15 Big Questions for the World … some of the principles and priorities, dilemmas and balances, to get right as we seek to create a better world
February 13, 2020
Challenge 1. Climate
How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?
Some 252 million years ago, global warming due to increased atmospheric CO2 that led to ocean current changes, increases in hydrogen sulfate (H2S), and ozone depletion killed 97% of life during the Permian extinction. This could happen again unless we learn how to turn around the growing greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the volume already in the atmosphere today. According to NASA, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurred since 2001. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, with 197 Parties to the Convention, that went into force in November 2016 calls for efforts to cap temperature increases to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. Even though the growth in CO2 emissions has slowed over the past three years due to efficiencies and a move away from coal by the U.S. and China, the accumulative effect continues warming Earth. The US withdrawal from the agreement, may increase efforts of other nations to achieve the new goals.
Challenge 2. Water
How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
Over 90% of the world now has access to improved drinking water, up from 76% in 1990. That is an improvement for 2.3 billion people in less than 20 years. However, that still leaves 884 million people without access, an increase from 663 million in 2015. Water consumption for about 500 million people is twice what can be renewed by nature, water tables are falling on all continents, the volume of untreated wastewater increases every year, and about 80% of all wastewater is discharged without treatment (UN, World Water Development Report 2017). Nearly half of humanity gets its water from sources controlled by two or more countries. In drier regions, global warming will increase droughts; in more humid regions, global warming will increase flooding. A third of humanity does not have access to a proper toilet or latrine, and 892 million people still defecate in the open. Humanity uses 70% of its water supply for agriculture, 20% for industry, and 10% for domestic uses; however, the more developed nations use 50‑80% of their water supply for industry.
Challenge 3: Resources
How can population and resources be brought into balance?
The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to grow by another 2.2 billion in just 33 years (by 2050). If all are to be fed, then food production will have to increase 50% over production in 2012, while urban areas are expected to triple in size by 2030, resulting in a loss of peri-urban farmlands. With improvements in child survival, and its synergy with enhanced family planning improvements, this population growth could be lower. Life expectancy at birth increased from 46 years in 1950 to 67 years in 2010 and 71.5 years in 2015. In 2017 there were 962 million people aged 60 or older; the UN projects this to grow to 2.2 billion by 2050. Advances in longevity R&D are likely to help many more people live much longer and healthier lives than current trends. This includes regenerative medicine, DNA repair, and other longevity research. For example, scanning ultrasound removes amyloid-β and restores memory in 75% of Alzheimer’s diseased rats.
Challenge 4: Democracy
How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?
Technogical capabilities provide more access for greater participation in governance and are increasingly exposing corruption. Synergistically self-organized human rights movements for sustainable global democratic systems are taking place all over the world. At the same time, anti-democratic forces are increasingly using new cyber tools to manipulate democratic processes. The long-term growth of democratization has stalled over the past decade. Freedom House reported that 105 countries are experiencing a net decline in freedom while 61 are improving in net freedom and that 67 countries declined in political rights and civil liberties while 36 registered gains. Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 were rated free, 59 partly free, and 49 (36% of the world’s population) not free.
Challenge 5. Foresight
How can decision making be improved with global foresight in times of accelerating change?
Although the most significant of the world’s challenges and solutions are global in nature, global foresight and global-scale decisionmaking systems are rarely employed. Global governance systems are not keeping up with growing global interdependence. Since governments and large corporations have to make decisions taking into account global changes that are beyond their control, many are creating future strategy or foresight units to contribute to their strategic planning. Finland created a permanent Parliamentary Committee on the Future in 1993 to support government foresight and decisionmaking.
Challenge 6: Technology
How can technologies, plus AI, big data, and cloud computing, work for everyone?
Some 51% of the world—over 3.8 billion people—are now connected to the Internet. About two-thirds of the people in the world have a mobile phone; over half have smart phones. The continued development and proliferation of smart phone apps are putting state-of-the-art AI systems in the palm of many hands around the world. The race is on to complete the global nervous system of civilization and make supercomputing power and artificial intelligence available to everyone. The human brain projects of U.S., EU, China, and other countries, plus corporate AI research, should lead to augmented individual human and collective intelligence. Some $15 billion was invested in 2,250 AI business deals between 2012 and 2016, while robotics got $3 billion invested in 488 deals.China has declared its goal of being the world’s AI leader by 2030. President Putin of Russia said who ever leads in AI rules the world.
Challenge 7: Inequality
How can ethical market economies be encouraged to reduce the gap between rich and poor?
Extreme poverty fell from 51% in 1981 to 13% in 2012 and less than 10% today, mostly due to income growth in China and India. However, inequality in Africa remains a serious threat to future stability, with four of the five most unequal countries in the world found there. UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index applied to 102 developing countries found about 1.5 million people living in multidimensional poverty. World leaders have agreed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. IMF estimates Gross World Product will grow 3.1% in 2016 and 3.4% in 2017. Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth is increasing (the wealth of just 8 billionaires equals that of 3.6 billion people, the poorer half of humanity), income gaps are widening, employment-less economic growth continues, return on investment in capital and technology is usually better than on labor, and future technologies can replace much of human labor; hence, long-term structural unemployment seems inevitable unless new approaches to economics and the nature of work are created.
Challenge 8. Disease
How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune microorganisms be reduced?
The health of humanity continues to improve; life expectancy at birth increased globally from 46 years in 1950 to 67 years in 2010 and 71.5 years in 2015. Total mortality from infectious disease fell from 25% in 1998 to 15.9% in 2015. Children are receiving the highest level of routine immunization coverage in history. Indigenous measles and rubella have been eliminated from the Americas, and maternal and neonatal tetanus have been eliminated in Southeast Asia. Malaria cases decreased by 41% from 2000 to 2015. As the world ages, chronic diseases are increasing (i.e., deaths due to stroke, heart disease, and cancers). However, WHO verified more than 1,100 epidemic events over the past five years, and antimicrobial resistance, malnutrition, and obesity are increasing. TB is the leading infection cause of death globally, with increasing drug resistance. Zika in the Americas and cholera in Yemen (half a million) and Haiti (1 million) continue to spread, while urban yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo prompted the largest emergency vaccination campaign ever undertaken in Africa—30 million people were successfully vaccinated. WHO is monitoring avian influenza in nearly 50 countries and continues to warn that the world is not prepared for a major epidemic.
Challenge 9. Education
How can education make humanity more intelligent and knowledgeable to address its global challenges?
Artificial Intelligence is being developed to figure out the best ways for you to learn and what you should, need, and/or want to learn. Just as glasses augment our eyes to see better, we will augment our brains to become augmented geniuses; NeuraLink is hiring now to create that, and several companies are testing smart contact lenses and augmented-reality glasses to connect to the IoT. This should speed learning, reduce miscommunications, and make education far more interesting. Much of the world’s knowledge is available—either directly or through intermediaries—to the majority of humanity today via many forms of online education. Google and Wikipedia are helping to make the phrase “I don’t know” obsolete, and free online self-paced courses proliferate on everything from synthetic biology to elementary arithmetic. Teams led by Facebook and Google are competing to get everyone on the planet connected to the Internet. The price of laptops and smart phones continues to fall, and IoT with data analytics gives real-time precision intelligence. However, successfully applying all these resources to develop wisdom, rather than information pollution, is a huge challenge.
Challenge 10. Conflict
How can shared values and security reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction?
The vast majority of the world is living in peace. No major power wars have occurred for over 70 years; however, the nature of warfare and security has morphed today into transnational and local terrorism, international intervention into civil wars, and publicly denied cyber and information warfare. Conditions that can lead to instability exist in half the world, 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes (of whom 22.5 million are refugees today), and North Korea’s ICBM and thermonuclear bomb tests are condemned by the UN Security Council. Although conflicts fell dramatically from 1990 to 2010, they have increased since then. The number of armed conflicts declined slightly from 52 in 2015 to 49 in 2016, and there were 14% fewer battlefield casualties in 2016 compared to 2015, and 22% fewer compared to 2014. World military spending was relatively flat from 1998 to 2011, with minor decreases 2011–14. Budgets increased slightly in 2015–16, with $1.7 trillion in 2016, which is 2.2% of global gross domestic product.
Challenge 11. Women.
How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?
Empowerment of women has been one of the strongest drivers of social evolution over the past century and is acknowledged as essential for addressing all the global challenges facing humanity. Gender equity has entered the global consciousness and is guaranteed by the constitution of 84% of the world’s nations, while “the international women’s bill of rights” (CEDAW) has been ratified by all but seven countries. Women’s right to vote is virtually universal. Women account for 23.5% of the membership of national legislative bodies, an increase from 12% in 1997, and 52 nations have had a woman head of state in the past 50 years. Nevertheless, efforts have to increase if we want to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030, as more than 50% of 10-year-olds live today in countries with high levels of gender inequality. Although women contribute 52% of global work, their labor market participation rate is only 49% compared with 76% for men and they earn up to 35% less than men do. Women compose about 15% of corporate board seats worldwide, an increase of 54%since 2010. Persistentdiscriminatory social structures have to be challenged to make progress in the future. Yet Oxfamnotes that if a women’s paid employment rates were the same as men’s, in 15 major developing economies income per capita would rise by 14% by 2020 and 20% by 2030.
Challenge 12: Crime
Organized crime takes in over $3 trillion per year, which is twice all military annual budgets combined. Havocscope.com estimates the value of black market trade in 50 categories from 91 countries (105 countries not included) at $1.81 trillion, not including extortion, racketeering, corruption, and money laundering (due to their overlapping nature). Cybercrimes are also not included, but businesses may lose $2 trillion due to cybercrime in 2019. Moreover, governments, lobbyists, and organized crime networks are increasingly suspected of information and cyber warfare collusion to affect national elections. Distinctions among organized crime, insurgency, and terrorism have begun to blur, giving new markets for organized crime and increasing threats to democracies, development, and security.
Challenge 13: Energy
How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?
The Paris Agreement is expected to reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase renewable sources of energy, even though the Trump Administration has withdrawn. Solar and wind energy are cost-competitive with coal (especially when the cost externalities are considered), and massive lithium-ion battery production plants are in construction to help renewables’ ability to provide baseload electricity. Renewable power generation added a record 138.5GW or 55.3% of all new power generation in 2016. According to the OECD, nearly 70% of planned additions to the power capacity in G20 countries are for renewable sources, compared with 22% from coal. In 2015 China passed Germany to become the biggest producer of solar energy, and it plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($361 billion) in renewable power generation between 2016 and 2020. Meanwhile, 1 billion people (15% of the world) do not have access to electricity.
Challenge 14: Progress
How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
The speed of scientific breakthroughs and technological applications to improve the human condition is being accelerated by computational science and engineering, artificial intelligence, common database protocols, Moore’s law, and Nielsen’s law of internet bandwidth (50% speed increase per year). Future synergies among synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, atomically precise fabrication and other forms of nanotechnology, tele-everything, drones, augmented and virtual reality, falling costs of renewable energy systems, and collective intelligence systems will make the last 25 years seem slow compared with the next 25. China has demonstrated quantum entanglement between an orbital satellite and Earth and is creating a quantum communications network between Beijing and Shanghai. The HP Laser Fusion 3D printer can print 30 million voxels (3D pixels) per second. Hyperloop feasibility studies are under way in Czechia, France, Indonesia, Slovakia, UAE, and the U.S. IBM’s Watson already diagnoses cancer better than doctors, robots learn to walk faster than toddlers, and Google’s AlphaGo beat the champion Go player. China is expected to have nearly 40% of all robots in the world by 2019, up from 27% in 2015.
Challenge 15: Ethics
How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?
Increasingly, decisions are being made by AI; since their algorithms are not ethically neutral, the future of ethics will in part be influenced by auditing ethical assumptions in software. It will also be influenced by the flood of new information channels that are used to pollute and distort perceptions, leading many to rethink how to know the truth of global developments. Information warfare has been waged against national elections. Political spin masters drown out the pursuit of truth. We need to learn how to prevent or counter information warfare and fake news. At the same time, an increasingly educated and Internet-connected generation is increasingly rising up against the abuse of power and demanding accountability. The release of the Panama Papers in April 2016 exposed corruption worldwide. Surveillance implications of the IoT connected with AI could deter unethical decisionmaking. New technologies also make it easier for more people to do more good at a faster pace than ever before. The rising number of protests around the world shows a growing unwillingness to tolerate unethical decision making by power elites.