04 December 2012

Expect the unexpected

There's a long tradition in this country of having Englishmen come here to tell us what to do. The latest in this series is Dr Daniel Franklin of The Economist, author of a book looking ahead to what the world may be like in 2050.
Dr Franklin advises us that the world is changing faster than ever, and hence we need more than ever to be anticipating the trends, as far ahead as 2050. His premise, although it doesn't contradict the conclusion, certainly does not support it. If things are changing faster than ever, then prediction becomes ever more prone to uncertainty. What we plan for, based on projections to 2050, may be missing the whole point of the unexpected things that will in fact shape the way things turn out to be.
While Dr Franklin is looking 38 years ahead, I thought it instructive to look 38 years into the past, and to ask if New Zealanders (let alone the rest of the world) could have anticipated the real changes to come that were to shape our country's destiny.
So, let's go back to 1974, before Norm Kirk's untimely death, when New Zealanders saw themselves as  facing uncertain times ahead thanks to the oil crisis and the disappearance of a secure market for produce in the UK, but also saw themselves as a caring and responsible community that had made an international stand against nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. What were the real-world events to come that were to shape what was then to be our future?
Here's my pick:

  • The country would tear itself apart with violent demonstrations against the Springbok Tour in 1981.
  • A future Labour government would radically and rapidly roll back the state in favour of free-market fundamentalism.
  • French secret agents would bomb a Greenpeace vessel in Auckland Harbour.
  • The Cold War would end, and the Soviet Union would break up into its constituent republics.
  • We would adopt proportional representation.
  • A National government would make major settlements of past grievances based on the Treaty of Waitangi.
  • A thing called 'the internet' would irreversibly change our relations with one another and with the rest of the world.
  • China would be on the way to becoming the world's largest economy, and New Zealand would be the first country to sign up to a trade agreement with that then closed communist state.
  • Gambling and prostitution would legally become two of Auckland's growth industries.
  • Same-sex couples would be allowed to legally marry.
  • Rugby would become a profession and the All Blacks become a part of an international commercial franchise.

Not all of those events was entirely unpredictable in 1974, but many of them were. And those that were predictable were not, in my recollection, actively anticipated. If we are to believe that change is now even more rapid than it was 38 years ago, then we must expect the unexpected. It is the unimaginable events which we (including editors of The Economist) cannot anticipate that will probably be the real vectors of the future.


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