Sohail Inayatullah

This blog is based on the book by Sohail Inayatullah and Lu Na, “Asia 2038: Ten Disruptions that Change Everything”, Tamsui, Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University, 2018.


My own view of Asia is very much informed by the “great rise,” watching the region – particularly, East, South and South East Asia – move from poverty to economic wealth (uneven as it is); from passive recipients of knowledge to the possibility of active creators of reality, and from being past-based to possibly futures-oriented. I see potential in Asia going from strength to strength, and not just in terms of business opportunities and economic development, but in imagining a new planetary future. As a change agent, I focus on seeing the novel, seeing possibilities, and thus I am biased against seeing the status quo. It is in this context that I outline the alternative futures of Asia twenty years hence.


When I visited Singapore in the early 1970s, representing my high school in a basketball tournament, the country felt like the “Wild West”, with heavy drugs available after games and public sex on the streets. Today, Singapore is a far cry from that world. Green urban design, stronger regulation, and innovation are the hallmarks of this city-state.

Green Singapore. Hotel Park Royal. Picture by Sohail Inayatullah.

Other cities have as well seen considerable wealth accumulation, but with dramatic unevenness, becoming “black holes” of capital that suck the financial and community life out of neighboring areas.Kuala Lumpur, for example, where I lived in the early 1970s,  has transformed into a stunning world city,yet one senses a malaise with the mantra of “I shop, therefore I am.”In Singapore, this is referred to as the 5C vision: cash, condominium, credit card, car, and country club. And yet, most wish to leave rurality and the poverty of the village even if community is lost in this process.- but can the “Kampung” – the village (sustainable, community based, focused on equity)  – be integrated into the city, creating connected communities in opportunity driven cities? Is this alternative future,connecting future and past to a new present possible?


In 1994, scholars met at a UNESCO meeting in Bangkok to explore this and other questions[i]. During that meeting there was one overall conclusion framed as a question:would Asia, in all its varieties continue its trajectory along the “used”future of the West – blindly following models of the city, the family, economy,the hospital – or could Asia innovate and either leap frog to the transmodern  (inclusive of the progressive rights gained from the advent of the modern world but critically respectful of tradition) or create alternative modernities as defined by new forms of finances, new forms of cultural products, new technologies. This was an open ended question.  Scholars were certain that Asia had to pivot and blindly following the western model – the LosAngelization of the planet focused on the car-road – worldview would only lead Asia to disaster.

Bangkok, picture by Sohail Inayatullah

But which direction would Asia go?

TODAY 2018

By 2018, or more than twenty years after the event, the answer is partially clear, as the following factors. Asia has risen and has begun to say Yes to herself, as Susantha Goonitalake imagined in the1994 Bangkok meeting. What we are seeing is:

(1) The economic and soft power rise of China.Indeed, While foresight scans from the 1980s[ii]suggested that there eventually would be a “Pacific shift”, now as we near2020, the shift has occurred, with, for example, China likely to surpass the USA GDP, not in 2050 as many predicted, but as soon as 2019, and indeed IMF data based on purchasing power shows that by 2014, China already had the world’s largest economy.[iii]

(2) The dominance of K-pop (and evidence that a100 million dollars of sales of cultural products leads to a fourfold increase in the sale of Korean technological products such as Samsung)[iv];

(3) Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan leading in foresight studies;

(4) Singapore now having the world’s most powerful passport with Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan being in the top20.  This is the first time for an Asian country to have the highest ranked passport.[v]

(5) New global rankings of universities based on sustainability developed by an Indonesian university[vi]and, for example, the vision of USM [vii]in Penang and BRAC university from Bangladesh[viii]focused on research for the bottom billion.

Image from Sohail Inayatullah, Shakil Ahmed, Pushpita Alam, Susan Davis, and Syed Hashemi, “Alternative Futures of BRAC University,” On the Horizon (Vol. 21, No. 4, 2013), 275-285.

(6) New measures of development from Bhutan’s “gross national happiness”[ix] to South Korea’s “gross national cool”.

(7) Within conventional measures, Asia already accounts for more than 47% of global patents and seven of the top ten corporations with published patents derive from China, Japan, and South Korea. [x]And, finally:

(8) Asia mints a new billionaire every other day and accounts for 41% of world billionaires.[xi]Singapore already has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world(one in six households).[xii]This leads to movies such as Crazy Rich Asians.


But will this trend continue? Or are there other alternative futures?

The Great Wall of Asia

First, geo-political concerns from previous wars, dramatically increased terrorism by marginalized groups such as those aligned with Daesh/ISIS, and an aggressive China or North Korea, could very easily lead to a “Fortress Asia.” Large movement of people, for example, refugees escaping the negative effects of environmental degradation,or even more dramatically, nuclear war, could equally push Asia towards this scenario. Nations could create their own fortresses, thereby reducing the gains from a free-flow of labour, culture and capital. Metaphorically, it would mean a return to “the great wall of Asia.”


Just as possible is an “Asia in Decline”. Climate change, declining economic growth – the old story of “snakes and ladders” (what goes up, comes down) would certainly eliminate the gains of gender equity and the move toward cleaner and greener Asian cities. An ageing population may reduce innovation and thwart economic development. Individuals afraid of a declining future could spend less and a long-term recession would occur. In a way, Japan’s today could become Asia’s tomorrow.


Equally possible is a future of endless wars,though with limited military conflict. China could lead this, arguably more negative future, with battles over Hong Kong and Taiwan; regressive responses to North the Korean crisis could also increase the likelihood of a decline future. The North Korean crisis could spill into a local, regional or even global war.This could push decline into partial and adversarial political alliances or even full annihilation – the worst possible outcome that could been visioned. South Asia could also further divide, with Pakistan and India fragmenting into multiple states.  The Muslim parts of China, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines could push for further divisions.


However, there is a fourth future, far more disruptive than these three scenarios. This future emerges from the following emerging issues.

Imagine that in 2038:

Asia has become a confederation,  the center of the world-economy.

Gender partnership has become the norm.

Teaching has gone from knowledge has hierarchy driven- the classroom – to facilitated, the digital playground. The factory model of knowledge will be in tatters.

Thailand Knowledge Park, Bangkok. Picture by Sohail Inayatullah

The family has changed as well, gone from extended by generations to inclusive or robotics and artificial intelligence bots or knowledge navigators.

The author with a friendly robot.

 Some may even marry these new human creations. Most important will be the shift from the arranged marriage to the love marriage, the best fit.

Futures of Education workshop. Dhaka, Bangladesh. Artwork by participant.

To create this higher productivity future, the workplace will change. It will no longer be market plus state, but market plus community. That is the “big man” who decides for all will need to be replaced perhaps by the big brother.

Professor Kuo-hua Chen, UNESCO workshop on city futures. The Philippines. May, 2014.

The workplace and industry will be far more cooperative though with an appreciation for expertise. This is important as the knowledge revolution will require peers to work together to create wealth.Flatter, smarter, using AI predictive analytics and far more agile and cooperative organizations will lead the way in 2038.

The metrics will also change dramatically  by then.  In this vision of the future, we will likely have shifted to a quadruple bottom line. This consists of measurements of prosperity, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and spirituality (i.e.,meditative, inner practices of mindfulness).   This would be a future of the yoganomics – that is, decisions made from presence and prescience, deep inner peace with individuals and organizations flexible to changing conditions, and focused on body, mind, and spirit.

This does not mean by 2038 problems disappear, indeed, climate change will be at the forefront of challenges. However, by 2038, Asia will not just lead in renewable energies, but creating organizational structures that promote their distribution – we can easily imagine an Uber of energy in Asia -peer to peer energy cooperatives.

This rise of Asia will likely also change migration patterns.  The Great migration to Asia will become more pronounced and we will see various types of migrants moving to Asia, searching for jobs and opportunities, as well as those motivated by life-style change or simple survival. The number of female migrants, Asian professionals returning home,western retirees, environmental refugees and foreign workers are all expected to increase. Parts of Asia that adequately understand this changing nature of migration and creatively and pro-actively work with both migrants and migration will benefit the most in the future.

The mantra of this trend, and indeed, this wave of the future would be: Go East, young women!

Perhaps this future is unlikely, and it is geo-politics and climate disaster that is the future. However, our research suggests the opposite. The seeds of change for a transformational future or Asia, and indeed, the planet are there. Can we overcome the weight of the present to create such a desired future remains the question.

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah is UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, USIM and Professor, TAMKANG UNIVERSITY

 [i] E. Masini, and Y. Atal, eds., The Futures of Asian Cultures, Bangkok, UNESCO, 1993.

[ii] Sohail Inayatullah, “The Concept of the Pacific Shift,” Futures (Vol. 17, No. 6, 1985), 580–587.

[iii] http://time.com/82225/china-world-biggest-economy/. Accessed 23 September 2014. On the purchasing power basis, China overtook the US in 2014and thus became ‘the world’s biggest economy’ http://www.businessinsider.com/china-overtakes-us-as-worlds-largest-economy-2014-10

[iv] http://business.financialpost.com/2014/08/02/how-korea-became-the-worlds-coolest-brand/. Accessed 23 September 2014. http://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/15159/20121005/psy-the-new-economic-force-of-south-korea-bbc.htm. Accessed 25 September 2014.

[v] This is important as hundreds of thousands of dollars are invested in a second passport – visa free mobility is highly sought after.  http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-passport-becomes-most-powerful-in-the-world-9341920?cid=fbcna. Accessed 30 October 2017,

[vi] http://greenmetric.ui.ac.id/news/detail/49. Accessed 25 September 2014. http://greenmetric.ui.ac.id/ranking. Accessed 25 September 2014.

[vii] Sohail Inayatullah, Ellisha Nasruddin and Reevany Bustami, “Transformative Foresight: University Sains Malaysia Leads the Way,” Futures (Vol. 44, 2012), 36–45.

 [viii]Sohail Inayatullah, Shakil Ahmed, Pushpita Alam, Susan Davis, and Syed Hashemi,“Alternative Futures of BRAC University,” On the Horizon (Vol. 21, No. 4, 2013), 275-285.

[ix] It is not just the power of measurement but the reframing. A new piece in The Friday Times explores unhappiness in Pakistan using the gross national happiness index. The Friday Times (October 16-22, 2017), 22.

[x] Clive Cookson, “China poised to opt global corporate patents,” Financial Times (15 March2017), https://www.ft.com/content/384ba4b4-08dc-11e7-ac5a-903b21361b43?mhq5j=e2.Accessed 12 July 2017.

[xi] https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Economy/Asia-Pacific-overtakes-US-as-home-to-most-billionaires. Accessed 30 October 2017.

[xii] http://blogs.wsj.com/searealtime/2012/06/01/singapore-no-1-for-millionaires-again/. Accessed 23 September 2014.


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