Using the Future to Shape Transformative Policies

How can the knowledge society UNESCO has been calling for generate new ways of thinking to help solve the world’s problems? UNESCO’s Bureau of Strategic Planning addressed this question on the morning of 27 February to a distinguished panel of leading experts at a Future Forum organized as part of the WSIS+10 conference at UNESCO.

The experts’ answers were meant to contribute to the process of defining the development objectives the international community will be called upon to adopt after the 2015 deadline of the current set of UN-approved Millennium Development Goals; strategies that will help bring about a more sustainable, equitable and peaceful world, said the head of the Bureau of Strategic Planning, Assistant UNESCO Director-General Hans d’Orville

Speakers agreed that information technology-based globalization has led to new forms of sharing knowledge, mobilizing public opinion and offering solutions. But globalization has not erased national borders or yielded the revolution many are still expecting the internet to bring about, argued Pankaj Ghemawat, Professor of Global Strategy at IESE Barcelona and author of World 3.0.

He pointed out that percentages of capital flow, in terms of GNP, and people’s migration were the same today as in 1910. Likewise, he argued people continued trusting their compatriots more than citizens of other countries and only approximately 10% of Facebook “friends” are international.

Connectivity is there, argued Ghemawat, but our mind sets impose greater limits to globalization than anything else. Transforming our societal and development models therefore requires not just changing what we look at but what we feel. We don’t just need cognitive transformation but a new level of empathy, he urged.

This view was echoed by Ana Carla Fonseca, Special Advisor for the Creative Economy for the UN (UNDP/UNCTAD), who said that creativity was needed to deal with a crisis which is not so much economic or financial as it is a crisis of values. But Ms Fonseca questioned whether educational systems were encouraging creativity. “Are we not continuing to educate millions of robots,” she asked.

Creativity is also required to revise our understanding of globalization and determine the role of governments and corporations, argued Stefaan Verhulst – Chief of Research, at the U.S.-based Markle Foundation. Mr Verlhust argued that this was all the more necessary as it became clear the both corporations and governments needed to look for expertise beyond their own structures and a central component of this process involved finding different techniques to monitor success.

Culture, the expression of creativity, also figured prominently in the debate and participants argued that new parameters were required to facilitate cultural exchanges. Several speakers pointed to the fact that intellectual property rights were modelled on the cultural industries of the past and that the digital era required a new set of copyright rules, possibly replacing the notion of cultural products that need to be bought by that of a service that could be subscribed to.

Speakers, notably Izumi Aizu – Deputy Director at Japan’s Institute for HyperNetwork Society—pointed to the huge creativity of some of the internet platforms that have emerged in recent years, notably FabLab workshops that are heralding a revolution in the production of manufactured goods.

Looking at the taxonomy of global solution networks, Don Tapscott, Author of Wikinomics, pointed to the wide array of internet tools that engaged thinkers, militants and ordinary citizens in the identification of societal problems and solutions, sometimes even initiating hands-on actions in the field. But civil society, where many answers to the pressing problems of today are to be found, was not included in the international agreements that founded the global governance institutions in place today, he argued.

Nor are such innovative resources necessarily tapped by government institutions, said French inspecteur de finance Nicolas Colin, author of L’âge de la multitude and Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politique, who argued for the need of change at the institutional level. Colin cautioned, however, that large corporations and governments must look beyond themselves if they are to adapt and survive in a changing world.

Bringing about change in the United Nations is particularly difficult, argued Colin, “as the UN decision-making process is based on consensus, which means everybody has to agree before anything can be decided or changed.”

Tapscott however argued that while everybody agrees that we were living in times of great peril for the world, such times were also times of great opportunity.

Indeed examples abounded during the Forum of initiatives underway that provide for more sustainable and equitable ways of producing goods, using energy and running communities, ways born of new thinking facilitated by the connectivity of digital era. And the future will tell whether Tapscott—the man who pointed out that there is a fine line between vision and hallucination—was right in saying that there is a point when staying where we are costs more than moving on. And that’s probably when the problems that are increasing today will be solved.