Mapping risks is an exercise in calling out the blind spots – the issues and events we don’t see coming, the threats we don’t well understand. That makes for a haunting exercise when you’re sitting in a room of top experts, identifying key risks that will impact humanity for the coming generation. From drug-resistant pandemics and water wars, to the functional dissolution of Syria and the cyber-warfare equivalent of Pearl Harbor, in our session at the recent Summit on the Global Agenda, we were challenged to think about the pivotal events that could transform the world in our lifetimes.
Starting with a discussion on global security, Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group led a dynamic group exercise, with top thinkers calling out what they saw as those potentially catastrophic events. We grouped them into thematic dimensions – political, social, environmental, technological and beyond. Then we split into groups to explore each theme, putting those key risks into context, outlining their drivers and considering their mitigating factors.
Our conclusion at the end of the exercise: of all the dimensions, the political domain is producing the most serious security risks. As both a cause and a result, we centred on the decline of state sovereignty in various regional contexts. In some parts of the world, the eroding state means areas of countries slipping outside central government control, while in others it’s a question of uprisings and revolutions disrupting and reshaping the state as we once knew it. We also looked at the US retreat from its once-predominant role of international influence and the implications for global governance.
The focal point, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the Middle East. As a specialist on the Arab world, I felt especially comfortable mapping the underlying factors behind unrest in the region. In short, the same problems that caused what we call the Arab Spring are now harder to solve because of it. Factors like youth unemployment, economic malaise and religious and cultural polarization all contribute to instability and accelerate insecurity. Because we had a world of experts in that one room, the exercise also raised critical points of connection across domains. One participant made a link between the Russian drought in 2010, rising global wheat prices and the economic pressure that helped spark the Arab uprisings. What we all agreed on is that demography itself is reinforcing many of these trends – both the “youth bulge” of countries with young populations and the phenomenon of ageing societies are adding to the number of risks.
It wasn’t all gloom in the room. That same demographic factor was also seen as offering great potential. We raised the point that the millennial generation tend to be more optimistic – the same set of risks may look solvable to an empowered generation of highly connected digital natives.
It was relatively easy to find real examples, since at the Summit itself we were surrounded by 50 Global Shapers from around the Arab world. These promising young people, all in their twenties, showed the power of optimism and resilience in times of systemic instability.
Mostafa el Feky, a 29-year-old Global Shaper from Giza, serves as a junior judge in Egypt’s judicial system. Even with all of his country’s turmoil, he told me, “We are the lucky generation. We have the privilege of connecting with each other.” Mostafa is patiently working through the legal system to build a better country.
As he crafts solutions for his generation he represents the point of light that can overcome the pessimism – the idea that with a mix of talent, creativity and connectivity, we can recover from extreme events and steadily build towards a more resilient global system.
Author: Lara Setrakian is Co-Founder and Executive Editor of News Deeply and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States.
Image: Youths are seen on a summer afternoon in Egypt REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih