The World Econ0mic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland started today, Jan. 25. 2012 and runs until Jan. 29. From the WEF’s home page, here’s what they have to say about the theme for this year’s meeting,
The contextual change at the top of minds remains the rebalancing and deleveraging that is reshaping the global economy. In the near term, this transformation is seen in the context of how developed countries will deleverage without falling back into recession and how emerging countries will curb inflation and avoid future economic bubbles. In the long term, both will play out as the population of our interdependent world not only passes 7 billion but is also interconnected through information technology on a historic scale. The net result will be transformational changes in social values, resource needs and technological advances as never before. In either context, the necessary conceptual models do not exist from which to develop a systemic understanding of the great transformations taking place now and in the future.
It is hubris to frame this transition as a global “management” problem of integrating people, systems and technologies. It is an indisputable leadership challenge that ultimately requires new models, bold ideas and personal courage to ensure that this century improves the human condition rather than capping its potential. Thus, the Annual Meeting 2012 will convene under the theme, The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models, whereby leaders return to their core purpose of defining what the future should look like, aligning stakeholders around that vision and inspiring their institutions to realize that vision.
The meeting is a big deal with lots of important and/or prominent people expected to attend. I usually get my dose of WEF’s annual meeting (sometimes there’s some talk about nanotechnology) from Dr. Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and owner of the 2020 Science blog. I’m not sure if he’s attending this year but he has already profiled the WEF Global Risks 2012 Report in a Jan. 11, 2012 posting on his blog.
The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window.
As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood.
Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity(connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences.
I’m always interested in ‘unintended consequences’. (When I worked as a frontline staff member for various bureaucracies, I was able to observe the ‘unintended consequences’ of policies devised by people who had no direct experience or had forgotten their experience.) So, I was quite interested to note these items in Andrew’s excerpts from the report,
Unintended consequences of nanotechnology. Following a trend seen in previous Global Risks reports, the unintended consequences of nanotechnology – while still flagged up – are toward the bottom of the risk spectrum. The potential toxicity of engineered nanomaterials is still mentioned as a concern. But most of the 50 risks addressed are rated as having a higher likelihood and/or impact.
Unintended consequences of new life science technologies. These are also relatively low on the list, but higher up the scale of concern that nanotechnologies. Specifically called out are the possibilities of genetic manipulation through synthetic biology leading to unintended consequences or biological weapons.
Unforeseen consequences of regulation. These are ranked relatively low in terms of likelihood and impact. But the broad significance of unintended consequences is highlighted in the report. These are also linked in with the potential impact and likelihood of global governance failure. Specifically, the report calls for
“A shift in mentality … so that policies, regulations or institutions can offer vital protection in a more agile and cohesive way.”
The report’s authors also ask how leaders can develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards; how businesses and governments can prevent a breakdown of trust following the emergence of new risks; and how governments, business and civil society can work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks.
Andrew has a lot more detail about the risks noted in the report, so I encourage you to read the post in its entirety. I was intrigued by this final passage with its emphasis on communication and trust,
The bottom line? The report concludes that
Decision-makers need to improve understanding of incentives that will improve collaboration in response to global risks;
Trust, or lack of trust, is perceived to be a crucial factor in how risks may manifest themselves. In particular, this refers to confidence, or lack thereof, in leaders, in systems which ensure public safety and in the tools of communication that are revolutionizing how we share and digest information; and
Communication and information sharing on risks must be improved by introducing greater transparency about uncertainty and conveying it to the public in a meaningful way.
One other comment, Andrew notes that he was ‘marginally involved’ (single quotes mine) in the report as a member of the World Economic Forum Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.