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

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Gloom but not doom. The IMF announced a modest cut in its forecasts for economic growth and warned that bigger downward revisions may be coming. Such expectations were common at Davos, even though most chief executives emphasized that the outlook for their own sectors was good. How to explain the paradox? Some see risks that slower Chinese growth will weigh, as past stimulus turns into a drag. But the biggest fears are political: policies could drive up interest rates, ramp up a trade war which may already be reducing investments, or cause a no-deal Brexit.

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Every step you take. Does the business model of big tech companies depend on surveillance capitalism, making money by violating privacy? With concerns growing, world leaders at Davos called for new global rules on technology, and even leaders of technology companies agreed that privacy is a human right that needs better regulations to protect it. Governments too could misuse technologies from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to support authoritarian rule, rather than to foster healthier democracies. The US is also worried that new technologies could provide a back door for foreign intelligence services to access sensitive data. Yet at least one technology leader expressed fears that the techlash could lead to excessive regulation that stalls progress.

  • Watching brief: The rise in facial recognition technology could be the next frontier for tech regulation. New studies show that this technology may often be biased against people of color, while the marketplace right now is encouraging a race to the bottom, some technology leaders fear.
  • Forward view: How to balance regulation and taxation of new technologies with the need to foster innovation? The Forum’s Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution are bringing together governments, companies, and community leaders into a global networks for dialogue and collaboration to ensure that technology benefits us all.

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Our house is on fire. Even if rising geopolitical and geo-economic tensions are top of mind for many world leaders, the top three global risks (by likelihood) in the 2019 Global Risks Report are all climate related. Besides the immediate risks, climate change is also a crisis for the next generation. Youth is therefore demanding that we panic. And it’s not just teenagers who are worrying: the US military has just determined that over two thirds of military installations surveyed are vulnerable to climate-related risks. Record heat in Australia is killing off the wild horses.

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Your future employment. What are CEOs and government leaders expecting from the future workforce? More women in technical roles and more support for survivors of mental health challeges were just some of the top workforce takeaways from Davos. We also should consider a four day workweek - to boost productivity. Automation is also a key concern, as it will displace many workers, who will need reskilling, and it could spur a rise in global migration. Yet overall, robots and AI should create 58 million more jobs than they eliminate over the next five years.

  • Do reskilling right: A new Forum white paper outlines an action plan for the reskilling revolution, based on three elements: reskilling specific at-risk workers, upskilling the broader workforce, and turning companies into “learning organizations.” The white paper also shows that government reskilling initiatives can generate a positive financial return through higher tax revenue and reduced welfare spending.
  • Don’t forget schools. Before reskilling comes schools, which must better prepare young people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The world’s best teacher offers tips, while evidence grows on the importance of play. Policymakers will want to consider these five ways to bring curricula up to speed.

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Finally, has an alien space probe entered our solar system? The chair of Harvard’s astronomy department thinks so, though there are reasons for skepticism.

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Weak Signals

In this 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.

24 January 2019

“It is a familiar path among aspiring superpowers. Just as Cecil Rhodes endowed the Rhodes Scholarships a century ago to preach British imperial virtues, America set up the Fulbright programme in 1946 to spread American values and the Soviet Union created Patrice Lumumba University in 1961 to teach socialism to students from third-world countries, so China is using higher education for political ends. One of its aims is to strengthen ties with bri countries.”

23 January 2019

“While the United States has experienced a 27% decline in death rates overall over the last 25 years, cancer outcomes continue to be greatly influenced by socioeconomic status and race. Specifically, poor people and people of color have significantly higher cancer mortality rates than average.”

22 January 2019

“Economists had mistaken ‘beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ In other words, they’d fallen in love with the supposed rigor that derives from the assumption that markets function perfectly. But the world had turned out to be more complex and unpredictable than the equations.”

26 January 2019

“For public health workers and researchers, it was a huge conundrum. They knew the technologies could make water safe—the methods worked well in laboratory settings—so what was stopping these simple solutions from taking hold in the real world, with the people who needed them most? That puzzle has spurred a sea change in research around water development. Where once investigators asked what tools were best to gift to communities, they now ask why those ‘gifts’ may have no impact.”

22 January 2019

“The technologies of tomorrow—genomics, blockchain, drones, AR/VR, 3D printing—will impact lives to an extent that will dwarf that of the technologies of the past ten years. At the same time, the public will continue to grow weary of perceived abuses by tech companies, and will favor businesses that address economic, social, and environmental problems. In short, the ‘move fast and break things’ era is over. ‘Minimum viable products’ must be replaced by ‘minimum virtuous products’—new offerings that test for the effect on stakeholders and build in guards against potential harms.”

3 January 2019

“It is not news that, for all its promised benefits, artificial intelligence has a bias problem. Concerns regarding racial or gender bias in AI have arisen in applications as varied as hiring, policing, judicial sentencing, and financial services. If this extraordinary technology is going to reach its full potential, addressing bias will need to be a top priority.”

24 January 2019

“Grammatical gender is associated with a nearly 15 percentage point gap in female labor force participation relative to men, even after controlling for various geographic and economic factors that could be driving the difference. In practical terms, gendered languages could account for 125 million women worldwide being out of the labor force.”