The Ocean of Change

Posted on August 27, 2019  /  0 Comments

An exploration of megatrends
within the Asia-Pacific region

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.

– Julius Ceasar, ACT III Scene IV


Throughout history, there have been sequences of events that are absolutely inevitable, beyond the control of any emperor or tyrant. If we, like Shakespeare, insist on seeing them as tides, one could say that the task of historians is to study little wavelets from the past and try to piece together the biggest tides that shaped the day; and what we manage to cobble together we call history, as we know and study it.

These tides are not things relegated to retroactive wisdom and stage tragedy. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner of today’s CIA – and  John Naisbitt – formerly of IBM and Eastman-Kodak, later heavily involved with the US administration in Washington – famously took to the analysis of content in order to influence both war and public policy. Naisbitt, in particular, brought together the word ‘megas’ (Greek: great) with Old English trendan, turning it into a word that captures these long-term shifts in our geopolitical, macroeconomic and environmental reality – a suitable word for describing future-facing tides of Shakespearean import. Today, the United States National Intelligence Council expends enormous effort on imputing the shape of these megatrends ahead; likewise, Europe has its own bodies, and Australia has CSIRO.

The problem is that most approach this question from the perspective of some first-world country or the other, and usually miss out on perspectives from the Asia-Pacific region that we play in. Which is, in our opinion, a mistake: not only does the APAC region host some 4 billion people, but from the story of China’s metamorphosis to become an economic powerhouse, to the evolution of Singapore as a lab, the APAC abounds with experiments that have led to significant social change. The development challenges that we face, ranging from inequality to climate change and global warming – are complex and devastating. The response from states ranges from laconic to full-on tactical combat with the beast at hand. There is a need for a much more nuanced conversation: for futurism that merges existing projections with deeper insights on the states (and nonstate actors) driving strategic innovation on our side of the pond; for scanning that sheds some light on under-the-radar players doing things that might lead to very different versions of our future.

We thus embarked on our own study of megatrends, centered on the APAC region, around a 2030 timeframe. Instead of limiting ourselves to just newspapers, we performed content analysis on national policy documents from influential governments in the region, and futures forecasts from noted bodies. We paired this with statistical projections from a range of bodies such as the APERC, the UNDP, and academics in economics. The synthesis we re-examined with consultation from a select set of experts to better extract the signal from the noise.

What follows, then, is the result of our first attempt at mapping the tides of this full sea. As a think tank engaged in public policy, we have a particular narrative framing. Some element of rationalization has been performed; certain types of information privileged over others; therefore, we borrow from Alford Korzybski and advise caution: A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

This is, therefore, a map of the future of the APAC region. We hope that it may be useful.

How to consume this research

One of the problems of investigating trends is that they invariably impact each other. Thus, reading a report – a fixed, linear narrative – is not an optimal way to go about this. We have arranged our work into six core pieces charting both the inevitable changes on a 2030 timeline; regional shifts to face the challenges presented, and wildcards that can throw monkey wrenches in the works. While almost everything is connected to everything else, the connections are not linear in nature; hence the squiggles.

Each piece is orbited by “satellites”: pieces digging into a more granular set of events or wildcards. We recommend starting at Feeding the Beast, and follow it through to associated satellites: follow those through to the other core pieces, rinse and repeat. Alternatively, breeze through the core pieces first, like an Inner Ring providing the 30,000-foot view, and then move on to the satellites.


  • Feeding the Beast
    The APAC region is still in the grip of an uneven population change. Historically high infant mortality rates have been reducing, while overall lifespans have been increasing, adding more people to the system. Meeting the basic needs of this burgeoning population will be a challenge – the region needs more energy, more food, and water is increasingly becoming a national security issue. Unless this situation is addressed – and there seem to be very few solutions for many of these problems – large portions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and China will be home to legions starved of the most basic needs for human life.

  • The Next Big Economy
    The economic center of gravity of the world has until now been between America and Western Europe, those two economic powerhouses of the world. However, that pendulum is swinging back. The academic literature suggests this will be somewhere between India and China by 2050. This brings about a reshuffling of the world economic order as we know it, with China and India ahead of the US, and Indonesia poised as a respectable player in terms of economic size. Uneven population growth forces different countries to react in different ways – especially in the face of rising GNI coefficients and a burgeoning of the middle class, threatened by advances in automation and machine learning that can adversely impact both white- and blue-collar jobs across the board.

  • The Mega-Sprawl Approaches
    One of the problems of increasing populations and increasing economic activity is that more and more people tend to flock to economic centers. This sparks urbanization, forcing these areas to grow both vertically and horizontally. This urbanization will preoccupy the minds of the APAC region for some time, since two billion urbanites already live in the region – half the entire world’s population of urban dwellers. This number is expected to increase by another 700 million by 2030. Governments across the region are creating policies to attempt to maximize the benefits of urbanization whilst minimizing the costs – some are less effective soft responses; others are harder.

  • The 4th Industrial Proletariat
    The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) does not appear in statistical projections, but significant interest from the World Economic Forum has led to research mapping out both its promises and pitfalls. On the one hand, as global economic power shifts towards countries in the APAC region,the technologies underpinning 4IR could allow countries to capitalize on this change faster and close skill gaps. On the other hand, greater automation could stymie the export-oriented model prevalent in large parts of APAC, hitting both white- and blue-collar jobs. Then comes the question: if data becomes the principal capital du jour, who owns the data, how to protect and govern its use and prevent winner-takes-all economies –  while balancing this against the need to support innovation?

  • The Dogs of War
    In all this talk about APAC, it would be a mistake to overlook the turbulence in the region: between India and China, between India and Pakistan, between regional blocs trying to get along together, and the technologies changing the visible face of this conflict. As economic power swings towards the APAC region, various nations become uniquely positioned to flex their muscles in ways that have powerful consequences – whether in conflict over resources or simply over vastly conflicting ideals of what the world should look like.

  • The Wrath of Nature
    The scientific consensus is clear: climate change is real, and humans are the biggest driver of recent climate change. The global symptoms are well-known – sea level rise, increases in surface temperature, glacial and ice caps melting, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. But such statistics and language hide the full weight of the hammer-blow – the Asia Pacific is trapped between meeting the needs of its population and growing cities, under pressure to capture the economic windows of opportunity, facing environmental stress – all in the face of drought, flooding, and the collapse of agricultural regions. Thus, impeding climate change becomes the one megatrend to impact them all.


A word of warning

Of course, this kind of top-heavy analysis – especially with established gaps in information – comes with caveats. Of trade movements between the BIMSTEC countries, for example, we have little to say. Internal migration and rapid urbanization affect every country here, but we must focus on India and China, as the elephants in the room. Of indigenous movements, there is almost no mention, save for when something becomes large enough to be reflected in government policy.

And while hindsight is always 20/20, no act of foresight can be ever said to be completely accurate. As Thomasina, the child prodigy in Arcadia, notes: if you could stop every atom in its position and direction and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future. . . although nobody can be so clever as to do it. We have neither the skill to stop the universe nor the wisdom to compute such transcendent math.

But we hope that we may see the tide before it engulfs us. We believe that the continued exercise of such will lead not only to better futurism, but better lessons for policy change and governance models. After all, as the Mahabharata says:

Change is the law of the world.
In a moment you become the owner of millions,
In the other you become penniless.

This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle with contributions from Rohan Samarajiva.

We would like to acknowledge, with gratitude, input from Samuel Peralta, Vandana Singh, Karl Vendell Satinitigan, Peggy Liu, David Galipeau, Tina Jabeen, Taimur Khilji, David Li, Peter Brimble, Anshul Sonak, Saif Kamal, Michell Zappa, Mike Rios, Roshan Paul, and Cecille Soria. Art by Tithi Luadthong unless otherwise specified.

This work has been written expressly by LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.

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