We’re used to Silicon Valley creating the future. For people in the rest of the country and the world, it’s hard not to envision the Valley as a crazy place where Google’s self-driving cars zip along, carrying a tweeting Mark Zuckerberg to a meeting with the world’s richest VCs, all of whom are working on new technologies that will change the world. Despite the brainpower and business acumen that’s concentrated in the Bay Area, nothing lasts forever. What do futurists predict will happen to the Valley?
The Institute for the Future does an impressive job honing in on signals and patterns that could yield insight about what’s to come. The organization teamed up this month with ZERO1 Biennial, which produces a showcase of exhibits at the intersection of art and technology, to create the Seeking Silicon Valley map, which highlights the Biennial’s locations—and then superimposes visions of alternative Silicon Valley futures on top of it. Here’s what the IFTF imagines for the place that works at creating tech-heavy futures every day.
This future—the one that someone observing the San Francisco Bay Area today might guess would be the most likely in the absence of an economic or natural disaster—is one of extreme growth. In this future, Silicon Valley continues innovating as is, with clusters of industry in robots, automated vehicles, augmented reality gaming, neurotechnology, and renewable energy (all the things that are just now starting to emerge in the Valley) drive the economy forward. The catch—and this is something that’s also starting to happen—is that less wealthy residents are forced to leave the Bay Area, creating what IFTF calls "a ring of poverty and crime around gated enclaves of super-affluence." At the same time, a shortage of housing, public transportation, and even open space are making the area a less attractive place to live.
That number marks the day that the big 8.2 magnitude earthquake hits in this scenario; the one that Bay Area residents always knew was coming, but failed to prepare for. As a result of lack of earthquake-ready infrastructure, the quake kills nearly 4,500 people, displaces over 800,000, generates fires, coastal erosion, and flooding. People even end up living in floating shanty boat colonies. By 2032, things are starting to return to normal, and residents are rebuilding the area—this time, with resilience in mind.
This scenario is one of a gentle descent from the Bay’s current boom-time culture. Constrained resources have spurred on the already-growing movements of DIY production, sharing, and conservation. People are kept in line by laws limiting consumption, enforced using embedded sensors and controls (i.e. showers only work at certain times of day), while high taxes and participatory funding let people decide what public resources should be funded with their money.
This could also be known as the sci-fi fantasy scenario, where the IFTF imagines that "the Bay Area has become the epicenter of a rapid transformation of human society, social institutions, and life itself." That transformation includes "enhanced telepathic connection" (created by leaps in neurotech innovation), a political system that uses real-time sentiment analysis and "neural predictive modeling" to make decisions, and economic models that take into account an abundance of energy and construction opportunities.
Though they may seem outlandish, none of these futures are out of the question. We’ve seen the seeds of a making and sharing economy (as in the Collaborative Constraint scenario), a big earthquake in the area is all but inevitable, Boom Time for the Bay simply imagines that Silicon Valley continues on its current course, and even some of the pieces in Bioconstructed Realities are starting to come together (Intel is already working on technology to sense what people are thinking based on neural activity).
The most likely scenario is one that takes bits and pieces from all of the alternative futures mentioned above. One thing can be virtually guaranteed, though: Silicon Valley will continue innovating no matter what happens.