Global planning: taking the long view

Political and thought leaders gathering at global summits such as Davos are increasingly looking at the larger, longer-term problems facing the world, such as climate change and cyber-security. Vision reports

Every January, thousands of the world’s most powerful leaders and greatest minds from the fields of politics, business and civil society congregate in the Alpine ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Their objective: catalyse and facilitate global, regional and industry transformation. In other words, improve the state of the world.

Professor Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of Davos, stated at a WEF conference in Abu Dhabi, ahead of the 44th annual meeting this year, that global governments focus too much on short-term crisis management to the detriment of long-term strategy.

“Over the past few years, our meetings in Davos have often been dominated by a single major issue facing the global community. From the global financial crisis, the Arab transition and the threatened collapse of the euro, leaders have often arrived with a dominant agenda and in response mode. Today, the situation is different. From conflict in the Middle East, the US Federal Reserve’s tapering programme and tension in the South China Sea, to the 75 million unemployed young people around the world, we face a situation where the number of potential flashpoints are many and are likely to grow,” he says.

It sounds bleak, but the WEF’s Network of Global Agenda Councils, a community of 1,500 thought leaders at the forefront of their fields – academia, business, government, international organisations and society – is trying to organise a response to the world’s biggest problems.

Its annual survey this year, the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014, has identified widening income gaps, inaction on climate change, the growing importance of megacities and intensifying cyber threats among the top 10 trends for world leaders this year

Equality

Robert J Shiller, the Yale University professor who was one of three Americans to be awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 2013 for their empirical analysis of asset prices, says rising inequality is the world’s biggest problem.

Instead of seeing financial innovation as part of the problem, Shiller recommends harnessing the power of finance for the common good, with financial structures that are simple and transparent. After all, he points out, many financial inventions to date such as pensions, insurance, mortgages and savings accounts have helped people at all levels in society.

“Finance is substantially about risk management, and if it’s applied right, if it is democratised – that is, if the real tools are made useful to real people, and not to just a minority of people – it can help solve these problems,” he says.

Climate Change

It is already wreaking havoc in many parts of the world, but the Gulf region is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, as it has to contend with the combined challenges of water scarcity, a reliance on climate-change sensitive agriculture and coastal centres of populations and economic activities, says Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Director of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, the Emirates have adopted a well-defined and region-leading strategy to help mitigate this trend. “The UAE is taking bold action on several fronts. First, we are supporting the deployment of clean energy globally. We invest in renewable energy in Europe and support clean-energy projects in developing countries through our aid programmes. Domestically, although we account for only 0.5 per cent of world emissions, we are playing our part by deploying nuclear energy, renewable-energy projects such as the Shams 1 solar power plant and carbon capture and storage through collaboration between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and [the renewable-energy company] Masdar.

“We are also preparing for the future through educational institutions such as the Masdar Institute, which cultivate UAE expertise in clean technologies. The UAE is also gradually investing in mass transit, including the national rail project and the extension of the metro system as domestic actions to reducing transport emissions,” he says.

Mega Cities

The proportion of the world’s population that now lives in cities has recently risen to more than 50 per cent, and it is predicted that this will rise to 70 per cent by 2050. They are the prime loci of the world economy, concentrating the highest-value industries and services, and the hubs for connectivity (from airlines to the internet) to one another, says geo-strategist Parag Khanna, a WEF Young Global Leader, and co-author of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization.

But Khanna also says, “Most of the world’s largest cities by population are struggling to cope with short-term demands such as congestion, inadequate housing and unemployment... They have grown faster than they can absorb. This is true in places like Lagos or Jakarta or Manila.

“The world’s largest cities economically, such as New York and London, are currently making big investments in economic diversification and upgrades to infrastructure to prepare themselves for greater competition from other centres. I believe much more attention should be paid to the long-term challenges of cities, particularly building modern and sustainable infrastructure. This would create jobs, promote economic and social mobility, and reduce inequality.”

Cyber Security

Organised crime has invaded the digital space, and threatens both individuals and institutions, says cyber-security expert Professor Keith Martin, Director of the Information Security Group at London’s Royal Holloway University. “Cyber security is an increasing concern because we put our whole lives into digital form – our diaries, photographs, correspondence – and we risk losing it all.”

“We don’t all understand how [cyberspace] works and the threats out there. We are not wired for that physical threat.” Part of the answer is education. Professor Martin believes governments could do more to pressurise the vendors of technology to have built-in security to help protect the most vulnerable who may not have the knowledge to fight or even simply identify cyber threats.