What will sustainable life in Egypt look like in 2050?

BY Simone Karlstetter | November 21, 2018|Comments 0

Let’s take a look back at Egypt in the 1960s. With a population of 27 million people, 90 percent lived in rural areas and approximately 70 percent were considered poor. Could anyone, at that time, have imagined that Egypt would have an estimated 100 million inhabitants and an economy nearing $400 billion?

Could anyone have anticipated that Egypt’s middle class would grow from 10 million people to 70 million in 2015? Could anyone have foreseen this in 1960, based on Egypt’s growth trajectory in the 30 years before that?

We at the UN in Egypt are aware that using historical data is not a panacea to predict the future. The future does not unfold in a static environment; there are ‘signals’ of emerging trends and issues that create new development realities.

Uncertainty is the new normal

Epidemics travel faster than ever, the growing resistance to antibiotics severely disrupting existing public health models and revolutionary medical innovation is cutting costs dramatically. National food security, with all of its social and political implications, hinges more on a country’s ability to tap in the world food markets than on local production. The  traditional assumptions about what is possible is changing rapidly.

Demographics and economics are becoming less predictable. Based on 2017 census data, a new population scenario is unfolding in Egypt. With a growth rate of 2.56 percent against a population of 96 million, there could be on average 800,000 job seekers a year between 2018 to 2022. To absorb the amount of people entering the workforce, the idea was for manufacturing to be an employment solution for Egypt’s growing population. However, exponential technological changes may mean Egypt cannot follow the manufacturing models of the Asian tigers of the 1970s and China in the 1990s.

The patterns of the past are very unlikely to offer assurances of future success. The manufacturing industry as we know it may not provide sufficient long-range opportunities for employment in the entire 21st century given automation and service trends, which are  replacing human labor.

Another force creating new development realities in Egypt is climate change. The rise in temperatures is leading to water loss due to evaporation. At the same time, the foreseen rise in sea levels will inundate much of Egypt’s low lying land in the Nile Delta, which is densely populated. This situation is also a threat to food security as it’s reducing crop yields.  

The combination of adverse factors could push the country over the water scarcity threshold soon and undermine the ability of the country’s natural resource base to sustain a growing population.

Egypt is also located in a volatile region. For example, the instability in neighboring Libya has forced over one million Egyptian migrant workers to return home. The country also hosts a substantial number of refugees and economic migrants fleeing insecurity and lack of economic opportunities in their countries of origin.

The tyranny of data

Traditional planning practices as we know them are less relevant than before. For example, quantitative modelling, which is based on projecting ‘old’ data (that is, data from the past, including their past ‘behavior’) into the future, makes it less possible to deal with volatility and uncertainty, key dimensions of any future.

We can easily get caught up in a “tyranny of data” and ignore that human evolution has not been linear or data driven. Contrary to public belief, history rarely repeats itself and fabled economic mutatis-mutandis conditions are never maintained. An exclusively data driven approach may not necessarily inspire the actions needed to adapt to long range, emerging development trends.

The Alexandria Dialogues

Earlier this year, we at the UN in Egypt partnered up with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a center of excellence and major cultural institution in the country, to carry out a series of strategic foresight dialogues, known as Alexandria Dialogues. We used third-generation foresight techniques to create images and narratives of alternative futures for Egypt in the year 2050.

To get this off the ground, we co-organized a series of conversations with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. During these interactions, we explored the new emerging development realities of Egypt with high level officials, civil society, and academics to identify promising new strategic opportunities to realize the country’s potential.

Since foresight allows policymakers to stress test their thinking against biases, different assumptions and scenarios of the future, we spoke with influential people and decision-makers to help us identify key topics related to the economy, society, science and technology, environment and agriculture. We wanted to make sure these ideas resonate, so we asked thought leaders to validate them. The six topics that we selected are:

  1. Egyptian society: How will an inclusive society look like in Egypt in 2050?
  2. The anthropocene: What will a sustainable life in Egypt in 2050 look like?
  3. Citizenship of the future: What will it mean to be an educated person in Egypt in 2050?
  4. People on the move: How will internal, external and virtual mobility affect Egypt in 2050?
  5. The social contract: What will the (formal) relationship between citizens and State be in Egypt in 2050?
  6. New geopolitical forces and cross border challenges: How will Egypt’s relationship with the broader region look like in 2050?

Between September and December 2018, we are organizing six foresight events around the topics mentioned above. One of the many advantages of foresight is that when people come together to talk about the future, there’s no room to play the blame game; it’s taken out of the equation. These dialogues are a safe space to discuss scenarios, examine future socio-economic opportunities, and uncover sustainable pathways toward a vibrant and prosperous Egypt in 2050.

As a next step, we are planning to present and discuss the Scenarios and Narratives from the Future, which emerged during Alexandria Dialogues at a one-day Conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in April 2019. We are going to invite experts and stakeholders to explore the different dimensions of the Narratives, discuss the emerging strategic opportunities and suggest follow-up actions.

These foresight series have been an eye-opener for us. They’re helping us break new ground by providing a participatory platform to talk about the probable futures of Egypt. Stay tuned for more, we are just getting started!


Simone Karlstetter Simone is Coordination Specialist at the UN Resident Coordinator Office in Egypt. You can follow her on Linkedin.

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