Two years ago, NIC started with exercises identifying key assumptions and uncertainties—the list of assumptions underlying US foreign policy was stunningly long, many of them half-buried. We conducted research and consulted with numerous experts in and outside the US Government to identify and test trends. NIC tested early themes and arguments on a blog. We visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life. NIC developed multiple scenarios to imagine how key uncertainties might result in alternative futures.
The core argument the NIC sees over the next 20 years is about how the changing nature of power is increasing stress both within countries and between countries, and bearing on vexing transnational issues. The main section lays out the key trends, explores their implications, and offers up three scenarios to help readers imagine how different choices and developments could play out in very different ways over the next several decades. Two annexes lay out more detail. The first lays out five-year forecasts for each region of the world. The second provides more context on the key global trends in train.
NIC sees the potential end not just of America’s status as the world’s sole superpower and a shift from an open international economy, U.S. military alliances in Asia and Europe, and liberal rules and institutions.
Continued instability and significant political, economic, social, and environmental adjustments will mark the next five years worldwide.
Fragmentation of regions and states is possible—even likely—if multiple centers of geopolitical power emerge.
Economic stress. The most significant global economic uncertainty of the next five years will be China’s growth: how successfully Beijing maintains economic growth and foreign investment, and how effectively—even whether—it manages an overdue transition from an export- and investment-driven economy to one based on consumer-led growth. China’s economy expanded from 2 percent of global GDP in 1995 to 14 percent in 2015, and it has been the greatest source of global growth for several years; a sharp economic deceleration in China would undermine growth elsewhere and slow worldwide progress on poverty reduction. During such a slump, many governments would face increasing public pressure for reforms that promote employment and inclusive growth, changes that might threaten their control and ability to provide benefits to political supporters.
Political stress. Few governments are poised to make such political and economic reforms, and many states simply lack the capacity to address the challenges they face. In the Middle East and North Africa, such shortcomings will combine with societal and geopolitical forces to produce—or prolong—turmoil and violence. In the developed West, public disillusion will find expression in populist or reformist voices that seek to address wealth and power imbalances. In East and South Asia and Latin America, dissatisfaction with corruption, crime, and environmental, health, and urban stresses will continue to stoke activism and demands for government response.
Societal stress. Societal confrontation and polarization—often rooted in religion, traditional culture, or opposition to homogenizing globalization—will become more prominent in a world of ever-improving communications. The new technologies are also likely to continue fueling political polarization and increasing the influence of extreme or fringe groups by improving their presence and reach. Militant extremist and terrorist groups will continue to have a transnational presence, still fragmented but sharing ideas and resources with organizations in Africa, the Arab world, and South and Southeast Asia. The spread of existing or emergent infectious diseases will remain a risk for all nations and regions, but particularly for governments that lack the capacity to prepare for such a crisis.
Geopolitical stress. Major-power competition and the risk of conflict will intensify in the next five years, reflecting a fraying of the current international system and the ambitions of China and Russia for greater status and influence. States and nonstate actors alike will wield new and nontraditional forms of power, such as cyber capability and social networks, to shape outcomes and create disruption. The emergence of multiple, rival power centers is possible in the next five years if regional aggression and flouting of international norms go unchecked.
Environmental stress. Scientists report that 2016 was the hottest year recorded since the instrumental record began in 1880, and 16 of the 17 hottest years have occurred since 2000. Although predicting temperature trends over short intervals is difficult because of internal climate variability, the baseline global temperature clearly will be higher over the next five years. This warming has implications for storms and rainfall, melting ice, rising sea level, and the general conditions under which people live. The impact of the change will be especially acute for the substantial share of the world population concentrated in climate-vulnerable areas, such as coastal cities and urban centers with strained water resources.
East and Southeast Asia
All countries in the East Asia region have much riding on China’s economic and political prospects. The next few years will test whether Beijing can continue to raise living standards and expand the number of economic beneficiaries while making structural changes in its economy, shifting it from export-driven to consumer- and service-driven and becoming a more-balanced player in global trade rather than an ever-greater consumer of raw materials. In addition to trade and commercial ties, China now figures strongly in the development plans of countries across the region; most East Asian publics—and many in South Asia, Central Asia, and Europe—look favorably on Chinese investment, providing Beijing a way to boost its foreign influence. However, any shortfall in Beijing’s delivery on its promises of economic partnership—as embodied in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road projects—might sour foreign populations on Chinese engagement and hurt China’s global reputation as well as its efforts to develop its interior and western regions as new export markets.
Despite persistent problems like violent extremism and tension between its two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, the region’s global relevance is changing, as Iran opens up economically after sanctions relief and China turns its focus westward. India is also an increasingly important factor in the region as geopolitical forces begin to reshape its importance to Asia, and the United States and India will grow closer than ever in their history.
New Delhi will be a victim of its own success as India’s growing prosperity complicates its environmental challenges. For example, providing electricity to 300 million citizens who now lack it will substantially increase India’s carbon footprint and boost pollution if done with coal- or gas-fired plants.
Insecurity on the Afghan-Pakistan border—political turmoil, resilient insurgencies, and poor border security—along with Afghanistan’s conflict and the presence of violent extremist groups will be the primary drivers of regional instability. More than 30 violent extremist groups threaten regional stability, and drugs will remain an important revenue source for nonstate actors, including jihadi groups, in Afghanistan. The threat of terrorism from groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and al-Qa`ida and its affiliates—as well as ISIL expansion and sympathy for associated ideology—will remain key drivers of insecurity in the region.
Much of South Asia will see a massive increase in youth population, escalating demands for education and employment. According to one estimate, India alone will need to create as many as 10 million jobs per year in coming decades to accommodate people newly of working age in the labor force Insufficient opportunity as a result of inadequate resources, coupled with social discrimination, could contribute to the radicalization of a segment of the region’s youth. Additionally, widespread prenatal sex selection is helping to make the country’s youth cohort disproportionately male, with potential major consequences for social stability, as numerous social scientists emphasize the correlation between prospectless young men and violence.
Moreover, Pakistan, unable to match India’s economic prowess, will seek other methods to maintain even a semblance of balance.
Middle East - a violent mess as far out as we care to project
Progress toward a regional security framework is likely to be limited at best, with large-scale violence, civil wars, authority vacuums, and humanitarian crises persisting for many years. Similarly, the region will be shaped by state and nonstate actors who seek political and strategic advantage for their own versions of religion but also work to manipulate the views and behavior of wider circles of believers.
Islands Scenario 1 [slow global growth, rising inequality, high joblessness from automation]
Islands scenario investigates the issues surrounding a restructuring of the global economy that leads to long periods of slow or no growth, challenging the assumption that traditional models of economic prosperity and expanding globalization will continue in the future. The scenario emphasizes the difficulties for governance in meeting future societal demands for economic and physical security as popular pushback to globalization increases, emerging technologies transform work and trade, and political instability grows. This scenario underscores the choices governments will face in adjusting to changing economic and technological conditions that might lead some to turn inward, reduce support for multilateral cooperation, and adopt protectionist policies and others to find ways to leverage new sources of economic growth and productivity. Here is an economist reflecting on the 20 years since the 2008 global financial crisis:
The past 20 years of coping with downsides of globalization, financial volatility, and increasing inequality has transformed the global environment. Mounting public debt, aging populations, and decreased capital investment exacerbated downward pressures on developed economies. Public and business demands for protection from market swings, disruptive technologies, disease outbreaks, and terrorism drove many countries to turn inward. Political instability increased as public frustration rose in countries that failed to manage change. Many governments struggled to maintain services to their populace, as tax revenues failed to keep pace with growing obligations. The segments of populations that had obtained “middle class” status prior to the financial crisis were most at risk and many fell back into moderate levels of poverty. Globalization slowed as governments adopted protectionist policies in response to domestic pressures.
Most economists identify the following developments as key factors slowing global economic growth and accelerating the reversal of much of the globalization trends of the previous decades:
- The rise of inequality as wealth became more concentrated fed tensions within societies and led to popular pushback against globalization.
- The spread of artificial intelligence and automation technologies disrupted more industries than economists expected. This trend sparked a backlash from large numbers of displaced workers, creating a political constituency that forced some governments to stop participating in global trade institutions and agreements they had previously committed to support.
- Trade patterns shifted as governments favored employing regional trading blocs and bilateral trade agreements over comprehensive global arrangements. The wide adoption of new technologies, such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing), often provided local producers a competitive advantage vis-à-vis foreign suppliers reducing global trade in manufactured goods.
- Slower global economic growth depressed energy prices and placed additional pressures on the energy-dependent economies of Russia, the Middle East and South America while also increasing competition among energy producers.
- China and India remained stuck in the “middle income trap,” suffering stagnant economic growth, wages, and living standards, because they were unable to generate sufficient domestic demand to drive higher economic growth when foreign trade flagged.
- Domestic and economic challenges drove the United States and Europe to focus inward. The United States and the EU adopted protectionist policies to preserve domestic industries. European economies suffered because of declining exports and underdeveloped service industries. Germany and France found enough common ground to hold together the Euro Zone; however, renewed fiscal stimulus did little to reinvigorate economic growth in the periphery states of Europe,and insufficient willingness to ease labor restrictions undermined EU member states’ ability to maintain or boost their international competitiveness.
- Rising intellectual property theft and cyber attacks drove some governments to introduce stringent controls that hampered information sharing and cooperation across the Internet.
- Changing climate conditions challenged the capacity of many governments to cope, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where extended droughts reduced food and water supplies and high temperatures suppressed the ability of people to work outdoors. Large numbers of displaced persons from the region often found they had no place to go as a series of dramatic terrorist attacks in Western countries drove those governments to adopt stringent security policies that restricted immigration.
- The global pandemic of 2023 dramatically reduced global travel in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, contributing to the slowing of global trade and decreased productivity.
Islands scenario explores the ramifications if governments fail to manage the changes in global economic conditions that have led to increasing inequality, lower growth rates in developed economies, job displacements, and societal divisions. The scenario highlights the need for the rich countries to address the negative byproducts of past economic policies and to manage the tensions between populism and inclusion. The most successful states will be those with governments that encourage research and innovation; promote information sharing; maintain high-quality education and lifelong learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; provide job retraining; and adopt tax, immigration, and security policies to attract and retain high-tech talent. Such developments would encourage greater experimentation, innovation, and entrepreneurship to help boost domestic manufacturing and create employment.
Orbits - scenario 2 - Nations and geopolitics dominant
Orbits examines how increasing geopolitical competition could raise the risk of interstate conflict and threaten the rules-based international order. It highlights the importance of reassuring allies and preventing “gray-zone” conflicts from undermining international norms and from escalating into a war between major powers. Furthermore, the deployment of new capabilities, such as hypersonic weapons, autonomous systems, counterspace weapons, and cyber operations, introduces new—and not well understood—escalation dynamics that increase the risk of miscalculation. Growing geopolitical tensions that produce destabilizing events and increase the dangers for all involved might provide incentive for rivals to find common ground and negotiate confidence-building measures to reduce risks. For example, the prospect of a “close call”—in which a major military conflict is barely averted or a large natural disaster illustrating the negative global impact of climate change—might compel nations to work together for self-preservation, leading to a more stable international order. Such an outcome, however, is not assured, highlighting the importance of managing increasing geopolitical competition in ways that reduce the risk of miscalculation and escalation while leaving open the possibility for greater cooperation on issues of shared risk.
This scenario explores a future of tensions created by competing major powers seeking their own spheres of influence while attempting to maintain stability at home. It examines how the trends of rising nationalism, changing conflict patterns, emerging disruptive technologies, and decreasing global cooperation might converge to increase the risk of interstate conflict. This scenario emphasizes policy choices that would reinforce stability and peace or exacerbate tensions.
Communities Scenario 3 - local governance and action grows in importance
Communities scenario examines issues associated with the future of governing. In it, governments will need policies and processes for encouraging public-private partnerships with a wide-range of actors—city leaders, non-governmental organizations, and civil societies—to address emerging challenges. Large multinational corporations and charitable foundations, in particular, might increasingly complement the work of governments in providing research, education, training, health care, and information services to needy societies.
This scenario explores the issues that arise as the enormity of future economic and governance challenges test the capacity of national governments to cope, creating space for local governments and private actors and thus questioning assumptions about the future of governance. This scenario emphasizes the trends associated with the changing nature of power and advances in ICT that are enabling a broader array of influential actors and identifies how such trends might lead to choices that create both opportunities and hurdles for future governance.
Technology - AI - automation - robotics, Biotech, Energy
Technology—from the wheel to the silicon chip—has greatly bent the arc of history, yet anticipating when, where and how technology will alter economic, social, political, and security dynamics is a hard game. Some high impact predictions—such as cold fusion—have not become realities long after first promised, while other changes have unfolded faster and farther than experts even imagined. For example, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene-manipulation developments quickly transformed the biological sciences.
Technological development and deployment will be fast where the tools and techniques become widely accessible or are combined to achieve new breakthroughs.
Advanced Information Communications Technologies (ICT), for example, are transforming everything from automobiles to manufacturing, and some technology experts argue that advances in biotechnologies and nanomaterials will have a similar catalytic effect during the coming decades. Combining new technologies will provide the greatest surprises and most exciting new capabilities, with some spawning developments in relatively unrelated areas. For example, biotechnologies and new materials technologies may spawn changes in energy technologies.
Advanced Information Communications Technologies (ICT)—Including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Automation, and Robotics. Development and deployment of ICT can improve labor productivity, business processes, and governance practices that support economic growth and political responsiveness. As a critical enabler, ICT will influence nearly every new and existing industry. The emerging Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) will ensure that analytics and Big Data processing enable new business insights, transforming industries and driving advanced machine-to-machine communication. People’s use of some technologies, such as augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), will have a transformative effect on society—particularly media, entertainment, and daily life.
- New ICT is likely to have a significant effect on the financial sector. Digital currencies; “blockchain” technology for transactions; and the predictive analytics enabled by AI and Big Data will reshape financial services, potentially affecting systemic stability, security of critical financial infrastructures, and cyber vulnerabilities.
- New ICT is also transforming transportation and energy consumption in profound ways. Applications that combine data analytics, algorithms and real-time geophysical information, such as Uber and Waze, can optimize traffic patterns, improve energy consumption, and reduce urban smog. These augment the benefits of semi-automated and self-driving vehicles, which can reduce traffic density and accident rates while producing huge economic gains.
Artificial intelligence (or enhanced autonomous systems) and robotics have the potential to increase the pace of technological change beyond any past experience, and some experts worry that the increasing pace of technological displacement may be outpacing the ability of economies, societies, and individuals to adapt. Historically, technological change has initially diminished but then later increased employment and living standards by enabling the emergence of new industries and sectors that create more and better jobs than the ones displaced. However, the increased pace of change is straining regulatory and education systems’ capacity to adapt, leaving societies struggling to find workers with relevant skills and training.
Autonomous vehicles, which will eliminate the need for truck, taxi, and other mass-transit drivers, are likely to be the most dramatic near-term example of technology displacement.
New technologies and the opportunities they create will require specialized expertise and complex management skills that may not be widely available to displaced workers. As a result, ICT advances may aggravate the economic divide between those whose skills are in demand with orphaned abilities.
New technologies will also increase public awareness of the growing inequality in opportunity and wealth. To mitigate the adverse effects of this awareness, programmers seek to develop sympathetic virtual worlds often referred to as “empathy engines,” but social critics are concerned that misuse of ICT has already led to civil and social disengagement and that new developments like AR/VR will do likewise.
Biotechnologies and Advanced Human Health. Biotechnology, recently catalyzed by CRISPR developments, is developing even faster than ICT and promises to improve the global food supply and human health. The application of biotechnology—to include gene editing—to food production, especially for lesser used crops, could boost agricultural productivity, expand growing ranges, and increase crop resistance to severe weather and plant diseases. Advancements in gene editing could also lead to potential breakthroughs in human health by eliminating malaria carrying mosquitos or altering genetic codes to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis. Reducing food insecurity and improving peoples’ health in the developing world will be especially critical as climate change alters agriculture production.
Genetic engineering and other biotechnologies will aid disease prevention by enabling better diagnostics and treatments, helping to overcome antimicrobial resistance, and halting the spread of disease through early detection of new or emerging pathogens with pandemic outbreak potential. The eradication of some genetic-based diseases and breakthroughs in genetic manipulation of the immune system would improve quality of life and global health and reduce healthcare costs.
Nanomaterials are increasingly used for medical-device coatings, diagnostic contrast agents, sensing components in nanoscale diagnostics, and advanced drug delivery. Digital medicine and other new medical procedures will likely contribute to improved global health. Improved tools to characterize, control, and manipulate the structure and function of living matter at the nanoscale could inspire biology-based approaches for other technology development and new fabrication techniques.
Advances in computation and high-throughput sequencing and culturing technologies will enable understanding and manipulation of the human microbiome that could lead to cures for autoimmune diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and perhaps some cancers. Certain microorganisms also could supplement treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, and other stress-related psychiatric disorders.
Optical monitoring of neurons and optogenetic modulation of neural activity promise to help neuroscientists observe brains in action, with the aim to prevent or curing diseases like dementia, Parkinsonism, and schizophrenia. The procedures could also yield insights into the construction of brain-like systems for artificial intelligence.
Potential Issues: Many parts of the world still consider genetically modified (GM) food unsafe or inadequately tested and will not accept its development or deployment, which will erode its potential to expand food supplies, lower prices, or increase the nutritional benefits in foods. Some genetic technologies, like “gene drives” that can potentially alter the genome of whole species, may be difficult to contain if deployed, and species-level genetic manipulation—to render mosquitos incapable of carrying malaria or other virulent pathogens, for example,—may have unforeseen consequences. Regardless of their potential benefits, such technologies will inevitably attract domestic and international political opposition.
- By 2035 rapid, “step” changes in human longevity may be plausible, but improving the length and quality of life could increase financial costs to societies, especially where aging populations already burden government budgets. These costs could be potentially offset, however, by healthcare savings from breakthroughs in treating genetic-based diseases and advanced genomic therapies.
- Debates over the morality and efficacy of intellectual property rights regimes for life-and-death medical issues and broader technological issues are likely to become more contentious internationally.
- Technological advances to treat diseases or enhance human capabilities, such as human augmentation, are likely to raise divisive political debates over access—assuming that most early techniques will only be available to higher income people. Altering fundamental human capabilities to enhanced mental capacity or physical strength could prompt strident domestic and international battles over the ethics and implications of altering the human gene pool
- Advances in biotechnology, including automation and the development of standardized tools and “programming languages”—for synthetic biology—will give individuals the potential to fabricate virulent micro-organisms for bioterrorist attacks.
Energy: Advances in energy technologies and concerns about climate change will set the stage for disruptive changes in energy use, including expanded use of wind, solar, wave, waste-streams, or nuclear fusion for electrical power generation and the use of improved mobile- and fixed-energy storage technologies. “Green” energy systems—competitive with fossil fuels—are already being deployed, and the future will see more carbon- and noncarbon-based technologies. Innovations—such as small-scale distributed energy systems that do not require connection to a power grid, can include renewable energy sources, and can integrate power for homes and transport/farm equipment—are likely to transform current models for energy production and distribution by freeing citizens from reliance on state-provided energy. Distributed, networked systems for energy generation and storage could improve the resilience of power systems and critical energy infrastructure systems to natural disasters, which would be particularly valuable in areas vulnerable to climate change and severe weather events.
Potential Issues: During the next 20 years, the combination of fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable sources can meet global energy demand, however, the large–scale, commercially successful deployment of nonfossil fuel energy technologies is plausible. This would reduce the value of fossil resources reserves for energy-supplier states dependent on energy revenue to fund their budget and provide for their citizens, many may find it hard to reorient their economies. The commercial impact will also be substantial for oil and gas companies, some of the world’s largest firms. Without major improvements in low-cost batteries or other forms of energy storage, new energy sources will continue to require substantial infrastructure, potentially slowing their adoption by poorer countries and limiting their mobility and flexibility.
Climate Intervention: Technologies to enable geoengineering—large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate—are in their infancy and largely live only in computer models. Effective geoengineering would probably require a range of technologies. One set, called solar radiation management, aims to cool the planet by limiting the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth, possibly by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, chemically brightening marine clouds, or installing space-mirrors in orbit. A more expensive—and likely longer to deploy—group of technologies focuses on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct air capture, ocean iron fertilization, and afforestation, which is the creation of forests in areas previously lacking tree cover. Carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, is a known technology that seeks to capture carbon dioxide at the point of emission and store it underground. Afforestation also is a known technology, and scientists have conducted limited ocean iron fertilization tests.
Potential Issues: Increasing climate disruptions will boost interest in geoengineering interventions well before the scientific community understands the impact and unintended consequences of such efforts. With continued research, the advanced industrial countries might be able to develop the technology for solar radiation management quickly and at a cost far smaller than the damages anticipated from climate change. Without time to assess, however, the research probably cannot evaluate the trade-offs associated with the distribution of surface solar radiation, variations in temperature patterns, and changes in rainfall and storm systems—or determine the appropriate international regulation of global temperatures.
- A critical shortcoming of geoengineering strategies is that they do not counter all of the effects of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, such as unabated ocean acidification. Carbon-capture technologies also have economic and physical limitations that suggest their implementation would be expensive, slow, and ultimately ineffective if carbon escapes back into the atmosphere.
- Atmospheric carbon-removal technologies will require significant research and a break-through in nonfossil fuel energy sources.
- The unilateral deployment of geoengineering technologies—even in small-scale tests—would almost certainly aggravate geopolitical tension. The intentional unilateral manipulation of the entire global ecosystem will likely alter how people think about their relations to the natural world and to each other.
Advanced Materials and Manufacturing: Materials and manufacturing developments are directly or indirectly the core enablers of most technology advancements. The uses of nanomaterials and metamaterials are likely to expand given the novel properties of these materials. More electronics, and health, energy, transportation, construction, and consumer goods already have these materials than most people realize. Nanomaterials’ ability to exhibit enhanced mechanical and electrical characteristics, as well as unique optical properties, suggest they will outperform conventional materials in many applications and revolutionize most industrial sectors.
Other advanced synthetic materials innovation will alter commodity markets if they prove useful in manufacturing and their relative cost declines. High strength composites and plastics can replace conventional metals and create new markets. Developed countries will have an initial economic advantage in producing and using these materials, but they will become more widely accessible over time. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is becoming increasingly accessible, and will be used for things not even conceived of today. 4D printing—the construction of objects that can change their form or function over time or in reaction to the environment—will also provide an economic edge to developers of commercially viable applications.
Advances in manufacturing, particularly the development of 3D-printing from novelty to a routine part of precision production will influence global trade relations by increasing the role of local production at the expense of more-diffuse supply chains. As a result, global labor arbitrage will have diminishing returns, as the margin saved through locating manufacturing in distant factories shrinks relative to the amount saved by using an efficient factory in an area with a lower cost of transportation. Advanced manufacturing technologies will add to the considerable cost pressure on low-cost manufacturers and their employees, and the technologies could create a new worldwide divide, between those who have resources and benefit from new techniques and those who do not. This bifurcation might redraw the traditional north-south divisions into new divisions based upon resource and technology availability. 3D manufacturers, however, will still need access to raw materials, electricity and infrastructure, as well as the intellectual property rights to what they produce.
Space-based technologies. Heightened commercial interest in space and space-enabled services will improve efficiency and create new industrial applications with civil and military purposes. China is undertaking plans for a permanent manned presence in space similar to the International Space Station, and entrepreneurs plan for manned flights to Mars. Satellite systems—smaller, smarter, and cheaper than in the past—will bring new capabilities in remote sensing, communications, environmental monitoring, and global positioning. Low-altitude satellites could bring internet access to the two-thirds of the population that do not currently have online connectivity. Higher bandwidth will enable and increase availability of cloud-based services, telemedicine, and online education.
Commercialization. Space is no longer just for governments. Fueled partly by the allure of future profits as well as the void created by the dwindling budgets of space agencies like NASA, private companies such as Space-X, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have mounted serious programs that could soon launch humans into space. Planetary Resources is a company that aims to mine asteroids, while Bigelow Aerospace promises inflatable space habitats. Although full realization of these industries is decades away, the next five years will bring early testing that teases at the potential for private individuals to reach space.
New Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). The EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system is expected to reach full operational capability by 2020, significantly advancing global positioning capabilities by operating with greater precision, more global coverage, and at higher latitudes. Galileo will join the US’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, China’s BeiDou, and regional systems put in place by India and Japan. Devices that can simultaneously process signals from multiple GNSS constellations are likely to offer new capabilities—such as enhanced precision, indoor and z-axis positioning, and antijamming—to the more than 4 billion users worldwide who depend on space-based global positioning.
Space debris. More than 500,000 pieces of space debris are currently tracked as they orbit the Earth, some traveling as fast as 17,500 mph. Many millions of pieces are too small to be tracked but could be hazardous to critical satellites or other spacecraft. International action may soon be necessary to identify and fund the removal of debris most threatening to an expanding global space presence.
Space militarization. As space becomes more congested, it is also becoming more contested. The immense strategic and commercial value of outer space assets ensures that nations will increasingly vie for access, use, and control of space. The deployment of antisatellite technologies designed to purposefully disable or destroy satellites could intensify global tension. A key question will be whether spacefaring countries, in particular China, Russia, and the United States, can agree to a code of conduct for outer space activity.