Is Society Ready for Future and Technological Change?


On February 21, 2017, the Valdai Discussion Club and RVC held the first open meeting of Club 2035, their joint project focusing on scenarios of the future.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, RVC Deputy CEO and Program Director, opened the debate, noting that the discussion of future trends has not been widely employed for the past 20 years, but the situation has changed recently. Now, over 600 scenarios and strategies of the future have been made in Russia, he said. Another topic brought up by Kuznetsov was how such plans and forecasts impact society. A forecast should not be necessarily be  fulfilled, he said. It is more important that it shapes a certain culture and changes the civilization model of society, he said.

“This is a thin line that has not been described well in literature. However, this interaction of forecasting and society is capable of changing both,” Kuznetsov said.  A forecast should not necessarily come true, Kuznetsov  said, but it shapes a certain culture, by  changing the civilizational culture of a society|”.

Alexander Auzan, chair of the department of economics at Moscow State University, talked about long-term economic strategies he took part in. He noted that it is important to look at economic issues instead of expecting technology to deliver Russia from its middle-income status. He noted that the year 2035 was chosen as the end point of the strategy once political cycles were taken into account.

As part of the research, the team surveyed a wide range of economic experts on their views on the economic actions the Russian government will take in the future, and summarized their results as four visions of the future. The survey found that while most experts preferred a liberal or social-democratic vision, they expected that the government would act as one following a model of a middle-income country, characterized in Russia as “catch-up development”, although almost no experts preferred or expected a heterodox model such as “socialism in the 21st century.”

Based on these findings and looking at where experts’ preferences and expectations were most different, as well as where they met, the team devised an economic strategy for Russia. The strategy provides a way for Russia to shift from a country with extractive institutions and limited access to the state to one of open access to the state and inclusive institutions that are focused on developing and attracting human capital.

According to Auzan, following the strategy would allow Russia to shift from a “catch-up development” country to a liberal or social-democratic country (middle-income escapee) by 2024, and by 2035 to shift from that to a country that is competitive with leading economies, when it comes to innovation and sustainable development, including the Gini coefficient.

“With all our efforts so far, [the Gini coefficient] remained stable, but it mostly grew. In 2007, when the ministry of social development reported on its indicators, it said, ‘look, all our indicators are normal, get rid of Gini coefficient, the rest are fine, but this one keeps on growing.’ And the experts told them that this is because you throw money around, but it ends up among a different group of people from the one you intended,” Auzan said.

Looking at scenarios for achieving such a strategy, Auzan noted that democratic institutions and coalitions for growth would not be enough, and that a change in views among elites, including a shift away from personalization of power and a shift toward a monopoly on violence with one set of rules would be necessary. He noted that fostering democratic institutions without functional state institutions has been detrimental to development, and said that the cultural factor is very important, an issue he described by outlining the theory and problems of “path dependence” in attitudes among both elites and the broader society.

Valdai Club Research Director Fyodor Lukyanov noted that at the Munich Security Conference he witnessed political shifts, which the representatives of various countries reacted to by pursuing their particular interests rather than holding together.

“What was most noticeable there, and in this whole political trend was the term 'bring back.' Trump wants to bring back America’s greatness, British voters went to vote under the slogan of bringing back control over their lives. To bring back means to return to something. So, in this cycle of talking about the future, there is a mental attempt to return to the past and there is a feeling that this is not a temporary cycle. Trump is not the reason for these changes, he is the product of conscience of at least part of society,” Lukyanov said.

He noted that while humanity appears to be at the cusp of another quantitative change, human conscience does not appear to be going the same way. He noted that this is similar in Russia, where the Stratfor agency is often cited for forecasts, even though its methodology is based on predicting the future based on things that happened in the past.

Auzan replied that it is important to keep in mind that many processes that appear progressive are actually cyclical, and that it is important to keep in mind that no process will end in a single totality, whether the technological development predicted by Charles Babbage, the socio-economic processes predicted by Karl Marx or the current trend of globalization.

Viktor Vakhshtayn, chair of the department of social sciences at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, noted that it is important to not discuss technology, “and society,” as the two are not separate. He presented a study on technological optimism, recently made for RVC.

Vakhshtayn looked at the trends of the survey, which found that Russians are bigger technological optimists than Europeans, in part thanks to Soviet education, but that the people who could be called real technological optimists and show it through spending patterns and entrepreneurial behavior are a tiny subset, at just six percent.

He also noted that these technological optimists generally despise state institutions and believe that technology is the only way to solve these problems, also making them technological messianists in a way. This is also an issue as the jobs considered more elite, such as lawyers or judges, are easier to automate and replace with robots while the less attractive jobs such as janitor are considerably much more difficult. “Today, our discussion has been a very multi-vectored one,” Kuznetsov concluded. “All images of the future are projections of our imagination and even if they come true, it will be not the way we forecasted. But, as these images and ideas are in the center of public polemics and intrude our present, they are capable of changing it.” 

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