It’s increasingly easy to be cynical about the world we live in and the challenges we face. But, in the bigger picture, there are just as many positives as negatives, if not more.
Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves of the upside, recognising that, as we seek to better understand and innovate on future shifts, there are many reasons to be cheerful. In a world where some of us are anxious about spiralling debt, more cyber-attacks, Trump and Brexit, it’s easy to miss out on seeing just how good some things are. At a time when many are concerned about our future maybe it’s time to pause and see what we have already achieved against some pretty big challenges. Perhaps we should look more at the glass as being half full? As is often shared in our workshops, when we look forward, we tend to see challenges, but when we look backwards from the future (a.k.a. back-casting), we often see opportunities. So, building on this, if we look back from today can see what has been achieved in recent years can we see better what may be possible in the future? It seems so. While many consider significant challenges ahead, if you look at what we have achieved over the past few decades, we should all have great confidence in our ability to address some of the challenges and opportunities ahead. Here are just seven reasons to be cheerful.
Living Longer – First off, although many are concerned about the impacts of an increasingly ageing society, let’s not forget that over the past fifty years we have, on average seen a steady increase in global life expectancy. We have made so many advances in healthcare and public health that every two years life expectancy is increasing an extra year. Put another way, a baby born next year will, on average, live six months longer than one born this year – and this trend has been in place for decades. Average life expectancy at birth is over 80 in many regions, approaching 90 for some and now over 60 across Africa. Living longer and healthy ageing may challenge some of our existing notions of work, life and ageing but it is a product of a massive success.
Better Education – Over the past 50 years we have tripled the share of the population in Africa, the Middle East and SE Asia, attaining at least basic education. Globally, in 1950, only half of the world’s children went to school. Today over 90% of childrenworldwide now have access to primary education and nearly 80% go on to secondary education. That still leaves 660m children currently without education access, but the target is to reduce this by a third within the next 30 years. With a particular focus on getting more girls into and staying in education for longer, hosts of initiatives around the world including the UNGEI are aiming to make even greater progress. The social, economic and political impacts of this will be transformational for many societies.
Fresh Water – 25 years ago access to clean drinking water for over 80% of their populations was only available in 72 countries. Today that figure is over 100. In 2012 the world met the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, well in advance of the MDG 2015 deadline. This was the first MDG to be met and was achieved in 146 countries worldwide. Between 1990 and 2010 over 2bn people gained access to water via pipes and protected wells and by 2015, according to the WHO, 92% of the global population had access to improved drinking water.
Diseases Eradicated – As noted recently by Bill Gates, we are on track to eradicate polio worldwide by 2019. The last case in Europe was in 1998 and this landmark was then achieved in India in 2014. Last year we were down to only 37 cases globally. With concerted joined-up global effort, and leadership by the likes of the Gates Foundation, Polio will soon become the second disease, after smallpox in 1980, to disappear for good. If we want to, we can achieve major health improvements like these via greater collaboration and on the ground coordination of activities. Measles, currently killing 1.1m children a year, could be next to be eradicated.
Cities Accelerating – Whether individually or collectively via organisations such as the C40, cities are setting the new standards ahead of countries and moving things forward. Across such areas as reducing air pollution, banning diesel cars, introducing smoking bans, bicycle rental schemes and even sugar taxes, it is cities such as Paris, London, Mexico City, Aspen and Copenhagen that have taken the first steps with nations following on. Now others, such as those that have joined the 100 Resilient Cities network, are taking on the next challenges. High unemployment, inefficient public transportation, food and water shortages are just some of the stresses now on the collective radar of city mayors globally. By acting ahead of nations, cities are accelerating change and helping us all make greater progress.
Less Conflict – Although we all see the consequences of so called IS actions and civil war in Syria on our daily newsfeeds, actually the number of deaths from conflict is lower today than it has ever been – or at least since records exist. War between nations has decreased substantially as increasing trade, greater interconnectedness and more regional alignments across the world have all had impact. The world is getting safer, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. The number of international wars has fallen since the 1950s - from more than six a year to less than one a year now. Likewise, the number of war deaths has also plummeted. In the 1950s, there were almost 250 deaths caused by war per million people. Now, there are less than 10 per million. We are still not close to global peace, but long-term average deaths per 100,000 people from conflict have dropped 100-fold from 20 a year to 0.2 in the past century.
China Stepping Up – Lastly, as Trump and co seem to be on the point of withdrawing from the climate agreements made at COP in Paris, China is increasingly ready to fill the void. As was most visible at this year’s Davos, China is on the verge of leading the world on trying to mitigate the impacts of climate change. After decades of looking after its own interests, with its Eco-Civilization initiative launched in November 2014 China signalled a change of direction. China has doubled its solar production in the past 12 months and by 2030 is aiming to cut its CO2 emissions by 65% from 2005 levels. Just as significant however are the shifts taking place in regulation around car emissions and the adoption of electric vehicles. While in the past China, like India, has followed the EU and US, it increasingly looks as though it will be Beijing and not Brussels that sets the new standards for the world to follow.
While for some, near-term challenges can indeed look like insurmountable hurdles, for others, especially those taking the longer view, they are more like bumps in the road. Indeed the more immediate concerns today may well hasten our collective action to make things better. The progress that has been made in the past century globally on health, education and collaboration has been unprecedented.
Today we can better see the future innovation opportunities in areas such as reducing food waste, improving basic sanitation, better using data to improve lives, supporting companies with a purpose, investing more in natural capital and seeing the true value and full cost of activities. We can feel the speed of change accelerating faster than ever, so perhaps we just need some clarity of focus on the things that will make a real difference. Cynicism is easy; optimism often requires a bit more effort.