UK United Kingdom

What are the future megatrends all Australians need to know about?

If hindsight is such a wonderful thing, surely foresight would be better. What if we could see what was coming at us and could position ourselves, our organisations and society to make the most of it…

What are the compelling economic, social, environmental, political and technological changes Australia must grapple with over the coming decades? Flickr/Tim Donnelly

If hindsight is such a wonderful thing, surely foresight would be better. What if we could see what was coming at us and could position ourselves, our organisations and society to make the most of it?

In 2009 CSIRO asked itself this question and came up with a set of global megatrends. A megatrend is a particularly important pattern of social, economic and environmental activity that will change the way people live.

That 2009 megatrends foresighting work has proven valid and this week we are releasing an updated version, Our Future World 2012, which details six megatrends. These six megatrends unveil economic, social, environmental, political and technological change over coming decades.

Read the CSIRO’s Our Future World 2012 report here.

The megatrends are: “More from Less” - the decline in resource availability while demand is increasing; “Going going gone” which addresses the risk of biodiversity loss due to human activity; “The silk highway” meaning the world’s economic centre is shifting to Asia; “Forever young” where the ageing population is both an asset and a challenge; “Virtually here”; the impact of increased digital connectivity; and “Great expectations”, reflecting the human desire for more intense personal experiences.

The six megatrends all have impacts on how we innovate, what we focus on and how we optimise our efforts.

The centre of gravity is shifting to our region, economically and in a research and development sense. Australia can’t meet the level of investment of our regional neighbours but we can be smarter and more focused about bringing the best we have together. We know we cannot compete on sheer volume of investment but we can bring the very best that Australia has together and we can connect with the very best in the world to ensure our innovation is visible from Shanghai, London, Frankfurt, Jakarta and New York.

Australia’s National Innovation System needs to continue to build collaboration, cooperation and trust in order to remain competitive. University colleagues of mine such as Vice Chancellor of UNSW Fred Hilmer and Vice Chancellor of University of Melbourne Glyn Davis have also called for innovation in the sector, allowing increased differentiation and increasing research focus and industry engagement.

The barbed wire approach to managing research and educational institutions is thankfully putting itself into extinction. But it’s not happening quickly enough. We still see these behaviours and they can cripple our ability to solve problems. However, when we do collaborate we know from experience wonderful things happen.

No one person has sufficient knowledge to build and fly a Boeing 747 from Singapore to London. Nor would one person have all the knowledge and skill to create a sustainable aquaculture industry. We can only achieve these outcomes by taking one person’s ideas and through collaboration, connection and trust, adding them to the ideas of many other people.

Major breakthroughs of the 21st century will come from this successful mixing of ideas and disciplines.

For example a group of CSIRO scientists in Melbourne has recently been contracted by a not-for-profit organisation called PATH to produce antibodies that could pave the way for safe, affordable and effective vaccines against rotavirus, which is a major cause of fatal diarrhoea.

Each year around 2.2 million people die from diarrhoea and most of these are children in developing countries. The story of this research effort is one of collaboration, trust and sharing of ideas.

The antibodies were originally prepared at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. They will now be produced in at scale our recombinant protein production facility in Melbourne.

The facility is Australia’s only non-commercialised laboratory that can produce proteins on a large scale and was initially funded by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy program and the Victorian State Government.

There is more we need to do so that success examples like this become the norm. This is not about investing more but changing the way we invest and work. We must bring together the very best that Australia has to offer in our research institutions, universities, industry players and connect them nationally and globally to the very best in the world.

One researcher can make a breakthrough but to have a profound impact on the challenges that face this nation and humanity it takes a team, or if you want to build the next Silicon Valley it takes a whole ecosystem. There is no reason why, as we head into what is undoubtedly the Asian Century, that Australia should not be a source of excellence in the region, in science, research and innovation.

CSIRO Chief Executive Megan Clark will launch the CSIRO’s megatrends update, Our Future World 2012, at the National Press Club in Canberra today.

The Conversation’s special megatrends series starts tomorrow.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    'Nor would one person have all the knowledge and skill to create a sustainable aquaculture industry'

    Could Megan Clark explain how the CSIRO support for biotech agriculture, which encourages monoculture and excessive herbicide use, is contributing towards sustainability: apart from the fact that Monsanto et al are contributing towards funding CSIRO?

    1. Rachel Fitzgerald

      Communication Manager, CSIRO

      In reply to John Newton

      Hi John,
      CSIRO conducts research throughout Australia to help improve the profitability and sustainability of Australian agriculture. We work closely with farmers, industry, government and regulators to achieve these goals through science.
      You can read more from Megan Clark about our work in biotechnology at “GM essential for health and food security” [] and "Why research plant genes" [], and read further details about our biotechnology research here on our website [].

    2. Megan Clark

      Chief Executive Officer at CSIRO

      In reply to John Newton

      John, one of the things we are doing with the aquaculture industry in Tasmania is setting up the largest sensor network which will allow feedback on water quality, microbial activity and impact to the environment. This is important for the industry to understand its impact.
      The other areas we are working on are the three big issues of reducing feed that comes from the bottom of the food chain and replacing it with sustainable feed, improving the breeding cycle and lastly closing the production loop to reduce or remove pollution.

  2. ann moffatt
    ann moffatt is a Friend of The Conversation.


    i'm really interested in the move towards collaboration which seems to be being adopted more frequently. in my experience this is the way women tend to work whereas, again in my experience, men seem to adopt a more competitive approach. i wonder if, as more women achieve executive positions, as with the csiro, this trend will be adopted more widely.

    as the article states, no one person can have all the knowledge to build a complex project. with collaboration we should progress faster towards our goals. to solve the big problems of the world we need to work smarter and faster.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to ann moffatt

      I wish it was true and I even used to believe that.

      There are plenty of power hungry females. Having worked in the welfare sector where there are more women than men in managerial positions, can't agree at all. I think this is due to the way organisations are set up: the naturally power-hungry are served by the pyramid structure. Unless this changes, cooperative type men and women will continue to do all the hard yakka and the few at the top take the credit.

    2. Megan Clark

      Chief Executive Officer at CSIRO

      In reply to ann moffatt

      More and more we are seeing the importance of open collaboration such as used by the Gates Foundation. The teams and organizations that can get this right will be more successful.

  3. Rajan Venkataraman


    Thanks Dr Clark for the article and for drawing attention to CSIRO's Future World report. I look forward to reading it. One could quibble with the specific choices of 'mega-trends', but on the other hand their interest derives in part from the fact that they are a little different from what one routinely hears from every other pundit.

  4. Walter Adamson


    This is the key message I took from this article, and potentially how Australia can address the mega-trends: "This is not about investing more but changing the way we invest and work".

  5. Michael Bolan

    Systems practicioner

    Many (all?) of the 'megatrends' appear to be outcomes of human actions.

    In order to establish some sort of control (resource depletion, social expections, technology development etc) we need to understand our role(s) in producing those outcomes.

    Population increases, economic theories, structural flaws in outmoded systems of government and other factors; all contribute to producing the 'megatrends'.

    We need to explore 'why' these megatrends are occuring and ask what changes we might make…

    Read more
    1. Megan Clark

      Chief Executive Officer at CSIRO

      In reply to Michael Bolan

      Thanks for the question about what the trends are telling us about how we behave and think. One of things we noted under Great Expectations was that humans are complex and income growth and class ascendency can be associated with negative behaviours. Scientific studies have shown that people's motivations and behaviours are not always more honest or desirable. Have a look at Piff ET al 2012 PNAS 109, 4086-4091.

  6. Rory McGuire

    Science commentator

    Looking only at the energy components of this piece, and the CSIRO's Megatrends report referred to, I find them both very disappointing. They provide little more than statistics on future energy use, many already known or easily acceptable, and very little useful information on how the challenges might be met.
    Future energy supply is obviously one of the greatest challenges facing each and every nation. While the report is correct in noting fossil fuels will be the major energy source for decades…

    Read more
    1. Megan Clark

      Chief Executive Officer at CSIRO

      In reply to Rory McGuire

      You are right about the complexity of the energy space both from a supply and demand perspective. I did not have enough time to cover this in the presentation today but check out the Energy Futures work at CSIRO.

  7. Geoffrey Edwards

    logged in via email

    "If hindsight is such a wonderful thing, surely foresight would be better."

    We only attribute foresight with the "advantage" of hindsight. Advantage of course being ironic.

  8. Adam Butler

    Engineer and Data Analyst

    As Megan points out, international collaboration is growing more and more. This is the way is has to be if Australia is to be swept along in the swift pace of change.

    Yet our useless politicians would have all this international collaboration and research thrown out the door at the behest of our American Godfather via the Defence Trade Controls Bill which enforces the "treaty" signed in 2007 by former Prime Minister John Howard and former United States President George Bush.

    Any research/technologies that may impact on defence is at risk because of American (now Australian) paranoia related to defence "threats". Agriculture, computer technologies, hardware, software, engineering, science, medicine, pharmocology....etc etc....all under threat.

    So while we speak of "megatrends" our government pushes all aside in the pursuit of "our" "security".........1984 anyone?

  9. Spiro Vlachos


    Great article about technological innovations. A breath of fresh air in contrast to the usual 'snow gone by 2020' claims such as the one in today's The Australian. Innovation is driven by our goals of addressing current problems, rather than future possibilities.

    1. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Spiro Vlachos

      A breath of fresh air, or of hot air?

      We do need to keep our eye on where we are headed but we won't get far through ignoring present problems,

      Prioritising a list like this, teasing out what we see as the trends, and the descriptors we give for each, are all subjective.

      The "Great expectations" one is particularly dubitable. People seek a balance beteen intensity and calm. For each person, the balance is different. Few people will hazard their house or their life and will even insure themselves every way they can. Then they may go out to buy a lotto ticket, so they have a regulated degree of uncertainty in their life.

      When a group of scientists prepare a subjective view, is it science?

      There are also specific, or restrictive, definitions implicit in the way words like "innovation" and "collaboration" are used.

      That is not to contest the worth of the project, only to probe its limits and assumptions.

  10. J Barry Edmundson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I was interested in your talk but believe as a society we need to address the aspect of population rather than just accept 7 billion growing to 10 billion humans on the planet Surely we need to help, convince, educate families in the countries of the world that cant look after their children adequately so that they can have families that can be sustained fed educated and clothed,Wars over scarcity asylum seeking and increased poverty will increase if this aspect of our world is not addressed by the leading nations of the world in the next ten years

  11. Dee HachePea

    Rocket Surgeon

    This "brochure" from the CSIRO is about as biased and worthless as the CSIRO has unfortunately become.

    The CSIRO lost all credibility when they started flogging breakfast cereal and were made unable (by a matter of policy) to publish without government review and oversight.

    This "brochure" cites a study from Paul Erlich.. a well known, controversial supporter of eugenics and forced sterilization for the third world. His overly publicized alarmism concerning human population are a prime example of a failed and disgraced academic whose idea's where thrown out 30 years ago. Having his "research" parroted by the CSIRO to support whatever the government of the day's ideological "message" is.. without the necessary scientific peer review that are a basic requirement for credible scientific organizations.

  12. Joseph Bernard



    Mobility and the internet. an estimated 1.2 billion smart phones will be sold in the next two years alone. The stage is set for a growing market.

    also recently found research like SMART initiative by Wollongong university to be an interesting venue that offers a collaborative research facility

  13. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    Cold Fusion. You have been lied to. The effect is real and very important.

    And then there is the exponential function. There will be orders of magnitude more people living at the Lagrange points than on the surface of the planet within 100 years because of the exponential function.This is the only way to escape the iron logic of the Limits to Growth report.