15 Global Challenges: Where are we winning and where are we losing?

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Teija Tiilikainen Teija Tiilikainen
Mika Aaltola Mika Aaltola
Jerome C. Glenn Jerome C. Glenn
Osmo Kuusi Osmo Kuusi
Teivo Teivainen Teivo Teivainen

Wed 13.1.2016 at 9:00-11:00
the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruununvuorenkatu 4, Helsinki

An overview of 15 global challenges provides a framework for assessing the global and local prospects for humanity. The list of challenges is diverse and is not defined by usual suspects but calls for out-of-the-box thinking. The list includes sustainable development, climate change, technological disruptions, and global ethics. It is argued that successful tackling of the challenges requires a transnational approach and trans-institutional action since the problems are multidimensional and entangled. The key question approach is: how to achieve such a high level of collaborative actions among governments, international organizations, corporations, universities, NGOs, and creative individuals?

Opening words: 

Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Keynote speech: 

Jerome C. Glenn, Director, The Millenium Project


Osmo Kuusi, Adjunct Professor

Teivo Teivainen, Professor, University of Helsinki

Chair: Mika Aaltola, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar:

Teija Tiilikainen opened the seminar by noting that the seminar will not deal with short-term foreign policy issues but with long-term challenges and developments that the world will be facing. Mika Aaltola added to this by remarking that the discussion will deal with the future of the global governance system and the global security system, and that human security issues are at the heart of the topic.

Jerome Glenn started his presentation by presenting 15 global challenges that the world will face. The 15 challenges can be thought of as a framework for understanding global change: by having systems and relationships of systems we can understand how the global system as a whole works, and the 15 challenges highlight different aspects of this global system. Glenn noted that the 15 systems are nonhierarchical, that is, they are all equally important for the global whole.

The first challenge Glenn presented is sustainable development and climate change. The second one concerns access to freshwater which is a key challenge societies will face in the future. Glenn noted that saltwater agriculture is a possible solution to the problem of gaining access to freshwater. The third challenge concerns balancing population growth and resources; people live longer and the role of older citizens in society will have to be thought through in this context. The fourth challenge is how genuine democracy can emerge out of authoritarian governmental systems. The fifth challenge concerns how global decision-making can be enhanced by integrating improved global foresight during situations of unprecedented acceleration of change. Sixth, how can global convergence of information and communication technology work for everyone? Seventh, how can ethical market economies be encouraged to reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor? The majority opinion has been consistently wrong on how much poverty can be reduced; Glenn noted that absolute poverty is going down if viewed on a global scale. Eighth, how can the threat of new and re-emerging diseases be reduced? Glenn highlighted that this is an extremely difficult question as communicable diseases are starting to be less and less of a threat but chronic diseases are on the rise. Concentration of people and increased mobility will in the future add to this problem. Ninth, how can education make humanity wise enough to address these global challenges? It is reasonable to talk about augmented geniuses by 2050, and thinking about increasing the level of national intelligence is an important goal. Tenth, how can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction? The eleventh challenge concerns the status of women, which directly correlates with general welfare. Twelfth, how can organized transnational crime be stopped? Glenn stressed that this is the largest issue that futures research has yet to deal with, and a global security strategy will be needed to cope with the issue of organized crime. Thirteenth, how can growing energy demands be met safely and in an environmentally friendly way? Fourteenth, how can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition? Fifteenth, how can ethical considerations be routinely incorporated into global decision-making?

Glenn continued by asking how we can measure progress and regress on these issues. Glenn’s project employed a system to measure this: the State of the Future Index (SOFI). This index provides a system of prioritizing some variables or issues over others to maximize impact of resources spent on improving the future.

Leaning on the SOFI, we can diagnose which issues we are succeeding in improving and which issues we are failing to improve. Glenn argued that we are making improvements on the issues of economic welfare, social welfare, health, energy efficiency and skills. But a lot of these things are being done at the expense of the environment, which is one of the big issues that we are failing to improve on. Other such issues which still need to be greatly improved are unemployment, terrorism, biodiversity, renewable freshwater, and corruption. What these issues show is the interdependence of the world. Because of the transnational character of the global challenges we will need an integrated world policy for effectively dealing with the issues. We need to identify high-impact strategies, strategies that impact on more than one of the challenges. Saltwater agriculture, producing meat without animals, and global counteroffensives against organized crime are examples of these kinds of high-impact strategies. Achieving integration and synergy concerning ways for improvement is a key to tackling these challenges. As the speed of technological development and the integration of technologies is picking up pace, we will have to invent new processes of making use of these developments. Crucial to this is the development of artificial intelligence (AI), which has the potential to push the boundaries with respect to the speed of technological change and complexity. Glenn also talked about improving attitudes towards pushing the boundaries of what we can do with technology, since these attitudes are often in the way of progress. Automated production and guaranteed income would benefit the human condition by letting creative thinking flourish.

Broadening our vistas on what is possible concerning the development of technology can according to Glenn be done through a cross-impact analysis. This system of analysis lets you cross different emerging technologies and thus you can sketch out possible ways for future technology to develop and emerge.

Technological development also has its dark side. Glenn dealt with these under the banner of long-range future international security threats, the most important and imposing of which are advanced weapons of mass destruction. In this context developments in biochemistry and biotechnology are the most dangerous as bioweapons will be easier to manufacture and will become more dangerous. Countering these coming security threats can be done in three ways. First, we will have to address these issues through technological means, secondly we will have to reduce mental health issues amongst the population, and thirdly we will have to engage communities to work together to reduce threats. Glenn also listed the biggest future threats, which are organized crime, artificial super intelligence, long-term structural unemployment, the use of nanotechnology as weaponry, augmented intelligence and its use as weaponry, climate change and the weakening of the magnetic poles.

Glenn then moved on to deal with the issue of the development of the economy and presented major economic problems we will be struggling with, problems such as the growing concentration of wealth, the widening income gaps and the lessening need for employing labor. According to Glenn unemployment in 2050 could be as high as 25 to 50 % unless we develop new economic approaches. This highlights the need for national long-range strategic planning. Glenn presented guaranteed income as a possibility to create a stable economic system, taxation should be the pillar supporting a guaranteed income system.

Osmo Kuusi commented on developments in technology and their impact on work and well-being. Specifically he mentioned developments in AI and Big Data, two integrated fields of technological developments. Kuusi argued that technological developments and social developments are integrated and summarized the big issues that futures research faces in this field. Firstly that technological development, especially AI and robots, will replace human work. Secondly Kuusi stressed that on the global market, market value differences between the "most useful” and other people will be larger. Thirdly, there is therefore a risk that without global action those few powerful people will own key means of production, which will lead to a highly unequal distribution of wealth, which already is visible. Fourthly, without global social policy the regional division in terms of well-being in the world will increase. This can lead to increased wars, terrorism and increasing limitations on travel. There are ways to mitigate the problems, Kuusi argued. There are work-promoting technologies, for example cancer therapies and stem cell treatments, which will extend people’s lives. But who will cover the costs? It is also possible to promote replacing or reducing people’s dependence on income from the market, for example in the form of gardening, mutual help or guaranteed income.

Teivo Teivainen offered critical remarks to the presentations delivered. Referring to AI, Teivainen asked where the agency is located regarding the global trends. Who and what organizations are the ones doing the global changes? Teivainen compared the actors behind the drivers for technological change to the idea of the Multitude, in Hardt and Negri, or to the idea of general intellect, in Marx, that is as something collective that is semi-autonomously organized. Teivainen hoped for a dialogue between social futures studies and social movements studies. Prefiguration, the concept of organizing social movements with respect to the future one wants to achieve, was mentioned by Teivainen as one possible point of contact between the areas. Teivainen also commented on the global challenges: he highlighted carbon tax and the thought of activating the elderly to contribute to society as policy-relevant issues. Teivainen highlighted profit-maximizing corporate power as one central economic problem that was not accounted for in the list of global challenges. Most of the illicit flows of money are semi-legal and concern big transnational corporations, so these flows play a big part in answering future problems that the economy will be facing.