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A tale of two futures: planning the next Framework Programme

A new EU report looks to the 2030s, spelling out how research and innovation could make the future brighter

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What will the world by be like for the next generation? Nobody knows, of course – but based on current trends, one can make intelligent guesses and propose solutions. A new report published by the European Commission, excerpted here, offers two possible views of the future. The Commission, as part of its planning for its next big research and innovation programme, is asking for your views at RTD-Foresight@ec.europa.eu.  Are you a pessimist, or an optimist?

The world, it seems, is getting more complicated. A confusing mix of positive and negative trends, constructive and destructive forces, vie for our attention every day.

On the scary side: international conflicts are multiplying, a large European Union member has vowed to leave, and immigration and terrorism have risen in just five years to be the No. 1 and 2 concerns among European citizens. But on the brighter side: We have ever-lengthening life spans, the lowest hunger and poverty levels in human history, and the highest literacy rates. Our scientific knowledge, cultural interchanges and international trade have grown as never before. We do, as Charles Dickens put it, live in the best of times and the worst of times.

Scenario 1: A turbulent tomorrow

By the 2030s, Europe’s population is ageing and shrinking, while immigration pressures rise from younger, poorer neighbours. A generation gap, between the many retired and the fewer working, widens. Health problems multiply, but the rich have better access to new medicines and care than do the poor. More people crowd into sprawling, polluted cities.

Technology is rushing ahead, changing the way we work and live; but it mainly benefits the biggest companies with the top labs, most patents and best distribution and supply chains. Small companies have trouble breaking through, and many people struggle to make ends meet in the ‘gig’ economy.

Despite their green promises, governments never managed to act decisively to prevent climate change, and the effects are visible: conflicts and critical shortages in resources. Europe, no longer a leader in the world, is just one among many unhappy voices.

Inequality is the key word, here – and a failure of our leaders to make the right choices, develop the right technologies, and work together within Europe and across the globe.

Scenario 2: Change for the best

By the 2030s, Europe and the world have made progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A rapid switch to low-carbon energy is reducing the risk of climate change, and society is adopting the models of the circular economy: Recycle and re-use, rent and share rather than buy and toss.

A new social contract, funded by resultant productivity gains, provides a basic income and a ‘social budget’ for all. Living a productive, healthy 100 years is growing common, as healthcare now prevents and manages disease holistically, and regulation permits a healthier work-life balance.

Education, digital job markets and productivity-enhancing technologies create new work opportunities. The growing cities have become laboratories of good governance, and transport is more efficiently organised. All this has made society, and the world at large, more secure.

Fairness is the key word, here – and the ability of our leaders to make the right choices, develop the right technologies, and work together within Europe and across the globe.

Science and technology offer options

How will this story turn out, for the world and for Europe, over the next 20 or 30 years? Of course, we cannot know today. But we can create options – new sources of technology, wealth or wisdom to cope with whatever may happen. Options permit a company to adapt, employment to adjust, the environment to recover, a city to stabilise. Options are what a government needs to manage a crisis effectively. Any policy maker, with the foresight to imagine nightmares or dreams for tomorrow, will want to take steps that maximise options today.

And that is one of the primary roles of research and innovation: To create and enable options for society. Will policy makers have the technology to feed and provide energy to growing cities, without risk of climate-induced flooding or desertification? Will they have the medicines, treatments and preventive measures to prolong productive lives at reasonable cost, or will their health systems be bankrupt by an ageing, ill and increasingly distressed population?

Research and innovation are about creating solutions, opportunities and options – across the entire economy. Agriculture, health, justice, monetary policy, the economy, manufacturing, resource management: There isn’t a single sector of EU and member-state policy that would not be aided by more and better options. Drafting a new Framework Programme, an exercise on which the EU is about to embark, is thus not a narrow issue of how to spend R&D money; rather, it is a process of agreeing on a common vision of the problems  we may face, the opportunities we could seize, and the tools we will need for either eventuality.

Editor’s note: Richard L. Hudson of Science|Business drafted the introductory text for this report.

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Related subjects: Foresight, FP9

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