Are we building the future, or stuck in the past?

As we begin 2018 and look ahead to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, many of the world’s greatest challenges remain unsolved and unaddressed by leaders in government and business.

There is no doubt that the world is in transition and uncertainty has become the new normal.

The institutions, rules of engagement and social norms that we have long been governed by are under assault and in a state of disruption. Just in the last three years, we have seen the rapid rise of populism and nativism in many countries. This has included the emergence of “strongman” leadership and an upsurge of right-wing political parties across the Western World. In this period, we have heard countless promises to “bring back” old ways of doing things, for example, returning manufacturing and other traditional low-skilled jobs to local shores, reviving outdated and obsolete industries, reneging on climate change commitments and making demands to stop globalization.

Technology continues to develop at breathtaking speed. Not too long ago, we were working with technology – we understood how it worked, it was around us and controlled by us. Today, we are constantly being told by commentators across the spectrum to imagine a future in which almost every profession and career will one day be marginalized by this very technology. The reality is that machines can already undertake many basic human functions and that technologies are being developed to take on highly sophisticated jobs and may one day become sentient.

Technology-driven societies must focus on social equality

But it is not just technology that challenges our thinking. It is also about what happens at the societal level, how we share wealth, address inequalities and give a voice to all.

One example is that despite years of research, advocacy, public and private debate, the global gender gap is not improving. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report found that it will take 100 years to close the global gender gap overall and 217 years to achieve economic parity between women and men.

Studies show that the world as a whole could increase global GDP by US$5.3 trillion by 2025 if it closed the gender gap in economic participation even by just 25% over the same period. But we’re seemingly unable to make real lasting progress on this issue. Living in the digital age, this is essentially a ‘bug’ in our global society, and we believe it’s time to fix the bug.

All of this uncertainty and complexity has opened the door to anxiety around the shape of the future. Today in business, many are focused on short-term efficiency agendas only, and in government it can feel as if true governing is only secondary to winning the next election. These outmoded styles of leadership will not prepare us for the future.

Who can best address these issues: government or business?

Many people want an honest public conversation on what the future might look like and how people will derive better equality, equity, personal pride, dignity, work and income. How our societies address these questions will be influenced by how we manage the transition to a new world. In a fractured world, where the old ways do not work anymore, we need to be able to challenge assumptions and have the courage and determination to make potentially radical changes. But what has been mostly missing up to this point is really meaningful engagement between citizens and business and policy leaders that bring us to joint problem solving, real collaboration and action at a time when we need it most.

What is essential now is that citizens, business and political leaders work together – honestly listening to diverse views. We need to paint a picture of the future together that looks at all of the details and challenges of how to get there, without glossing over the fine print. This will require different behaviors – from political leaders, business leaders and citizens – caring about the whole, not just individual interests, and having the courage to do what needs to be done to create a shared future.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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