Kelleher, A., and Stewart, C., 2011 (eds), Australia’s report to the Millennium Project on global challenges, 2011 State of the Future Report, The Millennium Project, Washington DC.


Executive Summary

Over the past decade the Australasian Node of the Millennium Project has regularly made submissions to the annual State of The Future Report. In recent years, however, the professional futurist community in Australia in particular has become more vocal about the need for renewal in how we individually and collectively approach the future. The motivation has included an increasingly frightening comprehension of the complex global challenges we face which in turn has lead to inspiring discoveries of the many new approaches available that could lead to better futures for us each and all.

This standalone report is a new collaborative effort to elucidate the challenges and opportunities inherent in our collective near-term futures: that is to say, inherent in the decisions we make today. It has been produced with support from future focused domain specialists, organisations like the CSIRO, public policy think tanks, universities across Australia, and many un-named contributors via extensive professional networks of each of these named supporters. Accordingly this report has been developed to make three distinct contributions:

  1. Directly responding to the global challenges in the familiar, and highly valued, format of the State of The Future Report by presenting the key statistics associated with the driving forces and trends related to each domain; identifying new initiatives both successful and promising that are emerging; and characterising the dynamics of change and public debate of the issues to assist strategy and policy makers to better grasp the ‘big picture’ unfolding future.
  2. Using additional traditional, and recently evolved or developed, futures methods to explore the deeper causes of the challenges; trace the interactions between them and new initiatives of response – noting both synergistic and un-intended consequences; and illumine potentially more valuable and viable ways of understanding and responding to the challenges based on integrating behavioural understandings, structural / political / technological systems perspectives, and cultural and psychological dimensions into the consideration. This is known as an Integral Futures approach.
  3. Identifying sources of hope, possibility, viable pathways and potential opportunities available in response to the global challenges, while grounding these in clear articulations of what this requires of us individually and together in our communities and organisations.

When the unique multidisciplinary contributions from across Australia are comprehended together in this report, there are some key themes that emerge. On the challenge side, climate change is one of the primary drivers impacting each of the global challenges and how it is presently understood. On the response side, there are deeper questions waiting to be tangibly answered by articulations of inspiring, hopeful and achievable visions for our futures. Combined, it is a call for renewed leadership.

Most but not all of the 15 Global Challenges are addressed directly in this report. There are, however, several additional pieces contributed by leading Australian futurists that address the very nature of the questions posed in the challenges; outline alternative approaches to addressing the challenges as a whole; and reflect on the nature of futures practice itself, hinting at where the State of The Future report could evolve to in future. What less could you expect from professional futurists?

Dr Mark Edwards, a psychologist and integral meta-theorist from the University of Western Australia, provides an introductory challenge that frames this report’s focus on Australia’s role within the Asia-Pacific region and global community. Dr Edwards situates Australia’s aspirations and potential as a ‘middle-power’ in the global community, highlighting the mixed participation record and current efforts across the 15 global challenges. In describing Australia’s struggle with climate change policy and action – a central theme emerging from most responses to the 15 Global Challenges in this report – Dr Edwards concludes Australia has demonstrated a ‘schizoid’ leadership behaviour in response to date. Reasoning that the most likely source of innovation and effective action to address challenges like climate change will “come from the middle [powers] or not all,” Dr Edwards issues an urgent call for vision and leadership in Australia to seize the opportunity to innovate and fulfil its responsibilities and potential as a regional and global citizen.

Dr Chris Riedy, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sydney, looks at the big questions we need to ask, and answer, for Challenge 1, How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change? Surveying the human, social and economic tolls of the early impacts of increased climate volatility throughout the Asia-Pacific in recent years, Dr Riedy reminds us that the region’s countries make up “half of the top 20 emitters in the world” in absolute terms, with Australia consistently contending for the undesirable global leadership position of highest per capita emissions. For many countries in the region, including two of the most populous on earth – India and China – rapid industrialisation can explain these high emissions. Identifying a plethora of promising initiatives and commitments at the national, regional and global level in response to climate exchange, Dr Riedy underscores the importance of regional efforts arguing that “it will be the development pathways in Asia that will determine whether or not the world can respond successfully to climate change.”

Looking closer at Australia, Dr Riedy paints a picture of a nation divided, where climate change has become a political and ideological battleground, with the scientific method itself being brought into question. While Riedy suggests this can be seen as an important trend challenging the scientific community to improve their participation in public policy debates, and urging greater critical public participation, often it has effectively been reduced to ad hominine attacks – lowering the quality of both the public debate and policy outcomes. At root, it appears that the complexity of climate change is challenging our fundamental collective values. Aligned with Dr Edward’s call to leadership, and setting the context for other interactions with the climate change challenge included in this report, Dr Riedy observes that “climate change asks us whether continued economic growth based on growth in material consumption is possible. It asks us whether a consumer culture, built on unbridled gratification, can be sustained. It asks us to exercise restraint. For conservatives and economic rationalists, these ideas are anathema. For now, few politicians or thought leaders are willing to raise these fundamental questions.”

Picking up one dimension of climate change’s impacts, Anita Kelleher, from the University of the Sunshine Coast and a professional futurist, digs deeper into the topic of water for Challenge 2, How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict? Kelleher profiles Australia’s changing waterscape highlighting the historical patterns of extreme droughts and floods, and the decadal long trends in rainfall runoff decline that look set to continue. Surveying the changing nature of water management in Australia, Kelleher uses several futures tools to illuminate the paradigm shift that is occurring from the “myth of the tap that never turns off” to water stewardship where “water is life.” The comprehensive review of this critical current challenge for Australia, while painting a desperate picture in numbers, conveys incredible hope in the new approaches, technologies, investments, and behaviours and attitudes that the new paradigm is manifesting. It’s a hope, she concludes soberly, that will need to be realised in order to continue to meet Australia’s growing water challenges successfully.

Peta Ashworth, Senior Social Scientist with the CSIRO, contends with the changing nature of democracy in Challenge 4, How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes? Taking a broader stance than just addressing authoritarian regimes, Ashworth reflects on the growing dissatisfaction with existing governance structures globally, and in Australia as evidenced by the recent federal elections resulting in a hung parliament. Noting the importance of social media as an enabling mechanism for both information sharing and organisation, Ashworth identifies how new non-government organisations are emerging to explicitly catalyse changes to political processes and structures. Tracing the evolving nature of democracy Ashworth identifies the emergence of ‘deliberative democracy’ as a promising next form, with its drive to create collaborative visions for the future. Ashworth surmises that “if a commitment to engage citizens across Australia in deliberative processes continues, we are likely to see a positive change across society…involving citizens in deliberative processes results in them becoming more informed, gaining a greater understanding of other perspectives and developing greater trust and appreciation of the decision making processes of government.”

For Challenge 5, How can policymaking be made more sensitive to global long-term perspectives?, Dr Peter Hayward leads staff and students from Swinburne University of Technology’s post-graduate Strategic Foresight program in a commentary on how longer-term thinking is emerging in policy practice. Climate change, economic growth and security relations are seen as a triad of drivers for greater longer term thinking in policy development. Numerous themes of change throughout the Asia Pacific region are identified, with climate change being seen influencing longer term thinking in such diverse and increasingly interrelated policy domains as heritage, military, trade, business consultation, measures of economic activity, food security, aid, disaster management, energy, innovation, and strategic thinking practices and thought leadership efforts both within public services and in the structures of regional relations between governments at multiple levels.

ICT research analysts Dr Alexander Burns of Victoria University and Stephen McGrail highlight some of the critical elements associated with Challenge 6, the Global convergence of ICT. Burns and McGrail note the increasing access to technologies in the Asia-Oceania region and a preference for mobile handheld devices for internet access. Social networks and media are also becoming more wide-spread as Chinese groups use the technologies to post protest events for the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and Japanese communities exchange information after the recent earthquake. However with this increase in internet technology access some countries in the region are tightening controls over content. Freedom House monitoring of freedom on the net has rated four countries ‘not free’. Governance concerns, cyber-attacks and internet security feature in this analysis of the developments in the convergence of ICT.

Dr Graeme Woodrow, the Director of the CSIRO Health Technologies Strategy, looks at Australia’s health in relationship to Challenge 8, How can the threat of new and emerging infectious diseases be reduced? Dr Woodrow provides a snapshot of Australia’s health and wellbeing statistics in 2010 finding a country generally in good health with long life expectancy and low infant mortality rates. With an aging society, increasing mental health incidence and cancer still the largest cause of disease burden, the health system’s focus is increasingly on preventing and managing chronic diseases. In comparison, infectious diseases are the cause of only 1% of deaths. But given the high potential impact, and increasing risks and assessed likelihood of animal transferred diseases, there are efforts emerging for focusing on preventing as well as managing infectious disease outbreaks. In addition, another key feature of Australian population health is that Indigenous health indicators continue to lag and a variety of new initiatives have been commenced focused on ‘closing the gap.’ Given this backdrop health system reform has become a major public policy focus in recent years with a vigorous debate about how to better foster collaboration, create effective prevention and wellbeing promotion strategies, and reduce the escalating growth in both the burden of chronic diseases and health system costs.

In response to Challenge 9, How can the capacity to decide be improved as the nature of work and institutions change? Dr Stefan Hajkowicz reflects on the nature of what constitutes ‘good decisions’ and our individual and collective capacity to make them. As human knowledge continues to expand, it is being mined in a timely fashion by Dr Hajkowicz with a view to improving our decision making capabilities in order to meet the increasing complexity of the challenges requiring decisive responses, and to cope with the speed at which decisions are required. Dr Hajkowicz concludes succinctly that “to achieve improved decisions humanity needs better governance, improved rationality, improved balancing of intuition and analytical styles, better information, trust amongst adversaries, foresight into the future and an ability to handle intangible outcomes. The result of these improvements will be wiser choices and a better world.”

Dr Ivana Milojevic, futurist and academic at the University of the Sunshine Coast, addresses Challenge 11, How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition? Dr Milojevic notes the dramatic diversity of the status of women between countries in the Asia Pacific region. Drawing attention to the strong correlation between national rankings on the Gender Inequality Index and the broader Human Development Index, Dr Milojevic points to many improvements throughout the region. But she also highlights some regressions, and significant risks to recent progress due to issues like climate change, and a common cultural reaction to increasingly social complexity: demands for a return to ‘traditional’ family values. Dr Milojevic explains that this “is often a code name for the return towards more extreme forms of patriarchy,” and concludes that “to reverse these negative trends, further political and economic empowerment of women is critical, and so are the attitudinal changes in cultural and cognitive social spheres.

Paul Graham, the CSIRO’s Carbon Futures Theme Leader, reviews developments related to Challenge 13, How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently? With many rapidly developing economies along with industrialised nations to be found in the region, the energy picture is not a simple one. Graham traces the structural influences of energy sources and demand into the future as the approximate 800 million people in the region currently without access to electricity begins to decline, lowering biomass energy source use, but contributing to Asia’s share of global energy demand increasing significantly. While counties like China, India and Australia have extensive energy resources, may countries in the region are or will rely primarily upon imports. Combined with climate change responses, energy source diversity and security continue to grow in importance as policy and investment focuses while underscoring the uncertainty of future energy source mixes within the region.

In complement to Graham’s review, Josh Floyd offers a dedicated ‘futurist’s perspective’ that reflects on the nature of Challenge 13 and the way the question it asks frames consideration of the challenge. Floyd contends that “it’s apparent that three further questions first require careful consideration: 1) what is the nature of our changing energy demand; 2) what might it mean to meet this “safely”; and 3) what might it mean to meet our demand “efficiently”?” In sketching a brief reflection on these deeper questions, Floyd observes the interrelated importance of individual and societal values, quality of life, human enterprise, demand patterns, peak oil, fossil fuel CO2 emissions, and collective decision making processes. He concludes that “if efficiency can lead to the exploitation of our primary energy sources at higher rates overall, depleting non-renewable resources faster and increasing stress on biological systems, then perhaps for instance we would be better off thinking about how to meet our energy demand resiliently.”

Dr Kristin Alford et.al. provide an update on the Australia-Oceania’s response to Challenge 14, How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition? They describe the continuing shift of global scientific leadership to the Asia region, particularly China, Japan and South Korea. In concert, after a decade of decline, Australia’s government R&D funding is being marginally increased, but with a changing agenda towards helping the public understand and accept ‘enabling technologies’ like biotechnology and nanotechnology. While Australian investment in ‘clean tech’ for improving environmental outcomes is a mixed bag of increase and decreasing focuses, the area continues to hold, and is starting to deliver, benefits – particularly in the area of the built environment, new materials and addressing climate change impacts on food production and energy demand management and source diversity. Finally, as is the case around the world, continued advances in ICT – particularly in terms of pervasive computing, data visualisation, and communications – is the main site of activity and public benefit through most dimensions of individual and collective human lives.

Taking the 15 global challenges as a whole, the original founder and chair of the Australasian Node, Dr Paul Wildman, proposes a renewed approach to pedagogy that could greatly assist humanity’s ability to notice, understand and respond. It is important to note that by pedagogy Dr Wildman here means the entire system, structure, content, activities and participants of collective learning within a nation state, from early childhood through adult learning in individual and organisational contexts. Dr Wildman proposes a synthesis of “futures studies [and] participatory action research with ‘chiro’ or hands on ‘change-agency’,” which he defines as Critical Futures Praxis. Articulating the basis of each, for their integration, and their inspiring potential, Dr Wildman also profiles new initiatives within Australia aimed at realising this approach in direct response to the Millennium Project’s defined global challenges.

Finally the President of the Asian Foresight Institute and Chairman of Australia21, Professor Richard David Hames, presents an adroit exploration of the future of strategic foresight: the very tools underpinning the success and value of the State of the Future Report and this contribution to it. Dr Hames powerfully depicts our human, lived experience of the global challenges, uniquely characterised by our collective awareness that we could cause humanicide – the near total extinction of homo sapiens – and that we have the capability to avoid it. He asks, “but is it too late for wisdom to prevail?”

To appreciate our predicament and identify potential sources of new solutions Dr Hames diagnoses our epistemological pathologies (how we understand the challenges themselves) by drawing out the nature and premises of our dominant civilisational worldview, and exploring alternatives through contrasting the approaches to climate change, and their mixed consequences, of three of the primary cultural mindsets operating globally: the Occidental, Sinic and Indic. To harness the opportunities and address the pathologies of how we understand and respond to global challenges, Dr Hames identifies six key transitions that the practice of strategic foresight needs to evolve in order to significantly serve the global community. Further he identifies four ‘nonnegotiable imperatives’ for “integrating and transcending current praxis” in order to avoid humanicide, and that to enact them, he contends, “integral foresight is an enabler we ignore at our cost.” 

“Now is the moment for re-creating strategic foresight in terms of a transformational integral philosophy, not just a compendium of information, trends and tools. There can be little doubt that the genuine transcendence of the civilisational worldview is the most vital yet audacious key towards the intentional evolution of an enduring global community. It is time to reach far beyond the civilisational paradigm with its prejudicial constraints, exploitative traits and profound injustices. Impending panarchic collapse calls for new possibilities, new visualisations, new memes and new strategies. And that is precisely where integral foresight has a unique and enduring niche.”

Finally Dr Hames clarifies the need for the re-definition of ‘progress,’ the evolution of strategic foresight to help achieve it, and invites all concerned citizens to explore the powerful, positive questions that can lead us into a future we not only survive, but also thrive, within.

You are personally invited to join the consideration of how you would answer Dr Hames’ questions:

“What is the future for our civilisation? How can we begin thinking like a species instead of self-interested individuals? What do we have that we value in common? What will it take to achieve an authentic community of nations? Above all else, what will it feel like when our systems of governance, finance, production, education and health care all work in concert with one another rather than in competition? These are such critical questions to ponder as we take the first tentative steps of a new consciousness. In the past few years we have blindly undermined our capacity to shift the acquired, yet damaging, beliefs imprinted within our cultures for something far more sustainable and fulfilling. It is now time to cast off that old paradigm, re-vitalising and empowering ourselves, in order to advance towards a new and more compelling reality and to open new windows onto new worlds.”

The contributing author’s collective hope you will be enriched by this report – new in style and content as it is – and take up the challenge to help Australia, the region and the world answer the pressing questions that will shape our collective futures.