DUBAI—From Davos to Dubai, the first quarter of 2017 has already seen its fair share of global summitry. The backdrop: weary global publics are rejecting globalization and looking inward. Starting with Brexit in the United Kingdom and following with the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States, the very countries that founded the world’s preeminent organizations after 1945 are now rejecting what helped make them dominant in the first place.
As is the case with geopolitics, power abhors vacuum and this retreat from the U.S. and the UK will give rise to new actors. Indeed, the free movement of people, services, and ideas will not halt anytime soon. It will happen regardless. New champions will support and recalibrate how it’s done. But is the new champion of the liberal international order, Chinese President Xi Jinping? If you were in Davos in January, you may have thought so.
The discussions there centered around what global leaders can do to help better communicate the benefits of international cooperation, trade, and globalization. The anxiety stemming from the unknowns of a new American president taking office just days from Davos was palpable.
I witnessed the exact opposite in Dubai at the fifth installment of the World Government Summit. In Dubai, the focus was the future and the mood from the international media corps was jubilant. An assortment of leaders was in attendance: media personalities, heads of the world’s top organizations, corporate, academic, and diplomatic leaders, and many more.
The center theme? How can leaders dream boldly for a better future?
William Gibson, a sci-fi writer, once famously said: “The Future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” From flying cars to vertical farming to machine learning and even a VR tour to a future human colony in Mars, the organizers at WGS made clear that the future is now and it is maybe even better than fiction.
But the accomplishment of WGS is something bigger. When I first started writing about the future over a decade ago, being labeled a “futurist” was akin to being labeled a “fortune-teller.” Sure, there was an audience for it, but you were not considered a serious thought leader. Now, thinking like a futurist—and even better—being considered one, makes you a better and more effective leader.
At WGS, that seemed to be the mantra of those attending and those speaking at so many of the sessions: leaders need to embrace the skills, practices, and behaviors of futurists. Of course, let me be abundantly clear: futurists don’t exactly predict the future. But thinking like a futurist is incredibly valuable for those in government.
Going from what is a possible or probable future to what is a preferred future requires not just knowledge of trends and strategic forecasting, it requires disciplined dreaming. To dream boldly of new possibilities, to dream of a preferred future that is 10 times better or more impactful than what we have today, requires leadership that not only gets it but invests in it.
That is what I witnessed at the World Government Summit. Not just another stop in the calendar of high summitry—though, don’t get me wrong, WGS definitely belongs in the genre. But a tangible investment in the future. There are plenty of great summits that provide convening space for high-level leaders. Few provide a space for youth to advance. The hosts at WGS have a great opportunity to be trailblazers here. Already WGS is a platform for youth to incubate big ideas and present on a global stage. And win awards for them. That is what I call investing in the future.
The barometer for success in such global gatherings is not just who attends (there was no shortage of important people at WGS and you can read for yourself if you go to the website) but what happens after.
The concept is not new. Uncommon collaborations are the hallmark of the Sustainable Development Goals, spearheaded by the United Nations in 2015. The idea is that actors from a variety of sectors get together to co-create a better future for all. The UN has—for many years already—been the platform where leaders from all sectors get together to find solutions to the biggest existential threats and issues of humanity. It was, therefore, quite fitting that alongside WGS there were a number of SDG-related panels and presentations (organized by the UN, the UN Foundation, and WGS) focused on the role of innovation and technology in citizen well-being, among others. It was perhaps the best pronouncement the hosts could make: governments can’t be serious about the well-being of their citizenry unless they invest directly on their future. And there is no better proclamation or platform that speaks directly to that than the Sustainable Development Goals.
We have much to learn from the UAE. A wealthy nation that made its fortune on fossil fuel is now investing in sustainable megaprojects such as the futuristic city of Masdar and has a Minister of Happiness and a Minister of Tolerance. There is much to despair about in the world of geopolitics nowadays but let’s take solace that there is a cohort of futurists that are dreaming up a future than is 10 times better. And they are putting their money where their mouth is.
We hope you enjoy the collection of reports we put together from this year’s World Government Summit. As always, we welcome your letters to the editor.