Over the next three days, 900 global experts are gathered here in Dubai for the world’s largest brainstorming. Here they spend long days and nights discussing the world’s most important issues and trying to find solutions.
Beyond problems within their own field of expertise – whether questions of biological warfare, cybercrime, catastrophic risk or the international monetary systems – discussions are taking place among 87 other Global Agenda Councils, all addressing a specific global challenge or opportunity.
The discussions are sometimes heated, at times controversial, but always inspiring because every single Council member in Dubai is committed to making a positive difference.
The members of the Global Agenda Councils – who are from business, governments, academia and civil society – are all part of a two-year process to help shape the global, regional and industry agenda. As part of their engagement, in the Survey on the Global Agenda they also identify issues they think urgently need to be addressed in the coming 12-18 months. The results of this year’s survey show two issues, in particular, moving rapidly up the global agenda: cracks in the eurozone and a clear indication of a global leadership crisis.
The results are not only used to determine the topics for discussion at this year’s Summit but also will shape the agenda which faces world leaders when they convene in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting next January.
Pressure on the eurozone leaped to become this year’s top issue. By contrast, public debt, in last year’s number one spot, fell to tenth place this year. We see these results as reflecting a deepening appreciation of the underlying structural issues in the global economy, of which public debt levels are only one manifestation. The instability of the global economic outlook occupied second place in our survey in both 2011 and 2012.
Does the more holistic view on the economic situation also imply a greater readiness to think boldly about the structural economic solutions that might be needed? Supporting this interpretation, the second most rapidly rising issue in the top ten was concern about a perceived lack of global leadership and coordination. This ranked sixth overall in 2012, from 24th place in 2011.
Likewise on the move, from 20th up to seventh, was global interdependency. This was reflected also in the fact that concerns about the eurozone were confined not only to respondents from Europe, with Asia likewise scoring it particularly highly.
We saw this especially in regard to scarcity of resources, a concern which ranked fourth overall, up from seventh in 2011. This issue also topped our “controversiality” index for 2012, meaning that when we asked respondents to nominate the issues they thought were most underestimated and most overestimated, it scored highly in both lists.
Second on the controversiality index came cyber risk, the idea that we should be concerned about our increasing reliance on the virtual world to deliver critical services. The controversiality may be partly explained by the timeframe, with respondents being asked to think only 12-18 months ahead; many believe cyber risks will take longer to manifest. They figure prominently in a parallel Forum initiative, the Global Risks Report, which takes a ten-year time horizon.
Respondents, however, were in no doubt of the importance of the digital and communications revolution, which ranked as our third most important issue overall – up one position from a year ago. There was a clear regional split, with respondents from Latin America especially likely to emphasize the opportunities presented by leapfrogging other technologies. Business respondents and those aged under 50 were also more likely to rank this issue highly.
Sharp divisions of opinion over the importance of issues such as cyber threats and resource scarcity – and growing recognition of the need for global coordination and leadership – emphasize the need for multistakeholder platforms through which leaders from public and private sectors can improve understanding, find common ground and explore collaborative ways forward. It is precisely this purpose that the World Economic Forum exists to serve.
In all the various multistakeholder platforms we host, in Dubai, but also in Davos, at our Summer Davos in China and at our regional events, recognition of both interdependency and the need for global leadership and coordination are implicit. The increasingly explicit recognition of these concerns among global opinion leaders can only be an encouraging sign, although the prospects for carefree sleep for the members of the Global Agenda Councils less so.
(The author is the Head of the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils)