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Interconnected world needs ways to turn alarm bells into action

Covid-19 has exposed the inadequacy of 20th-century global governance, say Maria Ivanova and Amy Luers

Contemporary global risks do not respect national borders, and demand a coordinated global response. The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated this starkly and exposed the weaknesses of the global governance structures created in the last century, which were designed to prevent wars and manage the flow of material goods and services. These are grossly deficient for the challenges of the 21st century, as new threats emerge from environmental degradation, hyper-connected communities and rapid technological change. 

Tackling these risks requires engagement of a broader diversity of actors. Embracing global interconnectedness and solidarity, new governance approaches must reach across borders, sectors, and cultural and economic divides to build collective solutions for a more resilient and equitable world. Digital technologies can shape new strategies for global governance, but we must move beyond building new tools for old institutions to redesigning institutions, that more effectively engage society. 

To help inform this mission, Future Earth, an international network of researchers for sustainability, has carried out a series of collective foresight and intelligence exercises, combining surveys and online dialogues among diverse groups worldwide. 

In September 2019, Future Earth surveyed more than 200 global-change scientists on their perceptions of the greatest risks facing humanity in the coming decade. This survey built on the approach used by the World Economic Forum for its annual Global Risks Report, which has set a benchmark for the business community for the past 15 years. 

The Future Earth survey and the WEF 2020 report show striking agreement between scientists and business leaders that the top global risks comprise climate change, extreme weather, biodiversity loss and water crises. But there is also a marked difference in the perceptions of these risks. Scientists ranked the urgency of many risks—including of an infectious disease pandemic—higher than WEF respondents. This gap may help explain why, even when researchers sound alarm bells, governments and other leaders can be slow to take action. Mobilising collective action requires a shared sense of risk.

Covid-19 has created a shared experience of risk. But this has yet to translate into coherent and coordinated international action at the necessary scale. 

In the face of a systemic crisis, society lacks the institutions and policies to respond in an equally integrated manner and at a proportionate scale. Rather, the global response has been fragmented and nation-based. 

Effective response to global systemic risks requires, first of all, a recognition of their deeply entwined nature across social, economic and environmental systems. Second, responding to these risks requires radical reform of global institutions. 

Previously, ideas for policies that can buffer against multiple sources of shock, such as basic income, a wealth tax or global data trusts often seemed fanciful. Not so now—and many more ideas will emerge that need consideration and discussion.

Emerging strategies 

New governance strategies are already emerging that leverage a range of digital capabilities, including enhanced transparency, mass collaboration and intelligent systems. They enable a broader cross-section of society to work together to better understand risks and build solutions. For example, digital surveillance, artificial intelligence and mass collaboration techniques are being used around the world to monitor and combat Covid-19. Such approaches are vital to enabling the everyone-everywhere response this crisis demands. Long-term, however, integrating these digital capabilities into governance strategies poses threats of its own. This is an area where additional research and analysis is urgently needed. 

Rapid foresight surveys, such as one launched by Future Earth titled Covid-19: Where do we go from here?, can take the pulse of the global community’s view of emerging risks and challenges. They also offer an opportunity to reflect on equitable recovery efforts and help build more resilient communities. Moving beyond one-way communication tools such as surveys towards conversations is also necessary. This could include facilitated online dialogue platforms such as the Futures CoLab platform for expert discussions. 

Already, governments, civil society and many other actors have expressed interest in the results of the rapid foresight survey to inform their planning. Boundary organisations, which facilitate communication between the research and policy communities, have a critical role to play here in interpreting and applying these surveys’ findings in decision-making.

Maria Ivanova is professor of global governance and director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Amy Luers is executive director of Future Earth and director of Sustainability in the Digital Age

This article also appeared in Research Europe