and rapidly growing, new volume of surface street traffic, so that cars diverge along many different routes.

Now the city’s central traffic computer, located in the Cloud, gets into the act. It notes the blockage on the superhighway, and notifies emergency services. In turn these services dispatch police, fire, and ambulance crews to the scene, and start diverting traffic from farther back on the superhighway. The traffic computer also considers the flow of traffic exiting the superhighway, and starts changing its traffic flow controllers, such as changing when traffic lights go red and green, how long turn lanes are given priority, and switching the direction of some lanes to further diffuse the traffic, and keep things moving.

As a result, while traffic slows and thickens, the effects are minimized, and things keep moving.

This is Fog computing interacting with Cloud computing.

A Farmer’s Field as a Computing Network

Tom Hauptman is a cutting edge farmer, but even he is surprised by the latest development. In conjunction with the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and Rice University in Houston, Texas, Tom is one of a limited number of farmers running a new kind of experiment: turning one of his fields into a network, and networking, computer. He was approached by the joint venture team as he has spoken and blogged on the future of precision agriculture, and so was receptive to the concepts involved in the SmartField project.

The first step was to plant sensors along with his normal wheat crop. This was done by adding a small robotic attachment to his planter. Every so often, as his field was being seeded, it would punch a foot-high probe, containing a sensor-computer node, into the ground along with the wheat, with the result that Tom’s field is now growing both wheat and data.

The nodes have a variety of sensors in their package, as well as an obsolete smartphone computer chip. All of this equipment has been selected first to use as little electricity as possible, and then to be as cheap as possible in order to keep overall costs down. In addition to the metal probe that supports the node in the ground, there are also two electricity generators: a soil or microbial battery, that actually generates electricity from the microbes in the soil around the probe; and a small infrared solar panel that collects electricity from heat rather than direct light. The designers realized that as the wheat grew, it would quickly overshadow the probe, eliminating any potential power from visible light solar cells. The infrared cell, while more expensive, will continue to operate even when overshadowed.

The computers on the nodes were programmed before they were distributed around the field. Their purpose is to assess the data collected by the sensors, and relate it to an elaborate computer model that compares their readings with the projected data from a computer model of a hypothetical, optimally-growing wheat stalk at the same stage of development. The purpose is to identify what might hurt or help the wheat around the sensor to grow optimally. Such things might include emerging pest threats, too much or too little water, nutrient deficiencies, or anything else that might cause development to be sub-optimal.

Now, a month following the planting of the wheat field and the probes, something remarkable has happened. A group of drones, about the size of a badminton shuttlecock, regularly spreads out, moving from probe to probe, both collecting and disseminating data. The data gathered from the probes are relayed both to a computer in Tom’s home office, and to the other probes in the field. Now, some of the probes are reporting that soil moisture is falling below the optimal band, while others are reporting an improper development of the surrounding wheat stalks. The Fog computer network created by the sensor nodes has thrown up two hypotheses: first, that there is a section of the field that drains more quickly than Tom suspected, and therefore needs more irrigation; and second that some external factor is harming some areas of the wheat field. The areas related to these two hypotheses overlap, but are not identical.

This data is relayed up to a Cloud computer run by the university researchers. Their model concurs that some areas of Tom’s field drain more quickly, which is not a terribly interesting result (at least for the researchers), but conclude that there may be a new kind of wheat leaf rust emerging that they haven’t encountered before, and which isn’t included in their optimal-development model. The researchers take the data from the Cloud model, and use it to search recent scholarly papers, as well as ag agent reports of emerging threats. They find a handful of reports of such rust, but no research – it’s too new. One of the reports suggests a new, recently introduced fungicide seems to be helping resist the new rust infection. The researchers therefore send the data about the nature of this new rust, and the possible fungicide remedy, to the Cloud model.

The Cloud model then acts on the data, downloading it to all of the farms involved in the tests, including Tom’s farm, where it goes down to the individual nodes. The nodes compare the data they receive as the rust emerges, and conclude that this is the threat that is causing the affected plants to be growing sub-optimally. As their data is cross-tabulated by the Fog computer, a recommendation is made to Tom that he immediately obtain the new fungicide, and apply it in controlled amounts to the specific areas affected, as well on as a barrier of uninfected plants around these areas. The amount involved is much less than would otherwise be used, first because only those affected or threatened are sprayed, and then because the infection has been caught at a very early stage, before much damage has been done.

The first Tom knows of any of this is when the recommendation to spray appears as a text message on his smartphone. He calls the university researchers to talk to them, because Tom has no experience with this. They confer, and Tom concludes that he will go ahead with the proposed spraying, orders the fungicide, and prepares to spray the next morning.

This action is the result of data being gathered by a Fog network of sensors and computers; processing by that network identifying that something is amiss at a very early stage; throwing that conclusion to other nodes for comparison and reinforcement or clarification; the results uploaded first to Tom’s computer, then to the researchers’ Cloud system; research being done based on these early findings and conclusions being updated in the Cloud system, then downloaded to the farm test nodes, which then compared the expected development profile with the reality in the field; and finally remedial action proposed.

Where the Action Is: Everywhere Through Interlocking Networks

The computing involved in this example happened at the sensor level, at the farm level, and in the Cloud. Here again, Fog and Cloud computers interacted, each bringing their own strengths.

A fully-articulated global farm network would include Fog computing at the field level, databases at the farm, regional, national, and global levels, and Cloud computing happening at the regional, national, and global levels. Information would pass both upwards and downwards from every level, and conclusions would emerge through techniques such as evolutionary algorithms, both with and without human intervention. As new threats or events occurred in one location, the relevant data would quickly be spread to everyone involved in the various networks. Hence, a farmer’s Fog network would be warned to look out for certain characteristics of an emerging threat, and data from the field, along with Fog-generated conclusions, would be forwarded to Cloud networks for broader comparison and assessment.

In theory, sensors will eventually watch over every plant on every farm in the world, gathering data, with Fog networks computing it, and passing conclusions and observations to local, regional, national, and global Cloud networks. No Cloud system, regardless of how powerful, could possibly handle such a volume of data. And no stand-alone Fog system, encompassing a single farm, could have the depth of knowledge that being networked globally could provide.

What’s missing from this picture is the economics that would make this idea financially feasible. This not only involves the cost of the sensor-processor nodes, but the interchange of data itself. I strongly suspect that data will be bought and sold at all levels of these interlocking networks. Precisely how such data sales will be tolled is unknown, but that will emerge. Moreover, the buying and selling of data may become of much greater significance to farm suppliers, like Deere, BASF, or Bayer, than their current, physical product lines. Indeed, their current product lines may become merely the means by which they are involved in selling data, much as Gillette sells razors virtually at cost in order to sell replacement blades at a profit.

Welcome to the World of Fog

Fog computing is virtually unknown in the world today. Very few people have even heard about it, even among high tech companies that look for such things. That’s about to change, and with a vengeance. And the combination of Fog computers with techniques like evolutionary algorithms means that such networks – or networks of networks – will, in many cases, reach conclusions without human intervention.

We are entering a strange new world, but one that holds enormous promise, as well as the potential for enormous misuse. Welcome to the Fog.

© Copyright, IF Research, May 2015.

[1] Disclosure: I’ve recently made an investment in an early stage Fog computing company, Fog Lifter™, which reflects my belief in the importance of this emerging sector of the computer industry.

[2] To illustrate factorial expansion, 2 raised to the 5th power (exponential) is 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 32. For comparison, five factorial is 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120.

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The Internet of Things: Pet Rock, or Foundation Stone?

by futurist Kit Worzel

Just about everyone is familiar with the Internet (if you aren’t, how are you reading this?), but the concept of the Internet of Things throws people. One way of looking at it is giving objects the ability to communicate and interact with and through the Internet. A simple example of this is the GPS chip in your smartphone. This means that if you lose your smartphone, you can search for it through the Internet. But there are many more, and more sophisticated, examples emerging.

One of the first examples of the Internet of Things (“IoT’) came from Carnegie Melon University in 1980. Some of the programmers there wired a Coke machine so they could check to make sure there were still drinks in stock before they walked over to it – a trivial hack that has led to big potential changes. From there we have progressed not only to wireless access, but also to two-way communication, and even control of things from a distance.

Saving lives by Internet

My favorite example is the smart pacemaker I expect will emerge in the near future. This pacemaker will have the ability to communicate with four other entities: The cardiac unit at the local hospital, an overhead GPS satellite, an ambulance dispatcher, and the smartphone of the next of kin of the wearer.

Here’s how the situation might unfold: We have George, a somewhat overweight man in his late 50’s, sitting in a coffee shop drinking a double espresso and reading the sports pages. George has a smart pacemaker due to his previous heart attack, and his tendency to ignore his doctor’s advice. He is grumbling over a poor outcome for his home team when his pacemaker notices his heart is operating outside of its normal range, and the pacemaker is unable to correct it. It tries to send a notification to George’s phone, but he disabled it because it kept beeping at him when he drank coffee the way he liked it (too strong, too much sugar).

The pacemaker notices that the first threshold has been crossed, and sends a message to the cardiac unit. The nurse-technician on duty receives the message, and checks the status of George’s heart. He notes that the pacemaker’s warning is correct, and uploads a protocol for the pacemaker to use. The pacemaker executes the protocol without noticeable effect, and George’s situation worsens. The nurse-technician realizes this is outside of his area of expertise, and sends an emergency text to a cardiologist, asking her to get involved. The doctor is expected to arrive at the terminal in three minutes.

As the protocol fails to correct George’s heart, his condition worsens. Suspecting heartburn from too much coffee, George rubs his chest and makes a note to avoid spicy food this afternoon, ignoring the other warning signs of a heart attack. The pacemaker notes that George has now passed a second threshold, and initiates procedures for an incipient heart attack. First, it consults the signals from the GPS satellite, which returns a precise location. Second, it sends an alert to the ambulance dispatcher, notifying dispatch of George’s health condition and location. Third, it sends a text message to George’s wife (his next of kin), letting her know that he is having a heart attack, that an ambulance is on the way, and he will be taken to the cardiac unit of a specific hospital.

As George’s pacemaker is doing all of this, the cardiologist arrives to check his status online. She notes that his pacemaker has identified that George is about to have a serious heart attack, and has notified the ambulance, which is on the way. She assembles an emergency cardiac surgical team, sends a nurse to greet the EMTs and bring them to her OR, and goes to scrub up.

George’s condition has gotten bad enough that the customers and staff of the coffee shop have begun to notice. The barista has just picked up the phone to call 911 when the EMTs push a stretcher through the door. The barista looks at the EMTs, then at the phone, and then back as he wonders what was in the coffee he drank that morning. Luckily for George, the EMTs get George situated on the stretcher and wheel him into the back of the ambulance, and take off. The attending EMT has a display showing not only a photo of George’s face, but also his vital signs, as taken by his pacemaker, as well as recommendations for emergency treatment, which she follows as her colleague quickly navigates to the hospital. A nurse holding a tablet computer, which is updating from the ambulance’s instruments, greets them at the door. The nurse checks that the numbers on the tablet are correct as he guides the EMTs and the stretcher with George to the cardiac OR, where the surgical team is assembled and ready to operate.

By the time George’s wife makes it to the hospital, the surgery is half-over, his vitals are stable, and the duty nurse that greets her is able to reassure her that George should be fine. George will, of course, face repercussions in the form of scolding from both his wife and his doctor, who will require him to adhere to a diet and exercise plan, and upload a protocol to his pacemaker to monitor that he is sticking to it.

More mundane applications will flourish as well

This is not in the distant future, but instead only a few years away at our current pace of technological change. Integrated smart technology will have thousands of applications, at the very least. Wire a refrigerator with pressure sensors and a camera, and give it a connection to a food database, and you’ll be able to text your fridge from the store and ask if you’re out of milk, and get a reply, not of yes or no, but of how much milk you have left. Throw your laundry in the machine when you get home after work, and set it to go off when the grid load drops and triggers the start of cheap electricity. Give your kids clothing that includes GPS tags in case you lose track of them. Have an app on your phone that monitors online sales on items you want, and compares them to sales in town. Set your phone’s GPS to interface with your home’s AC/heater, to turn it off when you are away, but turn it back on when you are headed home.

Information is currency, and the Internet of Things is about to become very rich.

It’s also information that can be put to good use. Your shirt will monitor body temperature, and can interface with the AC and heater as well, keeping you comfortable at home, but also monitoring to see if you start running a fever. Don’t just keep track of where your pets and children are, get notified if they leave a certain area, or go into a forbidden one (virtual grounding, if you will). A television subroutine that will turn off if your heart rate drops below a certain threshold, to encourage exercise or that it’s time to go to bed. A mapping program keeps track of your fingertips so you can a virtual keyboard projected on any flat surface. And the games they come up with will be incredible. There are already games based on geo-caching, and GPS, but this will take it to a whole new level. Play laser-tag in a city with your phone’s camera. Successful pictures count as a tag. Have a VR rig that will treat signals from various IoT enabled devices as different denizens of a fantasy world, so you can experience Skyrim or Tolkein walking down the street. Go outside the city limits and have drone dogfights with your friends, or rent the drones and have the fights from your computer. Anything that can be integrated in any way will be, for medicine, entertainment, security, comfort, or hygene.

This is not a fad, or a flash in the pan. There are over 12 billion IoT devices already out there, and the number of new devices is expected to more than triple per year  over the next ten years. Such devices already outnumber people, and that is not going to change anytime soon.

The other edge of the IoT sword

Yet, as well as all of the amazing possibilities, there are some downsides as well. Feature creep is the obvious one. It’s all well and good getting notifications that you are having too much coffee, and should cut back to avoid a heart attack, but getting text messages from your fridge telling you you’re out of milk when you’ve just thrown the carton away would be annoying. Or having multiple people getting messages from your smart washer, so one of you gets a text in a business meeting that it’s time to put the wash in the dryer. Or that you constantly get ads from the same brand of appliance you bought whenever you are within 50 meters of a store that carries them.

Security will also be an issue. There are already instances of people hacking pacemakers and insulin pumps, so having other life-saving appliances getting hacked seems likely. GPS clothing could not only be hacked so you couldn’t find them (why are my shoes in Ecuador? I thought I left them at the gym!), but also to track people, making life easier for stalkers – or tax collectors.

Electronic security has been a major issue for a number of years now, but the IoT will truly bring it to the fore. Almost every electronic device we buy a few years from now will be wired somehow, letting us control every aspect of our lives and homes even from a distance, but also allowing others the same kind of control if they are savvy enough and intrusive enough to take it.

New security protocols are being enacted, to hopefully prevent this illicit access. But we’ll deal security in a different post.

For now, enjoy the thought of having your car turn on and warm up for you in the morning as you lace up your boots, a thought near and dear the hearts of many of our snow-bound readers, I’m sure.

© Copyright, IF Research, January 2015.

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15 Unexpected Things to Expect in 2015

by futurists Richard Worzel & Kit Worzel

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.

Geopolitics

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.”[1]
    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.

Financial markets

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.

[1] 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

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