How to survive and thrive in our age of uncertainty

business suit

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Robert Muggah, Co-founder, Igarape Institute and SecDev Group & Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalization and Development; Director, Oxford Martin Programme on Technological and Economic Change, University of Oxford


We are living through an era of intense turbulence, disillusionment and bewilderment. Deepening geopolitical tensions are transforming international relations, and political tribalism is revealing deep fissures within countries. The spread of exponential technologies is upending long-held assumptions about security, politics, economics and so much more. At least two factors distinguish the current phase of globalization from past iterations.

First, the accelerated pace of change is making it virtually impossible to plan ahead. The speed of transformation, and its effects on markets, firms and labour, is astonishing. Second, the interdependence of global financial and trading systems and supply chains means that even the smallest of local glitches can have planetary ramifications. And while the world has never been more intertwined, it seems harder than ever to solve the most pressing transnational problems.

The difference that three decades can make

Back in 1989, there was a sense of inevitable human progress. The invention of the worldwide web was supposed to herald a new, flourishing age. There was a widely held expectation that the digital commons would shrink the world, forge powerful networks of solidarity, expand freedom of expression and bolster progressive political and social movements everywhere.

 

Likewise, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were supposed to spread liberal democratic principles and values, and hasten the end of history. While the number of democracies did increase, so did ominous signs of illiberalism. Not everyone in newly democratic countries benefited equally. In hindsight, expectations that the web and democracy would set us free seem quaint, even naïve.

Granted, the world has faced some serious setbacks in the intervening period. Few events have had greater impact on recent history than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US-led intervention in Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis. The war on terror has cost American taxpayers close to $6 trillion – roughly $32 million an hour. It also triggered tremendous political upheaval, from Afghanistan to Syria, laying bare the limits of US power.

Meanwhile, in 2008, the collapse of US banks, mortgage lenders and insurers contributed to the largest economic meltdown in history, including roughly $10 trillion in losses. The 2008 financial crisis spread much faster than the Great Depression of the 1930s; by 2009, global GDP contracted in real terms for the first time. The crisis shattered the illusion that financial instability had been relegated to the past. It also unleashed a virulent strain of partisan antagonism that rattled American democracy to its foundations, leading to the rise of Brexit and Trump. Both events have left deep political and economic scars.

Tolerating uncertainty

In stark contrast to the confident years of the 1990s, it is hard to know what happens next. Anxiety has replaced hubris. On the one hand, states and communities are growing more divided. In Western countries, there is a palpable resentment of the elites by the left-behind who have watched their own wages stagnate. On the other hand, the pace and scale of technological change make it virtually impossible to forecast what kinds of threats are on the near-horizon, much less how to deal with them.

While political parties are generally good at managing the daily business of governing, they are struggling to craft a realistic plan looking five to 10 years into the future.

The relentless spread of new technologies – artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics and biotechnology – is mesmerizing and unnerving in equal measure. There are widespread fears that automation will generate mass unemployment, in poor and wealthy countries alike, and that algorithms could hack electorates and destroy democracy itself. The last stories of inevitability – the empowering potential of the internet and the dominance of liberal democracy – are over. There are no discursive guardrails to give direction. The absence of a unifying narrative is deeply unsettling, especially in the West.

All of this requires that we face up to an uncomfortable truth. While there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future (especially if you are Asian), interdependency and acceleration are making it harder, not easier, to work on solving common global problems, ranging from climate change and financial collapse to the spread of weapons of mass destruction or deadly pandemics. The question on every decision-maker’s mind is how to cope – much less thrive – in a fractious, multipolar world.

To make matters worse, many political parties around the world are in crisis. Most of them are wedded to an outdated 20th-century paradigm that envisions the world through the prism of left and right, or capitalism versus socialism. While political parties are generally good at managing the daily business of governing, they are struggling to craft a realistic plan looking five to 10 years into the future. With few exceptions, politicians are instead retreating to the past and peddling nostalgic fantasies. Unless political parties radically reinvent themselves, liberal democracies risk becoming irrelevant.

Acceleration and interdependence are generating uncertainty across all domains of human life. Take the case of education. For the first time in a century, most societies do not know what to teach in their schools and universities. As in the case of politics, the focus is often on short-term priorities or recycling the past. Some educators are investing heavily in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – and preparing young people for lifelong learning. The hope is that children will become digitally literate and creative early adopters. The reality is that no one has a clue what skills will be relevant in a few years’ time, much less what tomorrow’s jobs will look like.

In an accelerating and interdependent world, the decisions taken by political and business leaders in the coming years will be incredibly consequential, shaping every facet of our future. The good news is that greater access to the internet and means of communication is shrinking digital divides. As a result, more and more people will have opportunities to influence the debate and take action. Whether or not citizens have the time or energy to be part of the conversation, the truth is that everyone will be affected, and some more negatively than others.

Time to roll up our sleeves

Faced with uncertainty, many decision-makers will be tempted to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past. This is incredibly dangerous. What is needed more than ever is greater literacy with complex ideas and active reflection on future causality. Those who complain that this is hard work had better start rolling up their sleeves. The alternatives – ignoring our most pressing challenges or dropping out – are catastrophic. The truth is that we all must understand more, so that we can fear less.

The future has never been certain or secure. The arc of history was never moral or just, and there have always been winners and losers. While bold narratives advanced by populists may offer comfort, they can also lead us disastrously down the wrong path. There have always been multiple narratives, some louder than others. Our opportunity and challenge is to accommodate a plurality of views and values, distinguish fact from fiction, and foster collective action on the most urgent existential risks facing our fragile world.

If we are to survive and thrive in this new age of uncertainty, we will all have to learn to navigate complexity. Although we are hardwired to think in the short term, we will have to teach one another, and future generations, to take the long view. The road ahead is uncertain and will likely be taxing. It will require honing our critical and analytical skills, and developing a greater capacity to anticipate, adapt to, and be resilient in the face of systemic shocks. Make no mistake – we no longer have the luxury of complacency.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Terrorist content online should be removed within one hour, says EP

US – Russia bargain on Syria, Ukraine but EU kept out

Capital transaction tax on Ecofin table

New Zealand has unveiled its first ‘well-being’ budget

Commuters in these cities spend more than 8 days a year stuck in traffic

A Sting Exclusive: “Paris is the moment for climate justice”, Swedish MEP Linnéa Engström claims from Brussels

Connectivity and collaboration in the ICT industry: the key to socio-economic development

Brexit may finally not really happen; The Brits have second thoughts

Q&A on the 19th China-EU Summit to be held on 01-02 June 2017 in Brussels

Impact of high debt levels on least developed countries ‘cannot be overstated’, says UN

How a trade war would impact global growth

Slight easing of G20 GDP growth in first quarter of 2018

EU and India re-open talks over strategic partnership while prepare for a Free Trade Agreement

Flexible jobs can make work-life balance worse, a German study finds

Plastic Oceans: MEPs back EU ban on throwaway plastics by 2021

At last Britain considers a super-soft Brexit

European Semester 2018 Spring Package: Commission issues recommendations for Member States to achieve sustainable, inclusive and long-term growth

Netherlands: Budget MEPs back €1.2m in job-search aid for 450 redundant workers

EU plans to exploit the Mediterranean Sea and the wealth beneath it

5 key themes for reforming the EU, as elections loom

The quality of health education around the globe

Palestine refugees’ relief chief warns Security Council money to fund Gaza operations will run out in mid-June

Living in the mouth of the shark: we are all refugees

Juncker and Tusk killed Greece on 07 July 2015 to meet the Commission’s summer vacation plan? #Grexit #Greferendum #Graccident

LGBTQI+ and medicine, in the Land of the Pure

It’s Time to Disrupt Europe, Digital First

Why gin made from peas helps the environment

European Youth Forum @ European Business Summit 2014: European Youth Unemployment

Environmental labelling, information and management schemes are central to the circular economy

Launch of Pact for Youth: European Youth Forum calls for real business engagement

Pervasive corruption costs $2.6 trillion; disproportionately affects ‘poor and vulnerable’ says UN chief

Gynecologic care in the 21st century

European Youth, quo vadis?

JADE Spring Meeting 2017 – day 3: JADE Academy trainings, networking session and gala dinner – Excellence Awards winners revealed

Where are the world’s nuclear weapons?

Climate change is destroying a barrier that protects the US from hurricanes

UN investigates systematic sexual violence across South Sudan

Wind farms now provide 14% of EU power – these countries are leading the way

Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to O2 CZ, CETIN and T-Mobile CZ for their network sharing agreement

Agreement reached on digital copyright rules

UNICEF must triple budget to combat Ebola outbreak in DR Congo; complex crisis impacting unprecedented number of children

UN envoy says he ‘is ready to go to Idlib’ to help ensure civilian safety amid rising fears of government offensive

Parliament boosts consumer rights online and offline

Fair Taxation: New EU-wide system to resolve tax disputes between Member States applies from today

Trust is at breaking point. It’s time to rebuild it

Intensified Al Qaeda and ISIL activity in Yemen ‘deeply worrying’, says UN Human Rights Office

ECB bets billions on Eurozone’s economic recovery

US-China trade war at point of no return: Washington’s demands go beyond tariffs

‘I thought I’d never get out alive’ – the Muslim director who interviewed neo-Nazis

From Sweden to India, School climate strikes have gone global

Donor countries need to reform development finance to meet 2030 pledge

On Brexit: the outcome of UK elections next May to be based on false promises?

How storytelling can be a force for social change

‘Fire-fighting approach’ to humanitarian aid ‘not sustainable’: Deputy UN chief

Innovation and Entrepreneurship Changing the Face of Europe

Building climate resilience and peace, go hand in hand for Africa’s Sahel – UN forum

G20: Less growth, more austerity for developing countries

The Fourth Industrial Revolution must not leave farming behind

The road ahead to building a more sustainable world

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s