Under the theme, "Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a global architecture in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution," the World Economic Forum (WEF) will try, again, to channel the new year's economic direction with social, political, and environmental consequences. It will be the third anniversary of the same forum announcing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR), but more important may be the stab it will take at reconfiguring the global architecture: here is the key indicator that the global playing-field needs readjustments, not simply through tactical shifts, but by strategically planned measures, not just to absorb FIR technologies, but to make the playing-field playable.
WEF/Davos insiders identify the following topics on the discussion agenda: geopolitical shifts from unipolar to multi-polar; geo-economic shifts from multilateralism to plurilateralism; security risks, ranging from cyberspace to environmental, given climate-change imperatives; and FIR-related issues, including the speed of change, the breadth of impacts, and the depth of know-how.
Scopus has not been shy this month. Its "Menu for 2019" has repeatedly assessed, alluded to, and propagated awareness of the geopolitical shift from Pax Americana to an unnamed successor. Changes like these are not instant, and entail enormous costs: note how Pax Britannica began evaporating from roughly the start of the 20th century, but it was not until 1945 that a different order was conspicuously in charge. Of note was the launching of the Third Industrial Revolution, based on the computer (frugal works began as early as the ENIAC project: Electronic Numerical Integrative and Calculator, University of Pennsylvania Engineering School, February 1946). Its most significant antecedent was not the Second World War, but the most devastating recession of the 20th century (in the 1930s), characterised by wholesale lifestyle, mindset, and habitat overhauling. If the current global economic malaise is at all comparable (and the house is divided on this question), then the FIR age may already be rattling the planet.
Against that backdrop, any shift from Pax Americana would be a shift from a western order; and since many of the aspiring leaders happen to represent the planet's largest continent (China, India), now an Asian order is not only emergent, but, perhaps, also dominant. That shift will not be even as "smooth" as a transatlantic shift from Britain to the United States, disruptive as it was: both shared Anglo-Saxon bonds, much of which has also disseminated worldwide, even if only in mild forms, across Asia (through colonisation). There is a contestation potential within Asia (between China and India), not just over power potential, but also over national boundaries and domestic identities, unlike in Europe after 1945. Yet, the external contestation potential may override all others, since that entails market-access, currency values, investor stocks, and bond trading, on the one hand, but also military security, on the other. Businesses, which have exploded over the past century, will be warily keeping tabs on all of these buttons, thus making transactions far murkier.
Amid the above changes, countries have also been busily engaged in realigning themselves, with the underlying theme being "from the many, to the few." It is not just US President Donald J. Trump tiring over the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organsation now that they have expanded beyond their original membership in what might be called unruly directions (or less rule-anchored postures): China has joined them, albeit belatedly and reluctantly, while also building its own counterpart organisations; India could have been more inclusive in South Asia by including Pakistan, but has preferred to go east with neighbours on that front, as through BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technological and Economic Cooperation), BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) highway, and so forth; Britain hopped off the European Union (EU); World Bank leadership, suddenly finding competition (with China's Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank), fell into a vacuum, thus increasing uncertainty (and lack of gravity); and so forth. "Ganging up" rather than "go with the flow" attitudes have sprung up, and likely to blossom further.
How adjustments are made to these irreversible shifts will also feed into the third WEF area of concern: security risks. These have multiplied, not just with hardware (more military purchases to anchor multilateral commitments), but also software: information blackmail and espionage, as possibly during the 2018 US election, alert us to what could happen in our own backyard, or to ourselves. Stealing, exploiting, and manipulating someone else's private information is as much on the rise as drug-trafficking, posing all sorts of security threats. As these threats increase, individuals and enterprises cannot but turn to private security (since public security agents, like the police or army, may simply be insufficient or unprepared to deal with these new threats). Again, as with the first two shifts, this security threat can best be dealt with publicly, with everyone on the same page; yet what we are witnessing is a shift to selective arrangements, in turn, widening those security threats. Should innovations accent the private over the public, we may face a more pernicious version of the same "struggle of the fittest" instinct we brought with us from the jungles thousands of years ago.
Topping these threats may be those accumulating from the Homo sapien's adjustment to First/Second Industrial Revolution mass production: finding the raw materials to provide them, then, the growth of waste, and the side effects of fossil-fuel energy have come back to hit and hurt us, as we see in melting glaciers, coastal erosion, storm ferocity, and explosive forest-fires. FIR innovations help us detect, and anticipate them, and slowly to dissolve them; but they are too many, and affect far more people and places, to let remedial action overrun them. On the one hand, combating climate-change threats diverts enough resources to dip too heavily into FIR cultivation, on the other, even by harnessing FIR innovations, climate-change demands will remain several steps ahead of social programmes.
It is this final element, social progress, demanding the final WEF attention this year. FIR innovations may be pouring down too fast upon society for society to adapt adequately, in turn feeding the dislocation and disruptions underway: from hardware infrastructures, like factories and assembly lines, to software programming, there is a huge demand for new skills all too soon, and too few educational institutions amply prepared to instruct the average person about them, while the infrastructure to deliver them may be just too costly for an economically strapped global society. Just to change the education apparatus, for example, involves a sociological upheaval: all the way down from the highest levels to the lowest in schools and kindergartens; and necessitating almost spontaneous upgrading at high costs just for the institution to remain viable. Fitting in qualified teachers and supplying workplaces with the necessary personnel become even more formidable barriers. The same is true of "mega projects" to build those infrastructures: unless we learn how to master "software infrastructures," we may end up seeing movie-like scenarios fleeting in front of our very own eyes in real life, with us still gaping or awing their capacities to even cultivate them personally.
Davos dignitaries remain just a wink away from discussing the conceivably most disruptive development in human history: loosening our self-help instinct, this time in its institutionalised "selfie" addiction format.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.