As the year comes to an end, it is only natural to ask what might lie ahead. But, instead of asking what may lie ahead in 2014, let us jump to mid-century. What will governance look like in 2050?

That is what the World Economic Forum (WEF) asked at a recent meeting in Abu Dhabi that focused on the future of governance under three potential scenarios arising from the ongoing information revolution. With that revolution already marginalizing some countries and communities – and creating new opportunities for others – the question could hardly be more timely.

The first scenario that participants considered is a world ruled by so-called “megacities,” where governance is administered largely by major urban agglomerations. The second possibility is a world in which strong central governments use big data to fortify their control. And, in the third scenario, central governments are fundamentally weak, with markets – and the enterprises that dominate them – providing almost all services.

Each of these scenarios is an extrapolation of a current trend. While all of them could be beneficial in some respects, they also have features that, if left unchecked, could lead to dystopian outcomes. Policymakers should already be implementing policies aimed at guiding trends like urbanization, the rise of big data, and the grouping of people into narrow communities, often based on their relationship to the market.

The goal should be to take advantage of these trends’ potential benefits, while ensuring that they do not undermine other critical aspects of governance. For example, although megacities have the potential to create new opportunities for workers and businesses, they cannot solve universal problems like climate change or manage the production and protection of national and global public goods.

Likewise, while the use of big data has substantial problem-solving potential, important questions remain about who owns, who controls, and who regulates the use of the data. The notion of a “datocracy” incites fear of an Orwellian “e-1984.” Indeed, the recent revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs barely scratch the surface of the issue. After all, the use of big data is not confined to governments and corporations; anonymous criminal groups can easily abuse the information, too.

Finally, while individual choice within markets is often the most efficient way to allocate resources, markets do not produce a sufficient supply of public goods. Indeed, there are some goods that the private sector is simply unable to provide. This system may seem acceptable to those within the “gated communities” that benefit from it, but what about all those left outside?

The WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government, of which I am a part, has considered ways in which information technology can improve governance and reduce feelings of alienation among the governed. The most effective initiatives, the council observed, often arise from partnerships between government and the private sector.

For example, in Kenya, a private company developed a mobile-payments system that allows users to transfer money using cell phones, effectively creating a banking system much more quickly than the government could have done. Once the system was privately created, the government was able to use it to provide additional services.

As a result, a Kenyan farmer in a remote district can now obtain information about crop prices or transfer funds, without having to travel long distances and wait in lines. While such initiatives cannot solve the problem of inequality, they can help to relieve some of its most damaging effects.

At a time of rapid social change and relentless technological advancement, efforts to improve governance – at the local, national, or international level – will require careful thought and experimentation, in order to determine how to balance inclusive decision-making with the ever-evolving needs of markets. As the American diplomat Harlan Cleveland once asked, “How will we get everybody in on the act, and still get some action?”

Consider international institutions. Today, the world is organized into some 200 countries; in all likelihood, it will be in 2050 as well. But only 16 governmental entities account for two-thirds of the world’s income and two-thirds of its population. Many have advocated the use of “double majorities” – which require a majority of votes according to two separate criteria, population and economic output – to elicit action from a manageable number of states while enhancing weaker states’ influence in decision-making.

But, though the G-20 has moved in this direction, the approach to setting a global agenda remains flawed. Indeed, it seems to be most effective in times of crisis; in more normal times, as we have seen, the G-20 struggles to get things done.

Moreover, even if the double-majority system helps to empower some weaker states, it does not account for the role of the world’s smallest countries in global decision-making processes. Although these countries represent a small share of the global population, they comprise a significant majority of the total number of countries.

One potential solution would be for states to represent each other, as occurs in the International Monetary Fund. But the IMF’s experience exposes significant challenges in implementation.

World leaders have not yet figured out how to reconcile the moral conviction that all people are equal with the simple fact that all countries are not. In a global information age, governance systems capable of addressing fundamental issues like security, welfare, liberty, and identity will require coalitions that are small enough to function efficiently and a decision concerning what to do about those who are underrepresented.

Obviously, all of this calls for a lot more investigation. Exploring potential future scenarios, as the WEF has done, is an important step in the right direction.

Author: Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. 

The World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight team and the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government have developed three scenarios of how the world of governance could evolve by 2050: CityStates, e-1984 and Gated Communities.

Image: A member of the European Parliament attends an address in Strasbourg REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

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