Emerging Technologies

How the science of human cooperation could improve the world

Diane Davoine
Emma Benameur
Head, Impact and Engagement, and Head, Water Agenda; Member of Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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The recent COP21 meeting and Paris agreements seem to have finally shifted the gears on climate change to a focus on the how: how quickly and how effectively can climate action be mobilised through public-private partnerships? But having taken over 20 years of UN-led negotiations to get this far, the meeting also highlights the intractable nature of today’s global challenges and the need for faster, coordinated solutions that connect countries and stakeholders towards a shared purpose and that reflect the complex, symbiotic dynamics at play in major problems facing society.

Surely we can find ways to act together faster – but how?

In today’s interconnected world, further disrupted by the fast-paced, perpetual technological change that is transforming entire economic and social systems, we need fresh thinking and creative approaches to engage decision-makers more effectively and to collaborate more efficiently in response to such challenges on a global scale.

Ultimately, we – human beings – are responsible for creating many of the problems facing society today. However, on a more hopeful note, we are also a vital part of the solution. This is why understanding the human factors that drive cooperation between people, between stakeholders, between leaders, between decision-makers – such as creating empathy, building mutual trust, strengthening common values, and promoting a sense of shared purpose – has become more critical than ever before.

One possible way forward is to explore the latest research in social science and other related disciplines that seek to understand the way humans interact, build relationships and make decisions in today’s fast-changing world and apply these insights more and more to platforms and processes designed to catalyse and accelerate progress on global issues, such as climate change. In essence, the question the World Economic Forum and its communities is asking is how can we design and facilitate more meaningful interaction between relevant players to effect positive change?

The world is changing and the way people interact is changing too. But there’s an opportunity here. In an era where our time and capacity to focus has become so precious, processes and platforms for interaction, whether face-to-face or digital, are a powerful vehicle for change – if designed in the right way.

The good news is that many approaches – often interdisciplinary – originating from a wide range of fields such as psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, behavioural economics and evolutionary biology are exploring the foundations of cooperative and pro-social behaviours, and provide insights on how such behaviours can be encouraged.

For instance, psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner in their New York Times op-ed last year suggest that “people have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others”. Based on research in psychology and social behaviour, they propose that experiencing awe motivates human beings to be more connected to others, to act in more collaborative ways, and go beyond self-interest to enhance the greater good, supporting the argument formulated in 2003 by Professors Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt.

Leading social neuroscientist Tania Singer suggests that it is possible to train our brains to become more compassionate, and in doing so we can change self-centred and selfish motivations to ones that are more altruistic, caring and cooperative, significantly disrupting traditional models of economic decision-making and policy design.

The growing significance of the science of human cooperation is reflected in the rise of innovative projects led by interdisciplinary research laboratories at leading universities and research institutes exploring the intersection between social, natural and computational sciences and to study how humans think, feel and act in relation to others. At Yale University, for instance, the Human Nature Lab is generating novel insights on human interaction, and exploring how network science might be deployed to influence human behaviours – notably cooperation. Along a similar vein, Yale’s Human Cooperation Lab focuses exclusively on the study of pro-sociality and combines theoretical and experimental approaches to uncover ways to encourage cooperation.

These examples – and many more – show that we have reason to be optimistic about human cooperation going forward. Indeed, we are now increasingly able to understand the human aspects that drive – or prevent – cooperation, and as a result, can be applied more intentionally to the future design of platforms and processes devised to promote greater, large-scale cooperation.

As these new insights and their applications enter the realm of management and policy-making, and beyond, and with the rapid rise of digital platforms further shaping the way we learn, live, work and collaborate, we need to be ahead of the curve today in order to shape a better, more cohesive world for the long term.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to radically transform the relationship between technology and humans with tremendous impact, how will this influence and enhance the way people interact and cooperate? What new models and approaches to facilitate meaningful interaction will emerge? Will the “human factor” become more or less important in the future? What new digital tools and platforms can we imagine to facilitate truly meaningful interaction for progress on a global scale?

These are just a few of the questions we need to be asking in order to continuously adapt our processes and platforms to facilitate global interaction and cooperation to manage and respond more effectively and efficiently to global challenges in the future. The World Economic Forum is committed to exploring such novel avenues inspired by the latest developments in social science and other human-centred disciplines, most notably during the upcoming Annual Meeting 2016 in Davos, January 20-23.

The World Economic Forum, as a platform for public-private cooperation, has recently established a centre of interaction excellence to explore these critical questions in collaboration with thought leaders from the world of social science, humanities, the arts, leadership and learning, and science and technology.

Have you read?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means and how to respond

Authors: Emma Loades is Head of Programme Design, World Economic Forum. Diane Davoine is Project Lead for the Centre of Interaction Excellence, World Economic Forum.

Image: A discussion at the World Economic Forum, Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates 2015. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesSocial InnovationGlobal Cooperation
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