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Continuing urban growth

Stories of this type are about continuation of the economic growth that has occurred in the developed world over the past 200 years. Other things might also grow or expand, including population, the size of urban settlements or agricultural areas, and the amount of resources used.

A common assumption in growth scenarios is that increasing wealth, through economic growth, will reduce birth rates and increase life-span. In some growth scenarios, markets are free from regulation. In others, governments intervene to stimulate growth. Some growth scenarios consider how economic growth might proceed without using more resources or space, for example, but then they start to resemble restraint or transformation scenarios. In other extreme-growth scenarios, inequality grows unacceptably and societies collapse due to resource depletion. Stories that focus on such extreme and undesirable outcomes are more appropriately considered under the catastrophe archetype.

Like the dialogue in Canberra in 2013, in Adelaide 2015 there was general agreement that continuing growth as it is currently conceived (i.e., growth in GDP, regardless of whether that means better human wellbeing or not) is not sustainable or likely. Nevertheless, also like the Canberra event, participants in Adelaide seemed to feel that growth in some form is desirable and they explored such aspects as growth in technology, lifespan, health, creativity and innovation. This raises the question of whether humans naturally seek continuous improvement or whether it is a desire that has become part of modern western culture.

Growth here was considered more broadly than just economic growth. Positive futures were considered to be ones that involved growth in human wellbeing and engagement. Such futures were thought to depend on growth in terms of helpful advances in health, social and cultural diversity, democratic engagement, and technologies helping people manage information or supporting greater connectivity and meaningful social interactions. Many potentially undesirable aspects of growth futures were identified, including exceeding resource limits, inequity, social exclusion, and the stress of dealing with a dependence on ever-changing technologies.

Growth scenarios were seen as an extension of ‘business as usual’, but ultimately non-viable because participants perceived that growth in materialism and mass consumption is becoming more expensive and the benefits are not compensating for those increasing costs. Alternative growth scenarios that move away from ‘business as usual’ were identified as those that recognise and limit ‘malignant’ growth (e.g. growth in unemployment, inequality, traffic congestion) and foster growing access to a good quality of life for all, and greater social responsibility and inclusion.

Interpreting growth

Growth scenarios are probably the most common ones we hear and tell on a day-to-day basis. People’s visions of a good future commonly involve ‘more’ (e.g. more money, more time, better house, more mobility, greater freedom). For governments, it is good news when the economy is growing and bad news when it is not.

Many scenarios about growth futures focus on ongoing economic growth and increasing consumption of non-renewable resources, leading to concerns about how sustainable this type of growth might be. There is a recognised disconnection between happiness and wellbeing and material or economic growth. There is a wide range of ways – both desirable and undesirable – in which society might grow. These include monetary wealth, resource use, waste and pollution, cities, transport options and mobility, convenience, connectivity, global communities, knowledge, complexity of thinking, social cohesion, subcultures, languages, diverse micro-communities, ways of dealing with problems, advertising, cognitive capacity, quality of life, creativity, happiness, identity, and cultural diversity.

There are ethical dimensions of growth futures. One person’s desire for growth can be at another’s expense; growth in multinationals can be at the expense of small business; short-term benefits from growth can be at the cost of long-term unwanted impacts. It is difficult for some to imagine pathways in which we can pursue ‘positive growth’ without unwanted negative consequences.

What growth futures might be like in Australia in 2050

Growth in population, information, technology, and democracy are likely, and will bring both opportunities and challenges for Australia’s future.

Growth in the size and average age of Australia’s population is inevitable between now and 2050. Cities are likely to get larger and denser. Challenges for transport, waste disposal, food production and distribution, energy, and material demands of urban populations will grow and will need solutions that will probably influence all aspects of how we live.

A number of risks come with this sort of growth. If wealth inequality continues to grow it could encourage crime and other social problems. Even without inequality, crime might grow, enabled by the technology and creativity that we hope will improve our lives.

Growing pressures on agricultural and ocean systems for food, energy, and mineral resources are likely. Food quality could decline as production/ harvesting is increased to meet demand from Australia and our region; there might be a greater reliance on convenience food (with associated health impacts); expansion of agriculture and aquaculture into marginally suitable areas could cause unwanted environmental impacts; and diversity in food might decline.

Technological advances might offset many unwanted consequences of growth by increasing efficiency and reducing the amount of non-renewable resources needed to produce food or other goods.

Growth in social innovation might see different societal structures and new forms of economic exchange that take account of more aspects of wellbeing than financial wealth. Shifts from individual ownership to collective access to vehicles, houses, and household items (similar to those envisaged in transformation and restraint scenarios) could allow growth with minimal negative social or environmental impact.

The growth in the older population may be a burden on society in some ways (e.g. caring for the elderly), but may also help Australians manage pressures of working families (e.g. grandparents caring for grandchildren). This might enable other social changes (e.g. more diverse family structures and shared parenting/caring arrangements). There might be growth in a two-income ‘sandwich generation’ – a generation caring for ageing parents while raising their own children. A range of other implications was considered (e.g. tax reform in response to the smaller income tax base and catering for social and cultural diversity in those requiring aged care). Assisted death, or euthanasia, might become more acceptable.

Technology will play an important role in Australia’s future, including personalisation of information, computer-controlled access to services (e.g. ngerprint or iris recognition), new ways of connecting with one another (actually and virtually), increased mobility, ways of interacting at a distance (including at our workplace), advances that automate tasks, more sophisticated and far-reaching monitoring and surveillance, new ways to trade goods and currencies, new forms of artistic expression and entertainment, and new forms of governance.

There are potential negative outcomes of such technology. If technologically mediated interactions become pervasive, might this make us overly dependent on the technology and at risk when it fails? Might the need to master many technologies and juggle multiple real and virtual identities make life much busier, lead to fewer personal freedoms, and increase mental health issues?

On the other hand, technological growth might lead to richer, more flexible lives and more opportunities for leisure. Maybe growth of artificial intelligence might encourage us to focus our attention on things that only humans can do (e.g. creative arts and cultural activities).

Another challenge of a growth future might be how to interpret an overwhelming amount of diverse information and make wise decisions. How will the knowledge needed for life and work be handled in school and university courses?

We might see more decentralisation in media reporting, enabling citizen journalism and better public discourse and an end to media monopolies. Or we might see increased concentration of media power serving vested interests.

‘Connectivity’ features strongly in growth futures. Growth in technologies (information, transport, etc.) that bring people together, physically and virtually, is likely to increase global connections. New trading opportunities may be a good thing. Negatives could include loss of privacy, being drawn into unwanted international pressures and crises, and social exclusion of those without access to technologies. Might privacy turn out to be a ‘historical blip’ experienced only brie y by humanity? Does greater connectivity foster greater diversity (e.g. more ways of thinking, living, and deciding for oneself) or more uniformity? Will people be more accepting of differences or more intolerant? The notion of a ‘nation’ might get weaker or stronger.

Virtual connections might become more important than physical ones. ‘Home’ might be a virtual concept. Face-to-face interactions might lose their meaning or not happen much at all. Or there could be a reaction against superficial connections and a move toward richer social interactions.

Impacts on democracy are uncertain. Growth in technology might allow greater participation by citizens in all aspects of how society operates, or it might allow stronger control by elites.

New governance systems might be possible, but how might we ensure that they meet society’s needs versus the needs of a few? Will everyone have access or might some be excluded? Democratisation of the workplace might lead to more diverse conditions (e.g. working from home, working in global networks, or other decentralised structures) and employment opportunities. But these possibilities might be offset by technology reducing the need for human input in some kinds of production. Globalisation might provide good employment opportunities for those with highly marketable skills, but decrease opportunities for those without such skills.

How growth futures might come about

Australia was thought most likely to follow a growth future under ‘business as usual’ policies (particularly pursuit of material and economic growth, as measured by GDP). Increasing connections between countries and development of new global agreements and institutions for trade (globalisation) is likely to encourage the focus on GDP growth for some time. This trajectory would be encouraged if it continued to provide jobs and support a high quality of life for Australians.

Pursuit of high economic growth based on consumption of natural resources could, however, be risky for Australia because exponential material growth is unlikely to be sustainable, and such growth could bring high social and environmental costs. Technological and social advances that increase resource-use efficiency and social equity will be needed to avoid unwanted impacts of growth.

Increasing population size is, by definition, a form of growth as well as being a driver of many other sorts of growth (e.g. urbanisation, medical technologies and treatments, size of economy).

Technological change is a powerful driver of growth in several ways. It might provide confidence by allaying concerns about limits to economic growth (e.g. by making reliance on renewable energy possible, increasing efficiency of recycling, allowing exploitation of new resources, or providing confidence in other ways that technology can solve problems). Technology might improve how markets operate (e.g. by creating new products, markets, and employment opportunities; making marketing more effective; or improving the availability of information for consumers). Technology might also make it possible for Australia to grow in new ways (e.g. by supporting social connections that encourage innovations, and medical and other technologies).

A ‘culture of consumerism’ currently drives economic growth and might continue to do so. Other cultural values (e.g. creativity, pluralism, multiculturalism, sustainability, ethical investment, and other pro-social values) might become more influential and drive different sorts of growth.

Inclusive and equitable governance, and a capacity for flexibility and adaptability, can support the civil peace needed for growth. Our relationships with the rest of the region and our choices in the next 50 years may be important factors in enabling peace and growth. Do we want a ‘nanny’ state with subsidies and ‘government taking care of us’, or increased independence from government, or a wise mix of individual and community autonomy with government planning?

Periods of growth might arise from catastrophes (including domestic or international conflicts and/or destruction caused by inappropriate growth at scales from local to global) and/or periods of restraint. Growth and restraint futures are interlinked, in that restraint in some areas might encourage growth in others. This cyclical relationship, in which growth might at some times be enabled and at other times limited, could be allowed to take its own course, with sometimes devastating consequences, or managed to minimise suffering and hardship. The decision to take a reactive or active approach to these cycles could define the nature of Australia to 2050.