Thought Leader

The Fair Globalisation Goal

UN secretary-general António Guterres on the positive potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Technology and globalisation have collectively transformed our lives, but they have also contributed to what António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, describes as “probably the biggest threat to our planet today”. He outlines his vision for how future innovation can be a force for good – and what needs to happen for that vision to become a reality.

Disruptive technologies are, by their very nature, the producers of winners and losers. While the transformation of an industry typically brings improvements for both customers and businesses, it also leaves others behind. When applied on a global scale, however, the benefits and problems associated with innovation are more dramatic.

“In the last few decades we have witnessed an enormous impact of innovation, of science, of technology combined with globalisation in our world, in our economies, in our societies and in our lives,” explained António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, at a talk during the opening ceremony of Web Summit 2017. “That impact was essentially good: enormous increase in growths of trade and economy, huge growths of the global middle class and drastic reduction in the number of absolute poor, very meaningful improvement in the living conditions of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

Such improvements, he said, included life expectancy growths, a drop in child mortality and “soaring literacy rates”. However, with the good, he argued, also came the bad.

“There was some collateral damage of these enormous growths, and I would like to notice two points: first climate change, second growing inequality,” he said. “I believe climate change is the defining threat of our times and climate change combines with a different other set of megatrends: production growths, chaotic urbanisation, food insecurity, water scarcity, [with] climate change [functioning as] the engine, the main accelerator.

“These interrelations are creating, as we all see, what is probably the biggest threat to our planet today.”

UN secretary-general António Guterres. Image courtesy of Web Summit.

The struggle for fair globalisation

For Guterres, dealing with this problem first requires stakeholders – from businesses to governments – to acknowledge that while hugely beneficial, globalisation is not without its issues.

“We need to be aware that globalisation is a force for good, that development of new technologies is a force for good, but we need to be attentive to be able to respond to the eventual collective damage that exists,” he said.

However, that is not to say that he believes the downsides of such global innovation are unavoidable.

“There is a way to respond; to respond to climate change with climate action, to respond to increased inequality with a struggle for a fair globalisation,” he explained.

“We need to be able to combine efforts of governments, of companies, of the business sector, of financial markets, of the civil society in order to make sure that we are able to eradicate poverty, to bring education and health for all, to clean the oceans and to do a number of other things that are essential for the life in our planet to be sustainable and to be inclusive.”

The Paris Agreement and beyond

When it comes to combatting these problems, some efforts have already been made in the form of national agreements, but Guterres made it clear that these alone are not an adequate solution to the problem.

“The international community was able last year to come to two historic agreements: one the Paris Agreement on climate change, second the Agenda 2030 approved by all nations in the world with the perspective of inclusive and sustainable development with the so-called sustainable development goals, with the objective of leaving no one behind,” he said.

Today it's clear that, thanks to new technologies, the green business is the good business and you can at the same time make money and do good.”

“But the problem, as you can imagine, is a problem of implementation. It's very good to have a Paris Agreement on climate change. But first of all, the Paris Agreement is not enough.

“Even if the Paris commitments will be met, the temperatures in the world will be rising more than 3 degrees by the end of the century and that will be catastrophic, and on the other hand it is also clear that not all countries are abiding by the commitments made in Paris, which means we need to have an enhanced ambition in relation to climate change. And the same applies to fighting for a fair globalisation.”

The solution, he argued, instead needs to be to look at these actions as economic

opportunities, rather than structures that stand in the way of turning a profit.

“Look at climate action,” he said. “Today it's clear that, thanks to new technologies, thanks to green technologies, the green economies, the economy of the future, the green business is the good business and you can at the same time make money and do good.”

Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Central to this idea of embracing the economic opportunities of so-called fair globalisation is what has increasingly become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Indicating that this term includes not only AI and conventional information and communications technologies but also bio and nanotechnologies, Guterres argued that it offered the opportunity to combine the rapid development of recent decades with fairness and sustainability.

“I am a true believer that this Fourth Industrial Revolution can be the answer to the main questions that we are putting to ourselves today, facing the enormous difficulties that we are still facing in the different aspects of social inequality, in the different aspects of the deterioration of the environment and the different type of threats to our collective life,” he said.

“But as in relation to the past, we need to be able now to look into the near future with a strategic vision and combining the action of governments with the private sector, with researchers, academia, the civil society in order to be able to make sure that this Fourth Industrial Revolution is indeed in all its aspects a force for good.”

The way we think of our educational systems need to be essentially rethought.”

However, he also acknowledged that these technologies present their own problems, particularly in the form of automation.

“We risk to have massive unemployment both in the developed and in the developing world with the development of some of the new technologies that we are facing,” he said. “The answer is not of course to stop that development; the answer is to be able to adapt the way we work in our societies in order to be able to anticipate these trends instead of responding to it when it comes and doing it too late, as sometimes has happened in the past.”

In this instance, he argued that getting ahead of the problem would require the transformation of education and training as we know it.

“That means the revolution and the massive investment in education and training, and the education we need for the future is different from the education we are used to discussing. It's not how to learn how to do things, but to learn how to learn, because the things we do will not be done tomorrow,” he said.

“And the way we think of our educational systems needs to be essentially rethought. Safety nets, social safety nets, need also to change. And even the way we look at work and leisure, the way we divide our times, the way we divide our lives, will have to change quite dramatically.”

For this to work, however, he argued that there would need to be input not just from the government, but from industry and beyond.

“It is absolutely essential that governments, the civil society, the business sector [and] academia, work together, discuss together, raise these issues that have been ignored in the public debate,” he said. “Because those are the issues that will allow us to be able to face the future and to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

Reported from Web Summit by Lucy Ingham, editor of technology magazine Verdict Emerge, where this article was originally published. 

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