Cecily Sommers didn’t set out to write a book about economics.
But in portions of “Think Like a Futurist,” her new book, she raises questions and points out realities that anyone fascinated with the future of the global economy should be following.
Sommers, who is based in Minneapolis, has consulted for companies like Best Buy, General Mills, Target, Motorola, Yahoo! and American Express. She sat down for an interview at the CoCo, a co-working space on the old trading floor of the Grain Exchange Building downtown.
Her analysis (and the book is mostly about creating cultures of innovation at companies) rests on her argument that society is shaped by four forces: resources, technology, demographics and governance.
So what’s worth watching? Here are some examples:
The boom in fracking is boosting oil and natural gas production in the U.S. Fracking has been around for some time, but it has been a game-changer, as people who follow the North Dakota phenomenon know.
“We can access resources, extract them and convert them in ways that were never possible,” Sommers said.
Changing weather is moving the Corn Belt northward and opening sea lanes and oil fields in the Arctic. World powers are jostling for influence in Greenland, of all places, and warmer temperatures are changing the complexion of previously quiet parts of Canada.
“Not only will these areas become habitable, but they’ll become farmable,” she said.
3-D printing will change everything, Sommers said: “I think it’s truly disruptive.”
U.S. sales of the printers for personal use has skyrocketed in the past five years, with more than 23,000 of them sold in the nation in 2011. People can already create prototypes at home, or replicate other 3-D objects. Clothing, metal and glass objects can be printed with the higher-end models. As crazy as it sounds, Sommers thinks it won’t be long before people can print food in their homes.
At very least, personal 3-D manufacturing alters the ways production and consumption are organized.
“The frontiers are always in science first,” Sommers said. “We have a hard time reconciling the new capacities with our values. Our heads and cultures are much slower.”
An enormous disparity in world demographics will have to be reconciled. Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East have had a massive baby boom just as American baby boomers have slouched toward retirement.
That means 86 percent of world population growth is in the developing world.
“That’s crizzazy,” Sommers said.
She expects massive migrations of people from developing nations to developed ones. The U.S. is still comparatively a land of great opportunity, but has a labor pool that will shrink as baby boomers retire. Young people (like me) will have to pay an increasingly heavy share of the cost of taking care of their parents’ generation, unless America’s young population grows or it cuts benefits to older citizens.
“These are big, juicy questions for which there are no clear answers,” Sommers said.
That they are.