Next year will be the year of adjusting to new realities, including not only endemic Covid-19 but also long-term trends like climate change, more friction in international travel, and geopolitical tensions, according to The Economist’s The World Ahead 2022.
Released annually, The World Ahead takes stock of the important themes and trends that will shape the year ahead, identified by the newspaper’s team of journalists. The issue’s top ten themes for next year and their accompanying articles are now available online, with the full edition available on economist.com and on newsstands starting 18 November.
As the dust settles two years after Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, The World Ahead predicts that discussions will also continue to rage about the future of work and tech regulation, both of which we regularly report on here at FIPP.
Reflecting on this year’s World Ahead, editor Tom Standage writes: “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 pandemic and as deeper trends reassert themselves.”
Now in its 36th year, The World Ahead was renamed from The World In to more accurately describe the series as a guide to the coming year. This year’s edition includes a special section on emerging technologies that could have an unexpectedly sudden impact on society, as mRNA coronavirus vaccines did in 2021.
While The World Ahead includes many predictions, the ten major themes for 2022 are as follows:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The future of work. There is a broad consensus that the future is “hybrid” (as was widely discussed at last week’s Web Summit, and as we’ve looked into recently), 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Economist’s journalists are joined in The World Ahead 2022 by leaders from business, politics, science and the arts, who add their ideas for the coming year:
Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol; Francis Fukuyama, senior fellow, Stanford University; Ramachandra Guha, historian; Ma Jun, director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Beijing; Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa; Claudia Sheinbaum, mayor of Mexico City; Audrey Tang, digital minister, Taiwan; Tareq Amin, CTO, Rakuten; Li Jin, founder, Atelier Ventures; Chris Dixon, general partner, a16z; Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, co-founders, BioNTech; Mohamed al Mubarak, minister for culture and tourism, Abu Dhabi; and Ai Weiwei, artist.