As Australia’s most trusted scientific body, the CSIRO has to grapple with change at several different timescales. Our scientists working in health might study the way a microbe operates on the level of seconds. The energy division might study a battery over the course of several weeks. Researchers here at Data61 might look at trends in the use of distributed ledger technologies over a year.

What are megatrends?

‘Megatrends’ are intersecting and monumental shifts that happen across geopolitical, economic, environmental, social technological and legal trends, and happen at the decadal time frame. The phrase was popularised by American author John Naisbitt in 1982, in his book, ‘Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives’. It’s at the grand, impactful scale of digital megatrends that Data61’s Strategic Insights team draws their most recent focus.

‘Megatrends’ is a phrase used to describe the dramatic intersection of several smaller trends to create some larger, more significant trajectory of change. When changes happen on this scale around digital technology, it’s the responsibility of CSIRO’s Data61 to catalogue, analyse and publicise our knowledge of these trajectories.

“Megatrends occur at the intersection of numerous trends which have tighter temporal, spatial and typological expression. Trends are often classified as geopolitical, economic, environmental, social and technological,” says Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, a senior social scientist from our Strategic Insights research team.  “Techniques of megatrends analysis typically involve horizon scanning (trends identification) and trends-synthesis.”

The next decade of digital development

In a new report entitled ‘Digital Megatrends’, Dr Hajkowicz and David Dawson explore six key areas of digital transformation in the coming decade:

1 – Intelligent machines

Sensory systems, machine learning, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence are all set to advance in leaps and bounds in the next few years. As these technologies are used in the workforce, employment is impacted – we’re met with the ethical challenges of replacing human jobs with machine jobs.

2 – Digital Dividends

The advent of digital technology seeping into every single subset of society is massive increases in productivity and efficiency in several key areas – “digital technology allows us to sweat infrastructure assets harder”, write Dr Hajkowicz and Dave Dawson in their report. From these gains come new products,new sources of economic value and decreased environmental footprint.

3 – Data Driven future

The practice of soaking up data, storing it, and using it in a way that improves functionality and decision making is spreading like wildfire across business and government in many countries. Arguably, this shift defines our era, and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. These changes bring about jobs growth, but they also expose pressing questions around confidentiality, privacy and regulation.

4 – Burning platforms

Vertically integrated platforms like Uber, Amazon and Facebook have grown to dominate their respective areas, as any contemporary digital citizen can attest. Despite the recency of this massive shift, a parallel change looks likely – enabling technologies like blockchain and distributed ledger can cut out intermediaries and allow exchange between two parties – imagine a social media network that’s peer-to-peer rather than hosted on Facebook’s servers. The likelihood of the looming disruption of platforms is a testament to the rate at which these issues shifts.

5 – Online burnout

A collection of intersecting challenges serve as something of a brake on the expansion of heavily digital lifestyles. “Information overload, online harassment, cybercrime, cyber terrorism, sedentary behaviours, information interrupts, online manipulation and privacy breaches,” as discussed in the Digital Megatrends report, encourage caution and ‘digital detox’, but they’re also being met with technological solutions that improve safety, security and experience.

6 – Reality bites

The risk of over-estimating the temporal and spatial scale of digital shifts looms over any effort to forecast the future. Despite the recent uptake of streaming video and social media, visitor numbers to physical venues like museums and stadiums ratchet upwards. We’ll remain fundamentally grounded as megatrends take shape around us.

Why are megatrends important?

Through the work of Data61’s Strategic Insights team, the scale of these changes is highlighted – a staggering breadth of impact on every aspect of society. We work with Australian governments and businesses to delineate strategic priorities in a world that’s shifting in dramatic, consequential and intersecting ways. Stefan’s team identifies several key areas, such as mitigation, innovation and automation, for organisations to focus on if they’re to pre-empt megatrends in time for successful adaptation.

On Saturday the 16th of June, Dr Hajkowicz gave a great presentation, as part of the Vivid Ideas festival, on megatrends. You can watch that and explore other articles that dig deeper into megatrends as part of this issue of Algorithm.