Parag Khanna, the founder of data- and scenario-based strategic advisory firm FutureMap, has made it his calling to make predictions about our dynamic world.

As a self-proclaimed ‘scholar of globalisation’, he has written several acclaimed books on topics including technocracy in America, ‘Asianisation’ and the future world order. His illustrious career has seen him become an advisor to the US National Intelligence Council; work at several prominent think tanks, such as the New America Foundation; and travel to more than 150 countries.

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In his latest book, ‘Move: The forces uprooting us’, Mr Khanna explores what he sees as an unprecedented misalignment between the four layers of geography — political, economic, natural and human — and what we can do about it. 

He sat down with fDi to discuss his thoughts on where the world is going and how investors can be on the right side of long-term macro shifts.

Q: What are the main arguments of your new book?

A: In a nutshell, this is a book about where complexity meets geography. People think about geography as something that’s fixed and given, yet it has never been more in flux. 

There are many disturbances in the world today, from geopolitics and political unrest to economic dislocation, technological disruption, demographic imbalances and climate change. These are the five drivers of the movement of people over the past 100,000 years. All of them are hyperactive and colliding with each other right now. 

But you don’t get to pick your crisis. The pandemic, climate change, the US–China rivalry, artificial intelligence and labour automation are all happening at the same time. Each of these affects the others in ways that are very subtle.

The four fundamental layers of geography have never been more misaligned and out of sync than they are right now. This book is an effort to understand that misalignment, to think about scenarios in which it will rectify itself — or not — and what we can do about it.

Q: How will this reshape globalisation and corporate expansion?

A: Globalisation remains robust. I have heard people proclaim the death of globalisation four times in the past 20 years. The first time, to my memory, was 9/11. Then you had the financial crisis, Trump and Brexit, and now you have the pandemic. These were four instances in which the commentariat said globalisation would retrench. Of course, they were very wrong.

We’re still in the pandemic, yet we’ve seen the aggregate volume of goods trade return to pre-pandemic levels. Capital flows have not quite recovered, as it depends on whether you’re referring to greenfield foreign direct investment (FDI) or mergers and acquisitions (M&A), but M&A is recovering nicely. China is opening its capital account, debt and equity markets. 

I never lose sleep over the future of globalisation. But the future of FDI does relate exactly to these trends, because you need to invest where the people will go. In this book about human geography, I am making a very specific set of predictions on where people will be. 

If you want to understand the future of human geography, you need to look at the behaviour of 10-, 20- and 30-year-olds. Over the next 10–30 years, they will represent the vast majority of the human population. Because fertility rates have plummeted globally, this current cohort of young people represents not only the largest generation alive today, but also the largest generation alive tomorrow. 

Q: What evidence is there of this?

A: Generation Alpha — today’s toddlers and babies — will be smaller than Generation Z. Based on where we’re going in terms of climate change, economic insecurity and the other factors that have inhibited fertility over the past 40 years, you can pretty much expect that secular decline to continue.

We’re living in a world where if you want to know where to invest, you should know where the people are going. For this, you must look at the youth — particularly young people in Asia.

If I could sum up the future of the human species in two words, they would be ‘Asian youth’. There are two billion young people in Asia, which is more than all the young people in the rest of the world.

Q: Why do you focus on young people in Asia, rather than Africa?

A: Asia collectively is the largest recipient of FDI in the world. Even if Africa had as many youths as Asia, people are still not investing in Africa.

Investment [in emerging markets] is often round-tripped and reinvested in western economies, whereas in Asia that’s not true. Most FDI in Asia is within Asia now. Increasingly, global investment flows are being directed towards Asia, because it is demonstrating better growth, is better governed, is a centre of production and so forth.

Just because Africa has a lot of people, it doesn’t mean that it merits a huge volume of investment, because those countries don’t necessarily have a skilled population, robust industrial base, high-quality rule of law or mature capital markets. The mere fact of having youth is not enough.

Q: Do you believe mass migration will shift in line with current labour shortages in developed economies?

A: Europe is in a competition in this war for talent with North America — it’s just unspoken. If you look at the numbers of skilled Asian migrants from China, India and the rest of Asia in Europe, the growth has been astounding in the last 10-15 years. It’s largely been beneficial and is desirable. 

We are in a standstill in global migration. It is the most ironic moment to be talking about mass migrations. But these new vectors have started to get baked in quite some time ago. The number of Asians in Europe is not just some kind of afterthought, it is a structural demographic trend in the world. Millions and millions of Asians are marching from east to west, from Asia to Europe. That is what is happening and will continue to happen. 

Q: What concerns you most as we approach the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November? 

A: COP26 and the entire international apparatus is almost entirely focused on climate change mitigation. By which, I mean it’s focused on reducing emissions on capital and trade, carbon taxes, cleaning up supply chains, regulation and so forth. It’s not at all focused on climate adaptation.

Climate adaptation is mass resettlement of people, because to adapt is to move. That is the way it has been for 100,000 years, ever since our species wandered out of Africa, our best mechanism of adaptation is physical relocation.

We don’t talk about that in international fora because their membership consists of national governments. The only thing left that every country in the world, rich or poor, can claim in the sovereign world is who gets in and out of their borders. 

Not COP26, nor the Paris Agreement, Copenhagen or wherever else, will ever be the place for countries to come to some kind of global migration accord. We will never have all countries agreed that borders will come down and supply and demand will dictate the movement of people.

COP26 is focused on mitigation, not adaptation. But adaptation is a massively profitable investment opportunity. Clean energy mechanisms and technologies, new kinds of settlements with rainwater recycling and collection, hydroponic agriculture and solar power are all areas to invest in and deploy around the world for consumption. 

Those are huge growth industries and sectors in a climate adaptation world. I believe that this is going to be a much larger area of investment.

Q: Are you broadly optimistic?

A: I am, for a couple of reasons. A declining world population is actually good news — we are not entering a Malthusian crisis of overpopulation and agricultural insufficiency. I think our world population will peak at fewer than nine billion people by the year 2035. This is significantly lower than any other forecast, because I have the benefit of looking at the last baby busts of data — the financial crisis was followed by a baby bust; now Covid-19 has been attended by a baby bust.

‘Peak humanity’ is obviously a good thing. It is coming at a time when we want to reduce our environmental footprint, be cautious about food supplies and the like. Hopefully, we can bring about a psychological shift in how we think about human geography.

When you study human geography from a 100,000-year point of view, a land is not owned by one set of people. It is the land of whichever human occupies it at that time. We ought to be thinking about actively and progressively redistributing the world population. We need to actively re-circulate people, because it is good for the economy. 

Q: Is the mass recirculation of people realistic given national borders?

A: In the medium term, we will see a flipping of the switch from our global political conversation being dominated by the default presumption of xenophobia and populism towards universal participation and competition in the war for talent.

The UK is not going to have an anti-migrant government ever again, because you have been so badly affected by Brexit, and not having supply and demand determine your immigration policy.

Look at Canada, which is the most progressive country on immigration in the world, bringing in about 400,000 people a year, equivalent to more than 1% of their population. It is vigorously competing in — and winning — the war for talent, which makes it a very attractive foreign investment destination, because you have stability and a diversifying economy. Since hydrocarbons are in structural decline, Canada realises that it must diversify into a services economy even more rapidly. The best way to do that is to import skilled talent and labour.

Germany is now a multi-ethnic society — whether it is Turks, Arabs, Africans, Asians or people from the Balkans. The US has reverted to its historical mean too, with record visa issuance for Chinese students and H-1B visa programme reforms. 

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

A: Follow the people. Looking at these drivers of the movement of people, whether it’s climate, politics, technology or economics, and aggregate all of that. That’s how you’ll know where to invest in a demographically deflating world. 

Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data- and scenario-based strategy advisory firm. He is the author of seven books including Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, which was published in October 2021.

This article first appeared in the October/November print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.