Possible Futures

It’s difficult to just sit down and think about the future. It’s tempting to just think about the present, but blue and shiny1. Or to think about the issue that’s important and in the news today, and just have much more or much less of it. You need a framework!

This is a game that helps its players think about the future. It gives players specific things to think about, and by thinking about the interactions between those things, gives a different way of thinking. It’s not any more “correct”, but it breaks through the barrier of simplistic utopias or dystopias, and pushes the ideas into the messy, soupy middle.

Have fun with this, and let your imagination loose. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the recent past, it’s that That could never happen means that it’s almost guaranteed to happen.

How to play

Get into teams; teams of 4 seem to work pretty well. If the team is too small it’s hard to get enough ideas bouncing around, if it’s too big, not everyone’s option gets heard.

Print out the cards. In total you need about 10 per team, there are XX cards now, so you can work that out.

If you’ve got a particular focus or reason for running this workshop, then it’s probably ok to make a fixed card that is always in each team’s hand. E.g. if you really care about smart cities, make a card (or cards) about that, and make sure that each team always has one of them.

Someone needs to be the MC/time keeper. It helps to have a few people going around to get the teams to think a bit differently if they get stuck in a rut.

Early rounds

This is all about getting warmed up. You can play through this stage for as long as you like until you feel like everyone’s “got it”.

I’d recommend playing 3 rounds, the first with 1 card, the second with 2, and the third with 3 cards.

For these first rounds, keep them quick, 10 minutes or so. You should keep these following prompts in mind, but not be too diligent about doing them all. Save the diligence for the last round.

  1. Each team picks N card[s], at random. The job then is to bat ideas around between the team members. Most of the cards don’t explicitly give an outcome, more like an idea or a trend, so it’s the team’s job to think about the bounds of that trend. E.g. will all the bees die, or will we do something magical and get bee populations to their highest ever level?

  2. If you’ve got more than one card, think about each one individually, and then think about their interactions. Do they amplify each other (IoT trackers glued to bees?) or cancel out (a fashion for owning bee eating lizards?).

  3. If you’ve heard of the five whys, this is the five and then whats. Think of an effect:

    1. get started
    * not many bees
    1. and then what?
    * so not as many people get stung as kids
    2. and then what?
    * so more people get stung for the first time as an adult
    3. and then what?
    * so more people die from anaphylaxis without any warning
    4. and then what?
    * so people are more afraid of bees
    5. and then what?
    * so people go out of their way to kill bees when they see them.
    This might not be scientifically supportable, but you can get to some pretty interesting and unintuitive results from it.


  1. Once you’ve got a pretty good grasp on how the ideas interact, take some time to think about them from different perspectives.

    • How does it affect the economy? What about under different forms of government? How would they deal with it in the USA, in France, in China, in North Korea?
    • How will it change what we eat?
    • How will it change what we buy?
    • How will it change family structures?
    • How will it change our free time?
    • How will it change what we think about as we live our lives?
    • How will it change what society values?
  2. Invent a protagonist.

    • What do they do?
    • How is their life different to yours?
    • How is it the same?
  3. Capture it! Write notes, do sketches, take photos of your team acting out scenarios. The idea is to have a record of your thoughts so that if you wanted, you could go back and write a speculative fiction short story about your world.

  4. Put all your cards to one side, and take N+1 new cards. Start again, but with more insight and enthusiasm now that you’re getting more warmed up.

Final round

Each team keeps one card from their last round (so throw away 2 of the three for example).

Play through the same as before, but take the luxury of more time. Make your notes a bit more detailed and your sketches more detailed/atmospheric. Once you’re about 10–15 minutes in we can start to stress test the ideas.

Pair up teams, and present the future to the other team. Their job is to stress test the future. To be clear, it’s not to find a knock down argument that destroys the delicate fiction that you’re assembling! It’s to ask questions that they think that you haven’t thought of, and to ask for clarification. If you’re a dick in your questioning, nobody wins, so help build your partner team’s world.

Once the teams have reciprocated, swap again. Have a little break between swaps to consolidate your team’s thoughts, and then go refreshed into the stress test.

Take a bit more time to weave all these ideas into a story, and then tell everyone about that world.


  • It’s very tempting to think of blissful utopias or of hellish dystopian worlds, but there is good, even joy, in all worlds, and bad in them too.

    Try to avoid extremes in your worlds, it’ll feel much more real if it’s nuanced. Balance is a much better place to make a jump from.

  • Make way more notes than you think you need. At the time everything seems impossibly vibrant, but as the blinding light of the next idea comes along, it’ll bulldoze the preceding ideas out of its path.

  • Grab quotes from others in your team, they’re really usable in future bits of work you’ll do.

The canvas

Fill in the canvas. Its job is to make all the ideas visible, so that you can start to probe them for inconsistencies. Start using post it notes, so that you can change things, a lot.

Canvas prompts

[TODO: draw up a canvas]

  • Imagine an object used in this world
  • What would a convenience store be like (or the nearest thing to one)?
  • What’s child rearing like?
  • What are the last 10 years of a person’s life like in this world
  • draw up a timeline of your protagonist’s day, who do they interact with, what technology do they interact with?
  • xx How does it affect the economy? What about under different forms of government? How would they deal with it in the USA, in France, in China, in North Korea?
  • xx How will it change what we eat?
  • xx How will it change what we buy?
  • xx How will it change family structures?
  • xx How will it change our free time?
  • xx How will it change what we think about as we live our lives?
  • xx How will it change what society values?

[TODO: roll these into the canvas]

Population growth rate


The world population is growing by 200,000 daily. Population increases are expected to level out globally between 2030 and 21003, but that’s an aggregate value. Some countries will still be growing fast whilst others will be shrinking (looking at you Japan).

There are a lot of factors to population growth. Better sanitation means fewer children die. Better access to education for women means that fewer children are born. People living longer means that people hang about for longer. Wars push people out of countries, prosperity pulls them in.


  • What job will all these new people do?
  • What will they eat?
  • Where will they live?
  • What factors will drive migration?
  • What limiting factors are there on Australian population growth? What could we do to remove those limitations?


The NSW Department of Infrastructure Planning and Natural Resources estimates that 60% of the world’s population will be living within cities by the year 2030 and about 91.1% of the Australian population will live in cities. They expected the population in the Sydney Region alone to grow by a net increase of 40,500 per year.

The forecast demand for new residential development to support Sydney’s current population is 25,000 dwellings per year over the next ten years, with 25% of that growth located in Greenfield sites on the urban periphery and Greater Metropolitan Region corridors.

With the enlarging population and increasing urbanisation the demands on resources will contribute to further degradation of the Australian environment and Sydney’s ever expanding urban sprawl.


  • Is it inevitable that the urbanisation trend will continue?
  • Can we bring traditionally rural activities into cities too?
  • What benefits could come from even greater urban density?
  • What mistakes are cities making right now that we might not make in the future?

life expectancy

Life expectancy continues to increase4 in contrast to Hobbes’ idea of life, which was “Nasty brutish and short”. We are comfortably on track to hit an average life expectancy of 100. There is a lot of variation in global life expectancy. That average of 100 means that there will be a global reduction in lifespan inequality, or that some nations will see huge lifespan increases. It’s not uncommon to see claims that some children alive today will live to be 1505 or 2006!

Life expectancy is measured at different ages. These days, in ‘developed’ countries the difference between life expectancy at birth and at five years isn’t substantially different. Some believe that prehistoric humans could expect to live into their mid fifties7 if they made it through childhood.


  • Will life expectancy rise equally all over the world?
  • Will people work for longer in their life?
  • Will people maintain a single career? Does their degree from 1990 have any validity in 20508?
  • Will there be a modern equivalent to coopers and farriers needing to find new careers during their lifetimes?

Compute power

The number of transistors on a microchip has doubled every 18 months or so since transistors were invented. This was first spotted by Gordon Moore, and the phenomenon is named after him: Moore’s Law9. More transistors means more calculations can be done in a given time. That means that computers can do more of what we want, feel smoother and more responsive.

Not only is each computer more powerful, but there are also more computers in the world. We all have computers in our pockets. There are giant data centres anywhere that a source of electricity or cooling can be found10. Put simply, there is a massive amount of raw computing power in the world, and the rate of its increase is increasing11.


  • Does more power unlock answers to new kinds of problem? Google search wouldn’t be possible without a certain level of computer power. What new kinds of activity will be unlocked by more power?
  • More compute power needs more electrical power. Where will this electricity come from?
  • Does everyone have equal access to this compute power?
  • Will we ever have enough computer power?

Broadband access inequality

[for live data]12

This is important because access to the internet gives citizens knowledge and power.13 These numbers are mainly growing across the board with a few exceptions.

  • They may have reached saturation for developed countries. In these countries it may even start to drop as people start to use wireless internet instead.
  • In totalitarian countries access to the internet is restricted so they may not have the option to connect.
  • In some developing nations they may skip wired internet all together and go straight to ubiquitous wireless internet. Having access to the internet unlocks economic and trade goods, education, political information (that may contradict official sources) and generally raises quality of life.


  • Will wired broadband still be needed if we have fast satellite connections?
  • What would getting broadband to the countries at the bottom of this list do to their politics?
  • If developing countries skip wired internet completely, what impact will this have?
  • Why are France and Korea so far ahead of everyone else?

Horse population

The Horsepower was a measure of the work that one horse could do. The horse was the engine of most economies until the internal combustion engine displaced it. This was one of the first real examples of large scale disruption14.

Horses were no longer a requirement, and people quickly moved over to engines to provide motive force. Horses stayed for recreational use, but in tiny numbers compared to their previous penetration.

This is interesting, but it’s also a metaphor for a change from one entrenched technology to another. The disruption to the world can be huge.


  • Why did people prefer engines to horses?
  • What was the core function that the horse performed?
  • If you think of this as a pattern, what might replace the car?
  • What other historical technological revolutions fit the same pattern? What current technologies are vulnerable to it?

Cost of domestic property


Housing is more expensive (in real terms) than ever. Of the money that people have to spend, we are spending more of it on housing.

This might be because there isn’t enough supply of housing where people want to live. It might be because housing is a safe asset class.

Low interest rates make it easier for those with wealth to buy more houses, and house values go up much faster than most other asset classes. Are we in a bubble?

If owning stops being attractive, wealth concentration will increase, but maybe a new safe as x asset class will emerge for renters to spend their money on.


  • How did we get to the position that we’re in now?
  • What other explanations could there be for these trends that aren’t the obvious ones?
  • What would reduce the pressure on the market?
  • Is expensive housing desirable?
  • Is the current model of how we live going to survive the rise in price?


Screens have become bigger and denser. ‘Retina’ screens mean that we can get up close and not see pixels. “Don’t get too close or you’ll get square eyes” doesn’t apply anymore.

Being able to get close to a screen means that we can change the relationship with them. Touch screens mean that we can interact directly with images.

We’re seeing flexible screens making a tentative step onto the market. Soon we might see screens that feel like they have a texture (buttons, roughness, etc.). We’re also seeing screens in more places: on watches, as car dashboards, as billboards, inside VR headsets.


  • What other interface methods might supplant screens?
  • Will screens continue to get bigger and denser?
  • What will happen if screens stop being personal and are about shared experiences?
  • where else could we have screens?

Cost of space travel

The average cost of traditional launch methods is about $25,000/kg16 but the SpaceX Falcon 9 can get that down to $2,618/kg. The Falcon Heavy is expected to be able to launch 53,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit for $90 Million or $1700 per kg17.

With fully reusable launch vehicles the cost of a launch will drop to almost the cost of the fuel. As rockets are fuelled with hydrogen and oxygen, this can be made in bulk by electrolysing water, potentially with solar power. Expect the cost to launch to continue to drop.


  • What other mechanisms might we use to get things into space?
  • What will the price drop in space travel mean for society?
  • What limits the drop in cost of space travel?

Architectural team size


Design Technology has long promised a world of increased productivity. BIM is supposed to decrease the amount of work that design teams do to get given outcome.

However, scope of work is going up; soon teams may need to deliver an as built model to the client’s facility managers. How do these trends balance?


  • What were Architectural teams like in the past?
  • How have Architectural teams of past the coordinated with builder, client and consultants?
  • What is the Architectural team now?
  • What is the Architectural team size of the future?
  • What does the future Design Team look like?
  • What are the implications of a Design Team who are all from the same company?
  • What happens if there is no design team?
  • What if resourcing within the Design Team was a matrix of availability on a weekly/daily/hourly basis? (based on task, skill, expertise, training)



A lot of countries are getting richer. A few are getting poorer. A big slab of countries are staying the same. Also, wealth distribution inside countries is changing.


  • What causes there to be three groups?
  • What do the countries in the three groups have in common? What do UAE, Brunei and Libya have in common?
  • What leverage are the countries that are getting richer able to use that the countries that are static don’t have access to?
  • Is GDP even a useful measure? What would the world be like if we measured something else, or a range of things?

Battery density


The ability to store energy and then release it later has been a constant human obsession. Mill ponds are there to turn water wheels when it isn’t raining and clocks run on weights and springs that release their energy slowly.

Chemical batteries make that energy portable in a way that was previously inconceivable21.

Tesla’s PowerWall batteries allow solar power to be used at night, and the same batteries that are inside the power wall are used in cars. These allow the power providers to load balance/peak shave so that they don’t need to turn on more power stations to handle peak loads.


  • Peak loads cost power suppliers a lot of money, who else stands to gain from batteries apart from consumers?
  • Will consumers prefer ever thinner phones or longer battery lives. What would life be like if you only charged a phone once a month?
  • Will the distribution of metals that make up batteries change global trade/power?


Australia is blue22, USA is red.23

Generally, crime and violence seems to be declining overall24 25. This may be because of better policing, or more surveillance. It could just be that we are generally richer, and therefore we feel less compelled to risk committing crimes to obtain what we don’t have.


  • How much crime went unreported in the past? Has this amount increased or decreased?
  • Has the Overton window moved to include new acts within the definition of violence?
  • Are we less violent because we have ‘advanced’ as a society, or because we are more afraid of getting caught?

Working hours


Managers and professionals showed strong reductions in hours worked between 1996 and 2010 according to the ABS Trends in Hours Worked report27.

Although it might not feel like it to us, the trends seem pretty clear, assuming that some other force doesn’t come into play in the future.

This doesn’t cover people who work multiple jobs and/or work for themselves (which could be entrepreneurs, or it could be Uber drivers).


  • John Maynard Keynes thought that we’d be working a 15 hour week by now28. Will that come in the future? Will this downward trend continue?
  • What else will affect working hours?
  • Working hours only capture work in paid employment. What other kinds of work are there and how much of them are we doing? (volunteering, housework, etc.)

Centralisation of web companies


Amazon is now bigger than Wal-mart. The internet allows companies to centralise services. This is a long running trend. In 1850 your village would have a singer and someone who played an instrument for entertainment, but with the introduction of music recording the wealth from entertainment was concentrated into the very best entertainers. The same is happening to education and news providers.

This has also enabled the “long tail”, catering to ever more specific groups of people, but for the bulk of everyone’s needs, a company like Amazon is ideally situated to fulfil them.

With increasing globalisation, more and more services will be provided by a centralised organisation, even if that organisation is coordinating others (e.g. Uber and AirBnB).


  • Companies like Amazon and Ebay provide marketplace services to smaller companies; connecting them to consumers. What are the impacts of this?
  • Do we have all our eggs in one basket?
  • Do we (consumers) stand to gain from an arms race?
  • US politicians talk about “breaking up big tech”. What effect would this have?

Internet coverage


In the last quarter of a century the internet has changed the way the world operates. Access to the internet isn’t ubiquitous. A large part of the world can’t access what we take for granted. Projects like Facebook’s internet.org31 and Google’s Project Loon32 were trying to change that but their parent company’s deemed them unprofitable.

Those unconnected people stand to gain from internet access and are also a giant market. The countries at the bottom of this graph have little in the way of fixed infrastructure, so may leapfrog the countries at the top of the graph if satellite internet becomes the norm.


  • What could a society do if the penetration was 100%? Online democracy? Compete in a global job market?
  • What is preventing the last few % from being connected? Is it choice or something else?

Global temperature

This graph from NASA33 shows global temperature variation

“The paleoclimate record combined with global models shows past ice ages as well as periods even warmer than today. But the paleoclimate record also reveals that the current climatic warming is occurring much more rapidly than past warming events.”

Future temperature rises differ by the model used to predict them34 and by the way we act in the future35. These will lead to sea level rise. Partially from melting ice, but also from the water in the oceans getting bigger from thermal expansion.


  • Who will warming be bad for?
  • Who will it be good for?
  • What will temperature increases trigger? And then what will those things trigger? and what will those things trigger? And so on.

Data: lakes and leaks

When Ashley Madison was hacked it sent the world into a moral froth. The content that was released was more interesting than the average spray of passwords and credit card numbers that usually gets taken, but technically no different. When information is held by one party, another will always try to get access to it.

Sometimes those leaks come from the inside and seem to be a good thing, as whistle blowers shed light on questionable government activity.

Data breaches can have enormous scale, the Equifax break affected almost all residents of the USA36.

Governments (e.g. Australia) are legislating that all apps must have backdoors so that they can be investigated. At the other end there are laws like GDPR in Europe that give users much more transparency and control over their data.


  • Will information be stored less, or more securely?
  • As crackers get more sophisticated, will it be possible for security to stay ahead of them?
  • Will there ever be an international accord on data related behaviour?

Self driving cars

From a long shot dream in 200437 driverless cars are now more of a when than an if.

Humans need a lot of tolerance to account for their imperfect driving skills. That means that the lanes need to be wider, cars need more impact protection, cars need to drive further apart.

Cars also represent freedom for a lot of people. Owning a car means that for a large proportion of the day each car is idle. When cars drive themselves it’s unlikely that anyone will own a car. Cars will provide mobility. That means that parking will be eliminated, freeing up almost half of the current road network and many structures currently dedicated to parking.

While not driving, people will be free to do other things. They could sleep, have meetings, eat, relax, etc.

“To generations of Americans, owning a car represented freedom. To the next generation, not owning a car will represent freedom.”38


  • Will this replace mass transit?
  • Current cars are styled to face forwards, and to be a little bit like racing cars. What will future cars be like?
  • What will this do to ownership models? Will it be transport as a service?
  • What effect will this have on moral standards (drink driving) or sexual freedom?

XYZ as a service

Anything you can do or own yourself can probably be provided as a service39 to you. Gmail is the most obvious example: email as a service. People tend not to have a well at their house, they get water as a service.

You can get computing and storage as a service from AWS. X as a service also applies in the physical world. Uber and GoGet are examples of transport as a service.


  • What advantages are there for rolling your own? (This mean not using x as a service, but making a version of that service for yourself.)
  • What can’t be turned into a service and why?
  • What will people do when they have a service for everything?
  • What do you own/do that could be provided as a service?

Walking robots

Legs have lots of advantages over wheels. 2, 4 and more, legged robots are able to go places that wheeled and tracked vehicles can’t40. That means that we can send robots to map remote places, or to navigate places designed for humans. (Or other legged things!)

Most of the current crop of robots have military origins, but they are also ideal of other types of hostile environments, like firefighting, rescue or space!


  • What other sectors could these robots be used in?
  • Wheels need smooth surfaces, legs don’t. Will we need fewer roads?
  • Does this have an outsized effect on humans’ exceptional talent of mobility in difficult spaces? Will it affect employment?

Drone delivery

On the surface, drone delivery is about pandering to rich people’s whims. “I want a [insert thing here] now! Minimalism has been described as a thing that only the rich can afford—everyone else needs to have backups!41 That could change if drone delivery takes off in a big way. You needn’t actually own anything because it could be delivered to you within a few minutes.

The resources needed for everyone to own a ukulele could be put into making a few really good ones with energy left over to make other things.

Drones could also be used to deliver medicine and other essentials to places that don’t have fixed infrastructure like roads or power for refrigeration. E.g. taking a shepherd’s insulin to her on the side of a hill.


  • How many of your belongings could you live without if just-in-time delivery was possible?
  • Can medical assistance be ‘delivered’?
  • What things of yours would and wouldn’t you share if a drone would pick it up and drop it off for you?
  • What other infrastructure does this make obsolete?
  • Could deliveries be made to apartment windows on high levels? How would the window need to change?

Wearable/implantable technology

We are in the first flush of the wearable technology boom42. The quantified self that knowing your steps and heart rate allows for means that people can make more informed choices about their behaviour.

We are currently in a very naïve period of this trend. The things we measure aren’t the important things, they are the things that are easy to measure. The feedback we get is distracting and doesn’t allow us to be more present in our lives. In the next generation of wearable, or even implantable, technology, we’ll be able to use it to maximise our health and wellbeing, and to be far more present than we currently are.


  • What else could you measure and what would be the best way to do it?
  • What would you do with that data?
  • Who else would like to know that information about you?
  • Are you keen to become a cyborg?
  • What information would you worry about if it was leaked?

Ubiquitous broadband

Broadband internet unlocks so much of our urban economy in the developed world but that is a small part of the earth’s surface.

What would access to broadband do for rural African farmers, or for Antarctic explorers?

Google had project Loon, Facebook tried giant autonomous planes that act as repeater stations to the ground. SpaceX is putting a network of toaster-sized internet-satellites into orbit and .

If everyone in the world has access to the same markets it would have a huge levelling effect. It might raise the incomes of the poorest, but it might well lower the incomes of the most well-off.


  • What can you do with fast internet that you can’t with slow internet?
  • Could the world’s best robotic surgeons operate on the cases that most needed their help, regardless of how close they were to a big hospital?
  • Could low income Indian children get educated by the best teachers?
  • Could Ethiopian graphic designers sell their expertise to Chilean wine producers?
  • What are the exponential potentials with this card?
  • If broadband is ubiquitous (e.g. available in national parks), will it be possible to get away from it? Is this a good thing? Is it a technology problem or a social problem?

Non-sovereign currencies


Money developed as a special case of any unit of exchange. That could be sheep, cows and camels, or silver and gold. At some point someone made an object that stood in for the direct value of those objects and that became the money that we recognise today.

Most money these days is backed by a national bank. Non-sovereign currency means that it isn’t backed that way by a government. This could be Linden Dollars44 that are spent inside the game Second Life, but the first thing that most people think of is Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the most famous of a whole class of cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are ‘mined’ through cryptographic algorithms that control the production rate of the ‘coins’.

If currency is decoupled from national borders and from governments it takes away one of the most powerful levers that governments have to affect their country. It results in a much ‘purer’ expression of market forces. The positive or negative effects of this are unknown.


  • If nations don’t control money, how will they generate trust?
  • What will it mean for taxation?
  • What does this mean for markets?
  • What will it mean for crime? Black and grey economies often operate on a cash only basis45.
  • How will we manage the volatility?

Private internet

Until the world wide web (www) became the dominant part of the internet there were lots of different ways that content could be shared. (Most of these still exist, but have comparable very small traffic.)

The internet is built out of open standards46. The idea of a private internet is that a company with enough power will develop a rival information network with closed standards. The most likely candidates are Apple, Google and Facebook. For example, imagine that Apple developed a fast data-transfer protocol that you could only access from an apple device. They would go on to create a walled garden of content that only apple users could see.

This would impede the flow of information that the internet allows, but it may create a better experience for a subset of the population47.


  • Who would gain from a private internet?
  • What would be bad about companies developing private protocols?
  • Would it be safer and more secure?

Genetic medicine

Medicine has developed to a point where it is incredibly good at treating an imaginary, statistically normal person. Each variable that could be part of your health has a statistical range that is ‘normal’, perhaps subdivided by age, or sex, or race if you are lucky.

Genetic medicine is focused on treating each patient as an individual48. Those ranges would be hugely more specific. Based on your genetic markers you may need to keep your potassium levels between X1 and X2. This leads to much more preventative medicine being possible. This ultimately reduces the spending needed to achieve a given level of health and also makes it possible to increase general health for everyone.

All that statistical specificity unlocks a dystopian side. Health insurers can make much more accurate predictions about the true cost of insuring a person. This means that people at risk of the worst diseases will also find it the hardest to get health insurance.


  • Will this make us healthier?
  • Will we choose mates who are genetically different to us, or to try to reduce the likelihood of complications?
  • Will it lead to people being denied healthcare/insurance?

Betting markets

On Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the Ask the audience option is almost always accurate. The problem is that if you don’t really know, then there’s no incentive to keep your mouth shut!

Classical economists like markets because of their information aggregating capacity. People who know something are incentivised to share that information with the world through the market.

Betting markets, or Prediction markets are the same, but for ideas and questions. E.g. there was a question: Will Greece declare a new national currency in 2015?49 The PredictIt market said that there was only a 14% chance that it would happen; it didn’t.

These sorts of markets are generally very accurate, but have had negative press because they can be seen as “betting on terrorism” etc.


  • Will being a knowledge aggregator become a profession?
  • Will a track record of accuracy be a mark of social status? A hiring criteria?
  • Are there things that are unacceptable to bet on?
  • Does this create perverse incentives to manipulate the world to win bets?

AGI fast take off

Specific—or weak—AI is useful for things like image recognition, or playing chess. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is different because it can solve general problems.

One of the problems that it is likely to want to solve is making itself more capable. In an AGI fast take off scenario, the AI will put all its effort into improving its ability. It may well start at dog level intelligence, and maybe over the next week or two it’ll get to chimp level intelligence. Within another day or so it’ll get to a stupid human, and within a minute or two will have become far smarter than the most intelligent human ever to live.

This card gives you the choice of whether you want to assume that the AGI will try to kill us all, or if it’ll think of itself as a loving parent to us.


  • Who “owns” a greater-than-human intelligence?
  • Is it unethical to turn it off?
  • What impacts would AI/AGI have on a future city or workforce?
  • What if the AI’s motivations don’t align with ours? It’s much smarter than us, should we treat it as a god?

Discovery of extra-terrestrial beings

You have one of the lucky-longshot cards!

There’s a lot of scope with this card.


  • What would it mean to encounter an extra-terrestrial life form?
  • Would it be sentient? Would it just be bacterial?
  • Would it be friendly, aggressive, or maybe even just unconcerned about humans and other earth life?
  • Would they give us new technology?
  • Are there other ways to be alive? Think about slime moulds, trees, bees, the earth computer from Hitchhiker’s Guide…

Facial recognition

Computers can now recognise faces almost as well as humans can. They are more susceptible to tricks like facepaint or sunglasses than we are, but that’s probably not going to take long to solve.

Strong facial recognition will mean that security agencies can track you wherever you appear on a CCTV feed. It means that advertisers can personalise billboards to your particular buying habits.


  • How might these ideas of surveillance influence other systems to become more intuitive?
  • Will fashion embrace it or resist facial recognition50?
  • What, other than faces, can be “recognised”?
  • Will the bans on facial recognition get more severe, or will they be lifted? Is there a middle ground?


Let’s define drones as a class of robots that are able to do a human’s bidding with some level of autonomy. That might just be the ability to hover level, or it might be full autonomy over an assassination mission.

There are drones deployed in military situations, drones do the vacuuming, drones do aerial filming. The list of things that drones can do is only limited by how far we can imagine at the moment.

Most drones only have limited autonomy, but that is changing in military applications and will change in commercial and domestic ones too.

We can send drones to dangerous or inaccessible places. Wriggling into pipes to look for leaks, or flying over cliffs to count sea birds.

Drones were used to attach the Saudi Aramco oil refinery; this was consumer tech, used in a military context.


  • What if drones get so small that we can’t see them?
  • Could warfare become entirely autonomous?
  • What new types of jobs or applications might emerge for drones?
  • Will drones displace a significant part of the labour force?

Virtual reality

Current virtual reality gives us a glimpse of how we’ll experience it in the future. There’s a lot between us and fully believable, totally immersive virtual environments. As we solve more and more of those problems, VR will become more useful. Breaking out of gaming to be the standard method for video conferences, for virtual site tours and for shopping.


  • If VR was perfect, would people still prefer the “authentic experience”51
  • Do crimes committed in VR have moral status? Killing? Rape? 52
  • What could VR never simulate? Are you sure?
  • Is VR just a step on the road to AR, or do they have different applications?

Private space exploration and asteroid mining

Asteroids are mainly made of nickel iron or frozen water. They also contain a lot of platinum group metals. They are easy to mine because they don’t have big gravity wells that need to be overcome.

Water is important to space travel because humans need to drink it, but unmanned missions need water too because it can be split into rocket fuel. Launching things into space is really expensive, so if it’s possible to build spacecraft from things already in space it’s much cheaper.

The availability of precious metals in asteroids could upset the world economy in the same way that the influx of silver from South America caused massive inflation in the 15th–17th century53.


  • If you hollow out an asteroid what could you do with it?
  • Platinum is used as a catalyst in chemical reactions. Making it a lot cheaper would make a lot of these applications more viable. What sorts of things could we do if the cost of platinum went down?
  • What could you do with a million tonnes of water in space?
  • Getting raw materials into space is expensive. What could you use the iron in an asteroid for?

Smart homes & internet of things


Legislation is already in place that all white goods will have wireless communication built in. That means that a central controller in your house will be able to tell your air conditioning to ease off a couple of degrees to reduce peak electricity loading.

The dream of smart refrigerators ordering more milk as you run out is getting closer. There are lots of other issues that are less obvious and less friendly about every aspect of your life being instrumented. E.g. there have been lots of examples of smart home devices being hacked and used as spy cameras. Less frightening, but still annoying, a lot of smart devices stop working altogether if the parent company shuts down.


  • Would you let a power company decide when you boil the kettle if it saved you money?
  • Who would have access to data about your house? Who should?
  • Would you like to be able to turn off your iron if you left it on at home? How about your lights?
  • What if your smart lock company goes broke and you can’t get into your house?
  • How does this impact the built environment?

Legalisation of drugs

The Nutt report55 proposed a list of drugs in their order of harm to society. In this future, the discussion resurfaces and the Government decides that it needs consistent legislation.

Proposals to ban alcohol are quickly put down by the drinks industry, and so to provide consistent legislation, all drugs from position 5 and below are legalised.

  1. Heroin
  2. Cocaine
  3. Barbituates
  4. Street methadone
  5. Alcohol
  6. Ketamine
  7. Benzodiazepines
  8. Amphetamine
  9. Tobacco
  10. Buprenorphine
  11. Cannabis
  12. Solvents
  13. 4-MTA
  14. LSD
  15. Methylphenidate
  16. Anabolic steroids
  17. GHB
  18. Ecstasy
  19. Alykl nitrites
  20. Khat


  • What else should be legal/illegal?
  • What else could be legal or illegal in future?
  • Why aren’t these already legal?

Big data analysis

Big data analytics is the process of examining large data sets containing a variety of data types.

BIG DATA: to uncover hidden patterns, unknown correlations, market trends, customer preferences and other useful business information. The analytical findings can lead to more effective marketing, new revenue opportunities, better customer service, improved operational efficiency, competitive advantages over rival organizations and other business benefits.56

The primary goal of big data analytics is to help companies make more informed business decisions by enabling data scientists, predictive modelers and other analytics professionals to analyse large volumes of transaction data, as well as other forms of data that may be untapped by conventional business intelligence programs.

That could include Web server logs and Internet clickstream data, social media content and social network activity reports, text from customer emails and survey responses, mobile-phone call detail records and machine data captured by sensors connected to the Internet of Things.


  • How could this scale of information and its availability influence not just business but also society?
  • Are there negatives to a society driven by ‘big data’ metrics?

The gig economy

Most people tend to work for one employer, and then they will move from project to project for the same employer. The Hollywood model means that you complete a project and then go back into the market for employment.

Its a bit like being a freelancer or consultant. People in this system get regular price signals about their economic value. ‘Stars’ will be paid a lot, but if you aren’t really in demand you may struggle to get a job.

These sorts of jobs offer very accessible employment, at the cost of long term precarity, i.e. very little stability in their financial situation.

This may erode certain employment benefits that have traditionally existed. It also allows really talented people to maximally realise their value.


  • Can humans be trusted to manage their own retirement funds, holiday allowance, etc?
  • Would you be able to process the price signals well enough to get the best out of life?
  • What will it mean for companies?57
  • How does everyone employed as an individual ‘contractor’ improve or affect our economy, society, built environment?

Quantum computers

Quantum computers are able to solve a particular type of problem incredibly fast. Unfortunately, that particular type of problem is the one that the world’s encryption systems are based on.

Quantum computers are currently a research curiosity, if they become a real world technology then all internet transactions will fail. (Unless credit card companies and banks take action before then to upgrade to quantum encryption.)

From a more optimistic angle, once computer scientists work out how to phrase their problems in the way that quantum computers like, lots of very hard problems become quite easy!


  • How much disruption would it cause if electronic money, and other encryption methods, stopped working?
  • If protein folding was solved, what would it mean for the pharma industry?

Radical life extension

The first children to get to 150 years old have already been born. Radical life extension advocates think that it’s possible to push that number much higher.

Technically nobody dies of old age. They die of diseases that old age makes us more susceptible to. Life extension advocates extending the useful period of one’s life to make 90 the new 40.

Immortal fictional characters often long for death, but usually because they are tired of their friends dying. If everyone lived a long time they would probably be pretty happy about it.


  • What would you do with another lifetime?
  • Which decade of your life would you like life extension to extend? Would you be in your 20s for 50 years? Teens? 40s?
  • If you could push your healthspan, at the cost of your lifespan, would you? (I.e. live in a 25 year old body until you are 60, then drop dead.)

Economic crash

Some event might lead to broad unemployment. In the great depression around 20% of people were unemployed for about 10 years. This was in an age of much lower female labour force participation so the real figure would have been much higher.

If this were to happen today we would be in much more trouble. We are far less able to grow our own food, and to make our own clothes.


  • In the GFC the economy bounced back, but employment levels didn’t. Would another recession be the way-in that full robot automation needs?
  • Our logistics systems, and homes are much more just in time. If you had no money coming in and no other support, how long could you survive on what you already have at home? THen what?

Bee population crash

Bee populations are declining.

In recent winters, in Europe alone, bee losses up to 53% became a reality. Plants rely on insects like bees to reproduce. Plant reproduction is vital for our food supply. If the bees die, then we die too!

This dramatic decline in bee populations is the result of multiple factors such as diseases and parasites, climate change and wider industrial agricultural practices.


  • What would we need to do to support bee populations?
  • Could we come up with a technology solution to replace bees? What would the risks be?

Limited Nuclear war


“[Limited nuclear war] refers to a small-scale use of nuclear weapons by two (or more) belligerents. A “limited nuclear war” could include targeting military facilities—either as an attempt to pre-emptively cripple the enemy’s ability to attack as a defensive measure, or as a prelude to an invasion by conventional forces, as an offensive measure. This term could apply to any small-scale use of nuclear weapons”

There are currently 9 countries that claim to have nuclear war capacity (USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel).

The Doomsday Clock is currently the closest to midnight it’s ever been.


  • Is it possible that India and Pakistan could have a small scale exchange without dragging other countries into a war?
  • What other effects would a small exchange have on the world? Environmental, political, psychological?

CRISPR and gene editing

CRISPR gene editing is a genetic engineering technique in molecular biology by which the genomes of living organisms may be modified. 59

This technique designs proteins that essentially cut and paste sections of DNA.

If gene editing becomes mainstream, what are we likely to use it for? Better crops? Better farm animals? Reducing human disease? Fashionably tall children? Super soldiers?


  • If we can already make luminescent rabbits, what else can this potentially do?
  • What traits would we remove from organisms? What would we put in?
  • If this could be used to change live organisms (post birth, rather than pre), then what could it do?
  • What if the cut and paste is happening in unexpected places? Could we get unexpected results?

Fossil fuel price crash

Renewable prices are dropping below fossil fuel prices60. However the reliability issue of renewables still hasn’t been fully solved. So in a real time market the price of thermal coal fluctuates around zero. As reliability of renewables improves, that cost might go completely to zero. The same goes for petrol, electric vehicles are powered by whatever powers the grid, so if your car is wind powered, there’s no need for petrol.


  • What are the implications of this?
  • What happens if the cost of energy gets to zero? Does it do some strange things just before?
  • Which countries’ economies rely on fossil fuel exports?
  • What happened in the 70s? Is political stability based on fossil fuels?


Deepfakes map a source image face onto a target image face. Much like face swap in snapchat. Deep fake uses a pool of faces from a large pool of video from the source person, and finds the best face to map onto the target video’s face.

This has been used a lot to make fake “celebrity porn”, and to make public figures appear to give speeches that they didn’t really make. It’s also been used in movies to make older actors young again (Tron), or dead actors able to finish a series (Star Wars).


  • What does this mean for trust in news?
  • What does it do to the acting profession? (See The Congress61)

Single use plastic ban

Single use plastic items are low capital cost, but have a significant environmental impact as they don’t break down for centuries. This has had a particular effect on marine wildlife.

Some jurisdictions have banned single use bags and drinking straws. Others have banned all plastic, single use items.


  • Will this lead to people carrying more with them (steel straw, etc.), or will people move to eating-in more?
  • Does this trend affect anyone negatively? If there are no straws available, will disabled people be further disadvantaged? How do you feel about this?
  • How much further should this be taken? What else should be banned? What should not be banned?
  • If plastic from one country damages the ocean wildlife from another country, what should the wronged country do?

“Conservative” social policy dominance







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“Progressive” social policy dominance







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Dark kitchens

Dark kitchens create meals exclusively for the online delivery market62.



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Gaming as socialising/ e-sport/ entertainment







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Predictive healthcare







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Consumer ML/AI







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Fake news







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AI Bias







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Indoor plant farming

Plants are green because they reflect the green part of the visual light spectrum; it turns out that plants need mainly pink light to photosynthesise. 1m of solar panels can generate more than 1m of pink light, so it’s very resource efficient.

The plants are grown in racks, in a sealed warehouse. Each rack has lighting and a water supply with nutrients in it. Because the building is sealed, there’s no need for pesticides because there are no pests. Because the plants are in racks, each square metre on the floor can produce tens of square metres of plants.


  • If we do this, what will happen to the farming industry?
  • What would happen to all the land that is currently used to grow plants?
  • Not all plants can be grown like this. Plants that are tall are particularly unsuited, e.g. fruit and corn. How will our diets shift to reflect the price differences?

Lab meat

Ruminants, like cows and sheep, emit a lot of greenhouse gasses. They are also sentient beings. Those are two pretty compelling reasons not to eat them. However, meat is a dense source of calories, protein and vitamins. If we can culture meat in a lab, then we can have all the upsides without any of the downsides.


  • Will we start to design meats that aren’t copies of animals?
  • Will lab meat ever overcome the yuk factor?
  • What will happen to the meat industry? What about the animals that are already alive?
  • What will we do with all the spare land that is freed up?

AI creativity







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Military robots







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Remote work for all







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Universal basic income (UBI)

UBI is the idea that everyone in a society gets paid a stipend by the state. For example everyone gets $1000 every month, and any money you make on top of that (after tax) is yours.

There is a lot of discussion about what universal, basic and income actually mean in this context. Is universal: everyone inside the state’s boundary, all citizens, all citizens over a certain age, all male landowning citizens? Is basic enough to not starve, enough to have a living wage?

It’s popular across the political spectrum, for different reasons. Small government advocates like it because it’ll reduce reliance on the welfare state, big government advocates like it because it’s a universal safety net.


  • What would you consider universal to mean? Basic? Income?
  • If you need more than the basic amount (e.g. disability allowance) will society look after you?
  • Would getting “free money” encourage people to not work?

Online shopping and the redefinition of physical retail







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This game gets better as more cards are added, or as cards get updated. There are always updates needed to the current cards. Better images, new footnotes… The job is endless and I’d love your help.

If you spot a way to improve a card, or you’d like to make a new card, then the format is as follows:

## Title
A caption for the image, and image attribution.

Some text that explains the idea, trend or technology.

You can have a few paragraphs, but keep it tight.

### Consider:

* Ask a question
* Ask another question. Try not to be leading if you can.
  1. Things in the distance are blue, due to the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue. So we have a tendency to think about things that are far away temporally in the same way. Things are shiny in the future because detail is hard work, and things far away don’t have much detail either. That’s a bit of an over simplification, but it’s correct in essence. There’s a summary here. 

  2. ABS data, high scenario. 

  3. Wikipedia: World population 

  4. https://goo.gl/0omR22 

  5. http://goo.gl/CCBPuv 

  6. http://ktwop.com/2012/12/27/the-first-200-year-old-human-has-already-been-born/ 

  7. Hillard Kaplan, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, and A. Magdalena Hurtado (2000). “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity” (PDF). Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (4): 156–185. 

  8. Wikipedia: Half-life of knowledge 

  9. Wikipedia: Moore’s law 

  10. Which is why there are so many data centres in Iceland. 

  11. note that the graph has a log scale, that means that each line is an increase of 10 times, not of one unit! 

  12. As far as I can tell this counts the number of connections, but doesn’t take into account how many people share that connection. The number is 40 for France, but there might be more than 2 people sharing each line. Which would mean more than 1 connection per person! Data via Google: World Development Indicators 

  13. Illustrated by how many totalitarian nations restrict access to the whole internet. 

  14. With the printing press displacing scribes as the other that I can think of. 

  15. All these graphs are from: The history of Australian property values 

  16. Advanced Space Transportation Program: Paving the Highway to Space 

  17. Quora: What is cost of sending 1kg weight into space? 

  18. Life as an intern, Paris, 1935 (via Fondation le Corbusier) 

  19. GDP per capita (constant 2000 US$) 

  20. battery_statistics 

  21. Watch springs are the obvious precedent, but their energy density is tiny in comparison. 

  22. http://violentdeathproject.com/countries/australia 

  23. From Wikipedia: Crime in the United States 

  24. The Better Angels of Our Nature 

  25. for a nice interactive view of this phenomenon this article is good</a> 

  26. from How Did Work-Life Balance in the U.S. Get So Awful?. If we assume a 50 week year, Greece has gone from 54 hour weeks to 41; the Netherlands from 46 to 28! 

  27. Australian Labour Market Statistics, Oct 2010: Trends In Hours Worked 

  28. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren: http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf 

  29. Quartz: Amazon is now bigger than Walmart 

  30. Data from 

  31. internet.org was planning to make internet access available through solar powered planes. 

  32. Loon was planning to make internet access available through weather balloons. 

  33. How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past? 

  34. IPCC graphic of uncertainty ranges with various models over time. Climateprediction.net is aiming to reduce the ranges and produce better probability information. 

  35. Observed and projected changes in global average temperature under three no-policy emissions scenarios. The shaded areas show the likely ranges while the lines show the central projections from a set of climate models. A wider range of model types shows outcomes from 2°F–11.5°F. Changes are relative to the 1960-1979 average. Source: USGCRP 2009 

  36. Why the Equifax breach is very possibly the worst leak of personal info ever 

  37. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA_Grand_Challenge 

  38. http://breakingsmart.com/a-new-soft-technology 

  39. The World Of Everything-As-A-Service, Tom Blomfield, Techcrunch 

  40. Or can’t without causing substantial damage. 

  41. Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy “Minimalism is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!’” 

  42. Fifth, if you count clothes, shoes, spectacles and wrist watches as the first four. 

  43. Worth checking this out! Frog: Mobile Money in Afghanistan 

  44. There is an article about the economy of second life and this is an exchange that only deals in virtual currencies. Both are shut down now, but there were some wild stories from that era! 

  45. Something like 80% of €500 notes are believed to be used in money laundering! The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers–and the Coming Cashless Society 

  46. This talk is a really good source to understand the threats to the open internet 

  47. E.g. something like iMessage or BBM. They created silos of people that could communicate with each other, but not outside the group. 

  48. I’m mainly talking about personalised medicine here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personalized_medicine. Medicine that affects genes is another topic, big enough to justify its own card. 

  49. See an example prediction market 

  50. Accessorize to a Crime “Research from Carnegie Mellon University can generate visual patterns onto glasses to either avoid facial recognition or ‘impersonate’ as someone else” 

  51. What Sort Of People Should There Be? 

  52. The Nether 

  53. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_revolution 

  54. http://idisrupted.com/disrupted-electronics-internet-things-may-create-moores-law-steroids/ 

  55. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)61462-6/abstract 

  56. definition from here 

  57. a16z Podcast: Companies, Networks, Crowds 

  58. Image from The Economist 

  59. Wikipedia: CRISPR gene editing 

  60. The extraordinary decline in renewable energy prices 

  61. In The Congress, Robin Wright is scanned, and “stars” in movies without her ever knowing. Her likeness is mapped onto a CGI body. Wikipedia: The Congress 

  62. ABC