The increasing connectedness of the world's people and political economies is grounds for optimism for the future, despite the growing risks associated with climate change, organised crime and terrorism, say UN agencies.
The State of the Future report published this month by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA), showed that more than a billion people (16% of the world poulation) are now connected to the internet. It showed the digital gap between developed and developing economies continues to close.
"Most people in the world may be connected to the internet within 15 years, making cyberspace an unprecedented medium for civilisation," the authors said. "This new distribution of the means of production in the knowledge economy is cutting through old hierarchical controls in politics, economics and finance. It is becoming a self-organising mechanism that could lead to dramatic increases in humanity's ability to invent its future.
"As the integration of cellphones, video, and the internet grows, prices will fall, accelerating globalisation and allowing swarms of people to quickly form and disband, co-ordinate actions, and share information ranging from stock market tips to bold new contagious ideas (meme epidemics)."
The report's authors noted that developing countries generate more than half of the world's £31-trillion economy. "This is helping to democratise the coming knowledge economy with tele-nearly-everything and providing self-organising mechanisms for emerging collective computer-human intelligence and management systems.
"A worldwide race to connect everything not yet connected is just beginning, and great wealth will be generated by completing the links among systems by which civilisations function and flourish."
The authors were upbeat about the application of the artefacts of digital technology to biology. "Just as lines of code were written to create software to do amazing things, genetic code may be written to create life to do even more amazing things, such as producing hydrogen fuel instead of oxygen from photosynthesis. Artificial organs may be constructed by depositing living cells, layer by layer, using dot-matrix printers in a manner similar to 3-D prototyping.
"Future synergies among nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science can dramatically improve the human condition by increasing the availability of food, energy and water, and by connecting people and information everywhere. The effect will be to increase collective intelligence and to create value and efficiency while lowering costs. The factors accelerating all these changes are themselves accelerating, which will make the past 25 years seem slow compared with the next 25," they said.
Not everything is rosy, however. The authors said that although the number of electoral democracies is increasing, press freedoms are decreasing. "According to Freedom House, only 17% of the world's population has access to free media," they said. In addition, "trivial entertainment flooding our minds with unethical behaviour and the increasing proliferation of media and information makes it difficult to separate the noise from the signal of what is important to know about our global situation in order to make good decisions."
Against this, "E-government is taking hold around the world and it will become more effective as increasing numbers of citizens have access to the needed technologies," they said.
The World Federation of UN Associations is an independent, non-governmental organisation with Category One Consultative Status at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and consultative or liaison links with many other UN organisations and agencies. The Millennium Project of WFUNA is a global participatory futures research think tank of futurists, scholars, business planners and policy makers who work for international organisations, governments, corporations, NGOs and universities. The Millennium Project manages a coherent and cumulative process that collects and assesses judgements from its several hundred participants to produce the annual "State of the Future", "Futures Research Methodology" series, and special studies such as the State of the Future Index, Future Scenarios for Africa, Lessons of History, Environmental Security, Applications of Futures Research to Policy, and an annotated scenarios bibliography.