22 December 2006

UK foresight studies identify emerging trends over the next 50 years

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Sigma scan
Via the BBC I found out about the Sigma and Delta foresight scans, with nearly 250 papers that look ahead at developments over the next 50 years.

The research was commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation‘s Horizon Scanning Centre, and complied by futures researchers, OutsightsIpsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF).

The papers look forward at emerging trends in science, health and technology. As well as assessing the current state of thinking they also examine the possible implications for society.


The Sigma Scan is set up as a database of 146 issue papers that provide a brief description of a particular trend or development and a projection of how, given a range of possible conditions, it may unfold in the future and influence the course of events over the next 50 years. The site navigation is rather idiosyncratic and not very user-friendly. But in fact, it is not so bad: you just click on one of the five themes, and on the next page simply hit the “search” button. Here are some of the papers that caught my interest (in no particular order):

  • Come together: Virtual communities, multiple identities?
    New forms of communities are emerging, enabled by new technology and drawn together by shared interests from across the globe. As membership becomes more common, we may see people adopting multiple identities in the convergence of virtual and real worlds. The phenomenon has the potential to unleash huge creative forces and foster social capital. However it may also challenge legislators as it permits new forms of criminal behaviour.
  • From consumer to creator: The content revolution and the rise of the creative class
    Consumers are harnessing media previously beyond their grasp technically or economically to express themselves creatively and to earn money. This has come about through innate creativity; accessibility of equipment (eg digital cameras); means to manipulate content (eg easy-to-use software); virtual sharing communities. Creative content may grow exponentially, spawning a new ‘creative class’. Consumer behaviour may change from plain consumption to customisation or co-production.
  • The digitisation of knowledge: The wholesale transfer of conventional knowledge media to online sources
    Forms of knowledge and the means of sustaining them for public good are moving online at an exponential rate. The continuation of this online trend may herald radical changes in learning and work. It may or may not imply radically different patterns of knowledge use.
  • Technology to empower the greying generation
    Currently, we design for a ‘youth-obsessed society’. It is often thought by designers that older people have little interest in design and in many situations the issue becomes not one of tastes but of needs. However, information technologies are becoming ever more essential for participating in modern life. Potentially they provide a valuable means of keeping people mentally active and in touch with friends and family, as well as providing a convenient means of doing shopping and obtaining advice. Yet computers can be very hard for older people to use, leading to their exclusion from this central aspect of society. There is likely to be high demand for significant redesign of user interfaces – for example, the introduction of speech recognition or the improvement of haptic (touch-sensitive) interfaces.
  • Sensory transformation: life in a cloud of data
    Over the next ten years, increasing numbers of computational devices may be embedded in physical objects, places, and even human beings, that would provide considerable amounts of additional information about their environment. Access to this information may enhance our sensory experience, but also stretch our sensory capacity beyond current capabilities. Information technologies (e.g. ambient displays and so-called “calm” technologies) look likely to play a major role as a medium and mediator of social and professional communication. Also, by 2015 displays and interaction may be ubiquitous and provide rich sensory experiences. High-resolution and haptic (or force-feedback) displays, that allow users to feel and touch virtual objects with a high degree of realism, could become more immersive and lifelike.
  • Virtual democracy?: Political activity goes online
    Democratic politics may increasingly be conducted online. Ease of access may allow citizens to virtually interact with political representatives eg mass referenda. Vast numbers may be able to register their opinions on topical issues almost instantaneously. This may revive the democratic process but also prompt debate about the nature of democracy itself, increasing pressure for constitutional reform and the creation of new outlets for participation in public life.
  • The end of ownership?: Ubiquitous leasing of manufactured goods
    Virtually all fixed assets may be leased to businesses and consumers rather than be owned by them. Leasing could extend from property and large machinery (e.g. all vehicles might be leased) to smaller appliances (e.g. computer hardware, furniture).
  • Innovation communities: Open-source, cooperative R&D
    The information economy allows technology development through global research and development, but high costs for specific applications sometimes make it risky, especially in competitive industries. Private and public sectors may combine resources to develop solutions more quickly, efficiently and mitigate risk. Internet and collaborative tools may facilitate this, with open source model allowing savings in costs.
  • Technology’s child: the advent of young, tech-literate commercial talent
    The economy may become dependent on those who are highly technologically skilled. While some workers may be immigrants, the majority are likely to be have grown up with the technology and been through a work focused, IT-oriented education. Without re-education or re-skilling, declining demand for unskilled labour may depress their earning potential and prospects. The knowledge economy’s increasing importance may mean increasing inequality.
  • From information to insight: Intelligent support and the conquest of information overload
    Computer agents equipped with artificial intelligence may automatically scan, filter and process information, reporting it to users in various targeted forms to aid business and personal life. Able to monitor, analyse, learn and understand natural languages in real time, these systems may help people become highly information-literate, process vast information quantities effectively from multiple inputs, and enable faster informed choices. This may boost productivity.


Also the Delta Scan works as a forum for scanning the science and technology horizon over the next 50 years. The forum contains a hundred outlook pages covering a wide range of scientific disciplines and technologies. The Delta Scan was produced by the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think-tank, as part of a project for the Horizon Scanning Centre of the United Kingdom’s Office of Science and Innovation. The database is hosted by the Stanford University Foresight Research group, housed in the university’s Wallenberg Center. Also here a selection of papers:

  • Ambient displays at the human-computer interface
    Developments in display technology may increase the repertoire of interactions between users and digital media by increasing the number of sites for ‘ambient’ displays.
  • Computing on the human platform
    Interaction between personal electronic products, mediated by human skin, may lead to new, and greater use of, invasive applications.
  • The end of cyberspace
    The concept of cyberspace as a distinct geographical entity has influenced the way we think about information technology, e-commerce, copyright, and high-tech products. New technologies are revealing a more complex relation between data-space and the real world, with consequences in all these areas.
  • New technologies for cooperation
    New technologies for cooperation and a better understanding of cooperative strategies may create a new capacity for rapid, ad hoc, and distributed decision making.
  • The rise of proactive and context-aware computing
    Proactive and context-aware computer systems that anticipate users’ needs and perform tasks in a timely and context-sensitive manner may begin to have an impact within the next 10 years.
  • Human brain: the next frontier
    The next 20 years are likely to witness a revolution in our understanding of the human brain, with implications for virtually every domain of human activity, from mental health to software design and academic performance and real-life decision- making.
  • Artificial extensions of human capabilities
    A wide range of technologies, from pharmaceuticals to implantable devices, and specialised cognitive or behavioural training (leading to regional brain activation through functional imaging), will enable extensions of human bodies, senses, and capabilities. This will lead to redefinition of various boundaries: natural versus artificial, alive versus dead, individual versus collective.
  • The rise of applied anthropology
    The rise of applied anthropology is likely to challenge the traditional structure of the discipline.
  • Studying human behaviour in cyberspace
    Cyber-ethnography, defined as the study of online interaction, is likely to become an important area of anthropological research as more and more human activities are conducted in cyberspace.

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