The future of trade

From 3D printing and digital education tools to regulation and security, a group of thought leaders shared their ideas about what will affect the future of trade at a recent workshop in London, sponsored by the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre

Ten years ago, there would still have been two years to wait until the iPhone arrived. Twitter didn’t exist. YouTube launched. The very idea of driverless vehicles was barely spoken about. And USB sticks were so widespread that they had effectively removed floppy disks from our memories.

Meanwhile in terms of trade, global growth decelerated in 2005, mainly due to weaker activity in Europe. The oil price was around the same level as today – some $60 per barrel – but then considered to be high. And the World Trade Organisation noted that since 2002, China’s trade with Africa had tripled in both directions.

The world has experienced dramatic change over the past decade. Perhaps because of this, the future seems to be a topic dominating boardrooms, non-government organisations and schools. Though an atmosphere of increased interconnectivity is taking hold, uncertainty abounds.

The words ‘innovation’ and ‘disruptive’ are often used to describe creative, entrepreneurial ideas most were unable to predict, while the question ‘What does the future look like?’ is regularly posed at conferences, in meetings and political summits.

Organisations increasingly want to identify and understand both the anticipated and unexpected changes from outside their sector or regions so that they can be better prepared for the future

Future Agenda, Foresight programme

To this end, a total of 100 workshops are being held across the world until July, bringing thought leaders together to discuss the likely changes that are coming. Future Agenda, the self-described world-leading foresight programme, is hosting the series under various categories: health, education, energy, government and travel – to name a few.

“Organisations increasingly want to identify and understand both the anticipated and unexpected changes from outside their sector or regions so that they can be better prepared for the future,” says Future Agenda. “Run as a not-for-profit project with all the core team donating their time for free, Future Agenda 2.0 is a major collaboration involving many leading, forward-thinking organisations around the world.”

During an afternoon in mid-June, some 30 professionals flocked to London to discuss the future of trade. Among them were economists, NGO officials, corporate executives and writers. It was the seventieth of the 100 workshops and was sponsored by Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

I think technology is going to change the world because of what it’s doing in terms of education. The democratisation of education – it’s going to be as mobile as everything else

Future Agenda attendee

Split between five tables, the delegates contributed to the forum, sharing predictions and debating the importance of developments ahead.

Chatham House rules were in place at the London event, meaning the speakers are unable to be identified.

“Name one thing that you think will be different in the world of trade,” was the host’s opening statement.

One member responded: “There will be more competition among regulatory environments,” and later added, “If you were to ask CEOs right now, geopolitical risk is on the very top of their agendas.”

Another said: “I think technology is going to change the world because of what it’s doing in terms of education…The democratisation of education – it’s going to be as mobile as everything else. We’re going to unleash the power of a billion people in Africa, the people in China who don’t live on the coastal ring, the people in India who have a broadband insert.”

Trade is key to economic growth and as a result the value of international commerce has grown almost tenfold in the past 30 years

Future Agenda, Foresight programme

The effect of 3D printing on shipping was also discussed. “I would suggest that over the next five to ten years, 3D printing will have an incredible impact on the way that certainly small goods are transported around the world,” one said.

And another mentioned that the “internet of things is going to see much more people coming together from across countries.”

Later in the session, the group was asked to place heart-shaped post-it notes on the issues they considered most important in the future of trade.

‘Security, safety and geopolitics’ came first, with many believing stability has slid since after the Second World War. In particular, there was concern over the threat of cybercrime growth.

Future Agenda workshop new trading routes
The participants believed new trading routes would have an impact on the future of trade

‘A new trade order’ was also priortised, with several voting for a poster reading: “From monolithic legacy institutions to more empowered bottom up, freer trade.”

‘Appropriate regulation’ came third, with many supporting the establishment of special economic zones and freezones, while advocating a statement that “protectionist regimes would lose out as a result.”

Looking ahead, the next event on the future of trade is in Hong Kong on July 8. Events in Mumbai and Dubai will then take place in August.

“Trade is key to economic growth and as a result the value of international commerce has grown almost tenfold in the past 30 years,” says Future Agenda. “More people need and have access to more products so, to satisfy their demand, we are now transporting more raw materials around the world than we have ever done before.  

“In addition, new trading patterns and markets are growing and increasingly traders are using technology to adapt to their requirements. Understanding the impact of these changes over next ten years will be crucial to us all.”