What are the biggest stories looming on the global agenda? Building on our Agenda Weekly email update, each month we look ahead at the events and trends that will have the most impact.

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Slowing, or not? The global economy is sensitively poised, with several significant risks overshadowing underlying confidence in both the rich and emerging worlds. After the market coronary reported in Forward Agenda - November, the US Fed may pause its rate hike cycle and emerging markets are coming out of intensive care. Meanwhile the US economy retains its vigour despite trade policy seemingly designed to undermine it. The IMF warned that its recently lowered global growth projection of 3.7% for 2018 and 2019 may be over optimistic given weakness in China, Europe and big risk overhang such as a no-deal Brexit.

  • What to do: The IMF’s policy prescription for the G20 includes: bolster government finances, particularly in countries such as Italy that have an overwhelming debt overhang, as well as normalizing (increasing) interest rates where appropriate; lower trade barriers, in particular liberalize services; and liberalizing reforms that encourage both competition and inclusiveness.
  • Forward view: While some risks are global, most business focuses on what is going on regionally. The Forum’s Regional Risks for Doing Business report breaks these down, revealing that cyber-attacks are the number one risk in Europe, East Asia and the Pacific and North America. Other highlighted concerns are failure of national governance (Latin America, South Asia), energy price shocks (Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa) and unemployment (sub-Saharan Africa).

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Big Science Battle: The next decade will be shaped by the China-US competition not only on trade and technology, but also in the sciences. China’s progress in artificial intelligence is paralleled in other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies as well as ambitious big science. Reports of unregulated gene editing raised worldwide concerns about the ability of the global scientific community to self-regulate its way through the ethical maze presented by new developments. At the same time, China’s plans for a large particle collider to compete with CERN in Europe, and its manned space station, are indicative of the country’s ambitions. The US is making efforts to restrict access to technologies to hamper China’s progress.

  • Watching brief: 5G, the next generation of wireless network upon which all manner of 4IR will sit, from autonomous vehicles to smart cities, may be the next geo-technological battleground, as the US and China compete to own the network technology itself, as well as the protocols that run on top of it. Some countries are already clamping down on 5G collaboration on the basis of national security.
  • Forward view: News that gene editing technology has been applied to alter a new generation of human embryo emphasises the importance of understanding the ethical and policy challenges created by forward facing 4IR technologies. The Forum’s network of Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including Beijing, is designed to address just these issues.

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Brexit risks: The chances of Britain leaving the European Union without a negotiated agreement next March are increasing. The UK parliament looks unlikely to approve the deal Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed with the EU when it votes on December 11. What happens then is anyone’s guess. Mrs May could be replaced as leader of the Conservative Party and thus Prime Minister, the government could fall to a vote of no confidence, negotiations with the EU might restart, the Brexit date might be postponed, the British polity might find its way to a second referendum on the issue. All outcomes are possible.

  • Stumbling over the edge: The one outcome that almost no one wants - a “no deal Brexit” - becomes more likely simply because it is the default situation - and will happen unless the UK government and the EU actively stop it. It is not a benign outcome, and will have a significant negative impact across Europe and the globe if it happens.

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Climate crises: The world is warmer. News through 2019 and beyond will be dominated by climate induced events: wildfires, drought, sea-level rises, migration, food insecurity. A 1,656 page report published by the Trump administration just adds to the voluminous documentation confirming what scientists have been predicting for three decades: emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of mass industrialization have blanketed the world and are causing global temperatures to rise. In turn, the climate upon which our sensitive biome relies is changing. Recent climate-related headlines: the number of people going hungry around the world has started to grow after falling for over a decade; carbon emissions have started to grow again after stabilizing for a number of years; climate change is already messing with human health; Kiribati is likely to become the first country to become uninhabitable due to climate change.

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Weak Signals

In this new section, we identify the stories that haven’t made the headlines but are likely to shape the agenda next month and beyond. The Forum's Strategic Intelligence team applied its AI knowledge tools to the content being published by the world's top think tanks. Here are the articles and ideas that bridged the most topic areas.

14 November 2018

Over the coming decade, AI will become linked with geopolitics to a level that is difficult to fully comprehend today. Why? Because geopolitics is determined in large part by many of the same domains that AI is poised to revolutionize.

15 November 2018

A new MIT study shows how bubbles contaminated with bacteria can act as tiny microbial grenades, bursting and launching microorganisms, including potential pathogens, out of the water and into the air.

15 November 2018

Too many organizations ignore or avoid addressing internal conflict. A healthy perspective on disagreement can increase resilience and spur needed innovation.

5 November 2018

Social reproduction increasingly finds itself in crisis, with demand for services growing at the same time that unpaid workers are entering the labor market. With paid workers facing treacherously low wages and abysmal working conditions, and the government stepping back from public provision—how can the reproduction of society be maintained in a way that does not exacerbate existing hierarchies of class, race, and gender?

November 20, 2018

Arab Gulf states are intervening more assertively in sub-Saharan Africa to capitalize on economic opportunities and protect their security interests.

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Things to look forward to in December

Climate conflab: The 24th Conference of the Parties on climate change will open in Katowice, Poland on December 2. Building on the Paris agreement, the conference is not aiming for decarbonization, but for carbon neutrality. The Forum’s Alliance of Climate CEOs urges governments to be ambitious.

OPEC irrelevance: An OPEC meeting on December 6 might once have held great significance for plunging oil prices, providing an opportunity for producers to put the squeeze on production and give the markets a boost. Today, energy markets have been reshaped, with shale oil and other production technologies shunting the US into pole position as producer, together with Russia and Saudi Arabia, producing more than the 15 members of OPEC combined. All three are pumping at record rates.

Gender Gap: December 12 will see the launch of the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, which will reveal whether the widening gap between the sexes continues. It will also contain new data on the impact of AI and whether other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are helping the gap to close, or preventing moves towards equality.

Migration Day: A designated UN day, December 18, focussing on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants. Expect the issue of migration to top the news agenda, if only because it always does.

Earth from above: It will have been 50 years since the iconic Earthrise photo of our home planet was taken from Apollo 8 on December 24. The photo has been credited with awakening humanity’s awareness of its smallness in the universe and the fragility of the environment around it. Expect plenty of editorials on environmentalism and its impact.