Scenarios for “Powerful Times” Powerful Times: Rising to the Challenges of our Uncertain World by Eamonn Kelly. Wharton School Publishers. 2005. 263 pages. $26.95. Available from the Futurist Bookshelf, http://www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm.
In Powerful Times, Global Business Network CEO and President Eamonn Kelly lays bare the real and existential conflicts that surround us. He calls these conflicts “key dynamic tensions,” and, according to Kelly, they are shaping both this age and the next: Human knowledge, in the form of technology, is expanding across the globe. In spite of that positive trend, religious extremism continues to attract followers. Opportunities for economic growth are accelerating, along with economic pitfalls. The Internet has opened up vast virtual frontiers; simultaneously, our ecosystems are straining under ecologically disastrous human behaviors and practices. According to Kelly, how humanity chooses (or does not choose) to resolve these key conflicts will determine the face of the next era of human history.
Kelly explores these tensions in three scenarios. The first, “New American Century,” charts the continued growth and influence of American-style methods for conducting business. The prevalence of Western business models, however, has not fully ensured that Americans continue to enjoy the high living standards to which they’ve grown accustomed. China and India offer substantial competition, but they compete in the global marketplace by playing under rules established by U.S. companies. Europe and China vie against one another for U.S. favor. In the meantime, problems of equity, water access, and environmental sustainability grow.
In “Patchwork Powers,” the second scenario, no single nation dominates global affairs. Instead, loose confederations of nation-states and regional powers work to resolve global problems such as poverty, climate change, disease epidemics, and international migration. The dollar has collapsed as foreign banks have diversified their currency holdings.
In the third scenario, “Emergence,” interconnected networks of individuals exert more influence than do either waning governments or slow-moving megacorporations. Digital interconnectedness allows communities to apply local solutions to water, power, and food shortages rather than rely on federal bureaucracies to provide essentials.
The effectiveness of Powerful Times rests in the expansiveness of Kelly’s research. An almanac worth of information has been incorporated directly into the text-everything from the number of calculations IBM’s Blue Gene/L computer runs each second (270 trillion) to the number of people in China and South Korea who are playing the online game MU at any one time (500,000).
For all his careful analysis of economics, technology, demography, and ideology, Kelly envisions a future that is guided by no single area of knowledge. Rather, he foresees a future where new and newly efficient organizations, as well as individuals, realize unprecedented power. This vision is at once hopeful and terrifying. History has seen the transfer of power from mobs to empires, and from empires to states, but this final transfer, from states to groups and citizens, may be the last if citizens fail to wield power responsibly.
Whether or not humanity-on the level of the individual-is sufficiently responsible to secure its own future will be the most important question of the new era. On this issue, Kelly finds cause for optimism. “As we increase our wisdom, harmonize our aspirations and energies, and deploy our amazing human creativity,” he writes, “global citizens can and will make all the difference in the world, and to the world.”–Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, January-February 2006