The 8 Major Forces Shaping the Future of the Global Economy
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The 8 Major Forces Shaping the Future of the Global Economy

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The 8 Major Forces Shaping the Future of the Global Economy

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.

– Jimmy Dean

The world is changing faster than ever before.

With billions of people hyper-connected to each other in an unprecedented global network, it allows for an almost instantaneous and frictionless spread of new ideas and innovations.

Combine this connectedness with rapidly changing demographics, shifting values and attitudes, growing political uncertainty, and exponential advances in technology, and it’s clear the next decade is setting up to be one of historic transformation.

But where do all of these big picture trends intersect, and how can we make sense of a world engulfed in complexity and nuance? Furthermore, how do we set our sails to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this sea of change?

The Intersection of Data and Powerful Visuals

Interpreting massive amounts of data on how the world is changing can be taxing for even the most brilliant thinkers.

For this reason, our entire team at Visual Capitalist is focused on using the power of visual storytelling to make the world’s information more accessible. Our team of information designers works daily to transform complex data into graphics that are both intuitive and insightful, allowing you to see big picture trends from a new perspective.

After all, science says that 65% of people are visual learners – so why not put data in a language they can understand?

While we regularly publish our visuals in an online format, our most recent endeavor has been to compile our best charts, infographics, and data visualizations into one place: our new book Visualizing Change: A Data-Driven Snapshot of Our World, a 256-page hardcover coffee-table book on the forces shaping business, wealth, technology, and the economy.

The book focuses on eight major themes ranging from shifting human geography to the never-ending evolution of money. And below, we present some of the key visualizations in the book that serve as examples relating to each major theme.

1. The Tech Invasion

For most of the history of business, the world’s leading companies have been industrially-focused.

Pioneers like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison innovated in the physical realm using atoms – they came up with novel ways to re-organize these atoms to create things like the assembly line and the incandescent lightbulb. Then, companies invested massive amounts of capital to build physical factories, pay thousands of workers, and build these things.

The majority of the great blue chip companies were built this way: IBM, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Walmart, and Ford are just some examples.

But today’s business reality is very different. We live in a world of bytes – and for the first time technology and commerce have collided in a way that makes data far more valuable than physical, tangible objects.

The best place to see this is in how the market values businesses.

Market capitalization of tech companies

As you can see above, companies like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have supplanted traditional blue chip companies that build physical things.

The tech invasion is leveraging connectivity, network effects, artificial intelligence, and unprecedented scale to create global platforms that are almost impossible to compete with. The tech invasion has already taken over retail and advertising – and now invading forces have their eyes set on healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and education.

Will atoms ever be more valuable than bytes again?

Interesting Facts:

2. The Evolution of Money

Money is arguably one of humanity’s most important inventions. From beaver pelts to gold bars, the form and function of money has constantly fluctuated throughout history.

In the modern world, the definition of money is blurrier than ever. Central banks have opted to create trillions of dollars of currency out of thin air since the financial crisis – and on the flipside, you can actually use blockchain technology to create your own competing cryptocurrency in just a few clicks.

Regardless of what is money and what is not, people are borrowing record amounts of it.

The world has now amassed $247 trillion in debt, including $63 trillion borrowed by central governments:

Global debt by gdp

In today’s unusual monetary circumstances, massive debt loads are just one anomaly.

Here are other examples that illustrate the evolution of money: Venezuela has hyperinflated away almost all of its currency’s value, the “War on Cash” is raging on around the world, central banks are lending out money at negative interest rates (Sweden, Japan, Switzerland, etc.), and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are collectively worth over $200 billion.

How we view money – and how that perception evolves over time – is an underlying factor that influences our future.

Interesting Facts:

3. The Wealth Landscape

Wealth is not stagnant – and so for those looking to make the most out of global opportunities, it’s imperative to get a sense of how the wealth landscape is changing.

The modern view is either extremely healthy or bubbly, depending on how you look at it: Amazon and Apple are worth over $1 trillion, Jeff Bezos has a $100+ billion fortune, and the current bull market is the longest in modern history at 10 years.

Will this growth continue, and where will it come from?

Here’s one look based on projections from the World Bank:

Where is Global Growth Happening?

Despite these estimates, there is a laundry list of items that the ultra-wealthy are concerned about – everything from the expected comeback of inflation to a world where geopolitical black swans seem to be growing more common.

Here’s why those building and protecting wealth are rightly concerned about such events:

Geopolitical black swans and the S&P 500

But the wealth landscape is not all just about billionaires and massive companies – it is changing in other interesting ways as well. For example, the definition of wealth itself is taking on a new meaning, with millennials leading a charge towards sustainable investing rather than being entirely focused on monetary return.

How will the wealth landscape look a decade from now?

Interesting Facts:

4. Eastern Promises

The economic rise of China has been a compelling story for decades.

Up until recently, we’ve only been able to get a preview of what the Eastern superpower is capable of – and in the coming years, these promises will come to fruition at a scale that will still be baffling to many.

Understandably, the scope of China’s population and economy can still be quite difficult to put into perspective.

The following map may help, as it combines both elements together to show that China has countless cities each with a higher economic productivity than entire countries.

China cities vs. country GDPs

In fact, China has over 100 cities with more than 1,000,000 inhabitants. These cities, many of which fly below the radar on the global stage, each have impressive economies – whether they are built upon factories, natural resource production, or the information economy.

As one impressive example, the Yangtze River Delta – a single region which contains Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, Nantong, Ningbo, Nanjing, and Changzhou – has a GDP (PPP) of $2.6 trillion, which is more than Italy.

Interesting Facts:

Don’t forget: our new book covers
all of these eight themes in detail:

5. Accelerating Technological Progress

As we’ve already seen, there are many facets of change that will impact our shared future.

But here’s the kicker: when it comes to technological progress, the rate of change itself is actually getting faster and faster. Each year brings more technological advancements than the last, and once the exponential “hockey stick” kicks into overdrive, innovations could happen at a blindsiding pace.

This could be described as a function of Moore’s Law, and the law of accelerating returns is also something that futurists like Ray Kurzweil have talked about for decades.

Interestingly, there is another offshoot of accelerating change that applies more to the business and economic world. Not only is the speed of change getting faster, but for various reasons, markets are able to adopt new technologies faster:

The accelerating rate of technology adoption

New products can achieve millions of users in just months, and the game Pokémon Go serves as an interesting case study of this potential. The game amassed 50 million users in just 19 days, which is a blink of an eye in comparison to automobiles (62 years), the telephone (50 years), or credit cards (28 years).

As new technologies are created at a faster and faster pace – and as they are adopted at record speeds by markets – it’s fair to say that future could be coming at a breakneck speed.

Interesting Facts:
Future tech facts

6. The Green Revolution

It’s no secret that our civilization is in the middle of a seismic shift to more sustainable energy sources.

But to fully appreciate the significance of this change, you need to look at the big picture of energy over time. Below is a chart of U.S. energy consumption from 1776 until today, showing that the energy we use to power development is not permanent or static throughout history.

Energy Use Since 1776

And with the speed at which technology now moves, expect our energy infrastructure and delivery systems to evolve at an even more blistering pace than we’ve experienced before.

Interesting Facts:

7. Shifting Human Geography

Global demographics are always shifting, but the population tidal wave in the coming decades will completely reshape the global economy.

In Western countries and China, populations will stabilize due to fertility rates and demographic makeups. Meanwhile, on the African continent and across the rest of Asia, booming populations combined with rapid urbanization will translate into the growth of megacities, holding upwards of 50 million people.

By the end of the 21st century, this animation shows that Africa alone could contain at least 13 megacities that are bigger than New York:

Megacities demographic animation

By this time, it’s projected that North America, Europe, South America, and China will combine to hold zero of the world’s 20 most populous cities. What other game-changing shifts to human geography will occur during this stretch?

Interesting Facts:

8. The Trade Paradox

By definition, a consensual and rational trade between two parties is one that makes both parties better off.

Based on this microeconomic principle, and also on the consensus by economists that free trade is ultimately beneficial, countries around the world have consistently been working to remove trade barriers since World War II with great success.

But nothing is ever straightforward, and these long-held truths are now being challenged in both societal and political contexts. We now seem to be trapped in a trade paradox in which politicians give lip service to free trade, but often take action in the opposite direction.

To get a sense of how important trade can be between two nations, we previously documented the ongoing relationship between the U.S. and Canada, in which each country is the best customer of the other:

USA/CAN Trade Relationship

With the recent USMCA agreement, the two countries seem to have sorted their differences for now – but the trade paradox will continue to be an ongoing theme in economics and investing at a global level for many years to come, especially as the trade war against China rages on.

Points to Consider:

How You Can Visualize Change

The forces behind change are not always evident to the naked eye, but we believe that by fusing data, art, and storytelling together that we can create powerful context on the trends shaping our future.

If you enjoyed our summary above, you can explore these ideas further with our book “Visualizing Change”, which offers 256 pages of infographics, data visualizations, and charts on the future direction of the global economy and technology.

Get your copy of Visualizing Change today

Our book makes a great holiday gift. Get it on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca, or even customize a bulk order with your logo

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How the Top Cryptocurrencies Performed in 2021

Cryptocurrencies had a breakout year in 2021, providing plenty of volatility and strong returns across crypto’s various sectors.

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The Returns of Top Cryptocurrencies in 2021

2021 saw the crypto markets boom and mature, with different sectors flourishing and largely outperforming the market leader, bitcoin.

While bitcoin only managed to return 59.8% last year, the crypto sector’s total market cap grew by 187.5%, with many of the top coins offering four and even five-digit percentage returns.

2021 Crypto Market Roundup

Last year wasn’t just a breakout year for crypto in terms of returns, but also the growing infrastructure’s maturity and resulting decorrelation of individual crypto industries and coins.

Crypto’s infrastructure has developed significantly, and there are now many more onramps for people to buy altcoins that don’t require purchasing and using bitcoin in the process. As a result, many cryptocurrency prices were more dictated by the value and functionality of their protocol and applications rather than their correlation to bitcoin.

CryptocurrencyCategory2021 Returns
BitcoinCryptocurrency59.8%
EthereumSmart Contract Platform399.2%
Binance CoinExchange Token1,268.9%
SolanaSmart Contract Platform11,177.8%
CardanoSmart Contract Platform621.3%
XRPCryptocurrency277.8%
TerraSmart Contract Platform12,967.3%
AvalancheSmart Contract Platform3,334.8%
PolkadotSmart Contract Platform187.9%
DogecoinMeme Coin3,546.0%

Sources: TradingView, Binance, Uniswap, FTX, Bittrex

Bitcoin wasn’t the only cryptocurrency that didn’t manage to reach triple-digit returns in 2021. Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash also provided meagre double-digit percentage returns, as payment-focused cryptocurrencies were largely ignored for projects with smart contract capabilities.

Other older projects like Stellar Lumens (109%) and XRP (278%) provided triple-digit returns, with Cardano (621%) being the best performer of the old guard despite not managing to ship its smart contract functionality last year.

The Rise of the Ethereum Competitors

Ethereum greatly outpaced bitcoin in 2021, returning 399.2% as the popularity boom of NFTs and creation of DeFi 2.0 protocols like Olympus (OHM) expanded possible use-cases.

But with the rise of network activity, a 50% increase in transfers in 2021, Ethereum gas fees surged. From minimums of $20 for a single transaction, to NFT mint prices starting around $40 and going into the hundreds on congested network days, crypto’s retail crowd migrated to other smart contract platforms with lower fees.

Alternative budding smart contract platforms like Solana (11,178%), Avalanche (3,335%), and Fantom (13,207%) all had 4-5 digit percentage returns, as these protocols built out their own decentralized finance ecosystems and NFT markets.

With Ethereum set to merge onto the beacon chain this year, which uses proof of stake instead of proof of work, we’ll see if 2022 brings lower gas fees and retail’s return to Ethereum if the merge is successful.

Dog Coins Meme their Way to the Top

While many new cryptocurrencies with strong functionality and unique use-cases were rewarded with strong returns, it was memes that powered the greatest returns in cryptocurrencies this past year.

Dogecoin’s surge after Elon Musk’s “adoption” saw many other dog coins follow, with SHIB benefitting the most and returning an astounding 19.85 million percent.

But ever since Dogecoin’s run from $0.07 to a high of $0.74 in Q2 of last year, the original meme coin’s price has slowly bled -77% down to $0.17 at the time of writing. After the roller coaster ride of last year, 2022 started with a positive catalyst for Dogecoin holders as Elon Musk announced DOGE can be used to purchase Tesla merchandise.

Gamifying the Crypto Industry

The intersection between crypto, games, and the metaverse became more than just a pipe dream in 2021. Axie Infinity was the first crypto native game to successfully establish a play to earn structure that combines its native token (AXS) and in-game NFTs, becoming a sensation and source of income for many in the Philippines.

Other crypto gaming projects like Defi Kingdoms are putting recognizable game interfaces on decentralized finance applications, with the decentralized exchange becoming the town’s “marketplace” and yield farms being the “gardens” where yield is harvested. This fantasy aesthetic is more than just a new coat of paint, as the project with $1.04B of total value locked is developing an underlying play-to-earn game.

Along with gamification, 2021 saw crypto native and non-crypto developers put a big emphasis on the digital worlds or metaverses users will inhabit. Facebook’s name change to Meta resulted in the two prominent metaverse projects The Sandbox (SAND) and Decentraland (MANA) surge another few hundred percent to finish off the year at 16,261% and 4,104% returns respectively.

With so many eyes on the crypto sector after the 2021’s breakout year, we’ll see how developing U.S. regulation and changing macro conditions affect cryptocurrencies in 2022.

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The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web

A lot has changed since Yahoo and AOL were the homepages of choice. This visualization looks at the largest internet giants in the U.S. since 1998.

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The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web (1998-Today)

With each passing year, an increasingly large segment of the population no longer remembers images loading a single pixel row at a time, the earsplitting sound of a 56k modem, or the early domination of web portals.

Many of the top websites in 1998 were news aggregators or search portals, which are easy concepts to understand. Today, brand touch-points are often spread out between devices (e.g. mobile apps vs. desktop) and a myriad of services and sub-brands (e.g. Facebook’s constellation of apps). As a result, the world’s biggest websites are complex, interconnected web properties.

The visualization above, which primarily uses data from ComScore’s U.S. Multi-Platform Properties ranking, looks at which of the internet giants have evolved to stay on top, and which have faded into internet lore.

America Moves Online

For millions of curious people the late ’90s, the iconic AOL compact disc was the key that opened the door to the World Wide Web. At its peak, an estimated 35 million people accessed the internet using AOL, and the company rode the Dotcom bubble to dizzying heights, reaching a valuation of $222 billion dollars in 1999.

AOL’s brand may not carry the caché it once did, but the brand never completely faded into obscurity. The company continually evolved, finally merging with Yahoo after Verizon acquired both of the legendary online brands. Verizon had high hopes for the company—called Oath—to evolve into a “third option” for advertisers and users who were fed up with Google and Facebook.

Sadly, those ambitions did not materialize as planned. In 2019, Oath was renamed Verizon Media, and was eventually sold once again in 2021.

A City of Gifs and Web Logs

As internet usage began to reach critical mass, web hosts such as AngelFire and GeoCities made it easy for people to create a new home on the Web.

GeoCities, in particular, made a huge impact on the early internet, hosting millions of websites and giving people a way to actually participate in creating online content. If it were a physical community of “home” pages, it would’ve been the third largest city in America, after Los Angeles.

This early online community was at risk of being erased permanently when GeoCities was finally shuttered by Yahoo in 2009, but luckily, the nonprofit Internet Archive took special efforts to create a thorough record of GeoCities-hosted pages.

From A to Z

In December of 1998, long before Amazon became the well-oiled retail machine we know today, the company was in the midst of a massive holiday season crunch.

In the real world, employees were pulling long hours and even sleeping in cars to keep the goods flowing, while online, Amazon.com had become one of the biggest sites on the internet as people began to get comfortable with the idea of purchasing goods online. Demand surged as the company began to expand their offering beyond books.

Amazon.com has grown to be the most successful merchant on the Internet.

– New York Times (1998)

Digital Magazine Rack

Meredith will be an unfamiliar brand to many people looking at today’s top 20 list. While Meredith may not be a household name, the company controlled many of the country’s most popular magazine brands (People, AllRecipes, Martha Stewart, Health, etc.) including their sizable digital footprints. The company also owned a slew of local television networks around the United States.

After its acquisition of Time Inc. in 2017, Meredith became the largest magazine publisher in the world. Since then, however, Meredith has divested many of its most valuable assets (Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune). In December 2021, Meredith merged with IAC’s Dotdash.

“Hey, Google”

When people have burning questions, they increasingly turn to the internet for answers, but the diversity of sources for those answers is shrinking.

Even as recently as 2013, we can see that About.com, Ask.com, and Answers.com were still among the biggest websites in America. Today though, Google appears to have cemented its status as a universal wellspring of answers.

As smart speakers and voice assistants continue penetrate the market and influence search behavior, Google is unlikely to face any near-term competition from any company not already in the top 20 list.

New Kids on the Block

Social media has long since outgrown its fad stage and is now a common digital thread connecting people across the world. While Facebook rapidly jumped into the top 20 by 2007, other social media infused brands took longer to grow into internet giants.

By 2018, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook’s umbrella of platforms were all in the top 20, and you can see a more detailed and up-to-date breakdown of the social media universe here.

A Tangled Web

Today’s internet giants have evolved far beyond their ancestors from two decades ago. Many of the companies in the top 20 run numerous platforms and content streams, and more often than not, they are not household names.

A few, such as Mediavine and CafeMedia, are services that manage ads. Others manage content distribution, such as music, or manage a constellation of smaller media properties, as is the case with Hearst.

Lastly, there are still the tech giants. Remarkably, three of the top five web properties were in the top 20 list in 1998. In the fast-paced digital ecosystem, that’s some remarkable staying power.

This article was inspired by an earlier work by Philip Bump, published in the Washington Post.

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