Changing Choices

November, 2010
By Ilmas Futehally

Choices change. That is definitely a given. However the direction of change is often not easy to predict. While a number of predictions do exist about the future trends in technology, computing speeds and genetic engineering, there are fewer on the more human aspects of consciousness, ethics and aspirations.  Before looking at the future, it is worthwhile to look at the past and see what kinds of predictions were made for the present day.

In 1900, an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr in the Ladies Home Journal made a number of predictions for the next 100 years. Many of the predictions that were made on the technology front were described in detail and have turned out to be unerringly correct. These include the television described as ‘man being able to see around the world” with snapshots of important events being published in the newspapers within an hour. It seems that he had even envisioned the phenomenon of “breaking news”! Others such as MRI, tractors, and take-out meals have also been actualized. Watkins also predicted that in the next 100 years there would be no street cars in large cities, and that there would be public transportation under and above ground that would move at high speeds and connect all parts of the city, giving a graphic description of a modern subway system.

Predictions made on some other fronts such as the total extermination of rats, flies, mosquitoes and other pests are far from a reality. However, with greater understanding of the ecosystem and its fine balance, this is may be just as well. In the future, apart from technology, of course, one of the major drivers of choice is going to be environmental consciousness.

We already have a number of labels and ratings that inform consumers about products. Green labels indicate that a product is produced in a sustainable manner, contains no harmful chemicals, and has not been tested on animals. Energy labels indicate the level of energy consumption and rate appliances that consume the least energy. There is a growing awareness, as well as regulations to ensure that these standards are adhered to. A new French legislation called the Grenelle 2 bill, adopted in May 2010, requires all consumer products and services sold in France - whether manufactured in the country or imported - to display information about their environmental impacts.

A new standard currently worked upon is the Water Footprint. This is an indicator of water use that includes both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. For example, to produce one cup of coffee about 140 litres of water is required. When this information is printed on the packaging of coffee powder, it is likely to have an impact on coffee consumption in the future.

An interesting experiment to enable more people to use electric cars is being put into place by Shai Agassi of Israel. This is the concept of the battery swap scheme. His start up- The Better Place- has forged a partnership with one of the largest gas stations chains in Israel and hope to set up at least 100 charging stations by 2011. Shai Agassi predicts that in the next 5 years, over a third of the cars on the road will be battery powered.

Coupled with environmental consciousness, is another new trend that is the move away from ownership- that some have described as collaborative consumption.  Collaborative consumption focuses on sharing, renting, bartering and swapping. We see examples of this in many different spheres of life- from car pooling to bartering of books to shared sites such as Wikipedia, Twitter and Flikr.

In terms of housing, more and more people are opting to rent homes rather than buy them outright, a marked changed from conventional wisdom of about a decade ago. Renting a place gives one a number of options and flexibility to shift at fast notice, rather than tying one down to a particular area or employment.

This trend seems to be entering the automotive market as well, though on a small scale to begin with. The Melaka government in Malaysia plans to rent, rather than buy, national cars for use in 2011. While many people have been renting a car when going on a driving holiday, the BMW Group in Germany has recently introduced the concept of BMW on Demand to enable people to rent a luxurious BMW on an hourly basis directly from the company. This is in response to the world’s leading car sharing company Zipcar has over 500,000 members and 8,000 vehicles spread in cities and college campuses throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Technology will continue to grow at the accelerating rate that we have seen in the last 100 years. Whether the current trends in consciousness, collaborative consumption and ownership will do so too, or are just a short term phenomenon, needs to be seen.

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