As the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes shape and the surge of Artificial Intelligence gathers pace, the world elites meeting at Davos need to seek to reassure those who most fear our common technological future to avoid people falling under the spell of populism.
Opinion piece by Radu Magdin
Perceptions are very important in national and international politics and Davos cannot escape from the perpetual battle between substance, style and spin. It is no secret that Davos has a well-deserved and well-established reputation as the place where elites meet and where the future is decided. The proof of this that almost all similar meetings try to emulate it.
In times of turbulence, the responsibility weighing on the world's premier meeting platform is the heaviest in three decades. This is why, in the age of conspiracies and fake news, it would be very easy for the World Economic Forum's narrative to be derailed and misinterpreted through the prism of greedy and unresponsive elites (be it from politics, business, academia, global NGOs or international organisations) conspiring against the honest, hard-working (and, let us not forget, pure) people. This negative populist spinning should and can be avoided.
The backlash against liberalism, internationalism, globalisation and expertise is one of the features of today's world and goes hand in hand with the revolution we see in technology and production, especially with the coming of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the explosion of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The question is how can the global and cosmopolitan elite present the story of the moment we are living in and offer a perspective and reassurance; not only to those welcome these transformations, but also to those who are apprehensive or even fear that the future will turn their world upside down (the robots are coming, dear reader).
The World Economic Forum therefore has an immense responsibility about shaping the narrative of the future and this cannot happen with organizational planning and purpose only. Shaping the narrative on the topic should, for global acceptance as "common sense" and a "future new normal", involve three key concepts: credibility, imagination and authenticity.
First, it starts with credibility; the message needs to be understood. One of the first lessons in communication - and the first point I want to make - is to keep it simple, particularly if the discussions at Davos 2019 are to be heard beyond the gates of the citadel. Adding too much complexity could introduce noise and make the message miss its target.
Of course, too much reductionism is a major threat to credibility, but a fine balance can be achieved. We cannot preach about the complexity of the current world and then embrace one-size-fits-all solutions or unidimensional messages. This is what populists do all too well and is the source of their surge in turbulent times.
Communicating about what the future may hold involves some complexity, and of course, various choices and scenarios. Indeed, it takes effort to get the message across and an entire communicational infrastructure to reach the target audience. As they say in sports, it is not a sprint but a marathon. Credibility is also about setting realistic expectations, not about soundbites divorced from context.
In this specific situation, any credible approach should start by acknowledging how the 4IR and AI are not like the second coming of Messiah, but how they both present opportunities and risks. Indeed, the 4IR poses a unique opportunity to transform how we understand work and productivity, and how the old barriers are taken down in favour of more chances for collaboration, transparency, and (why not) direct democracy. On the other hand, automation will change the labour markets, will increase the demand for some skills and jobs and will make others obsolete.
More than ever, adaption will be necessary for important segments of the society - especially for those with ‘medium-skilled, until-recently-sheltered’ jobs. It takes a smart State, an engaged public and conversations to make the necessary adjustments that will bring about both hope and relief.
My second point is that a boost in imagination could be very well integrated in the communication process. What do I mean? If you expect people from an imperfect present to roll out the red carpet for further change, you must clearly show the destination, imagine the future and spell out precisely your vision for the destination. There are important reasons for millions (if not billions) of people to be disgruntled with the short-termism and lack of vision of those called to shape the political and business world.
But sometimes, despite good intentions, we fail to grasp how the lack of coordination and high-level dialogue would impact our lives. In the lack of a clear destination, emotions beat reason because of the fear factor. Brexit, for instance, has shown that irrationally following populist instincts could be destabilising, even in a major country such the UK.
Obviously, elites have to do a better job to connect with regular people in describing the consequential choices we are facing as societies as the 4IR materialises, and to propose institutional reforms - including a "new social contract" and, why not, a new "societal dream". Otherwise, we are exposed to the danger of uncertainty with unhinged populism, nationalism and protectionism marking a reversal from the "End of History" proclaimed in the 1990s.
Credible, imaginative visions of the future always go hand in hand with progress: Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech, for instance, could be appended by a "Imagine, all the people" speech about living in this newly-defined society. While building a perfect society is unlikely to happen in the 21st century either, a focus on sustainability and equal chances is key to avoid leaving people behind and protecting the planet.
My third and final point is authenticity. There is no effective form of communication without the magic of the personal example. The wider story is the sum of individual narratives, involving not only success but also the tremendous challenges and struggles they face. That personal touch, in the broad scheme of things, could seem irrelevant, but it facilitates the breaking down of walls that have compromised the idea of one humanity.
This is what people want to hear and the power of storytelling is more important than ever for reimagining and redefining our worlds. After Davos, there is a great need to have a network of global 4IR brand ambassadors; passionate for politics, business and society, to further spread the message in the four corners of the earth. If I see a passionate leader - a believer who has a vision for the future - I am more inclined to permit him or her to take the helm during the ongoing process of social change. If I meet passionate social or business entrepreneurs, I am more likely to trust technological change that allegedly makes our lives better. In the absence of such 4IR apostles of the "good society" of the future, people will have the feeling that something happened far away or was decided behind closed doors, and will not feel they are part of the imperative technological advancements of the 21st century.
As a global citizen, I look forward to seeing at Davos 2019 -and also in its aftermath - an increased focus on credibility, imagination, and authenticity as drivers of the narrative of the future. As we know all too well, the world is watching and has high hopes and expectations. Getting global change right has never been more important.
Radu Magdin is a global analyst and a former prime ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.