English
12.09.2013

What Austria will be like in 37 years

Two dozen Austrian scientists thought about what Austria will be like in the year 2050. The publication Österreich 2050 examines our future from different perspectives, from education to research and innovation. futurezone spoke with the initiators of the project, the head of the Council for Research and Technology Development, Ludo Garzik, and managing board member Peter Skalicky.

The book Österreich im Jahr 2050 is about what Austria will be like in 37 years. What should Austria be like, and not be like?
Garzik: Our world, including Austria, will be radically different in the year 2050. Thinking back 40 years makes this very clear. And change will take place even more rapidly in the future. But this also means that we will be faced with a large number of new challenges in the future beyond those that we are working on now, such as climate change and demographic trends. One of the things that we must learn from the crises of recent years is that during sustained crises, advanced societies can only continue to exist when they learn to change and make themselves more robust at the same time.

Skalicky: A common term in this concept is resilience, which describes how a thing or system reacts to external influences. This resilience, which is used to describe a system’s ability to withstand crises and negative influences of an ecological or social nature, depends on the relationship between the system’s internal efficiency and its innovative potential. Systems that enter a protection and maintenance phase after a growth phase run the risk of falling into increasing stagnation if they do not permit internal renewal, at which point only the standards achieved to that point are defended and the dominant attitude is protection against change in the form of innovative behavior. “More of the same” strategies are then applied to buy time, but every external shock can bring the entire system down because of the shock waves that it causes throughout the entire system. This means that the blind continuation of strategies that have worked up until now would be a poor choice, because it is destined to fail. We need to make changes!

Peter Skalicky and Ludo Garzik (right) from the Council for Research and Technology Development

Two dozen recognized Austrian experts from different fields wrote in the book. But it’s not about the individual areas, but about the big picture, as you wrote in the preface – where do we want to be in 37 years.
Garzik: The Austrian federal government has set the goal of making Austria one of the leading countries in terms of innovation. The Council for Research and Technology Development fully supports this goal. The Council feels that Austria will only have good prospects in global competition in 2050 as a modern knowledge society.

No one knows what the future will really bring. But we do know one thing for sure: Austria will not be able to avoid the global grand challenges. And even if no single political approach can answer all of the important questions of our time, most agree that education, research and innovation are the keys to overcoming the challenges ahead of us.

The world’s most innovative countries, above all the USA, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, recognized this some time ago and have taken corresponding action. These countries have increased their investments in research, development and education massively, especially during the latest crisis.

The book is not about predicting hovertrains, nanotubes or computer implants, but about predictions for socially relevant areas. In what areas do we need reforms, and to what extent?
Skalicky: For a small, open economy like Austria, it will not be enough in the future to simply be somewhere in the pack in global competition between the knowledge-based economies. Knowledge is one of the most important raw materials of the future, especially in countries with a low level of physical raw materials like Austria. Investments in education, science, research, technology and innovation are absolutely crucial if Austria is to remain competitive in the future, and if it is to remain prosperous and socially secure.

This means that as globalization advances, national leaders must prepare the country for the challenges of the future. And promising future fields must be bolstered to the detriment of less productive fields and fields that only consume and do not produce. The book discusses a series of necessary reforms – from education and taxation to public administration and pensions. We must lay the foundation now for ensuring that we have a modern knowledge society that can maintain its competitiveness all the way into 2050 by means of sensible and effective reforms. We still have the ability to correct past mistakes – provided that we face the challenges of the future head on and take the necessary action.

Garzik: What we need is a comprehensive, energetic and dynamic strategy for how to move forward through to 2050, and an implementation-oriented “agenda 2025” that motivates people to act responsibly but that also serves as a reliable and solid point of orientation.

Making predictions about things that are far in the future does not take much courage, because you will not be held accountable in 37 years when a prediction does not come true.
Garzik: There will certainly be disruptive developments that we cannot foresee. But it is still important to try and assess what trends will shape the future the most. This is the only way we can tackle the challenges of the future and react adequately to them.

As Niels Bohr, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” But then Willy Brandt said “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” In keeping with this, our goal with our publication Österreich 2050 is to initiate a comprehensive discussion of reforms that covers broad parts of our society.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Austria was the third wealthiest nation in the EU and eleventh in the world in terms of per capita income in 2012. The question is whether or not we will be able to maintain this level in the coming generations.
Skalicky: It is true that Austria is currently one of the top countries in the world in terms of per capita income. But we will only be able to maintain this when Austria invests strategically in its future. And this especially includes investments in education, research and innovation. And funds must be taken out of less productive areas that primarily serve to maintain existing structure and out of areas that only consume, such as subventions and misdirected transfer payments, and put into these forward-looking areas. Right now, we are resting on our laurels, and are failing to ask ourselves what will happen tomorrow. This might go well for a while. But if we fail to make long-term investments in our future, Austria’s economic performance could very well suffer. Over the long term, this could also mean a decline in per capita income and employment.

One chapter in your book is called “Reform logjam” – and applies to virtually all subjects discussed in the book, including education, science and research. What happens when reforms work in one area, but not in another area?
Garzik: It is difficult to single out one particular area here. There are many areas in Austria where the willingness to make reforms was very low over the past years and decades. These certainly include the pension, education and tax systems, but also public administration in general. There are countless expert opinions and reform proposals in all of these areas. Experts all also largely agree about what reform steps need to be taken – all that is missing is the political will to take these steps.

One aspect that we have the most influence over is education. Will we have enough suitably qualified people in Austria in the future?
Skalicky: The current education system is largely based on the requirements placed on people by agriculture – summer break, for example – and then the industrial age. The latter needs people who “function properly,” in other words people who can acquire a certain amount of knowledge in a certain amount of time and can then apply it.

But the challenges of life, in other words shaping your own individual life on the basis of your own needs and desires, have changed significantly. Our world is becoming faster, more connected, less certain, and more filled with contradictions every day. At the same time, existing structures are becoming less important, which often causes considerable uncertainty. This demands individual initiative and responsibility, broad prospects, clear strategies and the will the implement them.

Won’t society’s entire house of cards come tumbling down when the education system no longer works, and when not enough educated people are available?
Garzik: The demographer and social statistician Wolfgang Lutz has already been able to document the social importance of education – in other words the advantages provided by education above and beyond the individual in question – in a large number of studies: Educated people are generally healthier, have healthier children, and educated women can strengthen their position in the family. The education of large parts of the population is also a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Democracy is only possible when the majority of the population has sufficient reading comprehension, in other words when they can inform themselves, and sufficient communication skills.

Would it not have been better to write a book called The World in 50 Years, or Europe in 50 Years? Austria can’t do anything on it’s own, anyway.
Garzik: Austria is naturally part of the global developments. Some of the chapters in Österreich 2050 show this very clearly. But this does not mean that our country can lean back and wait to see how things develop. We can make our contribution to many global challenges, for example by researching measures to combat climate change. There are also many areas where we need to act, for example the pension and education systems and our public administration. We simply have to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We must maintain our competitiveness as a location, secure our industrial base and increase our attractiveness as a place to work, invest and live.

Where will Austria be in 50 years compared with the current emerging countries?
Skalicky: In light of the slowing growth rates that are typical of the convergence process, Austria is not likely to fall behind emerging countries. The Economist recently noted this in a title story – the growth rates in countries like China, India and Brazil have slowed considerably as of late. Nevertheless, we must keep an eye on negative developments so we can act in time.

What do you want to achieve with the book?
Garzik: In order for us to be able to master the existing and future challenges, we must be aware of the problems and must have prospects, strategies and the will to act. We hope that Österreich 2050 will spark a broad discussion and motivate Austrians to inform themselves and demand that our leaders implement the reforms that are needed to ensure that future generations have the opportunities that they deserve. We don’t want anyone to be able to say: “You guys had a grand old time, and we have to pay for it.”