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A Retiring Glance At Trade – Past, Present And Future

As my tenure at UK Trade & Investment draws to a close, it’s time for a little reflection…

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26 September 2013 :: Unknown Author

A Retiring Glance At Trade – Past, Present And Future

As my tenure at UK Trade & Investment draws to a close, it’s time for a little reflection…

What did the world look like when I began working as an Export Development Counsellor (now known as an International Trade Adviser) for UKTI, 18 years ago in 1995? Using the ultimate ‘aide memoire’ that is the World Wide Web (which, ironically enough, was privatised in 1995), I have been able to speedily discover some headlines from that year that have a horribly familiar ring…


·       Perhaps serving as an early warning of what was to come, Barings Bank collapsed following the actions of ‘rogue trader’ Nick Leeson;


·       In January, the Kobe earthquake killed 6,434 people;


·       In April, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in Oklahoma City killing 168, at that time the most destructive act of terrorism in the United States.


On a personal level, I was sporting some (with hindsight) ill-advised facial hair and watching the much lauded BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, whilst teenage boys were playing on the first Sony Play Station and teenage girls were wondering how to live in a world that contained a Robbie-less Take That.


But that was then…and I’m left wondering what the coming years will hold for us all. If we jump forward to 2052 (when I will be 100 and living in an old peoples’ home surrounded by jealous husbands!), what might we find?


·       Economic predictions abound. Here are just a few from various respected sources:


·       World trade is set to jump from $37 trillion in 2010 to $287 trillion in 2050;


·       The Commonwealth will account for 38 per cent of the global labour force by 2050, up from 29 per cent in 2005;


In 2050, over 96 per cent of global working age population will be outside EU 26;


It is difficult to argue against statistics such as these, but many believe that the manner of trade and the nature of goods traded are set to change hugely.


Futurists, such as the University of Nottingham’s Christopher Barnatt (who I had the pleasure of listening to at an event some weeks ago), predict many and substantial changes to the way that we live our lives which, in turn, are bound to have a knock on effect on the way we engage in trade.


The urgent need for a more sustainable attitude towards everything we do, the proximity of peak oil and significant resource depletion may mean we have to turn towards new potential solutions such as: vertical farming, a way to enable cities to become self-sufficient and minimise the transportation of crops and livestock; dematerialisation, the requirement for us to become less materialistic will lead on necessarily to the idea of design for repair – we need to return to the old ways, whereby possessions were repaired rather than simply jettisoned and new ones bought.


The virtual world will have, in some respects, taken over from the real world so travel and the transportation of goods could look very different. How much will we need to travel and what means will be available to us (jet packs at last???) And the inexorable rise in the possibilities offered by 3D printing will make the old-fashioned ways of moving goods (ships/planes) redundant. Are we finally nearing the world promised to us all those decades ago by Star Trek whereby meals appear at the touch of a button and people are ‘beamed up’?


As people concerned with export, we should ready ourselves for a move away from the more traditional mechanisms of rampant consumerism to ones which have to be tempered by a more sustainable approach to trade. But opportunities for trade will still exist, even though they may look and feel a little different. Such a brave new world will require hugely high levels of innovation, design, new ideas, processes and technologies, all of which the UK can and currently does excel at.


Citigroup’s research team have predicted that the following 10 countries will command world trade in 2050: China (unsurprisingly at number 1) followed by India, USA, Germany, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the UK (coming in at number 10). So the prospects for our small island are excellent if we are clear about our priorities and harness our talents.


Scientists, academics and economists are making and revising informed predictions about what is likely in the coming years with the benefit of hindsight, research and following the curve of trends already in train, but given the changes that have come to pass since 1995 this is an inexact science and Mystic Meg (Paranormal Peter??) I am not. I do though feel that the future for our island is bright.


And whatever comes to pass in the forthcoming years, I wish you all well with your business endeavours. It has been a pleasure sharing the journey with you…


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