The year is 2022. Towering over Birmingham’s red brick terraces, dominating its Victorian warehouses and canals, a bright glass building shimmers in the setting sun, crowned with wind turbines and coated in solar panels.
No-one lives here, and only a handful or people work on its eight floors.
It used to be a high-rise car park. Now it’s a farm.
A vertical farm, to be precise: a shining example of the new urban agriculture - climate-controlled, filled with fruit, vegetables and even a few pigs. It generates all its own energy, harvesting its water needs from the rain that falls on the roof. On the ground floor, there’s a marketplace where local people buy its produce and that of other nearby farms.
That’s one vision of 2022. Here’s another: an intelligent web-based advert for hand cream, making its way around the world from network to network. As it does so, it adjusts itself to appeal to the different people and groups it meets, talking with them, learning new information to help persuade its audience to buy the product.
The advert discovers from one conversation that the company producing the hand cream has provided false information about safety tests. The advert checks this new information from other sources, verifies it, and begins a new campaign of its own against the company which developed it – forcing it to mend its ways, while at the same time earning it brownie points for allowing such open source-style auditing of its activities.
Then again, in a parallel 2022, people have stopped shopping altogether – at least for everyday staples. Instead, milk, bread, pasta, washing powder and toilet tissue simply turn up in their porch whenever they are needed, triggered by messages sent automatically to the retailer direct from their cupboards and fridges.
These are three visions of 2022, each providing a glimpse of the future in which UK retailing will have to operate. They’re not science fiction: each of them could really happen by 2022.
Supported by Tesco and Unilever, we’ve conducted a wide-ranging exercise to ask what the future could hold for UK retail, focusing particularly on fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). We’ve carried out a thorough literature review, staged workshops and interviewed more than 50 people. This has allowed us to develop four distinct scenarios that describe radically different possible futures for UK retail, and their implications for sustainable development.
Why did we develop these scenarios?
With these scenarios, we hope to:
- describe robust and credible futures that are relevant and applicable to the retail sector;
- illuminate the major sustainable development issues for UK retail now and in the future;
- provide tools for the sector as a whole to consider its future, and to test potential new ideas, policies, products and formats;
- stimulate a progressive and far-sighted response to the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development, and so accelerate the move to a more sustainable retail sector.
In this report, we look briefly at past developments in the UK retail sector’s efforts to come to grips with sustainability, then review the factors that are likely to shape its future over the next 15 years.
We then present the four scenarios - ‘my way’, ‘sell it to me’, ‘from me to you’ and ‘i’m in your hands’ - and end with an analysis of what the scenarios could mean for retailers looking to a more sustainable future.
Two years after the launch of Retail Futures, we've already seen some weak signals that we identified in one or more of the scenarios. For example, in our 'From Me to You' scenario, we said that "individuals trust only they are close to. With the economy struggling, they depend on their communities for everything - from homegrown vegetables to peer-to-peer mortgages".
The BBC article Dorset Bakery flourishes in hard times talks about a growing trend towards authenticity, which the article claims is epitomised by the Dorset bakery that forms the focus of the article.
In its Retail Futures report, sustainability consultants Forum for the Future predicts that tomorrow's consumers will "search for…. products that are more 'natural', local, healthier and greener". They advise that this desire for "authenticity" will become a "mainstream retail issue".
Whilst the scenarios are not intended to be predictions for the future, it is interesting to see which scenarios we are moving closer towards and important for retail businesses to think about what that means for their strategy. Retail Futures still has great value. We'd urge organisations in the sector to use the scenarios to test how resilient their strategies really are and to explore what the key sustainability risks and opportunities are for them over the next 10-15 years.