The fascinating world of new technology

Electric cars, flexi-architecture and veggie gardens in empty high rises… Come 2030, a fascinating world of new technology and, perhaps, a gentler relationship with Mother Earth await us. Doris Viljoen, from the Institute for Futures Research, speaks to MARGUERITE VAN WYK. 

Approaching 2030, we can imagine an African continent with another billion inhabitants, creating a myriad interesting opportunities and trends.

If Doris Viljoen, senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR), is excited by her job it’s not because the IFR at Stellenbosch University predicts such mundane things as popular fashion or passing fads. It’s because what it does is “track how (and why) people’s preferences change and how this plays out over time”. By working with possible scenarios, the institute enables corporations or individuals to get an idea of what awaits them and to plan ahead. “Every risk and opportunity can only be found in the future,” states Dr Morné Mostert, the director of the IFR.

Institute for Futures Research

It may sound far away but 2030 is already knocking at our door. “If we try to imagine what our world, especially Stellenbosch, might look like 10 years from now,” says Doris, “the three obvious concerns are the spaces we use, sustenance and transport.”

According to The Future 100, the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence 2021 trend report, flexi-architecture is one of the hottest trends in the creative use of space. Hybrid designs involve an increase in the different kinds of use a single ‘multi-space’ can be put to. In the meantime, many a theatre – the Fugard in Cape Town comes to mind – has had to close its doors. The Cape City Ballet, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and many actors are struggling. Arts audiences are despondent.

But since Covid-19 created havoc worldwide last year, it has also created quite a buzz among creatives. And look what they have come up with. Doris is referring to Populous, an international firm of architects that has unveiled plans for a multi-purpose arena in Toronto, Canada, that would accommodate the staging of an opera, a traditional play or a sports event. 

Might the flexi-architecture trend ‘save’ the arts? Saartjie Botha, playwright and director of Stellenbosch University’s arts festival, Woordfees, has reservations. In an article on the website of the independent journal LitNet, posted on 12 April 2021, Saartjie says flexi-architecture has already been partly implemented at festivals, but it does pose challenges. Not only is it difficult to adapt certain spaces, but designers also have to work around certain restrictions. Yet in a Third World country such as South Africa, where many people live in shacks, we are forced to make optimal use of space, she added.

“Stellenbosch has led the way in creating open-air function venues and restaurants,” says Doris. “The pandemic has made us more appreciative of fresh air. This is in line with the wellness trend.” Furthermore, working and socialising outside provide responsible alternatives in terms of resources: fresh air, natural light and temperature control (you don’t need air-conditioning outside!).

“One could even imagine how these working spaces could evolve into function or entertainment venues at weekends,” adds Doris.

Institute for Futures Research
Futurist Doris Viljoen predicts change that will benefit the environment.

Which brings us to restaurants, food and beverages. Personalised orders at fancy restaurants, via technology, will be in vogue come 2030. Doris says you could even type your ‘food identity’ – determined by, for example, your culture, religion or ethos – into the system when you book a table or meal. Based on your preferences, the chef will present you with personalised options based on a combination of your ideas, the chef’s suggestions and the fresh produce available.

The London-based market research firm Mintel’s 2030 Global Food and Drink Trends also reports that restaurants will prosper in the new decade if they are in sync with technology and join the personalisation revolution.

Are you wondering what would happen to all the empty high rises now that employees are working from home owing to Covid-19? A food trend might change that. The explanation lies in the greater focus on shorter food supply chains, combined with advances in cultivation technology. This could lead to a growth in vertical farms and indoor hydroponic systems, particularly for the cultivation of herbs and vegetables, says Doris.

The operative words in future food and beverage trends, more than ever, will be ‘health’, ‘wellness’ and ‘fresh produce’. This could even mean that you visit your pharmacist less often. Doris suggests that different types of foods and beverages harvested from natural plant compounds will address health issues such as cognition, digestion and immunity. You will, in other words, simply jot down a variety of ‘nutritional pharmaceuticals’ on your grocery list. 

Consumers will increasingly demand healthy snacks, which up to now have been regarded as an indulgence, according to the ‘State of Snacking 2020’ webinar produced by US data analytics and market research company IRI. Vice-president Sally Lyons Wyatt says consumers want snacks with probiotics, minerals and vitamins. “Shoppers increasingly demand snacks that can aid their health and wellness goals,” adds Pam Stauffer, the global market programme manager at American global food corporation Cargill, in a SmartBrief article.

Even transport trends are in line with wellness preferences, says Doris. Globally, we are moving towards using shared transport and vehicles no longer – or less – powered by fossil fuels. Doris sketches a scenario: in 2030, you rent a battery-electric vehicle for your day trip to Paternoster, while your friend boards the hop-on, hop-off train that circles Stellenbosch to do the week’s shopping. What a bargain for your health and the environment! 

Widespread transition to zero-emission transportation technologies by 2050 could save US$72 billion in health costs and approximately 6 300 lives. According to The Road to Clean Air Report by the American Lung Association, more than 93 000 asthma attacks and 416 000 lost work days could be avoided annually as a result of significant reductions in transport-related pollution. 

South Africans, however, still value having their own car, possibly because a first car is often perceived as a rite of passage and upgrading a car as improving social standing. But the pressure to support walkable cities and shared vehicles not powered by fossil fuels is mounting. “Ten years from now, it is easy to imagine Stellenbosch with walkways, cycling lanes and fewer individually owned cars, as well as more shared transport options,” says Doris. The good news is technology that supports the development and operation of battery-electric vehicles is becoming more affordable. 

Doris, by the way, walks the talk. On a two-month assignment accompanying her husband to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, she works outside every day in natural light. “I listen to the fish eagle calling the hippo,” she reflects, taking deep breaths of fresh air.

While I marvel at the wonder of nature, fresh air, technology and wellness on so many levels, this leading futurist sends me a video clip of an impala with soulful eyes meeting her gaze as she taps at her keyboard.

Institute for Futures Research
Dr Morné Mostert, director of the Institute for Futures Research, provides companies with foresight.

Institute for futures research

The Institute for Futures Research (IFR) was formed in 1974 as the long-term project of the Bureau for Economic Research at Stellenbosch University. The first – and still the only – body of its kind in Africa, it was restructured in 2016. Its research includes the new world of business, social capital, sustainability, technology and innovation, security, and the art and science of decision-making.

Why Africa?

According to the director, Dr Morné Mostert, Africa is complex, and often paradoxically so. The continent has wealth, yet the gap between rich and poor is huge. South Africa has had one of the greatest leaders ever in Nelson Mandela, yet leadership remains a constant challenge; top educators abound, yet so many of its citizens lack a sound education.

Futures thinking is rooted in strategic planning. As senior futurist Doris Viljoen says, “In any situation, there are multiple plausible futures. We, the people, create our futures by making choices, assigning resources and creating processes.”

The institute provides individuals and organisations with tools of good judgement and strategic foresight so that they can ‘connect the dots on their horizon’ in order to evade or conquer challenges, all to their benefit. 

The IFR’s philosophy is: the future can be measured and made.

  • You can acquire a future-thinking mindset by attending presentations and workshops at the IFR on topics such as future-thinking tools, scenario planning, scanning your environment and engendering foresight. For more information, email futures@ifr.sun.ac.za or call 021 918 4144.
  • The University of Stellenbosch Business School offers a postgraduate diploma, MPhil and PhD in Futures Studies.