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Well, well, well: how ‘blue gold’ will shape future worlds

Well, well, well: how ‘blue gold’ will shape future worlds

2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was all about water scarcity, how it can be exploited in order to wield power, and how desperate people can get when their access to water is restricted or cut off. The film predicts a future in which violent despots can gain control of water supplies and use them to manipulate populations. This futuristic conflict is based entirely on access to water.

Fiction? Actually it’s already happening. Multinational corporations and wealthy ‘water barons’ are buying up water supplies in bulk and restricting its use by private citizens. The linked article is a shocking read, and the similarities to water villain Imortan Joe in Mad Max are stark. No wonder, then, that Citigroup’s top economist said in 2011 that the water market would soon dwarf those for oil, precious metals, copper and agricultural commodities.

Water is one of the ‘fault lines’ examined in an award-winning course from the Joseph H. Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Winner of an Ideas Worth Teaching Award, Fault Lines & Foresight is convened by Regina M. Abrami, Global Program Director and Head of the International Studies Faculty at the Lauder Institute.

The course is an introduction to foresight strategy that uses the case study of water to teach techniques such as scenario planning, back casting, feedback loops, red/blue teaming, matrix gaming and horizon scanning, which are used in systems thinking to frame highly ambiguous future scenarios and outcomes. As their capstone project, students apply these tools to a global fault line of their own choice.

The syllabus examines past civilisations and how they were built on water, looks at the present-day Californian water crisis and how it could have been avoided, and covers water stress in Africa. These case studies are all illustrative of the global fault line in water, and are the means by which the tools and techniques for examining other fault lines are developed.

One student commented: "Specialization drives our educational choices from a very early age, and by the time we are in graduate school, standardized subject matter and methods of teaching reinforce our confidence that we know what to expect from our classes. Dr. Abrami’s class challenged that assumption by introducing us to the entirely unfamiliar (to us) field of foresight strategy.  our classwork changed not only what we think about the world around us, but also how we do that, transcending disciplines and providing a unique toolkit for our future professional endeavors."