The Financial Express

Biting the bullet: WEF 2018  

| Updated: January 24, 2018 21:59:08

Biting the bullet: WEF 2018   

Davos conjures images of lofty mountain peaks, snow, ski-slopes, and a holidaying resort with well-managed bungalows. It is an ideal setting to breathing new air or launching society-enhancing projects. Adding all the world leaders, from countries, companies, civil society, markets, and networks, would complete the perfect picture to resolve all the world's problems and open another leaf in human progress. As the agency responsible for both globalising that pristine location's name and charting future human pathways, the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum must first rein in its equally lofty 47th Summit's grandiose hopes.

One recalls how the 47th WEF Summit single-mindedly advanced the virtually unknown Fourth Industrial Revolution to the rest of the world. Gadgets in the pipeline and blueprints of what artificial intelligence (AI) contraptions could bring to reshape human living and the world riddled the air. Optimism could not have found a better home than at the 2017 Davos gathering.

Climaxing at that very moment in another, very significant part of the world was the inauguration of a chief executive who was popularly mandated to move in the reverse direction: Donald J. Trump's 'America First' election campaign not only made him the 45th US president, but also reflected the widespread resentment against globalisation, and thereby the very withal of the innovative mindset that the Fourth Industrial Revolution critically depends upon. He symbolised the looming West European populist tide determined to halt what seemed an alien substitution of local manpower, where 'local' meant both immigrant workers and human-displacing, particularly AI, technologies.

Success in the 48th Summit demands a less dare-devilish mandate. Its theme still sustains the "shared future" commitment made in many previous WEF congregations, but admixes it with what is being dubbed as "fractured world" misgivings. In that sense, it may churn out more realistic recommendations and tighten seat-belts across the different parts of the world more seriously than previously if, and only if, it can draw the right lessons from the populist upsurge.

To juxtaposition local fissures and global dissonance, the 48th meeting carves out three assessment clusters for free-flowing discussions: political, economic, and social. Disaggregation within the global commons as a step towards rebuilding it is carried to the very hilt by identifying 14 issue-specific system initiatives to address, and eventually redress, the world's fractures. Ranging from the typical market-anchored considerations, like production, consumption, the troika of trade-investment -  infrastructure promotion, economic progress, and Fourth Industrial Revolution contraptions, these initiatives underscores the already emergent worries of 21st Century citizens: ranging from education, food, and health, to renewable energy supplies, environmental protection, and human mobility controls, among others. Streamlining the disparate economic and social concerns becomes the political function. Bringing these three domains together may be the missing ointment to remedying those fractures, or so we are led to believe from the agenda.

Still a tall task, many of the 48th Summit hopes may be delivered less at Davos than in all the other locales across the planet, and less by all the assembled leaders than those oiling the relevant delivery machines back home. In that sense, though rhetoric is likely to characterise the gathering for the remainder of January, how the real work progresses elsewhere may drive the 2019 Davos priorities.

Until then, how revving the Fourth IR engine in 2017 overcomes the 2018 stumbling blocks may form the pivotal breakthrough. At stake is to promote and popularise AI contraptions without destabilising the social setting, as opposed to slowing the Fourth IR pace to permit destabilised communities to recover somewhat, or advancing social recovery full-speed at the expense of AI enhancement. These are neither mere abstractions nor drawing-board residuals.

Many educated but unemployed US voters, a large proportion of them white, flocked to the Trump bandwagon for not finding jobs in the alleged citadel of the AI revolution, the United States. Their weakness: carrying old-model skills into the far more rapidly changing and bearish job-market. That is at the high-end of society, a fate not unknown across Western Europe, as the Brexit vote and bitter contestations in Austria, France, Germany, and Holland indicated.

At the low-end lie such jobs mainstream US or European citizens will not do, from farming to plumbing and janitorial, among other necessary but 'menial', tasks. These jobs have typically been outsourced, for example, recruiting seasonal farm labourers to fill the gap, in addition to immigrants swelling the blue-collar pool. The net result has been to sandwich those educated unemployed between two foreign groups: skilled foreigners at the high-end, many of them bringing a greater drive to learn increasingly difficult subjects dealing with science and technology, as well benefiting from more, often government-backed funding from upwardly-mobile foreign countries than their equally upscale US counterparts; and the low-wage low-skilled foreigners doing the 'dirty' work.

What the 14 WEF initiatives should be utilised to redress is the skill-gap and social hiatuses. Just by disaggregating them, the hope is they will mobilise groups at the local level on several different fronts: from evolving hi-tech farming to more practical technical education, with a variety of other skills in between, like healthcare and selected economic renovation projects, like infrastructure-building, all tapping into newly available technologies so as to push the base-skill thresholds upwards.

In industrialised countries (ICs), this could help serve as a vehicle to disseminate AI contraptions incrementally. In emerging or still-traditional countries (ECs, TCs), this would empower declining countryside segments (such as farmers, handicraftsmen, and so forth), thus dampening the inevitably reluctant shift into the low-wage employment trap. In both sectors, enormous political will must be exerted, for instance, to find social investment funds, for any success. Only by repairing and re-launching society can fresh Fourth IR contraptions find softer-landings, thereby market-appeal. This is true as much for the IC group as for EC and TC counterparts, while upgrading 2017 WEF goals.

At stake is a long-wailing social siren across West Europe and the United States, on the one hand, but emergent in such developing countries as Egypt, India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Further neglect could undermine the very economic springboard behind the Fourth IR. Accenting private-sector economic growth, for example, could destabilise this setting by widening already disturbing income-gaps, in turn, infusing disincentives for education, research allocation, net consumption, and aggregate production.

Every step registered in fulfilling the 2018 WEF goals would spawn other benefits: the limits of resorting to country-specific policy approaches, like 'America First', in turn boosting global commerce and competition, and thereby opening the restraints to both innovating and relishing the fruits of innovation.

The 'if' is huge. How the WEF 48th Summit thaws steadily-freezing relations will be crucial to 2018 global economic performances. Any and every attempt at collective actions would thwart the growth of segmented dissonance, as was evident, for example, when China stepped up to fill the global trade leadership slot owing to the absence of an engaging United States at 2017 WEF forums.

Until these wrinkle get sorted out before they become formidable barriers, the Fourth IR must be kept on hold. WEF 2018 hopes to break that deadlock.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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