By Kyle Davy & Mike McMeekin
Alternative Headlines for 2033
- “Blackout Friday” flashed across cell phone screens throughout the US on a Thursday afternoon in 2033 as the weekly reminder that activities involving all discretionary energy use are to be suspended one day a week. This nationwide blackout was just one of a set of dramatic changes agreed to by society in the wake of a pair of devastating hurricanes that struck Miami in 2031, rendering the surrounding region virtually uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The resulting society-wide awakening to the escalating threat of climate change and extreme weather events sparked a new, shared commitment to transformation …
- In 2033 “abundance” has replaced “chronic shortage” as a descriptor of the engineering community’s workforce relative to its needs. A new purpose-driven, diverse cohort of workers from an expanding range of engineering educational experiences combined with new means of leveraging emerging technologies to augment workers within this community drove this surprising outcome over the last decade …
- The last decade has witnessed a steady emergence of powerful state, metropolitan area, and regional coalitions across the US in reaction to continued polarization in national politics and an inability of the federal government to get things done. This shift culminated in the 2032 presidential election of a “Great Unifier” along with substantial numbers of new members of Congress drawn from the ranks of successful leaders populating these coalitions. This new alignment of government actors, at federal, regional, state, and local levels sets the stage for significant action to address long-standing societal challenges …
These three scenarios capture the opening plot lines of three narratives of the future, created and explored by attendees during the 2023 Engineering Ideas Institute, convened in late September at the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, CO. Over the coming months, Institute participants will continue to flesh out details of these scenarios and further develop strategies and guidance for the engineering community to prepare it to be more effective in achieving its mission on behalf of society, regardless of the future that actually comes to pass.
The work at the Institute followed a process design combining traditional scenario planning elements with a set of concepts for imagining the future explored in Jane McGonigal’s book, Imaginable. In addition, presentations from seven provocateurs added insights and helped the group move beyond conventional thinking about future possibilities. (See diagram below.)
Scenario Planning Roadmap
Highlights from the group work generating scenarios included the following.
Signals of Change: According to McGonigal, a “signal of change is a concrete example of how the world could one day be different…It’s not a hypothetical possibility. It is happening right now, and it proves that a specific kind of change is possible.” Significant signals of change identified by the group at the Institute included:
- Climate Change – impacts (severe weather, water shortages, wildfire smoke, global climate migration); emissions reduction efforts (increased use of sustainable building materials, electrification of everything, renewable energy adoption in developing countries, decarbonization of industry, adoption of cultivated meat, etc.); and responses (unavailability of insurance in at-risk areas, increase in businesses focused on disaster preparedness, civil disobedience).
- Advances in Autonomous Vehicles and Electric Vehicles – increased EV range, charging technologies, etc. as well as emerging public responses (congestion pricing, regulations, etc.).
- Space – moon landings, impact of Starlink, space transportation.
- Politics – China, Elon Musk, Donald Trump.
- Disparities – rising homelessness, opioid epidemic, income inequality.
- Economic – inflation and the rising cost of living.
- Misinformation / Disinformation – declining trust in institutions, rise of influencers, book wars, anti-woke legislation, mistrust of higher education.
- Workforce – impact of unions, push for four-day work week, shortages, turnover (e.g., nursing).
- Education – percentage of population that values education, declining enrollment in higher education, student engagement, rise in technicians, changes in educational methods.
- Technology – AI impact on jobs, AI regulation and policies, rise of robots, brain-computer interface, utilization of 3-D printing, digital twins, use of Bitcoin.
- Biotechnology – sewage monitoring for public health, pain control using nanotechnology, genetic manipulation to increase longevity.
- Diversity and Demographics – migration based on political ideology, utilization of foreign-born workforce, diversity in engineering (does it begin to shift?).
- Health Care – longevity, self-prescribed and self-administered medical treatments.
Future Forces: McGonigal defines a “future force (as) a significant trend or phenomenon that’s likely to make a disruptive or transformative impact on society…It usually starts off as a small signal of change – and then picks up strength over a period of months, years, or decades.” Significant future forces identified during the Institute work included:
- Climate change.
- Growing disparity gaps and rising inequality (income, social, access to AI and other digital technologies, etc.).
- Change in work priorities shifting toward a greater emphasis on purpose, particularly prevalent in younger generations of workers.
- More emphasis on work-life balance and workplace flexibility (overlapping with remote work).
- Rising political polarization.
- Depletion of water resources.
- Cyber security threats and the fragility of technology.
Critical Uncertainties: The group also identified a set of events, whose outcomes are uncertain, that could significantly affect the future of the engineering community, including:
- Political landscape and the future of democratic society in the US and beyond. Will it be better or worse? What will be the impacts on regulation?
- Climate change. Was this year the best we can expect in the next 10 years with respect to extreme weather? How will we come together to make progress? Will the engineering community play a major leadership role?
- Future workforce. Will diversity in engineering finally begin to increase? Will enrollment in engineering programs decline as many project? Will new purpose-driven cultures take hold in engineering organizations?
- Will innovation in engineering increase to address technological gaps associated with renewable energy, carbon capture, decarbonization of building materials, decarbonization of industry and agriculture, etc.?
From these “raw materials” for thinking about the future and the provocations from presenters, the group identified three scenarios for exploration (as introduced at the beginning of this wrap-up). Three major plot lines were selected on which to construct these scenarios.
- Climate Change – Getting Worse, Faster Than Expected
- Future Workforce – Purpose-Based Generations
- Political Landscape – Navigating Continued Polarization
After generating the scenarios, participants explored both individual stories of the future and looked across the full set of futures to discern what the engineering community could and/or should do to raise its contributions and better fulfill its mission of stewardship of technology and nature on behalf of society. Participants also reflected on what life in the future might be like personally, what they might think, feel, and do. And, how they could help their personal community.
Actions that were perceived as “no brainers” (actions that may be important across all three scenarios) included:
- Communicating more effectively with the public and developing skills for collaborating outside engineering.
- Early involvement and engagement in policy and planning.
- Enhanced focus on the purpose of our work.
- Increasing the impact of “general education” in engineering education (humanities, liberal arts, etc.).
- Reimagining the workforce – creating new pathways for members of the engineering community.
- Raising the profile of the profession.
- Working on combating misinformation and disinformation.
- More focus on macro-ethics in the work and more training on macro-ethics.
- Increasing investment in STEM early – elementary.
- Solving the DEI puzzle for engineering – attracting a workforce and elevating leaders that reflect the population.
“No regret” actions (ones that offer significant benefits in one of more scenarios, but do not hurt the engineering community in the others) included:
- Working with regulatory bodies to create more comprehensive codes/standards, with appropriate regional focus.
- Reimagining licensure, including state regulations that currently require PE’s as head of consulting engineering organizations and creating alternative pathways to licensure (interdisciplinary, teams, etc.).
- Proactive action to change the business model of consulting engineers.
- Align the significant flood of work to be created and built with the needs of the future, as society cannot afford to build the wrong things.
- Achieve real leadership improvements – emotional, purpose-driven, feminine. Build more leadership development into education.
Actions that are “no ways” (actions that would clearly be unacceptable given the range of possible futures) included:
- Continuing with “business as usual,” as the engineering community cannot afford to play ostrich as the world and society changes.
- Underestimating the threats that will be encountered as the future unfolds.
- Abdicating our responsibility.
- Not claiming our agency.
- Under-valuing what we bring to the table.
As technologist Kevin Kelly notes in his book, What Technology Wants, “the future is unfolding, not as a ‘distinct whole’ that can be immediately perceived, understood, and acted upon. But rather like a complex messy, living, adaptive system with its own unconscious needs and tendencies.”
To contribute at a higher level to society, the engineering community must develop its capacity for sensing, making sense, and acting appropriately within the context of Kelly’s unfolding, messy world. The 2023 Engineering Ideas Institute helped participants understand how personal and group imagination and scenario planning processes can be used as vehicles for developing that capacity. The experience left many participants feeling more hopeful about both the present and the future and believing that they have more agency to help shape the unfolding future in desirable ways.
Over the coming weeks, teams formed at the Institute will continue refining their scenarios. Look for full documentation of the scenarios and of the Engineering Ideas Institute soon.
Provocateur presentations are available at the link below.