Op-Ed

A warm tomorrow

When faced with the challenges of the coming decades, there are two opposing worldviews: on the Western side of the Atlantic, the focus is on disruptive innovation and technology; on this end, there is talk of reforms or taxes.

The future torments us, the past holds us back, that’s why the present eludes us” : nowhere more than in Europe does this quote from Flaubert hold true. The multiplication of prospective reports here and there is an indication of this among others. In May, the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, presented España 2050, a 675-page document with contributions from more than a hundred experts from various fields and ideological backgrounds, presenting a 30-year plan for the country’s development aimed at improving performance on key issues such as education, health, pensions, employment, taxes and the environment over the next three decades. “Projecting into the future is another way of saying that we believe in the future,” the Spanish leader said in presenting his report. In France, the creation, almost a year ago, of the Haut commissariat pour le plan (High Commission for the Plan) stems from the same idea that we need to draw the future, if possible a future that is both possible and desirable.

Drawing the future in order to try to tame it: such is indeed the aim. In this, European leaders unwittingly pay a fine tribute to Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of Defense, who has just passed away and whose famous quote on the known and the unknown is more relevant than ever: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

Relevant because the pandemic has shown us that the “known unknown” is well and truly there, ready to emerge at any moment, feeding in passing the idea that after all, the “unknown unknown” may also be tomorrow. For therein lies the limit of these prospective exercises in democracies made even more impatient by a pandemic that never ends: 2040, 2050, no doubt… but what about 2022, 2023, 2024, etc.? Reconciling tomorrow and the day after tomorrow is probably the most difficult political exercise today. President Biden’s policy on climate change should be read in this light. By calling the years 2020-2030 the “decisive decade”, he explains that it is the decisions of the 2020s that will shape the world of 2050, the world of carbon neutrality to which the nations have committed themselves through the Paris Agreement.

This reasoning is common sense, since the mobility and energy production infrastructures and the buildings we are building today will still be there in less than 30 years.This is also the philosophy of the French Blanchard-Tirole report, which explains what needs to be done today to meet the three economic challenges that are only going to increase: climate change, inequality and demographic aging. However, the tone is different: on one side of the Atlantic, the emphasis is on disruptive innovations, technology and the resulting transformations in our lives and jobs; on the other, the talk is of reforms or taxes. On the one hand, the new American Lorenzo de’ Medici – the Gates, Musk and Bezos – make us dream with innovations and Promethean ambitions, underground, on the ground, in the air and beyond; on the other hand, economists and Nobel Prize winners confront us with reality, with “the truth, the bitter truth” to respond to the order of politicians who look to the future against the backdrop of the Yellow Vests.

These are indeed two opposing representations of the world: to dream the world in order to shape it by one’s own hand; to tell the world in order to try to suffer it as little as possible. In the coming decade, where will the brighter tomorrow be?

→ This op-ed is from Cécile Maisonneuve’s bi-monthly columns and can be found in its entirety on the L’Express website here (in French).

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La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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