Report From Dubai

Universe in 2009 / by Lionel Beehner /

Last November, the World Economic Forum convened thought leaders and heads of industry to discuss the state of the world. Seed followed up to ask where we go from here.

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Gather 700 of the world’s sharpest minds to brainstorm how to tackle the most pressing issues on the planet, from climate change to global pandemics, in the midst of a financial, food, and fuel crisis the likes of which this world has never seen, and the results are bound to be thought provoking. The need for more creative solutions and for business, political, and scientific leaders from poor and rich countries alike to more regularly interact emerged as themes throughout the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda last November in Dubai. “Many people live in silos today and so we don’t connect dots,” says David Kenny, managing partner at VivaKi, a digital advertising firm. “Instead, what we really need today are renaissance thinkers and chess masters.”

To that end, the WEF convened, for the first time, 68 Global Agenda Councils on a wide array of topics of global import to make recommendations ahead of its annual 2009 meeting at Davos. The summit, among whose attendees included Seed‘s Adam Bly, provided a cross-pollination of ideas across a multitude of disciplines. “In talking with some of the people on the Sports in Society agenda council over breakfast one morning, a number of us on the HIV/AIDS agenda council found out that some of the very issues we are dealing with in Sub-Saharan Africa intersect with those of some of the members of the Sports council,” says Jed Beitler, CEO of Sudler & Hennessey, a health-care communications firm. “Bringing our collective thinking together helped identify some previously unknown opportunities to help some local NGOs in that region.”

Indeed, despite the dismal economic forecast, there was an undercurrent of optimism that the financial crisis might function as a reboot button, spurring greater innovation and green jobs. “Maybe this global ‘reset’ of the economy will actually encourage a significant increase in communication and cooperation going forward,” says Will Swope, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel.

Others noted that the world is standing on the brink of an exciting new time, where innovative and imaginative solutions, not more of the same, are needed. “I think we are witnessing the end of one epochal era and the emergence of a new one,” says John Petersen, founder of the Arlington Institute, pointing to the “growing fragmentation — and potential collapse — of the old financial and social systems and the emergence of a new operating framework that is based on cooperation, interdependence, and connection.”

That is not to say the global financial crisis does not pose obvious restrictions, but the best ideas often flourish during tough times. “Funding for science and technology research is under tremendous strain,” says Kevin Steinberg, COO of WEF USA. “New financial structures will need to balance the need for effective public-sector oversight with the right incentives for the private sector to innovate and efficiently allocate capital.” What follows are some highlights of the summit’s recommendations on issues related to science, health, energy, and innovation. 

Demographic Shifts & Benchmarking Progress
The demographics of the world are shifting in many ways, all of which have profound implications for economic development. Foremost is the question of cities, especially those in the developing world. This past year marked an important milestone in world history: The number of people living in urban areas eclipsed those living in rural areas. This migratory pattern has important ramifications for economic development, capital mobility, and consumption patterns of food, water, and energy.

The second major demographic shift for which we seem unprepared: The world is aging. What happens when not four but five generations are living together on this planet? Twentytwo percent of the world’s population will be over 65 by 2050, and by 2100 the average person’s life may span 100 years. This acceleration of aging will put pressure on pension programs, healthcare systems, and financial institutions. In richer countries the legal retirement age has barely budged despite the jump in healthy life spans. This, coupled with the fact that fertility rates have decreased, has led to smaller workforces in relative terms. In poorer countries, the opposite is true: Life expectancy hasn’t changed, but fertility rates remain high, leading to what demographers call a “youth bulge.” This strains the economy because there are too many job seekers and too few jobs, leading to high unemployment, crime, and social unrest.

The summit yielded ample solutions for addressing our “aging crisis,” from raising the retirement age to giving more personalized ownership of pension plans. One suggestion would involve a system of government-financed universal health care that would encourage healthy aging. Others would prefer to establish a Peace Corps of sorts for the elderly, who could spend their retirement volunteering in poorer countries. Technology will have a significant impact, notes Gerald Davidson, of the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. Computer-generated brain-fitness programs can improve cognitive health among the elderly; ultra-wideband radio can facilitate better communication with those who live alone. 

Benchmarking Progress  
Sound policymaking requires informed decision making, which requires access to reliable statistical data, something much of the world sadly lacks. The council recommended establishing an “information charter” to guide public and private decision makers toward the progress of societies. This freely accessible information, the thinking goes, would lead to better, more informed policymaking across the globe, and would mean less reliance on spotty, out-of-date census data — or worse, on rhetoric and emotion. “We have more statistics than ever, but the demand for an overall assessment of societal progress is not fully met,” says Enrico Giovannini, chief statistician of the Organization for Cooperation and and Development (OECD). He recommends a values-based set of indicators to measure social progress across both the developed and developing worlds. Of course, there are obvious privacy concerns. “Would you want to share your medical database with North Korea, for instance?” asks David Nordfors, senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning. Still, experts agree that an older, more crowded planet may force our hand as soaring demands come up against limited resources.

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