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1999 In Review: New Technologies For The 21st Century

What are the prospects for the 21st century? Futurologists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) say the world is poised for exceptional growth rates and rising living standards. But it also faces daunting social and environmental problems. In this first feature in a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge looks at the implications stemming from technological change.

London, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An OECD study says the world almost certainly faces profound global changes comparable in depth and magnitude to those brought about in the 19th century by the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society.

The study is by the Paris-based OECD's International Futures Program, which aims to help decision-makers come to grips with challenges of the future.

It says the next century could bring "extraordinary" economic, social and technological progress, leading perhaps to an unusually long economic boom in many countries, and setting the world "on a new trajectory of above-average growth rates."

The study notes that advances in new technologies are already beginning to revolutionize the worlds of medicine, agriculture, retailing, communications and entertainment. This is profoundly affecting the way we live, work and spend our leisure time.

With new methods of production and globalisation continuing apace, the study says "there is a potential for massive increases in productivity". It also says there is reason to expect that many regions and countries, which hitherto have been stranded on the margins, will be brought into the world economic system.

But the study warns that with the promises of progress comes new challenges and risks, posing formidable dilemmas for policy-makers. The populations of the world's advanced countries are growing older. The "graying" of societies will put immense strain on pension systems, health provision, social services and public finances. In 2030, the proportion of those aged 65 and over in OECD countries is expected to range from 33 percent in Australia to a massive 49 percent in Germany. For Germany, that would represent a tripling of the proportion of the population over 65 since 1960.

In the developing countries, populations will continue to grow at a fast pace, exacerbating the problems of widespread poverty and food shortages. Together with unemployment, particularly among young people, this will contribute greatly to migratory pressures.

The OECD projects that environmental problems will move to the top of the agenda because of global warming, pollution of the oceans, and congestion. Water scarcity is an acute difficulty. The study says population growth, economic expansion and climate change could expose as many as 3,000 million people to water shortages by the year 2025.

The study says the transition towards information-based and knowledge-based economies, and the process of globalisation, will have a huge impact on how societies are organized. It says social institutions which were geared to the functioning of national industrial societies "are fast becoming inadequate or incompatible with the emerging global information and knowledge economy."

The diversification promised by the new knowledge economy is one of its great attractions, but the OECD says it harbors worrying dangers. Above all, it could lead to a polarization between technology "insiders" and "outsiders", between the affluent who have access to information and knowledge and the poor who do not. Distribution of wealth could become even more uneven.

What are the implications for societies and individuals of the introduction of new radically innovative technologies? The OECD sees them in the following ways.

Dependence on computers, networks and the software that runs them will expose critical elements of society's infrastructure -- from medical systems, air traffic control to financial transfer systems -- to a growing risk of "system-wide breakdown."

Businesses, and even individual households, will have to embrace a new culture of creativity and experimentation, and governments will need to shift to more diversified, decentralized and market-driven output. In addition, industry and business will have to invest more in education if they are to meet the skill requirements of technology-based jobs.

Further, the supply-led and institutionalized system of education based on quasi-government monopolies may in future give way to a demand-led and client-driven approach where learners can shop from a range of sources.

Inflexible pension schemes which were largely adequate for the old industrial society may need to give way to more flexible schemes as they tend to stifle creativity, adaptability and diversity.

The study says nurturing a globalised information- and knowledge-based economy and society is a formidable task which goes far beyond traditional challenges. It says that the introduction of radically innovative technologies "will put enormous strain on people's ability to tolerate the foreign, the new and the unknown."

However, the study concludes "there is no turning back. The process of globalisation and the transition to the information and knowledge society has taken hold."

In the next feature in this series, we will look at how the world faces the greatest demographic changes in history.