What next for the City? Turning a foresight lens on the future business environment

Dr Tara Chittenden discusses the key findings of the first report of our Future Worlds 2050 project, and what this means for the legal profession when considering the implications on global trade and competition.

A hand holds an animated globe

Foresight enables us to engage in strategic thinking to understand longer-term risks, challenges and uncertainties and to hold the further horizon in mind as we navigate short-term turbulence.

Increased awareness of future trends helps to make sure that business decisions are aligned with future market changes and questions such as:

  • how will the rule of law coexist with the complex ethical, moral and social issues of contemporary societies?
  • what effect will upcoming generations have on the mindset of our sector?
  • what kind of neurodiversity, education, training and business models will be needed to assure processes and reassure clients?

Future Worlds 2050

Our Future Worlds 2050 project was set up to bring an exceptional group of thinkers to the table for raw, frank and honest discussions around future client needs and to consider the legal business models that will meet them.

It inevitably looked at:

  • how we will live and work in the future
  • what kind of environmental and political landscapes might surround us
  • what types of ethical decisions might be needed around bioengineering, genome editing, care for our aging populations and treatment of climate refugees

The project has harnessed a reinvigorated appetite for debate to explore specific aspects of our increasingly uncertain future.

Lawyers are often the frontline of the impacts of any change.

Change can cause conflicts or highlight where regulations are missing, so it’s from legal cases that we can observe where change is creating cascades of worrisome impacts for society.

Heightened climate risk

The major trend that will inform everything is climate.

We risk a situation where the national state, international organisations and the fabric of the systems that have sustained us to date evaporate in the next 30 years because we cannot deal with increasing resource wars, extreme weather and mass migrations.

As whole regions of the world become uninhabitable through extreme heat or flooding, we will see displaced people on an unprecedented scale – and one which international immigration law is ill-equipped to handle.

Already countries like Japan would rather develop humanoid robots to care for their aging population than open up immigration policies to allow human workers to enter.

This raises questions not only about the fate of climate refugees but also the level of care available for our ageing populations, opportunities for social mobility in developing nations and the extent to which human roles can be outsourced to robots and intelligent machine systems.

All these factors will touch the legal profession to some degree, from calls for legal and regulatory frameworks to legal disputes around liability and the changing nature of what’s asked of a human workforce.

The impact of artificial intelligence

The lawyer role as we know it will change.

Artifical intelligence will take on more of the tasks seen as human-protected today but it will ask other things of human lawyers and their knowledge, thinking and persuasion skills.

Diversity and talent retention

As the workforce becomes more mobile and dispersed, how will organisations attract and retain top talent?

As identity, allegiances and values shift, both generationally and with the rise of social movements, the legal profession needs a coherent multi-generational diverse and inclusive recruitment and talent development strategy to source diverse entrants, to nurture their progress and ensure that the senior talent in the profession represents society appropriately.

One impact of climate-driven migration will be increased diversity in inhabitable areas.

The increased diversity will be reflected in the legal needs and cultures of communities. For trade to flourish, there will be a need for new channels of legal interaction to enable business across cultures as well as boundaries.

Declining globalisation

As we see the beginning of a disassembly of global business travel, will we also see the decline of globalisation with impacts on international contracts and trade deals?

Periods of recession and economic turbulence have historically created conditions in which nationalism can thrive.

Further, COVID has awakened many nations to their vulnerability in global supply chains, pushing governments back towards local sustainability.

‘Borderless’ issues (such as cyber, anti-money laundering) may lend themselves to a globalised approach, but greater regionalisation around water, food security and supply chains may create future flashpoints on the international stage.

Simultaneously, cross-border trade in services is growing more than 60% faster than trade in goods, and these services generate far more economic value than traditional trade statistics capture.

Novel legal needs will emerge around trade in collaborative services and new, high grown trading routes.

The next decade will see the post-war routes eclipsed by the power of the Indian Ocean region with new port construction plus proposed railways from coast-to-coast across South America.

A rebalancing of economic strength

Changes in global economic prospects will have a considerable impact on the nature of finance and trade in the future.

China is on track to be the dominant economic power before 2030 and, by 2050, it’s expected that the E7 nations will have overtaken the G7 in terms of economic strength.

What role will the legal profession play?

The legal profession has a critical role in the trajectory of society – for what it enables, restricts, disputes and how it polices its own ethics.

As governments and businesses exert greater control over citizens, what calls are there on lawyers in an era of ‘surveillance capitalism’?

In what ways are lawyers complicit in enabling new fossil fuel deals or trade with carbon-heavy companies? Will lawyers too often be conflicted out of climate cases because they have carbon clients?

Capabilities in bioenginering are going to be crucial as our climate changes and population grows.

Bioethics raises legal questions around the extent we can enable or control the use of genetic manipultation – in the environment or on ourselves.

All of these questions land firmly in the purview of the legal profession and their clients.

The above tasters from the report show there are many places where lawyers are critical and where they can prepare to meet changing client needs and wider societal calls for guidance over the next 10 years.

The complexity and interconnectedness of society’s knotty and novel problems will ensure a constant regeneration of work in the high-value, high-risk, high-complexity segment of the market for years to come.

The report’s findings highlight how much scope there is for rethinking law, legal services and business strategy in the coming decade, reengineering the delivery of legal services and developing talent differently.

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