Threats In 2023

Monday, 27 March 2023
By Patricia Lustig & Gill Ringland


The anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a flurry of articles in the UK and international press on the potential outcomes of the war. As futurists, we are not exempt from worrying about the near term future. We also spend time with groups of managers and executives exploring the trends that are affecting the world, how they may change direction, and the impact on organisations[1].

What we notice is that many people are anticipating the future to be very different from the past, which is unusual. For instance, at the Davos World Economic Forum in January 2023, Sven Smit, head of the McKinsey Global Institute told Gillian Tett, “We are on the cusp of a new era. But we don’t really know what that is, or even what it should be called[2].

We observe that the big difference is that people are aware of threats as never before: a threat is “person or thing regarded as dangerous”[3]. Threats to society have always been with us but the fact that it is not possible to know exactly when or how frequently they will occur is frightening – people are suddenly aware of the fragility of the economy and society.

All that can be said of threats is that they will happen and when they do, it will be sudden and the impact will be big. Threats are not observable, not occurring yet. They are a potential. They are volatile and likely to cause major changes, quickly. This means that the situation before the threat arrives is very different from what happens after: it creates a watershed moment. A perfect example of this was the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have identified four generic types of threat, and the purpose of this Pamphleteer is to ask – what else – are there others with more impact?


Global Warming

Global Warming is the climate and ecological change that the world faces. It is already a big disruptor depending on where in the world you live. There are many facets to this threat - environmental, socio-political and economic - but the biggest is the ambiguity the world faces around when the changes become irreversible, what exactly the changes will be and what their impacts will be - making planning and forethought extremely challenging.

Global Health


In the world today, illness, pandemics and disease are a threat to society as well as to individuals – we consider this under the broader heading of Global Health. There have always been incurable, fatal infectious diseases. And history shows that pandemics do occur, if not often, still regularly even if there are decades between them. The world is in the process of working its way through the current Covid-19 pandemic as the virus mutates and re-infects populations.

Bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics, affecting humans, animals, the environment and the food chain. The world could see a new disease (termed ‘Disease X’) appear, or a zoonotic disease that has crossed from animals to humans. What is certain is that there will be another global health crisis, though we do not yet know its cause, when it will strike, or its characteristics.

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International Relations

We use the heading International Relations to include how nations behave with one another, including trade or physical war. There are many factors that contribute to shifts in global order and power. While the shift may be gradual, there are often significant events that signal change. While for much of the last century, the US was a leading power in setting the world order, this is unlikely to be so in this century. At the time of writing it seems likely that China will continue to expand its global footprint and influence. And Russia is threatening the use of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Global Backbone


Our fourth threat uses the Oxford dictionary definition of backbone: “[it] is the most important part of a system, an organisation, etc. that gives it support and strength.” Global Backbone is the set of rules agreed within and between societies. The modern economy is very dependent on an agreed set of rules and common understandings and if this disappears trade and travel are made more difficult.

We use the term “global backbone” instead of Infrastructure as it is more specific. Explanations that we have pinched from definitions of infrastructure for global backbone include “platforms for governance, commerce, and economic growth”[4] and "a lifeline for modern societies" [5].

Infrastructure is defined much more widely and is regarded as the hallmark of economic development. Societies enjoy the use of "...highway, waterway, air, and rail systems that have allowed the unparalleled mobility of people and goods. Water-borne diseases are virtually non-existent because of water and wastewater treatment, distribution, and collection systems. In addition, telecommunications and power systems have enabled our economic growth."[6]. We of course need to add digital and financial systems[7] as a source of growth and source of threat from potential failure[8], and education and health systems.

Since backbone is an underlying requirement for all of these elements of infrastructure the breakdown of the global and/or local backbone is our fourth threat.

The common characteristics of these four generic threats are that changes in the status quo are likely to be sudden, with impacts that are difficult to imagine and plan for. There is no way to begin to predict a time when a disruptive event could happen.

We are usually asked to stretch thinking to 20 years, and so have omitted space-related threats from our list. Do you think this is realistic? What else?

Patricia Lustig and Gill Ringland

March 2023


[1] Lustig, P. and Ringland, G., New Shoots, KDP, 2021.

[2] Tett, G. “Peak uncertainty on Davos’ Magic Mountain,” FT.COM/Magazine January 21/22, 2023.

[3] The New Little Oxford Dictionary.

[4] Esmaeili, Behzad, et al. "Inclusion of an Introduction to Infrastructure Course in a Civil and Environmental Engineering Curriculum." Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice (2016)

[5] Goldsmith, H. (2015). Actors and innovations in the evolution of infrastructure services. The Economics of Infrastructure Provisioning, 23-94.

[6] Hart, Steven D., et al. Infrastructure and the Operational Art: A Handbook for Understanding, Visualizing, and Describing Infrastructure Systems US Army Engineer Research and Development Center, (2014)

[7] Roubini, Nouriel, Megathreats: The Ten Trends that Imperil Our Future, and How to Survive Them, John Murray, 2022