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2014: A Year of the Unexpected

What does this year’s Open Forum programme say about the state of global leadership?

Since the last Open Forum one year ago the global context has changed in ways that could never have been predicted. A number of unexpected events have shaken the world, from revolution and conflict in the Ukraine to the rise of ISIS and the emergence of the ebola outbreak. At the same time the world is still marred by a number of underlying chronic problems; macroeconomic and technological shifts are disrupting employment markets, inequality is still on the rise and global and national governance architectures are looking increasingly moribund. The 2015 Open Forum programme addresses a number of these issues, while also asking what can be done to solve them.

Looking at the problems and solutions explored in this year’s open forum a number of broad themes emerge about the demands of global leadership today. Including: leaders need to be ready to plan for the long term and manage gradual change; governments need to be nimble and inclusive, ready for the unexpected and prepared to bring in other stakeholders; and leaders need to think and act globally.

The need for long term planning is starkly visible, in one of the most important topics addressed this year, employment. For a number of years, developed economies have seen their employment markets hollowed out through outsourcing and technological change, while recovery from the Global Financial Crisis has been accompanied by anemic job growth. This is set to continue as the exponential rise in computing power means more previously safe middle class jobs will be disrupted in areas from accountancy to surgery. As theorised by Andrew Mcafee, who will lead the session on employment, this new reality would produce abundance for consumers but is likely to drastically distort the employment market with rises in inequality and unemployment. Governments need to plan deep into the future for this eventuality, which may take a drastic rethinking of society to resolve.

A lack of long term thinking on issues such as employment markets has become an existential issue for democratic governments. High unemployment and a perceived lack of fairness or equality has already fueled domestic unrest. Moreover, alternatives are emerging in the form of market authoritarian governments, who disassociate democratic freedoms from economic success and tout long termism as a comparative strength of a non democratic system. If democracies cannot prove their credentials in this area, a gradual slide away from this form of governance could become an avalanche.

While planning in the long term, governments need to be prepared to act in the short term and be ready to mobilize various stakeholder groups to deal with complex situations. The sheer amount of unexpected catastrophic events in the last 12 months, from the meteoric rise of ISIS, the constant threat of terrorism as tragically demonstrated in Paris in the first weeks of 2015, conflict in the Ukraine, and the ebola epidemic in West Africa have tested the international community's ability to cope with unexpected high impact events. These events demonstrate the need for an inclusive governance system. Whether addressing global extremism with the involvement of faith leaders and interfaith dialogue, or the private sector donating physical and monetary resources to ebola-afflicted states or aiding international institutions in tracking and curing the disease, the need for a number of voices at the table is greater than ever.

A theme which runs a red thread through this year’s Open Forum is the importance of acting globally. With global value chains stretched across borders, employment and good systems of government become a multilateral issue. Ebola now looks to be contained but the next epidemic with a slightly different transmission and infection profile could easily go global. The Open Forum will discuss how countries react to globalization by way of regulating their borders, opening them to free movement of people or closing them off into isolation.

The course of the next 12 months is unpredictable, and leaders will be challenged by a number of unexpected events. However, in 2015 we have already seen signs of dynamic global leadership emerging. In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris we have seen a display of international unity with global leaders rallying around a common cause. Will this lead the drive for a new inclusive strategy against global extremism? 2015 could also see the world return to robust economic growth. Progress could finally be made in international trade negotiations with leaders able to take a long term view on the benefits, unlocking up to $5 trillion in annual global growth by 2020. With luck, these green shoots could grow into the stories which dominate next year’s programme. yeah works as well.

The open forum will take place from the 20-23 January in the The Swiss Alpine Middle-School Davos (SAMD) and will be live streamed on the Forum’s website. Keep updated on Twitter @openforumdavos