World Economic Forum – Future Global Agenda series
In the quarter-century since the Cold War ended, the world has become an ever more complex place. History did not, after all, come to an end. Our world, supposedly flattened by globalization, has proven to be bumpier than predicted.
Climate change, the growing inequality between rich and poor, rising geopolitical rivalry, an alarming rise in extremism, and countries pushed to the brink by disease and conflict dominate today’s headlines. These are among the hot-button issues being addressed this week in Dubai by the World Economic Forum at the Summit on the Global Agenda being hosted by the UAE Government.
Yet even as the news cycles are dominated by grim headlines, we believe that the Summit attendees – more than 1,000 of the world’s leading voices from business, government, civil society and academia who have volunteered to be part of 80 Global Agenda Councils which address specific global, regional, and industry challenges – provide reasons to be optimistic.
For a start, not all the dire predictions will come true. And that will be due, in part, to the kind of innovative thinking – ranging from ideas for new technology solutions, new approaches to problems, and new policymaking tools – that will be occurring in Dubai. This in turn will be reflected in the Forum’s programme at its Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2015 and help shape the global agenda for years to come.
Just a decade ago, for instance, one fear was that we risked becoming a world of technology “haves” and “have nots;” a planet separated into spheres of the information-rich and information-poor. The reality today is that the lower cost of access to technology has dispelled those fears. Satellite TV, mobile phones, low-cost smartphones and cheap computers such as the Raspberry Pi have all but conquered the information divide.
The near-universal availability of information and technology has been a global success storyEspen Barth Eide
In fact, the near-universal availability of information and technology has been a global success story, breaking down barriers, creating tech hubs in unlikely places from India to Indonesia, and removing the monopoly on news from dictatorial regimes the world over.
Today, a student in Kenya can enroll, long distance, at the London School of Economics with nothing more than a second-hand laptop and a 3G phone connection, with course materials and lecture videos arriving wirelessly, and one-on-one tuition supplied through a chat app.
To keep this trend moving forward, we need to create a strong, multi-stakeholder commitment to a solid governance structure for the internet, keeping it open and accessible to all, which is one of the many issues that will be discussed at the Summit. Moreover, looking at the Councils that will be working together for the next two years on issues ranging from Nuclear Security to Competitiveness; from Education to the Future of Government, it is plain that the effective harnessing of innovative thinking is the common thread running through the solutions to a broad range of issues.
Let’s look at a real-world example of such innovation close to home. The UAE is often viewed as a model of stability and prosperity in a neighbourhood where those commodities are sometimes in short supply. Its own implementation of one such innovative idea – e-government services – has yielded significant benefits for its people. Such services have simplified access to government services for all residents, for example when applying for a visa.
Through its commitment to a comprehensive and transparent e-government model, the UAE hasn’t just made dealing with the government easier for end-users, it has also helped reduce the risk of corruption in public services. Indeed, in 2012, the U.N. praised the UAE as having the lowest levels of corruption in the Arab world.
Elsewhere in many parts of the world corruption remains an insidious evil. It distorts markets, undermines development, and, according to the World Bank, increases the cost of doing business by up to 10 percent globally. It is a key issue for the World Economic Forum, with the Global Agenda Council on Transparency & Anti-Corruption tackling the issue head on.
Of course, effective e-government service is only one front in the battle against graft, but it is a good step in the right direction.
The Summit on the Global Agenda is part of a bigger and more sustained partnership between the government of the UAE and the World Economic Forum to help spread foster and spread innovations that improve lives in the region and world.
For instance, in June, the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government launched a guide in the UAE to help governments use technology to build better trust and deliver more efficient public services. The Future of Government Smart Toolbox provides a platform to showcase good governance practices from around the world attesting to the vision and the making of truly smart, technologically enabled governments.
No longer pie in the sky
Of course, the UAE has had the advantage of being able to use its wealth to roll out such services at a time when the required technology was restrictively expensive for many countries. Today, however, in the developing world, the idea of technologically integrated government is no longer pie in the sky thinking. Micropayment systems using current mobile phone technology are already used by, for example, the mobile operators themselves. It’s hardly a great leap to adapt that for a government system to pay for passport fees or traffic penalties.
If the information divide was the big fear we conquered in just a decade, could we not capitalise on that victory to see a world where, say, corruption, if not eradicated, is at least endangered? And, what other solutions can be addressed by clever use of readily available, relatively cheap, technology? It’s this kind of joined-up, innovative thinking that motivates the GACs, and keeps us optimistic about our future.
This article features in the World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, published Nov. 7
Espen Barth Eide is managing director and a member of the managing board of the World Economic Forum.