WEF's "Polycrisis": A Global Problem or a Reflection of Its Own Decline?
This week, the World Economic Forum (WEF) held its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, for the second consecutive year without the participation of the Russian delegation. The WEF was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab as the European Management Forum and initially invited 450 executives from Western European firms to the Davos Congress Centre, with sponsorship from the European Commission and European industrial associations. However, in response to the economic and social issues arising from the collapse of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system and the Yom Kippur War, the forum expanded its focus and began to attract increasing numbers of political elites. As a result, in 1987, the organization changed its name to the World Economic Forum, which it has retained to this day.
Source: WEF's Flickr
WEF is well-known for its ability to set global agendas, with buzzwords such as the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" (4IR) (which was also its theme in 2016), initiatives such as the "Great Reset" (coined with Prince Charles, now King Charles III, in 2020) and the "Global Redesign". These initiatives are possible due to its vast elitist network around the globe, its proficiency in using foresight tools, and intentional promotion efforts through book launches, such as the launch of "The Fourth Industrial Revolution" in 2017. However, while these buzzwords may be popular, they are not always backed by rigorous research. For example, Thailand naively announced its agenda with "Thailand 4.0" after the WEF's agenda, despite the term originally being coined by European firms such as Siemens in their marketing concept of Industry 4.0, which aims to conceptualize how modern industry can exploit the integration of advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics into manufacturing and production processes. Siemens has promoted several products for this concept, such as Siemens MindSphere, Siemens NX, Siemens Teamcenter, and Siemens Sinumerik. However, the unclear and loose nature of these buzzwords has also led to conspiracy attacks, such as the accusations of the "Great Reset" being a nefarious plan by some individuals and groups like Peter Koenig.
The increasing use of smart automation and less human labor in factories, as seen in examples such as Tesla's Gigafactory or Amazon's "first fully autonomous mobile robot" in its warehouse management, reflects a trend towards advanced manufacturing methods. However, the concept of advanced manufacturing can take various forms, such as Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, green manufacturing, or Japan's concept of Society 5.0, which incorporates components such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, and cloud computing. The latest iteration of this trend is Industry 5.0, which aims to integrate cutting-edge technologies such as quantum computing, biotechnology, and nanotechnology into manufacturing and production processes. This concept is also known as "Human-centric Industry 4.0" or "Human-centered Industry 4.0," which focuses on the integration of human-centered design and human-machine collaboration.
While discussions on advanced manufacturing often focus on specific technologies and their implementation, more robust academic concepts on the driving forces shaping the future are often overlooked. One such concept is "Singularity," first coined by mathematician John von Neumann in the 1950s to describe a hypothetical point in the future at which technological progress would become so rapid that it would become impossible to predict future developments. This concept was further developed by Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay "The Coming Technological Singularity" and Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book "The Singularity is Near." Understanding this concept is crucial for forecasting the future impact of exponential advancements in computational power, particularly in relation to the development of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and its potential to completely transform economic production modes through immense increases in production capacity.
This year, the WEF continues to use a frequently employed technique in its foresight workshops by blending words together to create new, trendy buzzwords. This is a common practice in the field of foresight, such as using buzzwords like VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and the more recent BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible) coined by the Institute for the Future (IFTF)'s Jamais Cascio in 2016. While these words may signal potential future developments, they lack a true understanding of the underlying causal mechanisms. Examples of these buzzwords (safe its informative global risks report) include "polycrisis," "poverty," "traveler surveillance," "wasting," "zero-dose children," "tarmac to arm," "gender food gap," "aridification," and "climate impact resilience." However, the WEF seems to be taking a more cautious approach in selecting these buzzwords, for example the "polycrisis" has been drawn from the research of the Cascade Institute. The definition of "polycrisis" is distinguished from "systematic risk" which exhibits extremely complex and dynamic networks, highly nonlinear cause-effect relationships, causal processes that cross boundaries, and deep uncertainty. In contrast, "polycrisis" describes aggregate risks emerging from systemic risks that arise simultaneously in multiple systems, which often feed back to produce additional impacts on the systems of origin and on the spillover systems that each systemic risk implicates.
Yesterday, the opening plenary at the WEF featured speeches by Klaus Schwab, Alain Berset, Olena Zelenska, the First Lady and wife of President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Liu He, Vice-Premier of the People's Republic of China. However, the forum seemed to perpetuate the narrative of a war between the West and Russia, with Ukraine as the battleground. Olena Zelenska's words seemed to suggest that the West, including Ukraine, had the upper hand in protecting the so-called liberal, rules-based global order. Ursula von der Leyen also promoted the concept of "creative destruction" and a transition to clean technology and net zero emissions, as well as her Global gateway initiative to promote new, trusted long-term suppliers, excluding Russia from the equation. This perspective appears to be detached from reality. According to data from the Institute for the World Economy, the US leads in financial, military, and humanitarian support to Ukraine with USD 52.02 billion, followed by the EU at 37.97 billion. However, given the current political climate in the US and divisions within the EU, it is uncertain whether this aid will be sustained.
In his 2010 PhD dissertation, "The World Economic Forum: An Anatomy of Multi-Stakeholder Global Policy-Making," Parag Khanna fully explores how the WEF has evolved from a European business-driven management forum into a multi-stakeholder vehicle with significant recognition and authority in global policy processes. However, it can also be argued that the WEF's evolution is a result of changes in the global political landscape. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a unipolar world order led by the United States and its allies, which has been challenged by various events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, and the recent political polarization and internal conflicts in the US. Both Russia and China have advocated for a shift towards a multipolar world order, despite the argument by John Joseph Mearsheimer that it would increase the risk of global war caused by the buck-passing behavior in the multipolarity. However, both Russia and China argue that it would provide a more balanced distribution of power and reduce the risk of global conflicts of a unipolar world order. The structure of globalization is different under each world order, and without Soviet Union and China participating in globalization during the Cold War era, it was quite different from the globalization we see today. The EU's recent talk of new trusted long-term suppliers and the ongoing economic tensions between the US and China, particularly in the electronics and microprocessor industries, risk shifting towards "onshoring" of supply chains, leading to a new and different form of globalization.
Some have argued that the absence of G-7 leaders from the WEF forum, except for the Spanish leader, signals the forum's growing irrelevance, reflecting the changing nature of the global system, globalization, and world order. The WEF's promotion of buzzwords like "Polycrisis" cannot help be thought of as a whitewashing of its influence, which represents only European interests. Instead, we must imagine a new and separate, yet connected globalization that is centered around at least three different poles: America, Europe, and Asia. Of all, it is clear that the Asian pole will be the global locomotive due to its vast population and expanding middle class. The WEF must adapt to this changing global landscape and re-evaluate its role and influence in shaping global policy and discourse.
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