In Dubai, WEF ponders a challenging future. Here's what we heard

A view of the opening plenary at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / WEF / CC BY-NC-SA

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Seven hundred experts from around the world descended on Dubai over the weekend for the second annual meeting of the Global Future Councils, one of four annual meetings held by the World Economic Forum to develop strategies for harnessing, coping with and responsibly driving technological change.

Hailing from a range of sectors, the experts convened 35 “global future councils” on topics including food security and agriculture, monetary systems, migration, and international governance.

Part marathon-brainstorming session, part networking opportunity, attendees met with the added task of shaping the agenda for the next WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Opening the session, the WEF founder Klaus Schwab announced that the theme of next year’s Davos meeting will be “creating a shared future in a fractured world,” following this year’s theme of “responsive and responsible leadership.”

Highlights at this year’s meeting of the Global Future Councils included the launch of the WEF Transformation Maps, a proprietary digital knowledge tool that has been developed to further understanding of more than 100 global issues, countries and industries and their interconnections, which was made available to the public for the first time on Saturday.

The meeting also provided a platform for collaboration with leaders from the United Arab Emirates. In an opening address, Mohammad Abdulla Al Gergawi, the UAE’s minister of cabinet affairs, declared the country “an open global laboratory” to transform the concepts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into an international shared agenda.

Gergawi also revealed plans to create a Center for Future Readiness, a physical base for a global framework to assess the world’s readiness for the future. He said the government will appoint “future ambassadors” and, in partnership with the WEF, develop global protocols for artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The announcement follows the government’s appointment in October of the world’s first minister of artificial intelligence, another theme covered by the councils.

The weekend’s meeting also delivered “10 Visions for 2030,” ranging from a decarbonized energy future to a world of ubiquitous information and a workplace where humans will increasingly be working alongside robots. Recommendations relating to these visions will be developed within the ongoing workstreams of the forum’s 14 System Initiatives.

Individual council meetings were closed to the press, but members of key development-related councils offered Devex insights into the discussions and detailed the tasks and objectives they will be bringing back to their organizations, companies and government agencies.

Naser Haghamed, CEO of Islamic Relief, sits on the council specializing in the future of the humanitarian system. He told Devex the discussion in his group centered on identifying and overcoming obstacles to collaboration between the private sector and humanitarian organizations.

“One objective is addressing the growing demand that something needs to work better. There are some roadblocks and obstacles, so we are trying to identify them, overcome them and are planning a pilot project based on that,” he told Devex. “The second [objective] is, how do we bring more sophisticated digital strategy into the humanitarian sector? The innovation and the technology are there, but it isn’t being exploited by the humanitarian sector.”

He said the council, which comprises representatives from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Mercy Corps, Mastercard Inc., DHL and others, is “trying to look at the biggest possibilities. It could be digital ID, it could be cash payments, vouchers — like what Mastercard has done — and so on, so we are exploring this area.”

Kelly Clements, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees also contributed to the humanitarian council alongside Haghamed. Clements is the U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ first representative at the meeting, and told Devex she was able to share with the council details about UNHCR’s already-close relationships with many private sector companies. “There are ways that we can partner not just because of expertise or ideas they have, but now it makes increasing business sense to be involved in humanitarian response, so I think increasingly businesses are recognizing this and beginning to ask, where’s the problem, how can we help, and how can it make good business sense for us?”

“Today we talked about a couple of things, [including] the innovative financing piece of it. Today, when needs continue to explode, the resources to meet those needs are increasing but not keeping up, so we’re looking at efficiencies and how to support people’s needs in a different way,” she told Devex.

John Beard, director of the ageing and life course department at the World Health Organization, sat on the council for human enhancement. He told Devex he was sometimes frustrated at the aspirational but intangible nature of the meetings’ outcomes, but acknowledged that “sometimes the impacts are not always so obvious.”

“I tend to be frustrated that we don’t have ongoing programs of work that lead to something,” he told Devex. “We’re looking at the fact that we’re just on the cusp of reinventing the human being, and so gene technology, brain implants, various medicines, can not only help people restore function to a level which traditional medicine has aspired to, but take people beyond the normal.”

Beard said the potential impact of these advancements is huge, but also presents possible barriers to inclusive growth, and could exacerbate already yawning gaps in global wealth.

“So we’re talking about what sort of governance or other mechanisms need to be in place to try to ensure that if these changes are going to occur, that we’re going to have the best possible and most benefits through the fewest resources, both for individuals and for society more broadly,” he said.

Devex CEO and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar speaks to Leslie Maasdorp, CFO of the New Development Bank. Via Facebook

By contrast, Richard Danziger, regional director for West and Central Africa at the International Organization for Migration, who sat on the future of migration council, said his group left with a “concrete project.”

“We’re going to move forward on something we’re calling African talent mobility, looking at lifting barriers to the movement of labor throughout the region,” he told Devex.

Danziger said although many regional blocs in Africa — namely the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States — have statements or policies on freedom of movement, “in reality we’ve come across quite a lot of barriers to the movement of skilled Africans.”

“A couple of people in the council did a quick survey and found it was often easier to bring in a highly skilled non-African into an African country, than an African with equivalent skills, so this is something we want to look at,” he said.

Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, who sits on the council for the future of information and entertainment, said her group talked about the need to level the information playing field.

“Information is fragmented, the way people connect is fragmented, and it’s highly dependent on who, what your networks look like, what kind of tools and devices you have, so we want to focus less on the tools and devices and think more about, how do you make information ubiquitous,” she said.

Devex reporter Molly Anders talks to Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, at the Global Future Councils in Dubai. Via Facebook

Maher said that organizations building services around people as active participants in society — whether in the public or private sector — will be key to harnessing technology for good. “Any institution that’s involved with a service mentality should be thinking about how do I get to places that people actually are, and then ideally that they’re not just consuming what I’ve got, but that they’re able to participate,” she said.

Look for more coverage from the Global Future Councils coming soon.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.