Hans Rosling and the Future of the World0

Michael Kanellos | Thu Sep 29 2011 |

The world’s most important invention—the technological breakthrough that has fundamentally changed family life for the better nearly everywhere—isn’t particularly extravagant. In fact, you probably have one.

What is it? The car? The computer? The cell phone? Not quite.

It’s the washing machine, according to Hans Rosling, a professor at the Karolinska Institutet, who specializes in demographic trends and technology. This often taken for granted invention, he says, is actually the most timesaving technology in the world today.

When families can afford washing machines, mothers can spend more time working outside the home, attending school, or raising children instead of relentlessly heating water, pounding clothes, and hanging them to dry.

The washing machine is the most timesaving technology in the world today.

Household health improves and over time you begin to see the hallmarks of what we associate with “First World” living standards: longer life spans, fewer children, higher levels of income, and a diversified economy.

Rosling speaks from experience. In November 1952, his family in Sweden got their first washing machine, freeing his mother to take the four-year-old Rosling to the library more often.

“This technology is what made me a professor,” he said.

Rosling’s love of the no-spin cycle underscores a truism that has guided many think tanks, policy makers, and even product marketers: if you want to predict the future, study demographics, which is the statistical analysis of population shifts. Populations move in inexorable, yet visible patterns: today’s kids will invariably become tomorrow’s adults. If you can anticipate their expectations and needs, the future is a lot less surprising.

Why are Eastern Seaboard cities like Boston and Sun Belt hubs like Phoenix so different? In part, the difference comes from the incomes and outlook of the individuals that took part in their respective great waves of immigration. Those starting a new life didn’t want a house that reminded them of the old one.

Today, some debate whether or not e-books will replace traditional books. But when you consider that most computer savvy teens are comfortable with electronic devices, the outcome is foreordained.

Amazingly, people around the world all seem to be going the same direction, Rosling finds. In 1960, families in Vietnam had an average of seven children and life expectancy hovered around 40 years. In the U.S., families had two kids and life expectancy was about 65 years.

If you want to predict the future, study demographics.

Now, families in both countries have 2.03 kids on average and Vietnam trails the U.S. in life expectancy only by a few years: 70 to 77.

The nuclear family is the new norm. Eighty-five percent of the world now lives in countries with families that have fewer than three children on average, a switch from just a few decades ago. Bangladesh has the same birthrate as the U.S. Chalk it up to better medicine, soap, running water, and job opportunities.

“The total amount of children in the world—two billion—is not growing any longer,” Rosling said.

What it all means for washing machines

Demographics, naturally, are central to the debates over energy and resources. If people really are the same all over the world, they’re going to all want the same things. The one billion individuals living in the modern industrial areas like Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia consume about as much energy as the remaining six billion people in the rest of the world.

Those six billion, however, will rapidly catch up as their economies grow, and soon want the same appliances and lifestyle. Average annual incomes in rural China came to $500 in 1970. Now, the per capita income exceeds $3,310.

“Forty percent of the U.S. population can find a counterpart in China that has the same income in terms of purchasing power,” Rosling said. The living standard between China and the U.S. could roughly become equivalent by mid-century.

The wash line

Can we accommodate rising expectations without environmental distress? Rosling likes to show where the world is at on this continuum with what he calls the “wash line.” In countries where people spend $70 or more a day on energy (including household heating, transportation, plane flights, etc.) washing machines start to sell.

The world currently has two billion washing machines. One billion sit in the industrial world, where the average citizen consumes $80 a day or more in energy. Four billion people are closing in on the $70 mark and even economies not yet at the financial mark are seeing growth.

Rosling pointed to a picture of a woman from Malawi. “Are you going to tell her that ‘Due to our high consumption of energy, you cannot have a washing machine?’” he asked.

The professor acknowledges that without using renewable energy, moving most of the population above the “wash line” would more than double our dependence on fossil fuels. This, however, creates an interesting opportunity for companies and individuals interested in energy efficiency.

It’s imperative, Rosling believes that we focus on cleaner energy solutions, but it’s equally important to consider indigent communities below the “wash line.”

“We have become an entirely new converging world,” says Rosling. “And I see a clear trend into the future with aid, trade, green technology, and peace.”