The Extreme Future

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World for the Next 5, 10, and 20 Years by James Canton. Penguin. 2006. 371 pages. $25.95.

In his latest book, international business futurist James Canton takes readers on a dizzying ride through hundreds of technological, governmental, medical, environmental, and economic trends that will, in Canton’s view, reshape the world over the course of the next 20 years. Roughly half of the world population, some 3 billion people, is under the age of 25, and approximately a quarter of the world youth population subsists on less than a dollar a day. By 2025, two out of every three people on the planet will live in a water-stressed area, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Asia, and southeastern Asia. At the same time, technological innovation and globalization will result in more than a billion millionaires by 2025. Breakthroughs in genomics and stem-cell therapies will extend the human lifespan in the West beyond 150 years, creating new problems. These and hundreds of other facts, figures, forecasts, and predications are part of what Canton calls “The Extreme Future.”

As a futurist, Canton is able to call upon a professional background that is as expansive as his vision. He’s done work for IBM, Apple, the Mandela government in South Africa, Motorola, and many other organizations and institutes. Just as he’s spent much of his professional career flying around the globe, his book jets from one trend to the next-from the size of the biotechnology market in 2030 to international jihadist terror to climate change-with an ease that borders on gleeful.

Even at its most dire, The Extreme Future is fun to read, owing to Canton’s willingness to make his book as interactive as possible. Every chapter is full of lists long and short, fake headlines from the 2030, and other bells and whistles. Unlike many futurists, Canton isn’t shy about making predictions, even seemingly reckless ones-“Android/Human Marriages Legal in Vegas Only”- solely for the purpose of stimulating debate. Seasoned forecasters will likely find the treatment gimmicky, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness as an attention grabber.

The real joy of the book, however, is the small, personal anecdotes that Canton has peppered throughout: While on a trip to Paris, he strikes up a conversation with an Aramco official who lets slip that Saudi Arabia has perhaps 30 years of oil left in the ground. In 1980, after a 10-minute interview, a fledgling company called Apple contracts him to explore how professionals might use their new product, the Apple personal computer. Traveling in Latin America, he glimpses a future fraught with security concerns when he meets a paranoid Peruvian finance minister who burnishes a handgun and exclaims, “This is what they have done to me, those terrorists!”

If most of these stories are true (no small assumption), James Canton has done more than explore the future; he’s lived it and walked away with considerable wisdom for his efforts. He has channeled his broad but nuanced sense of the major trends of today-and tomorrow- into a manifesto on how individuals, even nations, should approach the future. Impressively, Canton manages to be a free-market enthusiast, a passionate environmentalist, a social-justice do-gooder, and techconnoisseur all at once.

For businesses looking to ensure their own long-term survival, he recommends a strict diet of innovation. Forget the Taylor-era management practices-stop standing over workers and squeezing them for productivity. Instead, invest in talent, respond to your workers’ real needs (like more flextime and family leave), and make sure that you’re searching out creative workers wherever they may be. Most importantly, says Canton, invest for the long-term future. It will pay off better than any temporary blip in stock price.

For governments faced with the security challenges presented by terrorism, he suggests the following:

* Assume that extremist groups will only become more mobile, more capable, and more entrepreneurial as they gain access to technology, markets, and willing followers.

* Appreciate that the environment, education, and poverty factor into the international security dynamic of the twenty-first century.

* Free elections, a free press, and raised living standards are essential to eliminating terrorism by 2025.

For concerned citizens and individuals, Canton offers affirmation that environmental sustainability is the key to securing a prosperous future. The United States can and must meet the challenges of global warming, water shortages, and erratic weather. Time is running out, and the United States is well behind where it needs to be to meet this rising challenge.

In sum, The Extreme Future provides a rich, complex, and important snapshot of our world in transition, as well as an ethical, moral, and practical approach to the challenges of our hectic times. The future, however extreme it is, could benefit from more thinkers as creative and ambitious as James Canton.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2007

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