I have seen the future - and it's looking good. This could be the slogan for the Futures Observatory, probably one of the most ambitious projects in scientific stargazing ever attempted. Using a variety of statistical, analytical and other investigative methods, the Futures Observatory aims to predict accurately the state of things in or around the year 2020.

Led by David Mercer of the OU Business School and with input from more than 1,000 individuals and organisations - including the Strategic Planning Society and Demos, a highly-regarded think tank, the Futures Observatory is not pie in the sky, but a serious undertaking which aims to provide those in positions of power and influence with a key to the future. It is a continuation of his earlier Millennium Project, a five-year programme seeking to paint an accurate picture of what is to come.

The findings cover everything from space exploration to the family, and are the subject of an entire book, Future Revolutions, A Comprehensive Guide to Life and Work in the Next Millennium. The Futures Observatory looks around 25 years ahead - roughly to 2020 or 2025, although some forecasts extend to the middle of the next century and beyond.

Essentially, the view is highly optimistic - life will be better in nearly all respects. We will be healthier, live longer, enjoy more control our own destinies and a more peaceful and prosperous planet. Too good to be true? Open Eye asked David Mercer for more pointers on life in the next century:

"It may come be known as the `women's century'. We will see women, who are better suited to the modern workplace, coming into their own and taking more of the jobs, certainly at junior and middle management level. We will also see the spread of `feminine' values - co-operation rather than competition - throughout society.

"We may be moving into recession now but we will soon be over it, and be moving into a real boom time. There will be a major skills shortage, and this will have implications for the relationship between companies and employees. Organisations will have to market themselves as much to their own employees as to their customers.

"There has already been talk about the retirement age being raised to 70. It will have to, as we will need these people in the labour force.

"The European Union will become more important, as the first empire built, not on military conquest, but on a political ideal. It is potentially the world government of the future. The United Nations is stuck in a timewarp, somewhere at the end of the second world war. There are other regional groupings emerging like Mercosur in Latin America, Nafta in north America and Asean in south east Asia, but the EU is far ahead of these politically.

"One prediction, that India may join the EU, caused some surprise, but 20 years ahead India may want to join one of these groupings and enjoy the economic benefits. She could go either west or east. She might look in the direction of Asia Pacific, but it is unlikely she would want to join a group containing China.

"Despite the rise of these big groupings power will be held at an individual level. The writer Francis Fukuyama has predicted the `end of history' but what we see is the end of ideology and the rise of a pragmatic approach; people concerned with single issues. You only have to look at organisations like Greenpeace to see how successful this can be."

For the record David, who worked for IBM for 15 years, believes the power of multi-national corporations is exaggerated and not a threat to individual empowerment. His book also predicts that the growing freedom to choose individual lifestyles will accelerate the breakdown of traditional values and social groupings, including the nuclear family, but alternatives, such as a new form of extended family, will be found.

And, perhaps to hedge its bets, David's book also provides a short glimpse of an alternative future which could come about if `dark forces' of pessimism, fear and rigid political thinking gain the upper hand. This is seen as unlikely and, even at worst, will only delay the brighter future.

How are these forecasts made? The Futures Observatory starts from the basic premise that nearly all the technology that will be important over the next 25 years or so has already been developed, and what counts is how we choose to use it. The future will be shaped by the choices which everyone makes. It is an aggregate of our hopes and fears and expectations.

The researchers use detailed questionnaires completed by around one thousand Open University MBA students, asking for 162 responses on how they envisage the future, extrapolating from present trends. In a parallel exercise, more than 20 focus groups, again largely composed of managers, work on future scenarios for their own areas of interest. The results from the two are cross-referenced.

There is input from a variety of other sources - organisations like Demos and the Henley Centre for Forecasting, a number of individuals (often anonymous) in government; and a computer conference.

Among the sponsors are multi-nationals and government organisations, who evidently agree with the saying that the future belongs to those who can see it coming.

But if you asked 1,000 people sleeping on the streets of Calcutta, or 1,000 mums bringing up families on benefit, for their views of the future, might not the future look somewhat different?

Other research, says David, shows that the majority of the population is, on balance, optimistic rather than pessimistic about the future, and more optimistic than it was five years ago.

"What we are seeking is the consensus view. We are not distorting the facts."

Yvonne Cook

David Mercer is a senior lecturer in the OU's Business School and a leading authority on strategic business planning and marketing.

Future Revolutions: A Comprehensive Guide to Life and Work in the Next Millennium is published by Orion Business Books.