Listen to the full episode at: Episode 80: Hamish McRae on How to Think About the Future – The International Risk Podcast
In 1994, Hamish McRae published his book “The World in 2020: Power, Culture and Prosperity”. Even though we are now two years off from that date, McRae’s work remains as influential now as it was in 1994 and 2020. McRae who emphasizes his journalistic rather than academic pedigree, describes himself as a ‘tour guide for the future’ as he tries to introduce greater audiences to what the future has in store for them, including the international risk and opportunities. To his great credit, McRae has accurately predicted three significant political events and trends in 1994 that did come true in 2020. While most audiences expected the British public to ultimately reject Brexit in 2016, McRae already saw Britain’s departure from the EU coming in 1994. Furthermore, McRae also predicted that the US would experience a populist revolt against the ruling liberal elite. Impressively, McRae not only saw this revolt coming but even predicted its occurrence in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Finally, long before Bill Gates published “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic“, McRae already warned about the dangers of new pandemic ahead and the world’s inability to handle them. While these predictions lend enormous authority to McRae’s work on forecasting political developments and listeners are encouraged to read his book (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/world-in-2050-9781526600073/), we invited McRae on the show to talk about his predictions for the future post-2020 and to reflect on his inaccuracies.
During our podcast with Hamish McRae he was the first to admit that he did not see the impact of the internet and other communication technologies on our everyday lives back in the 1990s. Herein lies the biggest lesson McRae has learned for the future. Although we live in an age of rapid technology proliferation in which everything from electric cars to robot vacuums are available, it is still almost impossible to predict which technology will once against change the course of the future. That is because a technology often seems unusable until compatible technologies have been invented around it that make it work. Take the supermarket for example. Even though it was a useful invention for humans, shopping carts and trolleys had to be invented first to make supermarkets useful to the general public. This makes it basically impossible to guess which technologies will be used by everyone in the future until it is almost glaringly obvious. On a related hot issue of the future, social media regulation, McRae has further insights to offer. For all that social media has done to benefit the world, current legal and ethical structures cannot regulate and manage social media. Optimistically, McRae believes society is on its way to developing the social and legal etiquettes required to make social media safer. Just like it took time to make motorcars a safer tool for everyday use, so perhaps will social media become a more regulated space. On the environment, to which McRae has dedicated a chapter to in his book as well, he is fearsome that the incremental changes being made by the international community are too late. Although incremental changes are preferable to rapid changes as they generally do not invite as many unexpected shocks, if the global society does not find a way to unite to fight climate change, these changes may already be too late.
Beyond these insights, we asked McRae what he expects to be the biggest threats of the future. Given his impressive track record on predicting what is to come, we were listening especially closely. What McRae fears the most in the future is the USA and China mismanaging their relationship and coming apart at flash points such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. As China matures from an aggressive rising nation to an aggressive dominant nation, how will the troubled US respond and cope? This leads to the next challenge. Although McRae remains optimistic that in 30 years the US will have healed some, he worries that America’s troubled times are not near an end now and will continue to wreak havoc on the country and the thereby the rest of the world as well. Thirdly, McRae believed that Russia would lash out in the near future and damage itself and its neighbours. This worry has already manifested itself in the form of the atrocious war being waged in the Ukraine. Looking at Africa, McRae remains anxious about how the growing population of Africa will develop and be integrated into the global economy. Stepping back and looking at more systematic issues, McRae worries about how democracy will fare in the long-term. How will democratic states convince the rest of the world that democracies truly are the ‘least bad’ state system in the face of China’s and Russia’s rising authoritarianism? Even when talking about dangerous things awaiting us in the future, it is remarkable how optimistic McRae still remains about the ability of the international community to unite and tackle these issues. In times of bad news cycle after bad news cycle, listening to a proven expert like McRae break down what is to come and yet remain hopeful in the face of it all is a sign that maybe not everything is doomed.