Forward Agenda - May 2019

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito are seen behind Japanese national flags as they waves to well-wishers during a public appearance for New Year celebrations at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, January 2, 2019.   REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC19957F4B40

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito are seen behind Japanese national flags Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Michael Hanley
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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.


Dodging bullets. Will the global economy escape a slowdown this year? Surprising many analysts, the US - the world’s largest economy - grew 3.2% in the first quarter, although skeptics note rising inventories and weak demand. China’s stimulus appears to be working, but the global effects may be smaller than before. Markets may be nearing a “melt-up” - a steady climb in prices - but the IMF sees five big risks, including the declining quality of corporate bonds and the rise of index-fund driven capital flows into emerging markets.

  • Forward view: Throughout recent cycles of growth, one trend has been constant in OECD countries: a declining middle class. For a better, sustainable future as globalization 4.0 and the advanced automation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution spreads, the world will need a new global governance architecture.


A gentler belt and road. As China’s $1 trillion belt-and-road initiative (BRI) advances, spreading infrastructure and economic and military influence around the globe, the country is responding to partners’ requests: working to improve business practices so projects fight corruption, protect the environment, transfer advanced technology and avoid saddling partners with unsustainable debt. To support the BRI’s public image, China has organized a Belt and Road News Network, with media participants from 86 countries.


Hot enough for you? So far this year has been 0.9℃ hotter than the 20th century average. That has likely helped cause climate anomalies such as cyclones in Mozambique, water scarcity in Kenya and flooding in Iran. The disparate impacts of climate change are also sharpening global inequality, new research shows. The world keeps learning of new environmental threats, such as excessive sand mining.

  • What to do: The news may be frightening, but piecemeal progress is being made. Scientists have come up with a tiny new grain that could help save the planet. Many countries, such as Cameroon, are taking steps to better manage natural resources. Next steps include a global pact that could save 30% of the planet and action by finance ministers on a $26 trillion opportunity.


Robots and taxes: Bill Gates first floated the idea of taxing robots back in 2017. Now some in the US say a robot tax could support a universal basic income or help make workers excited about automation. Others warn that a robot tax could hammer productivity. Chinese analysts are calling for taxes and restrictions to avoid negative consequences. Even cannabis farmers are looking to robots to reduce risk. Japan’s auto industry expects AI to save jobs.


The world’s biggest election: In India, 900 million people are voting over 38 days to elect a new parliament - and the elections commission only has a permanent staff of 800. The party of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running on a platform of nationalism. A member of the Gandhi dynasty is his top rival, though a young member of the communist party has been stealing the spotlight. Fake news is circulating, while mobilization for the elections is intense - and happening as far away as Los Angeles.


Policing the internet. The UK is proposing new rules for the internet, potentially trading some freedom for more security. The European Parliament has passed rules on platform-to-business trading practices and new copyright laws that may further limit digital platforms. In the US, regulators are getting more aggressive with fines, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling to rein in the tech sector. Tech leaders are more than willing to talk about new regulations.

  • Forward view: The World Economic Forum’s systems initiative on shaping the future of digital economy and society is bringing together leaders from business, the public sector and civil society to achieve six global outcomes: access and adoption, responsible digital transformation, governance, security and resilience, user-centric digital identities, and trustworthy data innovation.


Where are EU going? Not usually a riveting spectacle, with turnout on a downward trend over the past 40 years, the European elections at the end of May will be a battleground between populist pro- and anti-European forces. The UK, too, is preparing for the vote, even as it squabbles about how to leave the bloc. Analysts reckon gains are likely to be made by both sides, producing even greater gridlock and making horse-trading and compromise more difficult.


Advice from Mutti: At the end of May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will follow Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Spielberg, Kofi Annan and Helmut Kohl onto the list of notables to deliver the Harvard Commencement Address. Chancellor since November 2005, Merkel is likely to provide advice on staying calm while weathering storms, and how graduates should look towards a fast-moving and increasingly more complex future.


Welcome to the Reiwa: We can only hope that Japan's new imperial era lives up to its name: Beautiful Harmony. Crown Prince Naruhito will inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne on 1 May after his father, Akihito, becomes the first monarch to have abdicated in more than two centuries.


Weak signals

In this section, we identify the stories that haven’t made big 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.

18 April 2019

"Even in this limited form, such a neural network could be useful for helping editors, writers, and scientists scan a large number of papers to get a preliminary sense of what they’re about. But the approach the team developed could also find applications in a variety of other areas besides language processing, including machine translation and speech recognition."

16 April 2019

"We can think of the effort not just to think differently, but also to see differently, as a way of countering our built-in tendency to habituate, to sink in to the familiar way of seeing and experiencing. One way in which great artists, entrepreneurs, and creators of all kinds come up with the insights that enable them to change the world is that, very literally, they do not see the way most of us do."

2 April 2019

"In the era of disruptive technologies and rapid technological progress, the role of universities must change too, at the same pace. The importance of universities has grown beyond teaching (first generation); to teaching and research (second generation), to teaching, research, and commercialization of knowhow (third generation). The fourth generation has seen universities become network hubs for education, research, open innovation, driving not just economic development, but also catalyzing solutions to social and environmental challenges."

25 April 2019

"Energy markets are complex, and governmental intervention into power markets comes with a high risk of unintended consequences. But one thing seems to be constant—consumers of electricity ultimately pay the price for the misguided policies that distort energy markets."

15 April 2019

"Today, the world is poised to deliver game-changing reductions in deaths caused by vaccine-preventable diseases. To realize this potential, we, as doctors, scientists, public health professionals and parents need to come together to build trust in vaccines. We need to remind our leaders and neighbours alike that immunisation remains not only the best way to protect our children against deadly diseases, but also generate long-term impact on the health and well-being of our society."

19 April 2019

"Just as today’s machine learning systems augment the capabilities of ordinary workers, tomorrow’s systems will elevate the performance of knowledge workers to previously unattainable levels of uniform excellence."

16 April 2019

"Industries will always resist change when their profits are affected—but these companies are made up of people who will often listen. While it may not seem like it all the time, there are civic leaders and policy makers who actually listen. Scientists must speak up."

3 April 2019

"Recent research confirms that forests are absolutely essential in mitigating climate change, thanks to their ability to absorb and sequester carbon. In fact, natural climate solutions such as conservation and restoration of forests, along with improvements in land management, can help us achieve 37% of our climate target of limiting warming to a maximum of two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, even though they currently receive only 2.5% of public climate financing."

9 April 2019

"Social media companies will be able to censor content online, but they cannot control how ideas spread offline. Unless individuals are presented with counter arguments, falsehoods and hateful ideas will spread easily, as they have in the past when social media did not exist."

26 April 2019

"Developmental psychology is a useful tool for peeling back the layers of accumulated knowledge and uncovering the intuitive bedrock on which (motivated) political attitudes form. It may also be a tool for intervention: If we make the intuitive unintuitive by providing children with compelling alternative frameworks that they can use to make sense of the world, the hostile, xenophobic attitudes observed among adults may be less likely to take root."

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