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Future Trends – Smaller Cities, Decentralization, Toffler’s Third Wave

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We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

– Bill Gates

Most analysis on the future, including the Ministry Of Defense’s Trends Out to 2040, take it for granted that cities will keep on growing.

With the advent of industrial technologies and modern medicine, urbanization became possible.

In the graph, the largest cities outside of Asia are listed from 1800-1802, even London would be considered rather small by modern standards. Why did they grow so large so quickly? The economy of scale for mass production favored heavy centralization. Fast Forward 200 years and New York City is home to 21 million people. London has about 12 million people in it’s borders.

The population density made it much easier for government to collect taxes: the positions of factories, the workers on the assembly line and the natural resources they need to produce products are fixed in place. Nearly all work was physical in nature, it’s existence can be proven or disproven. An illiterate idiot and a genius could sit side by side and both contribute the same amount of value on an assembly line. Labor Strikes were also highly effective because everything was fixed into position, you couldn’t simply move operations overseas if you didn’t like how operations were going in your host country.

However that has been slowly shifting over the past few decades. Value is increasingly based off of ideas, closely matching Toffler’s Third Wave Theory. The economy of scale for things like 3D Printing and scientific research heavily favor decentralization. Education is becoming location independent. Trends in warfare, namely 4th Generation Warfare & The Superempowered Individual favor decentralization as well. All of the economic incentives favor smaller, cohesive intelligent groups that can work together to build the things that they need. This is inherently at odds with nearly every analysis that has been made for the coming decades, even the peak oil theories which assume humans are no longer capable of innovation. This does not mean the death of hierarchy, simply that the incentives are heavily skewed towards human branching out and forming smaller more cohesive units.

Connectivity is possible via the internet, anything that can not be done over the internet is increasingly able to be produced and customized locally (and usually of higher quality than what the government/large corporation provides). We haven’t completely reached the point where the Nation-State is outdated however, but all of the trends point heavily in this direction. This will not be a move backwards to pastoral farm-life, at least not for the most talented who are able to use their knowledge to better themselves and their tribe. The tribes themselves may or may not be nomadic. Space also opens up a unique frontier that the two superpowers laid the foundation for many years ago. In the future it may become possible for cities and governments to rapidly form and dissolve as errors in their founding make them unworkable.

Though this may be marketed by populist leaders as hurting the developing world, the exact opposite is true for the most talented who invest in skills that cannot be automated. People from all over the world will be able to form together to work on projects, talent will no longer be hindered by incompetent bureaucratic organizations. The less skilled are likely to form groups based off of the affiliation of race, religion and extended family to take care of their problems.

In the mean time, approval ratings for Congress hovers at around 14%, and voter turn out for the national elections are only about 56%, in spite of all of the campaign promises and efforts of politicians to win votes. Finding someone who isn’t cynical about the current state of affairs is nearly impossible, apathy is now the norm. The default economic solution for the world’s only superpower is to print more money, the EU remains fractured and are forcing energy austerity on it’s member states. China is experiencing rapid growth, but there is reason to believe that the numbers are at least partially inflated by the government. In the US wages have remained stagnant while productivity has actually gone up. There is no shortage of people who are discontented with the status quo.

There is no easy solution in sight, every government in the world now seeks to control the free flow of information between it’s citizens. The US has CISPA (along with states like Tennessee going even further), China has it’s infamous Golden Shield and in the UK saying offensive things on the internet is illegal. But very little innovation comes from the government, that’s not the product that they sell to the public. It’s not surprising that they refuse to bend to our changing future. The question is, can we build something of value with the tools at hand?

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