Predicting the future is rarely a profitable pastime as any honest gambler will tell you. I arrived at the World Government Summit in Dubai this week expecting people to lay out what might become of the world in five, ten or twenty years. Instead I found people grappling with the present. That’s understandable given the events of 2016, but whether you choose to take an optimistic or pessimistic view of the current state of global affairs, there is a collective diagnosis of the modern condition emerging. The open question is whether governments can find the right prescription for it.
As the UN’s incoming Secretary General António Guterres highlighted, the shift from a world with one globally active superpower is underway and nobody yet knows how many other countries will stake a lasting claim to leadership in a multi-polar world. National governments in the west are facing a collapse in public trust that looks set to spread to global institutions via populist political pressure, technology risks outflanking democracy through the spread of fake news and the unnerving bond between conflict, instability and extremism is as strong as ever. All of this is being played out among increased social and cultural friction as more people than ever traverse borders to escape conflict or seek prosperity.
The world will build more infrastructure in the next 40 years than it did in the last 400. Driverless cars, cashless societies and wearable healthcare products, all enabled and enhanced by an internet of things, are just around the corner. In the Museum of the Future this week delegates had a glimpse of ocean-based desalination systems designed from the genes of mangroves and jellyfish, household ‘autofarms’ that grow just enough food for the dinner table and ‘grow your own city’ kits that harnessed the natural environment to develop climate friendly communities in uninhabited spaces.
So what does this mean for those faced with the challenges of effective government? In some ways nothing has changed. Political leaders still tend to be on the hook for addressing the basic needs and desires of humankind – employment, security, health, education and other such essentials for a happy life. But the environment in which they are expected to deliver is changing and this makes the quality of government more important than ever.
Two critical challenges came to the fore this week. The first is the need for new jobs (or at least a means of providing people with the fruits of productive endeavour). Whether or not you’re an African leader facing relentless growth in the labour supply as a result of a population boom or a European leader dealing with the threat of professional obsolescence among the lower middle classes, the challenge of how to provide gainful occupation for future generations is universally felt. It’s hard not to conclude that serious creativity will be required to solve this one.
The second is around how to maximise the potential of new technology. No matter where you are in the world there’s plenty of hype around how new breakthroughs can transform public services and make our lives easier. A new OECD report produced in conjunction with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Inovation collates examples of government and technology joining forces to solve previously impossible puzzles - from mapping the myriad bus networks of Mexico City to instant updates on the spread of floods in Indonesia.
Personal transport drones: A glimpse into the future?
These examples, as well as the personal transport drones and virtual reality space shuttles on display, may signpost the future but they don’t guarantee it. The spectre of western populism loomed large over discussions - one former Latin American leader struggled to disguise his schadenfreude at the present condition of the US and another African voice noted that strongman politics was already well understood on his continent – but the fact remains that volatility among western electorates could unpick political settlements that have driven an era of unprecedented global progress.
Such uncertainty was not the order of the day at the most high profile discussion of African development, and rightly so. This is one part of the world where optimism is as valid as it is essential. More than once the contrast between the creation of a Pan-African passport and the seeming demise of free movement in Europe and the US was held up as a reason why African leaders are global leaders.
One of the benefits of still being a ‘developing’ country, however crass the distinction, is that there is plenty of room for ambition when it comes to infrastructure and innovation. Airports and railways are already in vogue and there is potential to deploy new technologies in ways that avoid pitfalls facing the west. Ghana’s new Vice President Mahamadu Bawumia was straight out of the blocks to announce plans to create digital maps and biometric IDs and the new administration looks set to foster innovation that can hopefully be cited alongside Kenya’s mobile money and Rwanda’s drones as examples of a continent that is able to move with the times.
At AGI we are working with our teams and their government counterparts to explore the potential for small-scale pilots that could harness the scale of government systems to leapfrog or bypass typical barriers to innovation. That's why we were delighted to be invited to join the debate.
Globalisation is back in vogue as a lens for understanding global politics. After three days of listening to leaders from the vanguard of political, economic and commercial thinking hypothesise about what lies in store for humanity it is hard to escape the fact that the relentless pace of technological advance will force us humans to manage ever greater change in ever less time. Which isn’t necessarily good news if you happen to think we’re not managing it very well already and is certainly a strong case for supporting governments that are striving to get ahead of the game.