The Shape of the World to Come
Part I: How the World is Progressing
The outcome of the US presidential election has the potential to be a pivotal moment for not just the country but the world. The next President will likely be confronted with and need to take decisions on a series of issues that will shape the geopolitical and economic landscape for decades to come. In the final days of what has been a long and tortuous election campaign it is worth taking stock of the major trends which are shaping the world today, both for the better and worse, and will likely give rise to the key decisions America’s and other leaders will need to address. One of the unique features of the current era is that the world is both on the path of rapid economic and social progress while also facing an increasing array of complex challenges both domestic and international which threaten global development and security. It is the latter which tends to dominate the news headlines and primarily take our attention. How can one reconcile these two conflicting perspectives, of a world that is better off than ever before vs. a world that is in disarray and falling apart? Whereas such issues were often found in developing countries with stark differences between rich and poor, these issues are now the phenomenon of the richer nations and threaten to divide their populations into polarised factions. In addition, there is no denying that in the first 50 years of this century, the world expects to add 50% more people, achieve near universal internet connectivity, be 66% concentrated in cities, use up many of the world’s key natural resources that got us this far and see modern technologies make the majority of industrial age jobs redundant . There is no denying we are in a momentous historic transition, the more important question is how will we handle that transition, with a greater degree of compassion or with competitiveness? In a three part series, over the next 12 months, the Sign will take a look at the changing nature of the world order and what this means for human development. In the first of this series, this month’s Sign takes a closer look at mega trends that are shaping the world for positive development. The next in the series will look at the key challenges and how these threaten development and security. The final in the series will examine the reasons for the seeming disconnect between the two and put forward a perspective on the shape of the world to come.
Context: Distinguishing Trend Lines from Headlines
After a period of relative stability and growth following the end of the Cold War, globalisation appears to be under a sustained assault by a number of forces which are destabilising the current global economic and political order. The rise of strong popular support for the protectionist and exclusionist policies of Donald Trump, along with the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU in its “Brexit vote”, has revealed a deep reservoir of anti-immigration and anti-trade beliefs in the West as well as a deep antagonism towards globalisation among large segments of the populations in countries that have pioneered and benefited the most over the past 50 years from globalisation. This blowback against globalisation among mass populations, much like globalisation itself, is a global phenomenon, and is being driven by two factors in particular. Firstly, over many decades, despite high employment rates and rising incomes, there has been a rise in income inequality that has seen large segments of the population feeling relatively marginalised with little change in wages, even as significant amounts of wealth is created in the overall economy. Secondly, relative global peace appears to be under threat from cross-border terror networks which appear to be constantly opening up new conflict theaters in domestic and international territories and threatening to pull in the big powers as well as resulting in large migration flows into their more stable and richer neighbours. These two issues alone point to a world which is heading towards a major disruption. News headlines have been dominated by the unfolding tragedy of displaced peoples from war zones who, as they relocate in neighbouring countries, are seen by many as a threat that will in turn displace the economies and social norms of their new hosts. Those most threatened have tended to be the elder generation and others who feel economically vulnerable. This emotional turmoil has been the topic that has given rise to both socialist and right wing populist politicians threatening the status quo. Both get their appeal from talking of a world that is falling apart or in need of serious change.
However, a more comprehensive analysis reveals an altogether different picture of the world. It reveals a world of increasing prosperity and declining poverty, of far greater peace than previous centuries both in terms of inter-state conflict and violent crime. It reveals a world where technology and the internet is increasingly accessible and enabling large numbers of people to participate in global economic growth. It also reveals a healthier world which is rapidly eradicating preventable diseases and driving innovation to find solutions to other ailments like HIV and cancer. These developments unfortunately do not get anywhere near the level of news coverage that the negative trends do, contributing to the overall impression that the world is indeed falling apart. Not withstanding the fact that for specific individuals, communities and regions, their world might well be falling apart, this is not true for the world at large. So it is as critical to understand the positive side of the world as it is the challenges if one is to form an informed judgment of the shape of the world to come and the key issues which will confront decision-makers. There are a number of core mega-trends driving a rapidly accelerating path of economic, social and technological progress. The data on these trends is evident and incontrovertible, therefore they represent some basic ‘truths’ which need to be kept in mind as one looks at the key challenges facing the world. A dozen of these key trends is sufficient to point to the positive progress that the world is making.
People, the world over, are more free, less violent, better educated, healthier and living longer, providing better lives for children, consuming cleaner energy, trading more with each other, accessing cheaper products and services, providing more opportunity for women, with better access to each other and to information and on the brink of ending extreme poverty.
These characteristics are based on substantial and positive advances in our world and provide grounds for long term optimism, and are compelling evidence that we are indeed living in the “best of times”. Why then do so many people feel like we actually do not live in better times? The next Sign of the Times in this series will examine why that is. Part of the answer lies in us as people. Each of the positive trends listed above is gradual and long-term in nature, with its benefits unfolding over decades. There are a number of critical human factors that work against this in this day and age. These factors are psychological and innate to the human condition. Three alone provide a large part of the answer as to why we view the same things so differently. Firstly, “Recency” – by which we give the most weighting to the most recent events – is one of the most compelling psychological forces inside humans since without it we would not react well to life-threatening risks but it also leads us to over-weight recent bad news. The second key factor is the “fight-or-flight” instinct which sparks fear and leads us to react with aggression and conflict or retreat in the face of threats. The third is our concept of “us” – who we define as ‘one of us’ and who as an outsider – and this leads us to exhibit sharing behaviour or hoarding in the face of new people arriving in ‘our space’, it determines our openness to outsiders and accounts for why many reject migrants in desperate situations. Given each of us, as individuals, over our lifetimes, develops different levels of tolerance to the innately human programming regarding recency, fear and openness (and a host of other factors), it is no surprise that we might have very different reactions to the same data. This is amplified by the now 24 hour access to newsflow focused on the short-term – since this naturally plays to one of the compelling human appetites which is for information on events that pose a threat to us – covering current events and their immediate consequences rather than long term trends. By their nature however, the short term consequences of events are more likely to be negative rather than positive. For example, while the benefits of a peace deal, including economic growth, prosperity and social development, accrue gradually, the costs of war, in the form of death and destruction of property and livelihoods, are more short term, especially given modern weaponry. Or to use a political example, the violence that often accompanies a regime change is immediate, but the development of a stable democracy is a much longer and complex process, as the Arab Spring has shown. Our attention immediately focuses on the former, and only takes in the latter on reflection (and in hindsight). In this context it becomes easier to understand why many believe we are living in the “worst of times”. While each of the very human qualities had an important role to play in the survival of individuals and the human species, they can have an equally important role to play in our demise. If we react with excessive fear and aggression towards what are merely short term events in the context of a story that is unfolding highly positively, we may well derail the positive unfolding itself, and make our fears come true.
What does this mean for us as individuals and leaders, with choices to make for ourselves, our families, communities and countries but also the ever-present need to make immediate-to-short term decisions on a daily basis? In the next edition of the Sign, we will look at the key issues facing the world that will need to be successfully managed as we transition to a world that will be quite different from today’s one.
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