The Future of Supply Chain Management, Part 9

Stephen DeAngelis

January 8, 2013

When it comes to taking the long view, few analysts can compete with my colleague Thomas P.M. Barnett, Chief Analyst for Wikistrat. Back in November 2012, he read an article about how Freon is now being smuggled into countries where it is no longer legally available. Freon has not always been banned from some markets; but, once it was banned, it became a prime commodity for black markets. That article about Freon started Barnett thinking about what items might be ripe for smuggling over the next several decades. The result of his musings was a Wikistrat crowd-sourced simulation and follow-up report entitled Who Smuggles What in the Year 2050? In the report, Barnett sorts potential black market commodities into “five categories of goods and services we project may be banned in the future.” Those five categories are: Technologies rendered obsolete; Your body is not (solely) your own business; The World of GMs (Genetically-modified organisms); Going off-grid; and Lawyers, guns and money. Commodities that fall under those categories may not be obvious from their titles. In some cases, Barnett provides a fuller explanation of each category and its potential commodities. Brad Plumer points out that Wikistrat “mainly focused on identifying new types of contraband — no doubt old crowd favorites like drugs and guns will still be trafficked for decades to come.” [“What will we smuggle in the future? Drones, coal, and honeybees.Washington Post Wonkblog, 26 December 2012]

Technologies rendered obsolete

There are two types of commodities listed in this category. They are:

  • “‘Traditional’ technology driven out of the market by ‘smart’ technology after strict government regulation and monitoring.
  • “Energies that come with too heavy an environmental strain, including coal and biofuels created from food crops. With enough of an increase in food demand, even crop-derived alcohols could be targeted.”

The report’s Executive Summary doesn’t specify what traditional technologies might be banned only to emerge as potential items to smuggle. Although Barnett does mention 3D printing later in the Executive Summary, it’s not clear whether the Wikistrat analysts deemed it candidate for smuggling. The potential of 3D printers to violate patent and copyright laws is well known and some technologies covered under the topic of 3D printing might be outlawed in some countries. I was also a bit surprised that Wikistrat analysts singled-out coal as a potentially outlawed commodity (especially by 2050). There is lots of coal available in the world (centuries’ worth of the stuff) and, with the population continuing to increase, there will be continued pressure to use it to generate electricity for generations to come. Developed countries will want the income from it and developing countries will want the energy it can generate. Improved technologies might also make it more acceptable for generating electricity. For those reasons, I suspect that coal won’t go underground by 2050. Plumer, however, writes, “That’s not so far-fetched.”

Your body is not (solely) your own business

The potentially banned items under this category primarily have to do with commodities or products that have known health effects. They include:

• “Unhealthy food and beverages as states tackle the global obesity epidemic.

• “Cancer-causing products, like tobacco and tanning booths, along with some experimental genetic cancer treatments.”

Other products included in this category are closely related to technology breakthroughs that involve questionable ethics. They include:

• “Direct computer-brain interfaces, opening the door to digital drugs, or software designed to create pleasurable sensory overloads.

• “Non-prescription cognitive-enhancing drugs that schools and scientific communities come to view as cheating (like steroids in sports).

• “DNA material stolen from highly admired personalities and used to generate the ‘best’ cultured human tissue and organs – or perhaps even entire clones.

• “Biotechnology allowing the creation of (truly) perfect babies and extreme longevity in elders.”

Undoubtedly scientists are going to continue to press forward with research that could lead to technologies that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. Since technology almost always arrives long before politicians figure out to regulate it, there is bound to be criminal activity associated with some of these technologies.

The World of GMs (Genetically-modified organisms)

I think I can safely say that the world divided over the subject of genetically-modified organisms. Proponents see them as saviors of the world and the only foreseeable solution to feeding a global population that will top the 9 billion mark. Opponents see dangers GM organisms that could affect both humans and the environment in which they live. Wikistrat analysts identified the following GM items as potential candidates for smuggling.

• “Organic food and genetically-modified food, depending on the specific state’s attitude towards GMOs.

• “Novel GMO species either created from current ones or resurrected extinct ones, with attendant dangers if released into the wild.”

In addition to GM organisms, the analysts added other food-related items, including water, wildlife, and food additives.

• “Freshwater poached for urban populations exploding in size and competing with other similarly-parched agglomerations.

• “Species previously harvested en masse (e.g., bees) before their ecological collapse made them a rarity.

• “Hormonal products (e.g., female contraceptives) with a harmful ‘downstream’ impact on important species.”

Plumer notes, “Scientists are already warning that millions of species could become extinct by 2050 because of human activity and climate change.” There is already a global smuggling problem associated with exotic animals; enlarging the list isn’t difficult to imagine. Neither is food additive bans. Plummer writes:

“I’d also add arable land to this list, something Wikistrat omitted. India and China are getting richer, and demand for meat is soaring among their populations. Yet crop yields in both countries are starting to stagnate. So the two nations are already starting to grab farmland abroad, in places such as  Ethiopia, sometimes through dubious means. This isn’t smuggling in the conventional sense, but it’s already taking place.”

For more on this topic, read my posts entitled Buying the Farm and An Update on Buying the Farm.

Going off-grid

In a world that is increasingly connected, going off the grid is going to become increasingly difficult; especially if you want to move around the globe surreptitiously. Human smuggling/trafficking is already a serious and growing problem and Wikistrat analysts don’t expect that to change. Among items they anticipate could be smuggled are:

• “Biological spoofing/stealth technologies to mask individuals’ movement through monitored public spaces and disguise unapproved modes of transportation.

• “Secret and untraceable avenues of entry into the Internet both for criminals and those trapped inside authoritarian states.

• “‘Brain drains’ where the intelligence is artificial (i.e., sentient computers).

With biological markers becoming the identifier of choice, the Wikistrat analysts are probably correct in their assessment that spoofing technologies are likely to be highly controlled or banned. They may also be correct about artificial intelligence, but their timeline is likely to be questioned by some. There are a number of analysts who believe that by 2050 sentient computers will exist; but, there are also a good number of naysayers who believe a number of breakthroughs will need to occur before that happens. My only thought is that AI research is being conducted on such a broad front that it’s difficult to imagine that it won’t be ubiquitous by the time that a sentient machine is created. Because of AI’s ubiquity, having to smuggle intelligent machines to obtain the technology may not be a problem.

Lawyers, guns and money

I know that you are asking, “Who in their right mind would want to smuggle a lawyer?” The Executive Summary doesn’t really answer that question. Instead, Barnett uses this category as a catch-all for commodities that don’t fit neatly in any of the other categories. Items in this category include:

• “Customers wishing to be smuggled to offshore (i.e., seasteading) ‘sin cities’ where anything goes.

• “Designs and high-grade input materials after 3D printing allows anyone to print almost anything in the privacy of their own home.

• “Counterfeited cyber currencies, when the collective value of these alternative monies begins to rival the real thing.

• “Culturally ‘offensive’ items and practices whose use and public display constitutes yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded multicultural urban ‘theater.’

• “Future weapons, from non-lethals to new weapons of mass destruction, along with all the micro-drones that will deliver them.”

Plumer concludes, “I wouldn’t lay too much money down on any one specific prediction, but it’s a fascinating way of looking at some of the trends that are already molding the world.” I agree. Exercises, like the one run by Wikistrat, always stimulate our curiosity and get our creative juices flowing. Supply chain professionals need to conduct these kinds of “what if” exercises in order for them to begin thinking about how they will deal with smuggling and its impact on the supply chain. There are bound to be security issues that will affect the legitimate transport of goods as well as the transport of smuggled items. That always means increased costs of moving goods around the world. The private sector needs to work closely with government organizations to work out the most efficient and effective way of dealing with the challenge of smuggling. If the Wikistrat analysts have it correct, that is going to be a real challenge.