Eating insects

Futures of this type are about fundamental changes in societies for the better (undesirable changes are considered in the catastrophe archetype).

Transformations might be technological changes that go beyond the incremental, and/or major changes in attitudes, policies, and practices in relation to the environment, inequity, governance, or industries. Transformations might be towards new types of societies or a return to old ones that are fundamentally different from the present. Either way, the key question is ‘what sorts of changes would be fundamentally different from the present?’ Answering this question requires us to think hard about what is fundamental, or characteristic, of the present. This makes this archetype a difficult one to think about.

Many workshop participants interpreted transformation in terms of cultural change, and considered that Australia would be fundamentally different if it became truly diverse, respectful, and equitable. Technological transformations in healthcare and access to information were commonly considered, as were changes in Australia’s governance (e.g. towards more distributed governance with a greater focus on community-driven decision making). It was suggested that two factors might be particularly powerful catalysts for transformational change between now and 2050: wider consideration of what Australians want and what progress we are making towards those goals, and (2) stronger incentives for desirable policies and actions.

One of the strong messages from the Adelaide 2016 workshop was that to achieve social transformations what is required is widespread recognition of the need to transform and the development of better mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation than currently exist. This view complements the view from the Canberra event that a truly caring and supportive culture would represent a fundamentally different Australia to what we have today. There were rich discussions on what it means to have transformed, or ever-changing, personal identities, perhaps made possible through many of life’s interactions taking place in virtual worlds or through more personalised synthetic biology technologies. There were also thoughtful discussions on transformations to money and financial systems so that they are replaced by systems that better reflect diverse values and true costs that are currently invisible. There was a longing for transformed futures that more fully appreciate diverse cultures and sources of wisdom.

Interpreting transformation 

It is challenging to think about how a transformation of Australia – that is, a fundamental change – might be different from the sometimes major changes imagined in restraint or growth futures. What characterises Australians and the ways in which this country works now, and what type or amount of change might we regard as fundamentally different by 2050?

We talk about transformations all the time without realising it. For example, when we talk about reform (e.g. tax, law, economic, or social reform) or some sort of better future, we often imply transformation. Transformations can happen because we make them happen or they can happen to us. Making transformations happen is problematic (they are usually caused by more factors than we can understand or control fully), but letting transformations just happen can be very risky (e.g. we could end up with an Australia we don’t want because we weren’t paying attention to how it was changing).

Transformations of a nation are likely to include personal transformations (e.g. attitudes, mental and physical health) within wider social transformations (e.g. laws, norms, and institutions), and both sorts of transformations could occur in some parts of society but not in others. For example, Australia is a highly educated society but not all individuals have high levels of literacy. Again, communities faced with bush re emergencies might transform culturally while society as a whole does not.

What a transformed future Australia might be like in 2050 

Would an Australia with high levels of fairness, tolerance, and caring, and based on a sustainable relationship with the natural environment, be an extension of current-day Australia or fundamentally different? Many participants thought the latter.  An alternative to this future is an individualistic, competitive future.

Could that future be seen as similar to the present rather than a fundamental change from today? Many thought so.

In a transformed future, Australians might expect their fellow citizens to respect diversity (e.g. of race, sexual preference, faith, political ideology), and to care for and support other Australians in all possible ways. People of all backgrounds would share fairly in economic and social life, would have a high sense of self-worth, and would have affordable access to social services, housing, food, and the like. The focus of life would be on wellbeing that does not come at the expense of the common good. Our relationship with the natural world would be based on both ethical considerations and an understanding of how environmental processes support social and economic process and contribute to human wellbeing.

Given this ideal vision of a transformed Australia, how could other aspects of life change hand-in-hand with these changes in attitudes?

Is it realistic to expect gender roles to change and, if so, how? Gender inequity makes it hard to move towards respectful and community-focused futures. Perhaps achievement of a critical mass of women in positions of power might be the trigger for social transformation, starting with an increased focus   on families and communities, a shift in work-life balance, and consequent improvements in mental and physical health.

There might be some bumps along the road towards this new social future as society battles with internal contradictions. For example, in an effort to encourage community-mindedness, some communities might be tempted to exclude those who don’t accept the new values – in contradiction to those very values. A community focus might see the emergence of stronger religious and ethnic groupings that support their members but possibly lead to societal tensions with other groups and social isolation of people who are not members of the group.

Technology can be a driver of transformational change and a defining characteristic of daily life in 2050. Applications of new technologies might address many of the challenges facing current Australians (e.g. food production, energy generation, water availability, maintenance of health, reduction and disposal of waste and pollution, efficient and environmentally friendly transport, national security). These advances, together with new ways to collect, interpret, and share information may facilitate the sorts of society-wide understanding of social and environmental issues required for a transformed Australia.

There could be new approaches to how society is organised (formal and informal institutions) and how decisions are made and implemented (governance). Interfaces between government and society could be more open and user-friendly. A wider distribution of authority, responsibility, and resourcing across society is possible, supported by better information collection and sharing. There could be broader learning opportunities that would empower all people to engage in determining society’s future, and basic literacy levels and technological abilities would be achieved across society.

Some risks include enhancement of humans externally (e.g. Google Glass is a present-day example) and internally (e.g. longer lives, pills to counter all ailments, brain implants), which attempt to improve our lives but might create new social dilemmas. Information and communication technologies, expected to be even more integral to society by 2050, might reinforce new values but might also undermine them. Society might become so reliant on technology that technical failures could cause major crises. A ‘technological divide’ might emerge between those willing and able to embrace new technologies and those who won’t or can’t.

While taking advantage of technology’s help in transforming Australia by 2050, could we wittingly or unwittingly take control of human evolution (e.g. using medication, genetic technologies, selection of offspring, education), setting us on paths that no longer involve natural selection as a mechanism for adapting to the world around us?

Social changes could affect where and how we live and work. A slowing of urbanisation could lead to more decentralised, convivial settlements in which diverse skill-sets are developed and valued at different scales from local (‘village’) to regional. The built environment could evolve to encourage connections between people and satisfy different needs related to age, economic status, culture, etc. through a diversity of housing forms and spaces.

Our economy could transform into one that no longer relies heavily on the consumption of non-renewable resources for growth. Growth itself would be de ned not just in terms of flows of money (GDP) but more broadly in terms of all aspects of human progress and wellbeing.

Imagining Australia’s place in the world is harder because the rest of the world might or might not change in the same way as Australia. In a globally caring and cooperative world, Australia could become more multicultural and more strongly connected with South-East Asia. In this world, Australia might have influence as a link between East and West. If the world went the other way (highly competitive and fragmented), Australia might have to choose whether it aligns culturally and economically with East or West, and its economic, security, and cultural futures might depend heavily on that decision.

How transformation futures might come about

Transformations in societies usually involve, as triggers, some sort of shocks or shake-ups. These might be disasters (e.g. famine, civil unrest, war, economic crises) or not (e.g. Federation, the birth control pill, universal voting rights). But transformations also involve other factors coming together (ideas that are of their time, the right people, leadership, the ability of people to take up the ideas). Resilience is a relevant concept. Resilience is the ability of ecological systems, individual people, communities, societies, etc. to keep their essential identity, structures, and functions in the face of shocks, without transforming into something fundamentally different. In some ways, we might want Australia to be resilient in the future (i.e. keep some core values and characteristics), but in others ways we might want to overcome its resilience (i.e. change aspects that are undesirable).

If Australians want to have a say about if and how the nation transforms, it might require: (1) recognition across society that major change is needed, (2) having and sharing ideas about how to make that change, and (3) social acceptance of the change. The first requirement depends on Australians understanding what they value and want in the future.

To achieve these requirements, Australia would bene t from processes that encourage society-wide dialogue about our beliefs, hopes, and aspirations, our relationship with nature, learning lessons from Australia’s past and from the rest of the world, and harnessing our collective imagination about what Australia could be. Watching for signs of change can raise our awareness  of possible transformational changes that might be underway and provide opportunities for early intervention.

Leadership would be required to encourage this sort of dialogue and develop institutions and opportunities to make it happen. But if we fail to think as a nation about our future, leaders might have to play a very different role to achieve necessary transformations. If we are faced with social, economic,  or environmental crises (or mixtures of these) and we are not prepared, then autocratic government might be required to manage scarce resources and maintain or restore order.

Two important mechanisms for achieving the transformations we want and need are: (1) encouragement and rewards for desirable actions (e.g. taxation incentives, public recognition and celebration of actions in the public good), and/or (2) removal of obstacles (e.g. funding and other constraints on community-based schemes for addressing social and environmental challenges).

Financial and cultural encouragement of innovators and ‘first movers’ are important ways to explore possibilities for transformations.

An overload of information – and/or deliberate promotion of inaccurate information – could make it hard for people to know what to believe or what actions to take, and it would be difficult to achieve national support for transformational change. Australia might find itself slow to respond to the need for change, perhaps because of our constitution and/or our large amount of institutional and built infrastructure, both of which have served us well in the past but which might counteract change.