Greg Lindsay's Blog

May 21, 2018  |  permalink

Imagining Utopia & Dystopia at Sandia National Laboratories


Last summer, I was invited to participate in a declassified, off-the-record workshop at Sandia National Laboratories as part of its long-range planning efforts. Our task: imagine the “future of population and Earth systems” circa 2050. Heavy stuff from the people who brought you both the Manhattan Project and essential research into photovoltaic solar panels. A public high-level summary of the event is copied below; my only criticism is that it doesn’t reflect my personal efforts to get the group thinking about post-corporate, post-nation-state forms of human organization. (Once again, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.) Still: don’t tell Rick Perry what the good folks of Sandia are up to.


What dynamics and key questions might shape global security, population, and Earth systems in 20 years?

Climate change, population growth, and resource constraints threaten national and global security, stability, and peace
Climate change, exponentially increasing population, and constrained resources will continue to impact unrest and conflict at multiple scales. Drought, food shortages, sea level rise, and increasing storm frequency and intensity will contribute to the destabilization of social, economic, and political systems. Interdependent dynamics of migration, urbanization, and economic inequality will be complicated by religious and ideological extremism and ethnic conflict. Together, these dynamics will create a global system of unparalleled complexity.
• How might individuals, societies, and governments balance shifts in resource supply and demand as a way of maintaining security, stability, and peace?
• To what extent will increasing resource demand and declining supply create increasingly fragile social and governance systems, the collapse of which further contributes to cascading unrest, insecurity, and conflict?
• How might populations, governments, and corporations respond as parts of the world become more accessible or less inhabitable?

Rapid technological innovation promises solutions, however unintended consequences could exacerbate problems
Public and private sector innovations in sensing and data analytics have the potential to significantly increase our ability to anticipate and understand the complex relationships between Earth systems, population, and conflict. Simultaneously, innovations designed to provide solutions to climate change and resource constraints (e.g., geoengineering, genetic modification, desalination) may create unintended consequences at various scales. The inability of governance systems to keep up with the pace of technological change may create turbulent social and economic shifts.
• How might advances in autonomy change the nature of work and affect industrialization, inequality patterns, and migration?
• To what extent might the combination of technological and governance innovations enable populations to anticipate, withstand, manage, adapt, and recover from emerging challenges?

Shifting patterns create opportunities for new actors to drive change in an increasingly polarized world
Emerging state and non-state powers will challenge and transform the international norms and agreements shaping global security. Shifting patterns in climate, globalization, industrialization, demographics, and wealth may contribute to the rise of non-state actors driven to address these global problems. All the while, political polarization and mistrust in science erode the capacity of governments to adopt policy and develop technologies that can adapt to future challenges.
• To what extent, and through what mechanisms, will state and non-state actors, including cities and multinational corporations, cooperate to address emerging security challenges?
• To what extent will populations in industrialized and emerging economies choose to and be able to alter resource consumption and reproduction rates?

How might the national security enterprise prepare for emerging national security challenges and opportunities?

Advance the capacity to collect, integrate, and analyze data, and model complex adaptive systems
• Better understand the interdependencies of disruptions to Earth systems with socio-political-technical systems and how all contribute to instability, insecurity, and conflict
• Improve understanding of uncertainty associated with consequences of population and resource management options and risks

Develop tools and technologies that foster resilience, flexibility, and high speed decisions
• Foster partnerships across multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral experts and institutions to better understand technical solutions to social- and governance-related challenges
• Build collaborations with academia and industry to assure greater resilience for critical infrastructure, including energy, water, food, and sanitation systems
• Encourage basic research, innovation, and risk-taking in Earth systems research and development (R&D)

Enhance existing approaches and explore new ones for more effectively communicating science & technology insights
• Improve science-based policy making by supporting better assessment of complexities, security options, potential consequences both intended and unintended, risks, and uncertainties
• Strengthen public trust in science through broad education and communication initiatives

You can download the entire summary report here.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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