The 21st century is stranger than fiction

by Clem Sunter: Scenario planner, speaker and best-selling author.
Forget about Lee Child and John Grisham. The 21st century so far is a thriller full of the most amazing twists and turns that even their yarns cannot match.

That is why I provide, as best I can do, the flags to watch in order to give some explanation for what has happened and some idea of what may happen next.

If anything has proved how poor the conventional art of forecasting is at capturing the real world as it evolves, the recent past has driven a nail into the coffin. The future is not what it used to be. Even scenario planners have had their powers of telling unlikely stories about the future tested by 'black swan' events which are completely outside the cone of predictability.

Think of Brexit and the political mess it has created in Britain. People are now talking of the possibility of a second referendum in which the majority of citizens will vote for the country to remain part of the EU.

Think of the election of Donald Trump and the fact that US national debt is at its highest level as a percentage of GDP since 1942. Yet, he is trying to force through tax cuts which will turbocharge the budget deficit and cause national debt to zoom.

More than ever strategic intelligence is required to negotiate the future. So let me update you on the clockwork flags, with fairly precise consequences ticking away into the future, and the cloudy flags with a whole array of different threads, each requiring its own narrative or scenario.

The flags mentioned are generic in nature as there is not enough space for flags changing individual countries or industries.

The religious flag

Lone wolf terrorist attacks will continue on Western cities but the strand of this cloudy flag to watch is the war by proxy developing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the first backed by America and the second by Russia. Despite the improvement in oil prices, large sections of the Middle East will remain in a desperate space while this rivalry continues.

The red flag

This cloudy flag has three strands: the sanctions by the West against Russia and whether they will be tightened further or relaxed; China's ascent to be the most powerful economic nation on Earth by 2050 ahead of the US; and the possibility of a nuclear conflict over North Korea as it improves its capability of launching a missile that can reach America.

The latest flag is that some US generals have said on record that they would not follow the orders of the president if they thought his command to launch a first strike against North Korea was illegal.

The grey flag

The surge in numbers of elderly people in all developed economies is putting unprecedented pressure on their health care systems. China is beginning to feel the weight too which is why they have switched from a one-child to a two-child policy. The clockwork nature of this flag means that global economic growth will probably remain subdued for a long time in comparison to the last century. Nevertheless, whole new industries to take care of the aged and make their lives comfortable will be established.

The anti-establishment flag

With so many different strands to watch, this flag must be the cloudiest of them all. The fury of ordinary citizens against the political establishment, the famous and the wealthy has changed the global dynamic to the point that even Germany is facing a crisis of leadership.

Moreover, large companies are in danger of destroying their reputation if they do not take corporate governance really seriously; tax evasion and tax avoidance are being merged into one; the Gini coefficient measuring income inequality in any society has become a prime yardstick in judging its moral status; and the penalties for unacceptable sexual behaviour by the rich and powerful are far more severe than they have ever been before.

The green flag

This clockwork flag of climate change, deforestation and species displacement by humanity is now, in the worst-case scenario, becoming the most influential flag of the century. The latest models suggest that coastal cities are now genuinely threatened by rising sea-levels. In addition, the vanishing of small islands in the ocean will produce an increasing number of climate refugees; parts of the major continents will be uninhabitable through lack of water; and extreme weather events will rise in frequency and severity.

The porous border flag

This clockwork flag anticipates much higher movements of migrants across national boundaries over the remainder of this century. The rise of right-wing factions in many countries is due to the fear that this flag is causing in the public mind. Thus, the growing attraction of living in enclaves surrounded by high walls is cutting across the biggest game-changing flag of the last century: globalisation. We will have to wait and see if borders become less porous as a result of measures taken to strengthen them. Do not underestimate human ingenuity to get around them.

The world of work flag

Automation, robots and artificial intelligence have changed the world of work forever but this clockwork flag is still not recognised by the educational establishment. Students now have to be taught entrepreneurial skills to gain employment. They have to create a job rather than find a job. Indeed, Chantell Ilbury and I are running a programme called 'Growing Foxes' at a school in London.

The debt flag

This cloudy flag caused the great financial crash of 2007/8. A growing number of experts are saying that the easy money and low interest rates of the last decade are setting up a repeat occurrence.

The internet and social media flag

The life of every generation is revolutionised by a technology flag and this is the one changing our existence as we speak both positively and negatively. From Bitcoin acting as a new international currency to cyberterrorism, from hacking files that are leaked to the democratisation of information making censorship harder, the strands of this cloudy flag will continue to forge a whole new range of opportunities and threats.

Useful resources:
Mind of a Fox
We are foxy, game-playing strategists and the authors of two number 1 best selling books in South Africa: "The Mind of a Fox - Scenario Planning in Action", and "Games Foxes Play - Planning for Extraordinary Times".
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