Globalisation and the technological revolution go hand-in-hand, in a way that is now inseparable. But they both need to revolve around human beings, thereby becoming more inclusive, reconnecting the rhythm of the economy with the rhythm of society, or at least some societies. In other words, they need to engineer a recoupling, rather than a decoupling that has caused globalisation, and now technological change, to be questioned, with a protectionism that ‘protects’ in name only. This is something that many governments have started to cotton on to (late in the day, or too late?), on their own and as part of collective frameworks, as have many large corporations attending the World Economic Forum (WEF).
In the run-up to its annual meeting in the Swiss Alps, in Davos in January, the WEF has taken ownership of the expression Globalisation 4.0 to refer to this desirable situation, in which innovation advances at tremendous speed. The globalising Forum par excellence now rejects ‘globalism’, which Trump has vilified, for being ideological, for prioritising ‘the neoliberal global order over national interests’. It defends globalisation as a ‘phenomenon driven by technology and the movement of ideas, persons and goods’. The WEF acknowledges that ‘owing to the slow and uneven recovery in the decade since the global financial crisis, a substantial part of society has become disaffected and embittered, not only with politics and politicians, but also with globalisation and the entire economic system it underpins’. And this, ‘in an era of widespread insecurity and frustration’, accounts for the growing attraction of populism as an alternative to the status quo. According to the Forum, it is the populists who confound globalism with globalisation.
Bridging this divide involves starting to recognise that the new economy has engendered widespread disruption for the world’s economies and millions of workers, even though unemployment may be falling worldwide. This requires ‘new global norms, standards, policies and conventions to safeguard the public trust’; and, it might be added, to safeguard globalisation, which must take on a different form from the one it has had in recent years.
The G20 summit in Buenos Aires –on the 10th anniversary of its first attempt to address the global financial crisis– also ventured into this territory in its final declaration, with a commitment to defend a more inclusive, more people-centred form of globalisation, because failure to do so will end up harming hundreds and even thousands of millions of the world’s inhabitants. It became apparent in the Argentine capital that, despite the trade détente between Trump and Xi Jinping, globalisation is in jeopardy if it cannot be tamed, and not only because of the protectionist and restrictive winds blowing in Washington but also because of the political effects of the decoupling between economies and societies, or at least a considerable number of them.
The G20 declaration –a document few read but that requires huge diplomatic efforts to negotiate– went further and deeper into the subject of inclusivity than the previous annual summit in Hamburg, which endorsed an action plan in this area. Most measures are to be taken at a national level, however, albeit in a coordinated fashion, particularly in the context of the global agenda set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The G20 has recognised the opportunities, but also the dangers, that come with the technological revolution. It accepts that we are in transition as far as the future of work is concerned and it is necessary to help the people caught up in it, and to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to complete their digital transformation, an area where they are widely falling behind. Economic growth cannot be allowed to take place in a vacuum, but must be accompanied by security for people and its distribution must be fairer; something that Japan, having recently taken on the presidency of the G20 for the months ahead, is now proposing.
It is not something that falls exclusively to governments, to states –the private sector too has a role to play–. It is not only states that now provide public goods: private companies do so too, although they profit from such activities, as has already been pointed out in this blog with respect to Google applications, for example. Public-private cooperation has once again become essential at a global level. As the WEF argues, this collaboration ‘is about harnessing the private sector and open markets to drive economic growth for the public good, with environmental sustainability and social inclusiveness always in mind. But to determine the public good, we first must identify the root causes of inequality’. Properly managed, the technological revolution can reduce this inequality. Mismanaged, or left to its own devices, it will increase it. This is a new-look WEF, concerned by the deep causes of populism that run counter to globalisation, a concern that is also growing in the G20, despite the active presence of Trump in its midst.
The Ibero-American Summit, held in Antigua (Guatemala) in November, also declared itself to be in favour of a general inclusivity, one that takes account of both gender and young people.
In other words, even though no quantified or verifiable goals have been established, there is at least a wider realisation of the current and future need to construct a society that revolves around people, that is human-centred, and not around objects, however technologically advanced they may be. What’s more, the technology can and should contribute to these goals. In this regard Japan leads the way with its concept of Society 5.0, which puts people and society as the focus of necessary and unstoppable technological change, and not industry per se (unlike the German Industry 4.0 strategy). It is, however, the fear of Japan being left behind in this Fourth Industrial Revolution that underlies the initiative by Shinzō Abe’s government. All of the above is easier said than done of course, but unless it is talked about and discussed and debated, there is no prospect of taking the path required, not just to make progress but to avoid slipping backwards.