Beyond the horizon: The future isn't what it used to be

By Cliff Taylor

What sort of country will New Zealand be halfway through this century? Here’s a snapshot of what Godzone could be like.

A possible vision of Auckland's future? Illustration / Richard Dale
A possible vision of Auckland's future? Illustration / Richard Dale

The future isn't what it used to be. Once, we imagined a Jetsons world of bubble-topped flying cars and trips to Mars. But the future is more recognisable than we might expect - and more subtly different.

Predicting the future is a fraught, and some would say futile, business. But others are willing to have a go, even though natural disasters, environmental and economic collapse and political upheavals might derail any projections.

Some say that Aotearoa will become a lifeboat, to which hordes of people displaced by such disasters will cling. Even if that doesn't eventuate, there will certainly be more of us on these islands, perhaps around 6 million. By 2050 there could be as many people of Asian ethnicity as Maori. Most of the national population will still be white European, although in Auckland, that group will probably have dropped below 50 per cent.

We'll be older on average, because we'll all be living longer. Life expectancy will increase to around 89 for females and 87 for males - from the present's 82.7 and 78.8.

The numbers aged over 65 (600,000 in 2012) will more than double to between 1.3 million and 1.4 million by 2050 - 24 per cent of the population. How will we cope? Will we all be forced to work into our seventies or even our eighties? It is one of the most pressing questions facing this country, but nobody is really answering it.

Auckland will continue to grow fast: the population could reach 2.5 million by 2050. By then, Aucklanders will probably be crossing the harbour via a road-and-rail tunnel, and travelling under the central city by train. We might be catching trams along the seafront from Wynyard Quarter to St Heliers and strolling along a pedestrianised Queen St. There should be a rail link to the airport. Whether we'll be able to afford the flights out from there is another question, since fuel prices will probably be much higher.

A four-lane highway will mean a fast run north - maybe as far as Whangarei - for Aucklanders. There could be a new city of 40,000 - Marsden City - near Ruakaka. Clevedon, Helensville and Warkworth will be more like outskirts of Auckland than the semi-rural towns they are today. Hamilton and Tauranga will also be more closely linked to Auckland, where house prices might be so high that many people will commute long distances. On the other hand, technology will enable more people to work from home and many more of us will be freelancers or contractors.

After much argument and planning, a new Christchurch will have risen from the rubble. The compact, high-tech, low-rise Garden City will have a covered sports stadium, a 2000-seat convention centre, an aquatic and indoor sports facility and a revitalised square with a new central library and Ngai Tahu cultural centre. The Avon will be lined with shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. But the location of suburbs will probably be quite different from today's: some badly-damaged areas of the city are unlikely to be built on again.

Dr Robert Hickson, who works as a consultant to ministries under the moniker Strategic Foresight, specialises in science-policy advice and risk assessment, so he spends more time than most crystal-ball gazing. He says New Zealand in 2050 will be recognisable, but "slightly different" in many ways.

"The next few decades are going to be turbulent and uncertain, geopolitically, economically, socially and technologically," he says. "But I'm more optimistic about the state of New Zealand in 2050 than in 2030. That's because I'd expect to see the effects of the current global financial crisis to be long gone by 2050, assuming another one doesn't come along. And we would have had the chance to establish some longer-term strategic planning - as opposed to reactive muddling - that would start to bear fruit by 2050."

Hickson predicts that our economy will be more diversified and less reliant on commodity agriculture and tourism than it is now. Our dairy boom will be over, thanks to competition from larger producers elsewhere, and the coveted "100% Pure New Zealand" as a brand will be "irrelevant", as other countries will also have a focus on sustainable production. "The critical issue is whether the diversification leads to a more prosperous economy, where we produce and export higher value products, or simply a more diversified commodity economy."

The fragile planet

We'll still be driving cars in 2050, but they won't be the cars we know now. Improvements in battery technology will mean that hybrids or fully electric vehicles will be the norm. And we'll be using a lot more energy from renewable sources - the sun, wind and tides.

Dr Jez Weston, an expert on the interaction between environmental science and society, reckons it will be possible for us to radically change our way of life to meet environmental challenges; the question is whether we will be prepared to.

"The choices we make for ourselves are about energy, infrastructure, immigration, and vulnerability to the climate and to the rest of the world," he says. "Those are all choices and I expect we'll choose to muddle along."

More use of renewable energy will mean cheaper electricity, but the price of oil will continue to climb. "I'm not someone who believes that we'll suddenly run out," says Weston. "There's plenty of unconventional oil, vast amounts of gas and coal that can be turned into petrol and diesel. Instead, it'll just be more expensive and increasingly loaded with carbon taxes."

Weston predicts that extreme weather events will become frequent and sometimes "frightening". But greater expertise in pest eradication could save some threatened species and advances in DNA science could even see extinct creatures such as the moa and the huia brought back to life.

By the middle of the century, the climate of New Zealand is likely to have changed: temperatures will be around a degree warmer than now and regional rainfalls a few percentage points different. Sea levels are likely to rise 30cm or so. But, as Dr James Renwick, an associate professor of physical geography at Victoria University, points out, changes that sound small can have dramatic effects. These could include more droughts, forest fires and heat stress on the agricultural sector. The sea-level rise could sharply increase the risk of extreme high tides and floods.

All this means we will need to think on our feet. "Naturally, economies and farming systems will adapt to a certain extent, but that will be costly," says Renwick. "Also, sea-level rise by mid-century is likely to be causing problems for at least some of our Pacific neighbours, implying increased migration pressure on New Zealand. How we handle these issues, politically and economically, are likely to be big questions for our children's generation."

So what of our biggest earner, farming, in this unstable new world? Jacqueline Rowarth, professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, predicts increased use of biotech crops and precision agriculture, matching water and nutrients to the precise needs of plants. Improved genetic selection of animals and technologies in milking sheds, shearing sheds and abattoirs will maximise yields and minimise human intervention.
"People with primary-production skills will be valued, with kudos and salaries reflecting the importance of their activities," she says.

Hi-tech future

Technology will shape our lives more than ever. Robert Hickson says it's risky to guess where technology is going, but mobile computing will become faster, cheaper and more powerful and we will develop increasing precision in measuring and manipulating the world around - and within - us. "It seems certain that we'll continue to see a blurring between natural and engineered biology. That means we'll have more bionics and other electronic devices in us, and possibly in our pets and elite livestock, to repair or replace damaged bodies and minds."

Will we be a republic in 2050? Will we have a new flag? A new name? Will the Maori language be more ingrained in the culture? The Waitangi Tribunal's work might be complete, but the debates will surely continue. Much will depend on how we react to the changes thrust upon us by developments in the rest of the world.

But we'll still be a rugby-mad nation. The players might be genetically bred super athletes, wearing jerseys containing nanotechnology medicines to heal injuries; the referees might be robots supported by embedded technologies around the pitch and global positioning systems. But the All Blacks will win the 2052 Rugby World Cup.

- From The Magazine featured in the September 10 new-look New Zealand Herald.

- NZ Herald

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