We are witnessing a lack of trust in governance models around the world. This comes from the perception that our leaders are unable to solve challenges, resolve conflicts, deal with threats and generally behave in an accountable manner. What this creates is apathy and a sense of alienation among the population. But more ominously, it leaves a vacuum for other actors – those with other interests in mind than the common good – to fill. Decision-making processes and structures need to change.
It is not the first or the last time governance models have had to be rethought. The socio-economic consequences of a shift from agricultural to industrial societies in the 19th century created the need for new institutions that governed social security. World War II triggered the creation of the United Nations Security Council to enable countries to take collective measures for the preservation of peace at the international level.
Today, the progress of digital technology is altering power structures as it reshapes individuals, organizations and societies. The changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will hopefully be largely positive, but empowerment can bring about unintended consequences. For these we’ll need new governance models that are more effective, accountable and inclusive. New questions will arise. Can we trust the crowd? How can we manage the risk of the tyranny of the majority? How do we ensure reflexivity and long term-thinking in a fast-paced environment? How can we ensure effective collaboration while including more actors?
The road towards 21st-century governance
The pace, depth and scale of change in expectations and digital technology make it hard for current governance models to deal with global challenges. Reforms and improvement alone will not do the trick. We need a systemic change, but how do we do that?
The good news is that we already have a vision for the future. The extraordinarily widespread and rapid approbation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a hopeful signal and presents a clear roadmap. Which governance models will help the SDGs achieve their vision while also addressing the above-mentioned questions?
In order to address the global challenges of the 21st century, governance models need to respond in a more accountable, inclusive and effective manner. Here are three ideas that might help them develop in that direction.
1. Networked governance for a networked world – collaborative, creative
We need governance models that are agile and diverse enough to cope with the pace, depth and complexity of today’s world. Such models are likely to be decentralized and self-organized, with each actor bringing unique resources with different nodes generating creative, collaborative and complex solutions.
There are two building blocks necessary for networks to function: a common agenda and social capital. These bring the different nodes of a network together and allow the integration of distributed capacities towards a shared objective. A good example of this is the collaboration between the Red Cross and OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping platform enabled by volunteers worldwide to share, cross-reference and verify data. By tapping into existing social and professional networks, the Red Cross is able to fast-track the creation of basic infrastructure (i.e. real-time, relevant and detailed data and maps), which allows them to save time as well as lives.
2. ‘DiplomaCity’ – closer to the people, more tangible
Research demonstrates that regardless of the size of a city or its political affiliation, local authorities tend to exhibit a pragmatic style of governance often lacking at the national and international level. “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer,” wrote Benjamin Barber in his book, If Mayors Ruled the World. The very nature of city governance places it closer to citizens, allowing for a higher level of participation and understanding. Also, the outcomes of its decisions are often more tangible. This makes cities very well positioned to tackle not only local but global issues.
As a result, city leaders are increasingly taking on diplomatic and “interstate” roles, and have become leading voices in some of the most important global debates, such as the C40 Climate Leadership Group, a network of more than 80 cities around the world that develops local solutions to global problems. Since COP15, the C40 has undertaken 10,000 climate actions, 70% of which were financed by the cities themselves. Over the next 15 years, this has the potential to avoid locking in a total of 45 gigatons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of eight times the total annual emissions of the United States.
3. Humans at the core of the system – agile, longsighted
The best governance models are designed around humans and what matters to them. Building values into governance balances the need for agility with the need for long-term and systemic thinking. These values create a vision such as the SDGs, which give clear direction and a focus on the long term, allowing for more flexible and adaptable processes.
COP21 can be seen as a successful example of value-based and self-fulfilling governance. Despite the lack of enforcement capability, the agreement has succeeded in shifting people’s perspectives. It is very likely that the parties involved will self-organize in a coherent and effective way towards the implementation of the agreement, with no need for any further enforcement mechanisms.
However, as much as common values can shape the direction and long-term objective, they are often not enough to reduce short-term costs and free-riding. As a result, we need to think about how to build the right incentives into our governance models to ensure short-term actions are in line with long-term objectives. Much can be learned from behavioural and social sciences on how to achieve this.
The three ideas articulated in this post arose from discussions at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos 2016.
Authors: Olivier Woeffray is Senior Associate, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum; Natalie Hatour is Associate Director, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum