Resilience, Peace and Security

Systems strengthening - the key global challenge

The rising sun lights the Empire State Building as it stands over the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S.,November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson  - D1BEUKNUCRAA

Sunrise over Manhattan Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

During the UN General Assembly this week there will be many discussions on how best to accelerate delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These seventeen global goals, agreed by 193 nations in 2015, contain more than a hundred targets to be met by 2030. They offer a vision of “the world we want” – the title of the United Nations Report that introduced the Sustainable Development Goals to the world.

In the context of General Assembly week, and alongside many other important meetings which are taking place, the World Economic Forum will host the inaugural Sustainable Development Impact Summit. The Impact Summit provides a platform that brings together political, business and other leaders of society to help propose innovative solutions based on advancing public-private collaborations and using the technological opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Over 800 participants will be joining more than thirty different working sessions and additional plenary discussions.

Promoting delivery of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals is an important and necessarily ambitious process that the nations of the world have committed to; it is an agenda which the Forum will also contribute substantially toward, through engaging its multistakeholder communities and networks and through a new platform for collaboration on the global goals that the annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit will offer.

As important as the Sustainable Development Goals are, however, they have to be put into a wider context which humankind is facing. We have to deal not only with a multitude of different, competing issues which each require solutions, but also a series of interconnected challenges. While the Global Goals are encouraged to be seen as an overall tapestry of solutions by 2030, arguably the more profound challenge humankind faces is to avoid an overall systems breakdown – the interconnected collapse of the systems that underpin the Global Goals. In the past, conventional threats to humanity, such as wars, hunger, plagues or natural disasters, were relatively localised. Now our global human existence is put into question by accelerating, interconnected pressures on the environmental, financial and global institutional systems which are the basis for our human survival and societal harmony. Such systems collapse is demonstrated by our incapability to secure inclusion and to preserve our natural resources, for example. Arguably, this is the first systems collapse that humankind as a whole is conducting against itself – a postmodern “war” whereby our global society is in danger of collapsing in on itself, as we erode the very systems we depend upon.

When people feel that the systems they depend on are deeply threatened the reaction is societal disintegration characterized by mounting political polarization. Today we are witnessing the writing on the wall in many places around the world.

We may be the first generation confronted with the threat of a global systems breakdown, but also the first one with the technological and scientific means and capabilities - if not currently the political momentum - to stop this process spiralling downward toward a state which soon could become irreversible, including the worrisome risks of non-linear change.

It is clear that government, business and civil society cannot fix the threat of this global systems collapse by each working on their own. What is needed is a true agenda for global public-private cooperation, with the objective not to defend individual interests, but to keep the destiny of humankind as a whole in mind. To this end, the Sustainable Development Goals provide an extremely helpful framework, but one which must not be seen only through the lens of seventeen different, unconnected issues. Natural desires to deliver on different challenges across the global goals, based on the particular interests of different governments and organisations, must be buttressed and complemented by an integrated “systems based” leadership approach. All the issues require individual responses, but they are all also part of an ecosystem which needs holistic answers.

By offering a platform for public-private cooperation, with a systems perspective at its heart, the World Economic Forum seeks to help its partners and constituents make a substantial contribution to improve the state of the world. The inaugural Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York this week is designed with this in mind. It offers a platform to help those who shape the agenda to advance such multi-stakeholder, systems thinking and in ways that can harness the technological opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this way our generation can be helped to not only meet each of the global goals, but to also invest in much-needed global systems strengthening.

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