Shifting Sands: Future trend spotting

Sep 27, 2021

Analysing emerging trends and their potential impact on humanitarian crises and our response

We can get lost in information. We are constantly bombarded by data and opinions, insight and analysis. It is hard to filter this noise to find the important signals, the information which brings you significant intelligence about an emerging trend which will go on to shape our future.


The Future Today Institute details 10 historical forces which shape our world (fig 1.). Technology is a cross-cutting driver, which both triggers and responds to developments in all these areas.



At Shifting Sands, we are constantly monitoring and analysing these forces to understand their potential impact on humanitarian crises and our response.

We are currently focusing on four key areas, building scenarios and raising questions based on the signals we receive and the connections we make between emerging trends:

  1. Growing social contestation
  2. Climate change as a major public health threat
  3. Misinformation, media manipulation and public health
  4. Technology as a key driver of social change


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Questioning the future

As you read about these possible futures, consider the following questions:

  • Can your National Society’s existing operational specialisms respond effectively to these challenges? What new ones might you need?
  • Does your National Society have the expertise and tools to effectively engage with these emerging trends early? What would be helpful as you consider the risks and opportunities triggered by these issues?

Our Hourglass network will soon be able to connect you to experts in these areas for a 1:1 discussion.



1. Growing social contestation

2020 was marked by an unprecedented health crisis, the economic, social, and human consequences of which are particularly difficult for the population.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated the world’s attention over the past year, it has not slowed down the many other crises that will continue to require the urgent attention of the international community. Instead, it has exacerbated them.     

The problems of governance, combined with the growing youth unemployment and the increase in precarious employment, are likely to constitute a factor of very strong social contestation and forced mobility in the next months. Border closures imposed by countries to contain the spread of the coronavirus have only delayed a migration crisis we will have to prepare for.

With the reopening of borders, new travel restrictions introduced by governments (Covid-19 tests, vaccinations, quarantine) should have the effect of increasing migrants’ dependence on smugglers. To circumvent the new requirements, the latter will tend to take more dangerous routes.

The additional formal requirements for migration and mobility are likely to benefit from more sophisticated smuggling operations and intermediaries able to meet these increased demands, including through fraudulent documents.

In addition, in order to satisfy a new, wealthy clientele seeking to migrate, a new range of services could be introduced, offering luxury services in addition to more traditional operations. This new reality may prove destabilizing for governments ill-prepared for a sudden influx of irregular movements.

However, while in recent years migration has been driven mainly by structural factors, including inequality, a growing youth population, labour market imbalances (unemployment and underemployment), the short-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is also expected to increase the migration of certain groups. These include groups with skills relevant to the health sector.

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the deep-rooted problem of staff shortages and the undeniable contribution of migrant doctors and nurses to the health workforce in many countries[1].

This could prompt many countries to adopt measures to facilitate their entry and recognition of professional qualifications.


2. Climate Change as a major public health threat

Scientists are increasingly concerned that the Earth’s natural systems are closer to collapse than previously thought. The climate crisis could accelerate much faster than anticipated, triggering widespread disaster.

Emergencies influenced by climate change – from floods to droughts, wildfires to ocean deserts – have already impacted billions of people. A leaked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report details the environmental collapse and warns that the damage may soon be irreversible.

The impacts pose a major public health threat that will overwhelm healthcare systems. For example, we will see a rapid rise in:

  • Heat-related illness and death
  • The spread of disease-carrying insects
  • The impact of poor air quality
  • Food and water insecurity
  • Migrant populations from countries with high rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and many other issues

However, rapid, and radical government intervention in the Covid crisis has illustrated that fast, bold action is possible. Some states and cities are making efforts to rethink their economies, infrastructure, and relationship to the natural world. Others are rejecting environmental concerns in the face of economic hardships wrought by the pandemic.

The demands on humanitarian organizations will increase as people flee environmental catastrophes, clash over resources, and face new types of crises triggered by an environmental collapse.


3. Misinformation, media manipulation and public health

This pandemic has given rise to a new social media phenomenon: almost anyone with a smartphone can discuss this deadly disease, promote any theory, and reach a wide audience. While it is true that misinformation existed before Covid-19, it was mainly used for political and economic gain.

More toxic and deadly, misinformation about infectious diseases will continue to confuse medical science in the coming years, with an immediate impact on every person in the world and on all societies.

Misinformation about the global Covid-19 pandemic is reaching alarming levels. With the emergence of vaccines as the primary tool to combat the epidemic, activists have increased their actions and misinformation to sabotage the vaccination campaign.

This situation is expected to continue to fuel polarization and social tensions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, those who believe in Covid-19 and those who do not, in addition to being a fundamental challenge to states and citizens worldwide.

More than ever, rapid access to false information could continue to undermine the work of public health agencies around the world and thus slow down efforts to combat infectious diseases.

Combined with conflict, weak health systems, poor health infrastructure and lack of access to vaccines, misinformation will make infectious disease outbreaks even more difficult to control.


4. Technology

Technology is a key driver of social change and a critical tool for responding to emerging challenges and opportunities.

The most powerful technology trend is the increasing power and influence of artificial intelligence (AI). This has been touted for decades but we are now reaching the inflexion point, with AI enhancing human ingenuity and opening new scientific frontiers.

For example, medical professionals are being supported by AI in medical diagnostics, with machines making more accurate assessments of the issues than humans. In drug development, companies are using AI to rapidly explore new molecular families to identify potentially powerful new areas for pharmaceutical research. The promise of fully bespoke medication is also becoming a reality.

The critical factor is AI’s ability to use vast data sets, spotting patterns and making connections impossible for the human brain. By combining this computing power with human creativity and ingenuity, new solutions are being found to previously intractable problems, such as protein folding.

The shadow of increased machine autonomy and intelligence is the implications for warfare. Drone technologies have already changed battlefields, but new generations of autonomous vehicles and weapons will be much more sophisticated, and we will see new forms of combat. AI-driven targeting of essential infrastructure, personal data, currencies, intellectual property etc. will open new fronts.

For an organization like the IFRC, AI allows us to take a systems-level approach; computers can visualize complex data and free humans from routine processing tasks. Human time can be focused on creative problem solving and face-to-face contact.

[1] OCDE, 2020. Contribution des médecins et des infirmiers migrants à la lutte contre la crise du Covid-19 dans les pays de l’OCDE. Éditions OCDE, Paris.


Provocations for further thought

We have posed some questions about each trend to help trigger debate and provoke new ideas.


1. Migration in an era of pandemic and socio-political crises.

  • How are these changes likely to impact the work of the IFRC, and national societies?
  • What are the actions and opportunities that will enable our national societies to be better prepared to address this trend and strengthen the fight against vulnerabilities?

2. Accelerated Impact of Climate Change

  • How can the IFRC address the root causes of climate change?
  • Should we advocate for radical change to the urban environment as a humanitarian intervention?
  • How can we establish environmentally friendly social enterprises which have a positive impact on the natural world and our finances?
  • Should humanitarian principles be modified to ensure we intervene earlier to prevent people being pushed into crises by environmental disasters?
  • Should we be funding research in or re-wilding and habitat protection as a means to prevent future humanitarian crises?

3. Misinformation, media manipulation and public health

  • As an organization whose role is to support people’s health throughout their lives, in both emergency and non-emergency situations, what does this mean in our daily work with communities?
  • Have we put in place concrete and effective actions to counteract the rise of skepticism that undermine our work?

4. Technology

  • How can the IFRC use AI and automation to free up people and resources for frontline operations?
  • What new or neglected crises might we uncover with the use of AI?
  • How should the humanitarian sector help shape the ethics of AI and mass data collection?
  • How can we ensure that the benefits of new medication or treatment options reach those in greatest need?

This article is part of Shifting Sands, the IFRC’s humanitarian futures and foresight network.

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