The New World Forum: Two days of shattering silos at the OECD

By: Adam Moscoe - October 15, 2014 

How are technological innovations shaping global futures? What could the next industrial revolution look like and who and what might bring it about? Have the eurocrisis and the rise of nationalist sentiments (and political parties) crushed the dream of European central governance? How can the emergence of a middle class in Africa contribute to stable and sustainable growth? Is the nationstate, generally speaking, losing its capacity to protect citizens from economic turbulence and what are the implications for global governance? 

Many of the leading actors consumed by these and other questions gathered in Paris for the second Forum Nouveau Monde (“New World Forum”) at the gleaming headquarters of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from October 7-8. It was my pleasure to participate in the Forum Nouveau Monde on behalf of the Young Diplomats of Canada.

Participants and speakers came from a wide range of sectors and backgrounds, allowing for a highly stimulating (and bilingual) conversation to unfold over two packed days. On the private sector side, we were joined by Israeli super-entrepreneur Yossi Vardi and senior executives from GDF Suez, Facebook France, GE France, Arianespace and many more.

Bringing their experience in global governance and regulation, we had French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, former Minister of Economy Arnaud Montebourg, the former President of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, as well as Hannes Swoboda, the President of the Socialists and Democrats Group of the European Parliament.

With regard to international institutions, in addition to the OSCE’s Secretary General, Ángel Gurría, the Forum invited presenters from the UNDP, UNESCO, and the International Labour Organization. Add to this list a number of energized and socially conscious young entrepreneurs, as well as some sharp analysts from the academic sphere, and you have the ingredients for a highly charged gathering. 

It is impossible for me to offer a comprehensive summary of the discussions and outcomes of theForum Nouveau Monde, yet what follows is an effort to distill some of the ideas and questions raised over the two days. (Yet I should first add a caveat that over half of the conference unfolded in French and I am relying upon my not-yet-fully-fluent capacity in that regard.)

1. Prepare for a confluence of change
We can take note of four key drivers of change: first, technology is creating what has been called the ‘jobocalypse’ due to unceasing automatization. Second, one can no longer overlook the impact of shifts in demographics on economic and political developments, particularly in Europe with its high migration and low birth rates. Third, climate change is impacting — or should be impacting — any discussions of global governance, which I define as the regulation and management of collective and cross-border problems. Finally, globalization, whatever that is, continues full steam ahead.

2. Only hire old people 
We have a pension problem: members of the aging workforce are counting on their pensions, and there simply will not be enough wealth around to cover everyone. Lady Barbara Judge, Chairman of the UK Pension Protection Fund, has a solution: expect less, save more and work longer (and while you’re at it, avoid dementia). In turn, societies must facilitate retraining to allow older adults to switch occupations as appropriate. Lady Judge referred to a case of a McDonald’s franchise that hired only staff aged 65 and up. The result: better service, happier customers, and more profit.

3. We still want the same things as always, and we all want them — now and in fifty shades of grey 
Yossi Vardi, Israeli entrepreneurship maven and angel investor, emphasized how young people are defining the agenda (his words: they are “ants conquering the world”) but — less obviously — are demanding ‘fifty shades of grey’ where black and white simply are not cutting it. This is not just about musical tastes. By way of illustration, at Sciences Po (where I am on exchange for the semester) one can pursue an MA in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action with a regional concentration in Latin America and a thematic concentration in diplomacy.

According to the school’s website, “with 9 master programs and 22 concentrations…students have 2800 different possible combinations of master and concentrations for their academic program, in addition to our dual degree programs.” Ten years ago the whole lot would have been content to earn an MA in International Relations. With respect to ‘wanting the same things as always,’ one must recall that a vast chunk of these wants involve public goods — security within our borders, for instance — for which the private sector has no economic incentive to provide. These dynamics have not changed and will not change, despite privatization occurring in a variety of ‘public’ arenas, from defence to health. 

4. African leaders call for education reform — and Africa is far from the only region in need of it 
Alhaji Abdulfatah Ahmed, Executive Governor of Nigeria’s Kwara State, pulled no punches: education systems in Africa remain a “hangover from colonialism” and there is an urgent need for education reform in terms of context, quality, and adaptability for today’s workforce. To be sure, education reform does not guarantee the kind of productive adjustment needed to create jobs (think of how Uber disrupts the taxi industry).

Education improvements can also create unrealistic expectations among young jobseekers. As noted by Magatte Wade, the Senagelse founder of Tiossan, a luxury organic skin care company, old educational structures persist because parents still want their children to be doctors and lawyers and have not advocated forcefully for a more practical, vocation-oriented curriculum. Wade suggests that Montessori-like schools — which focus on cultivating autonomous critical thinking skills and fostering imagination — would be welcome in Africa (and indeed in France, where education can be frustratingly top-down). Wade wants more design schools and fewer business administration schools.

5. Be austere….but also build infrastructure 
Lord Robert Skidelsky, a veteran British economist, is worried about the long-run impacts of government cost-saving measures. He suggested that for every euro saved, governments should put another into an European Union infrastructure fund. The result, he says, would be a rapidly shrinking deficit. The UNDP’s Khalid Malik backed this up, noting that countries benefit from globalization when and only when they invest in infrastructure and innovation.

6.  Is urbanization a great equalizer?
There is a lot we do not know about urbanization, which is concerning when one considers the droves of young people flocking to cities in Africa and elsewhere. A direct correlation has been observed between the size of a city’s population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), yet the correlation disappears once population reaches six million. And indeed we are talking about far larger urban populations. We also know that urbanization forces cultural and class collisions. As New York University’s Reuben Abraham put it, urbanization in India is dismantling the caste system, as individuals cannot decide who sits next to them on the train. What is less clear is how, or whether, urbanization will influence state or regime stability.

7. You are what you measure — beyond GDP
Lourenço Bustani, founder of Mandalah, was insistent that in order to conceptualize societal prosperity, it is vital that we measure not just GDP, but also ‘gross national happiness,’ and that we factor in divorce rates, mental illness incidence, education levels, civil liberties and transparency. His remarks — on Tuesday afternoon — were well-timed given that the UNDP launched its 2014 Human Development Report that very afternoon. 

8. Innovation requires purpose-driven people who do not fear failure
Perhaps this should be point #1. Google offers a powerful illustration that companies wishing to foster innovation cannot retain command-and-control structures and expect motivated employees to wake up one morning and start initiating and innovating. Part of the problem is that the CEOs pondering over such things themselves lack a sense of purpose and drive. The key is to remain permanently in ‘beta mode,’ constantly integrating feedback and iterating.

A number of speakers noted the cultural dynamics impeding entrepreneurs in Europe. Lady Judge explained that in the UK the fear of failure is all too real, whereas American companies seem “designed to fail.” She argues change must start at the legal-administrative level, specifically through the reform of bankruptcy laws to make failure an opportunity rather than a dead end.

9. No more generating value by sacrificing values
In today’s volatile global economic playing field, there are few things onto which one can hold. Luckily we have a set of values and these values must guide our conduct. Similarly, as Bustani put it, “shareholder profit does not have to mean stakeholder demise.” He also decried as obsolete the notion that companies can supplement “bad karma projects” with “good karma projects.” Millennials are learning to think holistically and to recognize the many diverse communities impacted by industrial and political development.

My mentor Irwin Cotler often says that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable populations. Similarly, companies will be judged by how they engage with their most vulnerable stakeholders. In considering the above lessons and the questions they raise, it is perhaps vital to remember that, to paraphrase Mr. Ahmed, we do not know what the future holds but we also do not hold the future.

No global leader, despite his or her access to hard or soft power, can independently predict and manage socioeconomic progress. This was made particularly apparent during Prime Minister Valls’ closing address to the Forum Neauveau Monde in which he expressed optimism that the latest technological developments — digital, energy, genetics, nanotechnology — will contribute to economic growth.

Yet he, like essentially all politicians, lacks the power to compel, necessarily, French companies to embrace these innovations. Valls’ speech confirms that while a climate of uncertainty prevails, global governance actors must not lose sight of their integral role in transforming innovation into avenues for growth and sustained prosperity.

The Forum Neauveau Monde — by bringing together providers of private and public goods and those smack in the middle of the for-profit/non-profit precipice — is also making an important contribution to encouraging cross-sector collaboration in facing tomorrow.