TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Demographic trends unfolding in China could ultimately lead Africa to replace the world's most populous country as a global center of low-cost manufacturing, according to Ford Motor Co.'s official futurist.
That's just one potential impact of changing demographics that could cause automakers and suppliers to reconsider their future product and production plans.
Sheryl Connelly, global consumer trends and futuring manager for Ford, said at the 2013 CAR Management Briefing Seminars on Wednesday that global wealth and population shifts will have effects that can't be predicted.
Though she can't predict the future, as Ford's futurist, it is her job to help the company's executives see how developing trends and scenarios might play out.
For example, a decades-long one-child policy has meant that China may hit its peak worker population in 2014, Connelly said. After that point, the number of active workers could slowly erode, while the number of retirees and other dependents rise.
China could have difficulty sustaining its place as a low-cost manufacturer, she said, and that designation may then move to Africa.
In her role with Ford, Connelly is responsible for forecasting potential scenarios to allow the automaker to prepare for both expected and unexpected events.
Some of the planning scenarios are far-fetched, such as how humans might respond if extra-terrestrial life forms landed on Earth.
But other forecasts are useful, Connelly says. For example, it was highly probable that Earthquake-prone Japan -- which sits on several major fault lines -- might suffer a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, as it did in March 2011.
Connelly said people in Japan were aware of and prepared for those eventualities, but global automakers seemed caught by surprise when the earthquake and tsunami shut down several key supply facilities.
Ford uses the forecasting scenarios to map out corporate strategies, and how it might respond to rising global populations and changing consumer needs, Connelly said.
"We have to kind of change our westernized view of how the future looks by the year 2050," Connelly said. "The reason we're so worried about this is because the markets that we sell to … they have declining fertilities," Connelly said.