Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

The world in 2020: A glimpse into the future

Ten years ago we thought wireless was another word for radio, Peter Mandelson's career was over – and only birds tweeted. So what will life be like a decade from now?

Thursday 31 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Society: The quiet life is just an illusion, by Julian Baggini

Britain will be a strangely optimistic place at the start of the third decade of the millennium. Strange, because the 2010s had become known as the Decade of Austerity, with its apt acronym, DOA.

Various factors conspired to make the last 10 years sober ones. Public spending had been tight as the Government struggled to balance its finances after the 2008 financial crisis, and the aftershocks which halted recovery in 2010 and 2011.

When people did fork out for new appliances or home improvements, carbon taxes made them more expensive, which meant that the throwaway culture of the previous 20 years had become little more than a guilty memory. If it weren't for cheap African imports, consumer spending would have shrunk even more.

However, what is necessary quickly becomes a virtue, which is why "quality", "enduring" and "slow" became buzzwords. The best-selling cookbook of the decade was Real Slow Food, while the self-help sensation was Enduring Happiness: The Science and Spirituality of Well-Being.

The popular perception that life had calmed down after the excesses of the decades around the turn of the century was partly an illusion. People were more connected than ever, accessing video, music, mail (the "e" soon became redundant), the web, books, news (with no distinction between papers, websites or television) and magazines whenever they liked, wherever they liked. Time-travellers from 2009 would have found the constant flow of information overwhelming. But somehow, the people of the day learnt to adapt and manage all this. A recent study had shown that 95 per cent of all the information read on mobile electronic devices was merely scanned, with the brain barely processing any of it.

The same study had shown that the brains of young people, while engaging with the remaining 5 per cent, were as active as those of older people reading printed books.

People had also learnt to adapt to persistently high property prices. Many had assumed that after the 2009 fall, the house price to earnings ratio would return to the long-term average of around four. But a lack of supply meant that in most parts of the country it remained closer to five.

With sustainable home improvements also costing more, people lived on average four years longer in the same house than they did in 2008. The result was an increase in neighbourliness. Whereas six out of 10 people did not know their neighbours' names in 2006, now the same proportion did. The shift was small, but enough to mean that in 2020 more people reported feeling a sense of community where they lived than had done since 1979.

Another trend had been the growth of Shared Adult Dwellings, mockingly known as SADs. These multiple-occupancy homes were most popular with single people under 35 and over 65, both of whom found that they could live more cheaply than they could alone, while remaining independent. They had proven a good alternative for people who found living by themselves too lonely, although nearly a quarter of households were occupied by just one person, down only slightly from its 2012 peak.

SADs weren't without problems though: in 2019, a house shared by six pensioners made the news when their student neighbours complained to the council about persistent loud noise interfering with their studies.

Then there was the trauma of the Great Unforeseen Event of 2015, but as with most disasters, things returned to normal surprisingly quickly. So on the whole, Britain in 2020 was quietly contented. But you can't please all of the people all of the time, and one group of dissenters had come to be known as the New Internationalists. Their argument was that Britain had become too comfortable, insular and self-regarding.

Compulsory energy-efficiency and widespread sales of fairly traded goods meant that most people felt they had discharged their responsibilities to the rest of the world. Global warming was still a reality, but it was happening too slowly for people to maintain interest. With the economies of India and Africa both steadily growing throughout the decade, the developing world was no longer a priority for the hand-wringing middle classes. Instead, "ethical" had become synonymous with "local" and "natural", and that meant refusing to buy the GM crops which had helped to grow Africa's agricultural exports. The New Internationalists' rallying cry, that the world's poor are "our neighbours in need", rang hollow. People had rediscovered who their real neighbours were. Those in other countries could look after their own.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

Transport: One nation on two wheels, by Michael Savage

That summer holiday to Los Angeles booked for August 2020 has finally come around, but travellers had better take an extra day off work to ensure they board the flight on time. Paranoia about terrorism has pushed security to new extremes: "naked" X-ray detection technology has become the norm at airports and see-through suitcases are compulsory.

Hand luggage is a thing of the past, and every passenger has to undergo an interview before boarding. Nervous flyers are reassured by the presence of an armed guard, now a compulsory member of the cabin crew.

The outlook for commuters is not much better. Rising oceans were not enough to make people question their devotion to the car, but with dwindling oil reserves seeing petrol prices nudge the $300-a-barrel mark, many are now abandoning their vehicles. It has led to record amounts of scrap metal, but the rise of "car graveyards" in many major cities has become a new problem for councils.

Zippy electric cars have also become a ubiquitous presence on the roads, as have charge points, which have been built into parking meters, street lamps and every Tesco and McDonald's parking space in the country. It has also led to the unlikely comeback for the Segway human transporter.

The electric two-wheeled devices, which are driven by leaning backwards or forwards, initially struggled to sell when they were launched in the Noughties, hampered by laws banning them from roads. However, they have become a familiar sight after the Government finally changed the rules to ease the reliance on petrol.

With the high-speed rail link between London and Scotland still five years from completion, pressure on Britain's already creaking rail network has increased still further. Trying to force commuters to travel at different times seems to have failed. The £1,000 train fare, which first appeared in 2009, is no longer newsworthy.

A budget airline has introduced the first standing-only service. Conditions have become so bad that the Government is to launch its "avoid the office" strategy, forcing firms to allow half of their employees to work from home.

Those hoping that their childhood fantasies of future transport would be fulfilled by 2020 have been disappointed. Though the Back To The Future films made the bold prediction that hoverboards – skateboards that float an inch above the ground – would be flying off the shelves by 2015, there is no sign that the technology has developed sufficiently. Hopes were temporarily raised in 2009 that teleportation could be the transport breakthrough to solve the snarl-ups. Scientists at the University of Maryland's Joint Quantum Institute had successfully managed to teleport data between two atoms a metre apart. However, while the experiment had huge implications for speeding up computers, in 2020 the ability to teleport from Brighton to Leighton Buzzard looks as distant as ever.

Health: Let's hear it for the artificial heart, by Jeremy Laurance

It is 2020, and the American media is transfixed by the story of a 33-year-old baseball player who has become the first person in the world to grow his own heart.

The athlete was two when his father died from a heart attack, and now he was found to be suffering from advanced heart disease during routine screening tests introduced for sportsmen and women in 2015. The move followed a rising toll of deaths among top-class athletes who died on the sports field as a result of undiagnosed heart conditions.

His inherited heart disease was so serious that a transplant was his only option. But instead of using a donor heart from an accident victim, specialists from the Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM) in North Carolina inserted an artificial heart – a fully implantable device called the Abiocor which was first used in 2009 – as a stop-gap while they repaired his own.

For six months, he lived with the artificial heart fitted alongside his existing heart, which was "rested". Scientists grew replacement heart tissue in the laboratory from stem cells taken from his bone marrow, and stitched it into the diseased left ventricle, after removing the dead and damaged tissue. The player's "remade" heart was restarted and the artificial heart removed.

The advance marks a new frontier for medicine and a world first for the IRM, which has led stem cell science and transplant medicine for more than two decades. Its first breakthrough came in 2006, when it announced the successful transplant of new bladders grown from stem cells in the laboratory into seven patients.

The institute's latest success came as a bitter disappointment to British experts from the University of Bristol who, as part of an international team, were responsible for "Claudia's trachea", the world's first successful transplant of a windpipe, grown using stem cells taken from the patient, a 30-year-old mother of two children, from Barcelona in 2008.

The British specialists predicted at the time that their advance would "transform the way we think about surgery" and that "in 20 years the commonest operations will be regenerative procedures to replace organs and tissues" with ones grown from stem cells. But their research foundered after 2011 due to a lack of funding during the squeeze on universities and cuts in NHS spending.

The potential of stem cell science has given a boost to the growing number of patients suffering organ failure. But their hopes of life-saving surgery have been dashed by a shortage of funds. The introduction of presumed consent for organ donation in 2014 failed to produce the expected boost to transplants. Adults are presumed to consent to the use of their organs after death unless they have registered their objection beforehand on a national database, but there has been no increase in transplant operations.

Politics: Make way for the face of experience, by Andy McSmith

It is January 2020: the leaders of the main parties have set themselves an exhausting schedule of public meetings where, in a throwback to the early 1980s, they will make speeches, in person, in front of live audiences. The forthcoming 2020 general election is being billed the "back to the future" election. Or, as some pundits are saying, it will be the first post-internet campaign.

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are now seen as middle-aged obsessions. People under the age of 25 like to talk to their friends directly, not via a digital machine. That is why voters in that age group, who are more engaged in politics than their elders, are unwilling to vote for anyone they have not seen or heard in person.

Excessive concentration on digital campaigning is thought to have been a factor in the surprise defeat of David Cameron's government in 2015, which brought the Labour Party, under its veteran leader Peter Mandelson, back to power.

The Conservative spin machine has dropped the idea of making Lord Mandelson's age – he will be 67 this year – an election issue. The long recession of a decade ago has left voters permanently suspicious of young, untested prime ministers – except of course in China, the world's biggest economy, where the cult of youth seems to have taken hold.

"Nobody in the West wants a repeat of the Blair/Cameron/Obama experience," one expert noted. "People want a leader who is like a trusted grandfather, not a hyperactive dad. Even the Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, looks too young, at 55, alongside such respected statesmen and stateswomen as 72-year-old President Schwarzenegger, 67-year-old President Putin, or Chancellor Merkel, who is 65."

But those who think the blogosphere is dead as a political force should note the lively online campaign for an increase in MPs' pay and allowances. The campaign website, which registers almost one million hits a day, points out that British MPs are now the least corrupt, most highly respected, and lowest paid of any Western democracy. The new intake of MPs this year is expected to be the first in more than a decade to receive an above-inflation pay award.

The arts: Were you at the theatre riots? By David Lister

The Culture Secretary Sir Simon Cowell has announced that funding for the arts will be cut for the 10th year in succession. But the lack of money has not deterred the arts world from taking a number of initiatives likely to dominate the cultural landscape of the Twenties.

Foremost among these, the apology culture has now spread to the arts. Bad reviews are routinely followed by an artistic director saying sorry from the stage before subsequent performances. Outside theatres, "booking fee riots" have to be broken up by mounted police.

The exciting young female playwrights lauded at the close of the Noughties are all in their mid-thirties, and audiences are growing tired of the seemingly never-ending stream of works about childbirth, childcare and primary schooling. But there is something very different to be found at the National Theatre, where the indefatigable David Hare has full houses for his Britain Had Talent trilogy, a nine-hour diatribe against the colonisation of culture by reality TV.

A decade of economic woes finally leads to the collapse of free admission to national museums and galleries. There is surprisingly little public protest, certainly not as much as there is about Zaha Hadid's extension to Tate Britain to house the Dame Tracey Emin sex and celebrity galleries. Hadid's idea of building it in the shape of a carbuncle (an allusion, apparently, to some old architectural dispute) even has King Charles joining the demonstration along Millbank.

Aged hippies and ageing EMOs were out in force in Manchester for the sad occasion of the closure of the last remaining CD shop in the UK. It was small consolation that the demise of the record shop was to be the subject of the annual Damon Albarn Christmas TV musical, and the latest Nick Hornby on Kindle volume.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Great white sharks off the coast of Cornwall, smoking is made illegal – and every word you say in central London is recorded by police.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in