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Wells' predictions on target for Urban Task Force-style future

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In January people make predictions for the coming year. They do this despite the fact that they are generally unsuccessful - predictions being subject to the rule of synchronicity which says that foreseeing an event before the means to bring it about exists, does not count.

None of this appears to have discouraged the former head of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, who presented a blockbuster of predictions over the Christmas holidays. These included a new political alliance between Greens, the Euroagriculturalists and organised labour; the resignation of Tony Blair; and a new government devoted to devolution and environmentalism that would dissolve into chaos by 2004.

Now prediction like this is a serious business. It calls for the self-control and concentration of a master bowls player coupled with a conceptual long view that refuses to be swept off course by storms in teacups. Bring this sort of visionary expertise into play and you quickly come to understand that it is one thing to predict the minor perturbations that differentiate one year from another, but quite another to predict the course of events over centuries and still be posthumously on target.

Consider this view of Britain in 2048, written more than 100 years ago. The reporter is a passenger in a flying machine, when such things themselves were still science fiction. This is what he sees: 'Nearly all the towns in the country and almost all the villages had disappeared. Here and there only a gigantic hotel-like edifice stood amid square miles of some single cultivation and preserved the name of a town. . . The cities had drawn away the workers from the countryside with the gravitational force of seemingly endless work, the employers with their suggestion of an infinite ocean of labour. . . And as the complexity of the mechanism of living increased, life in the country became more and more costly, narrow and impossible. . . After telephone, kinematograph and phonograph had replaced newspaper, book, schoolmaster, and letter, to live outside the range of the electric cables was to live like an isolated savage. 'In the country were neither means of being clothed nor fed. Mechanical appliances in agriculture had made one engineer the equivalent of 30 labourers, there were no efficient doctors for an emergency, there was no company for loneliness and no pursuits. . . Instead there was a vision of city beyond city. Cities on great plains, cities beside great rivers, vast cities along the sea margin, cities girdled by snowy mountains. . .

Everywhere now through the city-set earth the same cosmopolitan social organisation prevailed and everywhere, from Pole to Equator, the whole world was civilized. The whole world dwelt in cities.'

These extracts are taken from The Sleeper Awakes , by H G Wells, a novel published in 1898 but capable of describing our new century in about 50 years time in terms that are startlingly recognisable today.

This is because Wells' apocalyptic vision of a world of cities is no less than the policy of the Urban Task Force right on track, coming into a three-point landing in about 50 years time.

It is Wells who fills in the worrisome gap between building giant art galleries and the nemesis of rural and suburban and rural life. He plots the course that leads from the primitive nomad to the hunter, from the hunter to the farmer, and from the farmer to the globalized automated farm.

Of course, he misses out some details. He has giant windmills generating electric power instead of natural gas and no IT to speak of, but he does have multi-racialism, colour TV and advertising in the sky for passing aeronauts.

Oddly enough his world of cities is brought down by a chaos of devolution and environmentalism in the end as well - but not yet.

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