Leading into the Future: Why the U.S. will look to Japan, not China

On Wednesday night, ~75 futurists gathered for an engaging meet-up at Public Bar in Washington, DC. Patrick Tucker (@TheYear2030), senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine, spoke briefly, as I had invited him to share a little about his experiences while on assignment in Japan during the past six months.

In an email response to Shashi Bellamkonda (who snapped some fun photos of the evening) on why he ventured to Japan, Patrick wrote:

…in searching for a picture of what the United States will look like in 2050, don’t look to China.  The story of the emerging superpower is one we’ve already lived.  China will industrialize, build factories, grow its middle class, and assert its interests on the international stage.  For all the menace that Washington projects onto the government in Beijing, too often we forget that China ’s ascent is the story of  America’s rise a century ago.  A more accurate picture of our later 21st Century might be found in Japan, a nation grappling with enormous national debt, insufficient natural resources, waning geopolitical influence, and the oldest population in the Industrialized world; 22% of the country is older than 65.

Japan is still the future. But the future is not what it was.

Japan’s aging and shrinking population is a lethal combination for economic growth according to many outside observers. Older populations draw down savings rather than reinvest, and they strain public services and government budgets, a particular worry in Japan where the debt to GDP ratio is above 200%.

Japan, however, is also a world leader in green product design, hardware design, and personal robotics.  In the coming decade, Japan will leverage its technology and design strengths in an attempt overcome its economic and demographic challenges.  Japan’s success or failure in this effort will be instructive for other developed economies with aging populations.

As someone who follows technology and innovation closely, Japan is exceptionally interesting – for its cultural tradition, discipline and honor, for its love of nature in its reverence for trees and seasons, and for its exuberant development of robots. Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that disabled the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, I’m even more interested in how this country will lead the way in energy innovation (for example, read  how one Japanese company is pursuing a plan to harvest solar energy from the moon). And more importantly, how the United States will partner in these endeavors.

 

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