I spent last weekend in a rather hot Doha (Qatar), surrounded by Emirs, Queens, Princes and Prime Ministers at the World Economic Forums Global Redesign Initiative meeting. It’s an organization I have been involved with for the past six years, through both the Technology Pioneers program and the Global Redesign Initiative.
As the world changes at an ever increasing pace, with new challenges from the financial, technology and natural worlds coming thick and fast, there have been questions over whether international institutions, from the United Nationals to the International Monetary Fund are able to cope.
“Today’s institutions are organized to solve yesterday’s problems” – Mark Malloch Brown, World Economic Forum Global Redesign Meeting, Doha, May 2010
A large part of the change, from the time when most institutions were set up in the aftermath of the second word war has been the explosive growth in communication. When the UN was founded television was only available to a very few people, whereas in 2010 almost five billion people have access to the Internet. The proliferation of Internet enabled devices from iPhones to sensors and the expanding use of social networking such as Twitter and Facebook would have been unimaginable even thirty years ago when the Internet was still an emerging technology.
But technology can present a hazard as well as a risk. While presenting many opportunities that benefit the planet such as raising awareness of global issues and encouraging international cooperation, the Internet can also be used for identity theft and spreading pornography, or even challenging the legitimacy and authority of governments.
With all emerging technologies to date, from the Internet to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the understanding of the implications by governments and international institutions has lagged way behind the deployment of the technology.
The same is true for the emerging technologies of the 21st Century. Nanotechnologies, synthetic biology and geoengineering have undoubted potential for good, especially in proactively addressing the issues which will inevitably arise in a world where nine billion people face increasing competition for resources, from food and water to power and natural resources. But equally inevitable is the potential for misuse, from home brew bioterrorism to environmental pollution, and in the case of geoengineering the potential for global disaster even though technologies may have been deployed with the best of intentions.
These emerging technologies, and their inter-linkages with civil society have the potential to shape and reshape our world even more profoundly than the Internet, and the ease of access to information and computing power means that in the 21st century world changing breakthroughs are as likely to come from the mind of student as from a large multinational corporation.
The reactive nature of institutions is inherent in their nature, and we are proposing the creation of a mechanism to support faster, more fact based decision-making, and to provide the knowledge which would enable a proactive approach to be taken to both the risks and the opportunities arising from 21st Century emerging technologies.
The full proposal for the Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence is contained in the WEFs Global Redesign Initiative report, and you can also download a copy here.
I’m happy to say that the idea is receiving increasingly strong support from both Governments and companies who are increasingly realizing that in today’s world, taking a passive and reactive approach to global issues will be always more expensive than developing risk avoidance technologies in advance.
You can see (and hear) more about the WEF Global Redesign Initiative below