Uncertainty: a certainty in 2017

The tone of the 2017 WEF annual meeting reflects a generalized fear of instability and uncertainty.

In Europe and the US, the two places I spent most of this year, 2016 will not be remembered fondly for reasons that probably don’t need to be spelled out. However, from a personal point of view, this has been a stimulating and educational 12 months. I have had the chance to research some of the biggest issues facing the world today and despite everything, I feel cautiously optimistic. Not necessarily about the direction in which we’re currently headed, but definitely about the potential for humanity to reach a better destination.

For much of the year, I have been finding out more about the technology that can help us to get there. There is strong momentum from government and industry for an imminent transformation so dramatic that many are calling it a Fourth Industrial Revolution. It promises to make the dream of clean energy societies a reality, bring about trillions in savings (both in terms of energy and capital) thanks to more efficient business practices and, in turn, boost productivity, which has been sluggish for several years. I’m particularly excited by the prospect of large scale additive printing and self-driving cars. Thanks to the former, any community with access to a large 3D printer will be able to manufacture high-quality products and equipment at progressively lower costs. The latter, when they become the main form of transport, will see deaths from road accidents plummet. All in all, I expect the rate of change to ramp up significantly next year, with digital technology making an increasing impact at work and in the home.

Whether that impact is, on balance, negative or positive, is down to us. We’ve seen how societies can react to a fear of change. And for those who aren’t seeing the benefits of that change, fear is understandable. But what are the alternatives? I don’t think that things were better in the old days (when the world was much more dangerous, lifespans were shorter and ignorance and intolerance were in greater supply), and I don’t think that steps to limit the rollout of technology, or slow growth, are the answer. The technology is not the problem. It’s about how we use it and what we do, collectively, with the gains it brings us.

At the moment, it seems as if this issue is far from being resolved. Several writers and commentators have concluded that we need to start looking now at a redefinition of the citizen’s place in society. From a positive point of view, this could involve a reassessment of what we all bring to the party, leading to a more equitable deal. At the same time, basic elements of liberal democracy, agreed in the aftermath of a world war (such as the United Nations, nuclear arms control, détente, the Geneva Convention), are now open to question (as is the desirability of democracy itself).

I choose to stay positive, and believe that our capacity to create outweighs our propensity to destroy. But the fight is on, and winning it will require a close collaboration between civil society, government and business. Let’s hope that 2016 was a wake-up call.