Other winning essays
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey
This year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.
Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.
The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.
“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.
Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.
The overall winner was James Fletcher of King’s College London, whose essay “CITY Inc,” imagines what the London of 2065 will look like. His vision – a city transformed into a fifth state by the impact of social sciences and finance. You can read his full entry below:
By James Fletcher
On February 12th 2015, I moved to London to begin my PhD. During my subsequent 50 years as a sociologist studying and living in them, cities have undergone momentous transitions. This brief history charts their recent prosperity through the story of London – a tale of decentralisation enabling visionary corporate finance and social science to recast the physical and socioeconomic architecture of cities.
I arrived in London just as the social sciences were beginning to develop the approaches that would ensure their success, focussing on practical impact, interdisciplinary collaboration and corporate involvement. I moved into the borough of Tower Hamlets, London’s economic powerhouse, with an economy worth £6 billion annually and a young population where more people had been born in Bangladesh than in the UK. This wealth production, youth and diversity was representative of London more generally. Conversely, the rest of the UK had a faltering economy and an ageing conservative population with increasing immigration concerns. Thus, London and the UK were diverging. 2015 also saw unprecedented election gains for the Scottish National Party, triggering increased devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some cities. Strong SNP election performances in 2020 and 2025 forced the government to offer federalisation in 2027 to avoid a referendum on secession. Eventually, on December 12th 2042, England, Wales and Northern Ireland were also federalised, mirroring a global decentralisation trend.
Amidst decentralisation, London continued to grow, steadily gaining devolved powers. As 2043 arrived, the city I had moved into 28 years previously was unrecognisable. From the 900 metre high tower where I now lived, I surveyed a transforming cityscape, embracing recent technological developments.
This began back inn 2022 with Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower, the world’s first kilometre-high building. Besides technological innovation it also had profound cultural implications, with a range of social science consultants having pioneered community creation models. Under their guidance, its 5.5 million square feet of floor space offered offices, malls, accommodation and even artificial forests, stimulating a self-contained society with a culture of independence. Twelve years and four towers later, Kingdom City was a thriving metropolis of 2.1 million people. It represented a triumph for private finance and social science collaboration, setting a precedent for socially conscious corporation rule with minimal state involvement. Kingdom City prompted numerous equivalent developments throughout the Middle East and Asia in the late 2030s; social theory-informed, self-contained and privately managed. These ‘express cities’ dealt with population problems and boosted economies with ease, vindicating social planning.
With an immense housing crisis and a ballooning population shackled by construction regulation, London was desperate to emulate these eastern successes. It turned to its collection of world-leading institutions, including internationally renowned social psychologists, human geographers and many more, to plan groundbreaking reinvention. Throughout the 2040s, backed by multinational finance, London set about implementing this vision. Whilst primarily based around sociological community-seeding housing ideas, it also facilitated a transport revolution.
London already rejected cars, instead championing cycling and enjoying an unrivalled underground system following four Crossrail projects. Driverless electric vehicles had been increasingly present since the mid-2020s as battery technology improved. By the mid-30s London proposed banning all human-driven petrol-fuelled vehicles, but the UK government was opposed, concerned that decreased fuel imports might jeopardise Gulf State relations. By the early 2040s London was powerful enough to press ahead. Again the social sciences, bolstered by increasingly successful corporate ventures into city design, were instrumental in infrastructure planning, embedding the belief that public and corporate desires for liveability and efficiency were compatible. As a result, in 2053 the last human drove through the city. Simultaneously, influential internet scholars drove a complete 5G rollout, providing unparalleled internet access. in contrast, large parts of the rest of the UK still lacked 4G, creating a national digital divide. The scene was now set for divorce. In 2056 the government accepted a federalisation referendum. On May 4th 2058, London voted to become the UK’s fifth state.
Today, whilst technically federalised, London is essentially sovereign. Since the early2050s state involvement has been nominal, particularly following parliament’s relocation to Manchester. London, like many traditional capitals, now is more similar to the Martian colonies than the nation surrounding it. These old nation states, largely unaltered from 2015, are increasingly inferior, especially as Space X’s mines and hydroponic innovations further improve city living standards. Social science’s guidance of private capital has enabled Jakarta, Doha and many more to smoothly transcend state structures, each now existing as a well-organised corporate amalgamation. This change is evident in my current work. Whilst trickle-down economics and stringent immigration controls have all but ended real-term deprivation, inequality remains entrenched. Employed by London Inc., who are concerned about barriers for talent, I am currently developing proposals to stimulate social mobility. This is just one example of how corporate-social science synergy is cultivating prosperous city societies in 2065.