A letter from Tom Standage, editor of “The World Ahead 2022”
BY TOM STANDAGE: EDITOR, THE WORLD AHEAD 2022
If 2021 was the year the world turned the tide against the pandemic, 2022 will be dominated by the need to adjust to new realities, both in areas reshaped by the crisis (the new world of work, the future of travel) and as deeper trends reassert themselves (the rise of China, accelerating climate change). Here are ten themes and trends to watch in the year ahead.
1 Democracy v autocracy. America’s mid-term elections and China’s Communist Party congress will vividly contrast their rival political systems. Which is better at delivering stability, growth and innovation? This rivalry will play out in everything from trade to tech regulation, vaccinations to space stations. As President Joe Biden tries to rally the free world under the flag of democracy, his dysfunctional, divided country is a poor advertisement for its merits.
2 Pandemic to endemic. New antiviral pills, improved antibody treatments and more vaccines are coming. For vaccinated folks in the developed world, the virus will no longer be life-threatening. But it will still pose a deadly danger in the developing world. Unless vaccinations can be stepped up, covid-19 will have become just another of the many endemic diseases that afflict the poor but not the rich.
3 Inflation worries. Supply-chain disruptions and a spike in energy demand have pushed up prices. Central bankers say it’s temporary, but not everyone believes them. Britain is at particular risk of stagflation, due to post-Brexit labour shortages and its dependence on expensive natural gas.
4 The future of work. There is a broad consensus that the future is “hybrid”, and that more people will spend more days working from home. But there is much scope for disagreement on the details. How many days, and which ones? And will it be fair? Surveys show that women are less keen to return to the office, so they may risk being passed over for promotions. Debates also loom over tax rules and monitoring of remote workers.
5 The new techlash. Regulators in America and Europe have been trying to rein in the tech giants for years, but have yet to make a dent in their growth or profits. Now China has taken the lead, lashing its tech firms in a brutal crackdown. President Xi Jinping wants them to focus on “deep tech” that provides geostrategic advantage, not frivolities like games and shopping. But will this boost Chinese innovation, or stifle the industry’s dynamism?
The coming year will be dominated by the need to adjust to new, post-pandemic realities
6 Crypto grows up. Like all disruptive technologies, cryptocurrencies are being domesticated as regulators tighten rules. Central banks are also looking to launch their own, centralised, digital currencies. The result is a three-way fight for the future of finance—between the crypto-blockchain-DeFi crowd, more traditional technology firms and central banks—that will intensify in 2022.
7 Climate crunch. Even as wildfires, heatwaves and floods increase in frequency, a striking lack of urgency prevails among policymakers when it comes to tackling climate change. Moreover, decarbonisation requires the West and China to co-operate, just as their geopolitical rivalry is deepening. Keep an eye on the solar-geoengineering research team at Harvard. In 2022, they want to test the use of a high-altitude balloon to release dust to dim sunlight—a technique that may, at this rate, be needed to buy the world more time to decarbonise.
8 Travel trouble. Activity is picking up as economies reopen. But countries that pursued a zero-covid “suppression” strategy, such as Australia and New Zealand, face the tricky task of managing the transition to a world in which the virus is endemic. Meanwhile, as much as half of business travel is gone for good. That is good for the planet, but bad for tourists whose trips are subsidised by high-spending business travellers.
9 Space races. 2022 will be the first year in which more people go to space as paying passengers than government employees, carried aloft by rival space-tourism firms. China will finish its new space station. Film-makers are vying to make movies in zero-g. And nasa will crash a space probe into an asteroid, in a real-life mission that sounds like a Hollywood film.
10 Political footballs. The Winter Olympics in Beijing and the football World Cup in Qatar will be reminders of how sport can bring the world together—but also of how big sporting events often end up being political footballs. Expect protests directed at both host countries, though boycotts by national teams seem unlikely.
The rapid development of mrna coronavirus vaccines, a bright spot in 2021, drew on decades of work to create what looked like an overnight success. Which other emerging technologies might be about to burst into prominence? Our special section considers 22 candidates for 2022. Finally, this publication has a new name: The World in is now The World Ahead, which better positions us for the future. We hope that reading it will do the same for you.
Tom Standage: Editor, The World Ahead 2022■
This article appeared in the From the editor section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline “From the editor”