Take a glimpse into the future

What does the future hold? What will life be like in 2031?

James Marston

What does the future hold? What will life be like in 2031? Of course no one really knows.

But here in Ipswich there is a man whose job it is to look ahead.

JAMES MARSTON reports

HAVE you ever met a futurologist?

Did you know such people even exist?

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It all sounds a bit far fetched doesn't it but for Robin Mannings looking into the future is the way he earns a living.

An engineer, computer scientist and author, Robin's futurology is closely linked to his science and engineering background.

But unlike many other futurologists who use scenario planning or techniques to elicit opinion from a wide range of experts, Robin mainly looks at what may be possible, from a science and technology perspective, in the future.

His foresight is often behind new ideas at BT and is crucial to the firm's research programme.

Robin, who is based at Adastral Park in Martlesham, takes a view that history and culture are important pointers to the future - though he also acknowledges that science fiction is also useful.

In his spare time, he is more likely to be reading a history book than a science fiction novel.

His current hobby is a part-time PhD in the area of ubiquitous computing.

Here are his latest thoughts on the East of England in 2031.

East of England 2031

Overview

“The East of England will revert to being one of the wealthiest regions as it was in the Middle Ages. Proximity to the mainland of Europe and London, and the Port of Felixstowe, will increase in importance.

“The rich rural environment will support a renaissance in agriculture as the focus shifts to a more local, sustainable and moral approach to food production. Cambridge University (and the high-tech corridor across the region to Adastral Park in Ipswich), will provide a knowledge and science base to support new industries using NBIC (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science).

“In a world of increasing risks, the regional importance of defending UK and NATO is likely to remain or increase once again.”

Energy

“Low energy and well insulated buildings will become the norm. Low carbon generation will increase with new generation(s) of nuclear generation at Sizewell and with off-shore wind and with wave generation along the coastal areas. Smart buildings will manage energy more efficiently with local storage batteries, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, recharging facilities for electric vehicles and managing appliances in real time to better match the availability of wind and solar power.

“Southern roofs will capture heat and electricity to augment the local building's battery and heat-energy-store. Computing and communications will be smart moving from always-on to mostly-off.”

The Built Environment

“The relative under-population of the region will cease. The problem of flooding and coastal erosion will perhaps lead to more imaginative uses of water (e.g. floating buildings and causeways), the management of natural environments (e.g. bird reserves) and tourism and leisure facilities (e.g. more coastal sailing and expansion of the Norfolk Broads).

“Buildings inside will be smart, wireless and flexible. What is done will be decoupled from where it is done i.e. “geography becomes history”.

“Many businesses will stop having dedicated buildings and adopt a shared coffee-shop approach - with unallocated tables not desks, with wireless broadband and low energy laptops perhaps using electronic paper displays.

“The décor will be also smart so the walls and ceiling of rooms will become more like VDUs. Furniture will include near-field wireless technology to recharge portable personal appliances without cables. People and objects will use positioning technology to help people find each other, to manage important artefacts and maintain good security in the face of a continued and possible increased threat from terrorism.

“Petty crime will however reduce. Less centralised computer disc space will be needed as more information is carried by people using very high capacity mostly-off memory devices.

“These are likely to be both highly secure - perhaps using a physical tag carried somewhere else about the person - and able to share information informally using near-field wireless.

“Waste management will become low energy. Water will be locally processed, collected and recycled and maybe sewers will be used less, as organic waste is converted to bio-gas locally.

“Live-work is an idea to allow people to live where they work and is useful for workers that need space for studios, workshops or special areas. A reversion to the old idea of living “above the shop” may result. Planning law needs to be flexible but it makes sense from an infrastructure view point.

“For example, work and home ICT can be converged, only a single set of energy bills is needed and commuting eliminated.”

Transport

“Most vehicles will be either fully electric or hybrids and all transportation will become intelligent. Each journey will be organised to minimise CO2 emissions. Intercity rail links may become TGVs and we may see electric trolley-busses in towns once again.

“Electric pickup technology might even be used for private transport in some areas. Stansted airport may become more of a global hub as long-haul air travel increases but short-haul declines. Generally there will be more cycling and walking and goods deliveries to buildings will be integrated.

Health Care and Demography

“People will be encouraged to walk, cycle, play sports and eat more wisely.

“Technology will help with the Web helping everyone to have access to lifestyle coaching that will be linked to fitness technology carried on the person.

“Automatic body monitoring using sensor technology will increase, to detect the early signs of illness and prevent more serious conditions thus relieving some of the burdon on the NHS. Some care functions may be automated or made robotic, to enable care workers to devote more time to spend talking to elderly people and alleviating loneliness.”

Education

“As the population ages, lifelong learning will be delivered by the Web. The current youth culture may yield to a more balanced situation where older people are valued more highly and computer literacy approaches levels of traditional literacy.

“Colleges will be virtualised and increasingly touch the lives of more people of all ages. The education content becomes more Web based and conferencing technology will link people within classes together. New subjects will be taught to support the emerging NBIC industry.

“As wealth increases, this assumes the economic crisis will end, then more people will enter areas of employment associated with the arts, entertainment and crafts.

“Apprentice schemes will become more common as schools and enterprises work more closely together. Social networking technology may become a primary way to deliver many lessons in schools.”

Rural Futures

“A blur between town and country is already happening, as geography is being eliminated by people using networking technology to promote flexible-working, tele-working and social- networking. Farming will focus more on crops and less on animals and water management will be increasingly important.

“Robotic farming in the longer term may reduce need for many chemicals. Energy farms will grow some bio-fuel. Bio-gas production becomes an important part of farming as will organic waste management. All society's organic products will be recycled locally by either bio-digesters, that produce flammable gasses which can be used for transport, heating or industry. There will be rise in local arts and crafts, manufacturing.

“Very high sustainability living and working becomes more common with small holdings, live-work and DIY energy production being encouraged.”

Conclusion

“The challenges of climate change, an aging population and an increasingly risky world will lead to many innovations, some very new but others which will hark back to previous ages.

“Historically, the East of England has been always very important to the UK and European economies and culture. “The future for the East of England remains bright and it will be increasingly high-tech.”