13 Trends for 2013


by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

A new year is a time when everyone thinks and wonders about the future, and I’m no different, except for me it’s also my job. With that in mind, let me identify some of the trends and new developments that are likely to emerge, or intensify, during 2013. Some of these are well-established, but not highly visible. Some are new, and will burst on our consciousness. All will be important in different ways.

1) The emergence of women – This is a trend I’ve written about before and which has been emerging for some time, but which is now pushing its way into the general consciousness. I suspect that 2013 will give it a profile that has generally been lacking, particularly if Hillary Clinton decides to run for the presidency.

First, women are in the ascendant in our society, to the point where I believe they will become the leaders of our society and economy within a generation. This is happening for several reasons. The least important of these is that young women now have role models for virtually anything they would like to do, up to, but not yet including, President of the United States. This inspires them, and encourages them to choose careers that interest them rather than ones that are traditionally “approved” for women. Next, more businesses are being started by women than are being started by men, and the businesses started by women are more likely to survive. As a result, there are more executives and owner/operators who are women than ever before, and their numbers are growing. But perhaps the biggest future indicator is that women outnumber men in post-secondary education. At the undergraduate level, there are almost 50% more women than men, a 60-40 split. At the graduate level in most disciplines, this figure is even higher, approaching 90% in some medical fields. All of this means that the leaders of the future are more likely to be women than men.

2) The decline of men – A separate issue is the decline of men. This is not just a relative decline, brought on by the rise of women, but is an absolute decline. Much of this is physical, but some of it is social and emotional. The physical side stems from evidence which seems to indicate that men are more greatly affected by poisons in the biosphere than are women. The number of boys who experience attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity is two- to four times the number of girls who are affected. Sperm counts are down in men in many places around the world, from Columbia to France to Britain, or, indeed, most places where researchers have troubled to make the comparison. Is this a critical issue in a world where population growth is an environmental problem? Probably not, but as an indicator of male health, it doesn’t seem like a good sign. Other studies also show a widespread decline in testosterone levels in American men – again, probably not a life-or-death issue today, but not a positive indicator. And Canadian men showed a big jump in testicular cancer from 1983 to 2005.

None of these indicators are definitive. Indeed, in some ways, because they are disconnected, they are almost anecdotal in nature. Yet they all point in the same direction: males are in trouble as a sex. Then add the social dimension: men today are viewed, through popular culture, as silly, stupid, overgrown boys. This is illustrated in movies (“The Hangover”), TV programs (Homer Simpson), popular sayings (“The difference between the men and the boys is the size of their toys”), and even jokes. Indeed, the only minority it is now safe to make fun of is men, notably white men.

There are probably several possible interpretations for these facts, but my interpretation is simple: Men are in trouble, and women are emerging as the dominant sex, and will lead the world before the end of the 21st century.

3) The waning of work – Just over 20 years ago I wrote about how we were moving towards a world where permanent work would be much harder to come by, casual labor at lower wages would be widespread, and there would be a significant, and growing, group of people who wanted to work, but couldn’t find a job. We are now seeing the clear outlines of this world. It’s a continuing trend, not something new to 2013, produced by inexpensive labor in developing countries, coupled with rapidly expanding automation here at home. The two are combining to eliminate most kinds of repetitive work, regardless of whether it’s blue collar assembly-line jobs, white collar clerical work, professional medical assessments, or executive oversight. Any job that involves doing more or less the same thing over and over is a candidate for being eliminated.

The result is that it will be progressively harder and harder for people of all ages to find full-time employment. And, as I also anticipated in 1993, more and more people will work casually, and on a project-by-project basis, more like a production crew for a movie than a traditional business. Everyone will be responsible for managing their own careers, no matter who pays them, and many people will become involuntary entrepreneurs because they can’t find work any other way.

The logical end result of this trend is either a society that has become full of entrepreneurial, creative people, with training and education aimed towards that end, or a world where we are divided into aristocrats that own businesses, those few creative souls who work for them, and the large majority of peons who struggle to get by on charity and crumbs. And the critical question is whether our education system is preparing people for the first scenario, or the second?

4) Three-dimensional printing – Management guru Peter Drucker once said that an entirely new technology went through two major stages, which correspond to the classic “S” curve of development. In the first stage, developments are slow and incremental, while the potential is hyped far more than performance can justify. In the second stage, people have written the technology off as a bust – just in time for it to explode. Three-D printing is about to move from the first stage to the second, and the effects will be profound. This technology has been in development for more than 20 years, during which time it has been improving incrementally. Now, it is maturing as a technology, and may be as disruptive to many industries as the Internet has been.

The fundamental idea behind 3D printing is that it is like a laser printer, but instead of ink, it uses a material or series of materials to print one thin slice of an object. Then the printer bed drops down very slightly, and it prints the next slice, and the next, and the next, until the entire object has been produced. What it means is that manufacturing can be done where something is needed, instead of in a distant factory.

It will ultimately be disruptive to many industries, from widgets to cars, but could be particularly important in fields like electronics, pharmaceuticals, and human organ replacement. These, and related, fields are ones where the cost of materials is low relative to the information or design involved. For more on this, see my earlier blog, [Star Trek].

5) The emergence of Big Data & Analytics – When I first heard these terms, I thought it was just another new management buzzword. I was wrong, for these represent a fundamentally new way of looking and thinking about the world, and they have wide potential applications.

Big Data is the idea of co-opting information overload, and putting it to work by taking incredibly large masses of data, and using non-traditional analytic tools to identify previously unsuspected or unidentified patterns. (That’s the “Analytics” part.) Examples of Big Data sources might be the traffic patterns of the entire Internet, the sum of all human genomic data, the data produced by all or a large part of the weather observations made around the world, or all the trading data for all securities traded in stock markets around the world. Mining such huge data sources would be impossible were it not for new techniques that are very different from traditional forms of examination like statistical analysis, which are limited and time consuming. Instead, new forms of pattern- or solution-seeking software, such as evolutionary algorithms, are able to plunge into the multivariate data worlds, and gradually identify patterns.

Applications in the short- to medium-term include allowing banks or credit unions to better assess the creditworthiness of their customers, retailers to identify which customers are more likely to buy which products, and multinational corporations to identify new product trends before they become obvious. Longer term, Analytics will significantly improve our ability to predict weather, and to understand and anticipate climate change; help money management groups get a jump on their competitors; and, perhaps most exciting, create the single greatest medical tool in human history: the ability to identify the causes of diseases and health threatening conditions, and emerging health and sickness trends in both individuals, and humanity as a whole.

6) Quantum computers and entanglement – I first studied quantum mechanics when I was 16 years old, and I still don’t understand it. The laws of physics that rule the quantum world, at the subatomic level of existence, bear no resemblance to our world, and everyday common sense doesn’t apply at all. So it’s odd that I’ve been seeing the term “quantum entanglement” more and more often in accounts of scientific and technical developments.

Technology has been making use of quantum effects since the deployment of the transistor in the 1950s, but harnessing quantum mechanics to serve us now seems poised to go into overdrive. Some of this will come through the (gradual) development of quantum computers, which promise to be massively, omverwhelmingly more powerful than the digital computers of today, but some will come through the emergence of the use of quantum entanglement.

Entanglement, like all quantum effects, is very difficult to explain, but may provide a way for us to send messages at speeds faster than light – indeed, instantaneously, regardless of the distance. This seems to contradict Einstein’s work on Relativity, to which quantum physicists just shrug. All of these developments are in the first stage of Drucker’s S-curve of development, so what you hear will sound like hype, but may make big differences in your life in the years ahead.

7) Awareness of Global Crime, Inc. – Organized crime has gone global, and now resides in most cities near you. Hopping from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is a proven way to slow up law enforcement agencies, and the mobs behind organized crime have only one organizing principle: make money any way they can. The primary engine of growth is illegal drugs, which throw off money at a prodigious rate, and finance expansion into other areas. And many newer areas of crime, like identity theft, are virtually risk-free, with piddly penalties even if police can find and catch the thieves. Moreover, such invisible crimes don’t frighten people, the way that a rash of bank robberies would, and so fit with the idea of keeping a low profile.

As a result, there is little outcry, few new laws to dodge, and police departments in the developed world find it easy to deny that they’re not doing their jobs.

Yet, the costs of these parasites is growing, and I expect to hear a lot more about global, organized crime in 2013, possibly even causing the average citizen-on-the-street to pay attention. The real question is whether there is enough concern and anger to inspire action. If so, the place to start is to strike at the heart of the mobs by legalizing most recreational drugs. This won’t be simple, partly because of political ideologues who refuse to see the sense in legalization, despite the lessons of the Prohibition Era, and partly because I suspect that the biggest lobbyists in favor of keeping drugs illegal are funded by organized crime itself. Why would they want to share their monopoly with governments?

8) The return of the Big Lie – The rise of voter cynicism has many effects, which tend to move in a downward spiral, shifting us away from democracy, and towards populism and demagoguery. One such effect is that power-hungry governing parties exploit voter disinterest to mislead – or more bluntly, to lie – because they know most voters can’t be bothered to check up on what they’re saying.

This was quite evident in the 2012 presidential election, when many in the Republican party, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, seemingly abandoned any pretense of telling the truth, and flatly made things up in an effort to win votes. This has been ably described by bloggers like Dan Froomkin in “How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign” on the Huffington Post website. And of course, such blogs have also been attacked as nakedly partisan – which allows opponents to dismiss them without actually answering them. And lest Canadians feel too smug about this, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shows an unfortunate tendency in that direction as well. In Harper’s case, he has taken the issue a step further by cutting funding for scientific research, and limiting the scope of the Canadian census in order to deny his opponents inconvenient facts with which to fight his unsupported assertions.

Such untruths (which Stephen Colbert once described as “truthiness”, meaning “having the sound of truth without actually being true”) erode the foundations of democracy. They increase voter disaffection and indifference, which further encourages the power-hungry of all political persuasions to lie even more boldly.

Following Obama’s re-election, and the trouncing of this stratagem, it will be interesting to see if The Big Lie continues to flourish in modern politics.

9) Private weather – One of the consequences of governments’ need to trim spending is that weather services are being forced to cut back at a time when awareness of extreme weather is becoming more critical. At the same time, private forecasting services are flourishing, in part to serve the needs of corporations, such as those involved in food production, or property and casualty insurers, with better intelligence. This is not a high-profile development, but is one that will, sooner or later, catch us by surprise. Imagine how much worse the devastation would have been, for instance, if super-storm Sandy’s famous “left turn” had not been forecast, and the New York area had not been as prepared.

10) The Internet of Things – While I feel quite confident that we will hear a lot more about the Internet of Things (or “IOT”), I’m nowhere near as confident that it will live up to its hype.

The idea of IOT is that devices will start exchanging information, presumably for our benefit. The classic illustration (and one that also convinces me that this is overhyped) is for your refrigerator to inform your smartphone that you need milk, and for your smartphone to remind you when you’re on your way home. The problem is not in the technical feasibility, but in whether people want this kind of thing done. I first encountered this when I was working with a network hardware provider in the late 1990s, and was asked about this specific example. I pooh-poohed the idea, only to find the client had already committed chunky money to working on it. I proved to be right, although it did make life uncomfortable at the time. The bigger question is: What do humans want things to do for us outside of our awareness? So far, I haven’t heard many convincing answers. I suspect that this is a technology that is in Drucker’s first stage of technological development, which means we’ll hear the hype, but won’t see much in the way of results.

11) Games invade reality – In a relatively small number of years, we have see computer games rise from being something that computer nerds created for their own amusement, to a rinky-dink industry populated and catering to a wider audience of more general nerds, to an industry that now dominates some aspects of the entertainment business. Movies are now made with the video game in mind, and the computer gaming industry’s revenues now overshadow those of the film industry.

But games and gamers aren’t done yet, because it turns out that computer gaming is a very effective way for people to learn new skills, and improve old ones. The corporate world has taken notice, and there are now computer games being developed to become part of corporate training regimens. Ironically, though, for once the corporate world trails governments – or at least the military – which has been using computer games to train combat troops for almost two decades.

Yet, the place where games might have the most visible effect, and be most enthusiastically embraced, is in primary and secondary education. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, most educational games are feeble attempts at prettying up “drill-and-kill” programs without changing their largely brain-dead intent.

So 2013 will continue to see computer gaming encroaching on ever-larger chunks of turf – except where they might do the most good.

12) The world’s most boring disasters – Is there anyone who isn’t bored to tears with the twin economic/financial crises, one in Washington, and the other in Europe? Yet, these could have more impact on your life in 2013 than any of the other trends I’ve mentioned so far. As I’ve written on several occasions before, there are lots of ways that the U.S. could go over the so-called fiscal cliff, and it only takes one of them to transpire for the U.S. economy to be knocked back into recession, and drag Canada, Europe, and the world with it.

Likewise, the European crisis could bring on economic and financial disasters that could trigger financial panics and global recession or even depression. Yet, everyone is just so tired of hearing about it that we’ve all pretty much tuned it out. Indeed, the only reason I’ve even bothered to mention it is because either of these slow-motion disasters could become the biggest story of 2013.

13) Likewise, there is the usual drum-beat of geopolitical disasters lurking out there, any one of which could blow up at any time.

North Korea seems marginally less insane, but only marginally, but could take out most of South Korea in an afternoon, and without nuclear weapons. How China and America responded to that would determine whether we would need to bundle up for nuclear winter or not.

The Middle East seems, once again, to be simmering towards a boil, but what will finally set it off? Will it be the deliberately provocative building of new settlements by Israel, in violation of international law? Will Iran finally get the bomb – and decide to use it on Israel? Will Syria’s Assad appeal to Iran for help, and thus trigger a much wider conflict in the region, with or without nukes?

And then there’s China, and its pretensions to own all of the South China Sea, with all its islands, flyspecks, undersea oil, and resources, over the opposition of its neighbors. As one high profile example, with Japan changing governments again (for the 5th time in 4 ½ years), and the new government needing to show that it can stand up to China; and with China going through it’s 10 year change of government, and with the new leader of China needing to demonstrate the size of his, uh, commitment to China’s “legitimate” claims, there is a crisis waiting to happen over the Senkaku (according to Japan) or Diaoyu (according to China) Islands. Nobody wants this to blow up, but nobody wants to back down, either – a classic prescription for trouble.

© Copyright, IF Research, December 2012.