In The Media

Could a virtual community help save the planet?

by Daryl Copeland

November 2, 2012

It’s news to no one that the world is beset by a bewildering array of complex and difficult challenges, ranging from how best to manage the global commons, to diminishing biodiversity, to resource scarcity. Most of these pressing issues have a major scientific and technological (S&T) component, both in terms of generating the problems and in the search for solutions.

In the age of globalization, S&T cuts all ways. That much is clear. Yet at a time when humanity’s needs have never been greater, our collective capacity to innovate, to organize and to cooperate internationally in response seems grossly inadequate. Whether the subject is climate change, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic disease or ecosystem collapse, across a wide spectrum of unaddressed threats we seem to be approaching a tipping point beyond which recovery may be impossible.

The risks of failure are catastrophic and the arguments for improving our performance are compelling.

But it’s an inconvenient truth, and governments and markets aren’t listening.

I spent the first few days of this week at meetings in London related to the release of an OECD study entitled Meeting Global Challenges Through Better Governance: International Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation. This report — referred to by its authors as STIG — consists of five major, and two mini case studies on issues such as health (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), energy (International Energy Agency) and agriculture (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). It reviews governance mechanisms related to priority setting, funding, knowledge sharing, intellectual property, implementation and capacity building. Finally, the paper examines best practices and lessons learned, assesses the prospects for reform and offers wide-ranging recommendations for a more effective, collaborative, transparent and inclusive approach.

Still awake? I hope so. Although the subject matter is vast and the language dense, it all comes down to our future, and whether or not we will have one.

The London sessions culminated a series of consultations, one of which I attended last year in Oslo. Though the work has been largely unrecognized, STIG could hardly be more timely or relevant. While the findings are preliminary, and much additional research remains to be done, the enterprise deserves more attention, and more support than it has received to date. Yet at this juncture, with only the first steps completed, it is by no means certain that the exercise will continue. With few exceptions — Germany and Norway were major funders of the OECD initiative — the preoccupations and priorities of policy and decision-makers are elsewhere.

How might this misalignment be explained?

For starters, although states remain the basic unit of accountability in international relations, most everywhere they are facing a rough patch, their capabilities hollowed out from within by relentless fiscal pressures, under siege from without by the emergence of a range of new actors. This has crippled the ability of governments to broker divergent interests, to lead. Partly as a result of the problems afflicting their members, international organizations are also struggling. Unlike the heady days at the end of the Cold War, during which some landmark achievements were produced, recent global convocations have come up short — very short.

Critical linkages have broken, or remain unmade. Power is shifting in all directions, but this has not been reflected institutionally. The international system, such as it is, has become close to completely dysfunctional.

Secondly, the financial crisis and Great Recession have placed severe downward pressure on the international policy spending envelopes of most governments. Within those envelopes, however, defence departments continue to be given the lion’s share of available funds, chiefly at the expense of spending on diplomacy and development assistance. Yet there are no military solutions to the pressing S&T-based issues treated in the OECD report. The “war on terror” represents a serious misallocation of scarce resources and has given rise to a colossal disconnect. As long as security continues to be seen as a martial art, the more profound perils facing the planet will fester largely unattended.

But if the root causes of underdevelopment and insecurity were addressed, by my reckoning religious extremism and political violence would wither.

Struggling with straitened budgets, foreign ministries are for the most part ill-equipped to respond to the suite of challenges rooted in science and driven by technology. Major undertakings would be required in the field of science diplomacy, but, where this capacity exists at all, it is a distant outlier on the spectrum of mainstream diplomatic practice. Change-resistant, risk averse and hopelessly hierarchic, foreign ministries lack the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research and development network access required to manage STIG files effectively.

Fixing all three elements of the diplomatic ecosystem — the foreign ministry, foreign service and the representational business model — will not be easy, but it cannot happen quickly enough if the possibility of disaster is to be averted.

With increasing political polarization at every level, deepening inequality and a deteriorating ecosphere, the status quo can’t be expected to continue indefinitely. That said, taking to the streets has not produced meaningful change. While catalytic crisis would galvanize governments, by then it could be too late.

So what do we do?

OECD reports are rarely read outside of specialized circles, and the STIG document lacks a public communication dimension. In that regard, perhaps best way to popularize, and ultimately to politicize the project, would be to orchestrate an outreach campaign using new media venues with a view to attracting STIG advocates from across global civil society. By generating a critical mass of that sort, governments and international organizations might be spurred into taking the urgent remedial action which the circumstances require.

Such a strategy of influence would also play into larger developments.

Over the past two decades, a lot of human activity has migrated to the Web. The Internet, now the principal medium for global information exchange and interaction, has emerged as the flagship of globalization. As more and more people look to digital devices as their primary source of information and venue for oral, written and visual communication, and as higher transmission speeds and greater bandwidth expand audio and video possibilities, communications media are converging.

If STIG-related content, creatively reconstituted and imaginatively presented, could somehow make its way into the epicentre of that convergence, the project’s prospects — and our own — might well be transformed.

Why not create a high design value e-platform, perhaps initially in the form of a Web portal with sophisticated functionality and replete with all the social and digital bells and whistles, in order to advance the STIG agenda?

The tools around which a virtual community could congregate already exist: crowd sourcing, collaborative intelligence, Wikinomics.

Unleashing the power of open, knowledge-based problem solving would require inspiration and entrepreneurial effort, plus a commitment of time, people and money. But clicks are much cheaper than bricks.

If current trends are a good indicator, and if public authorities are unable or unwilling to rise to the occasion, then a canvass of enlightened sources of private philanthropy might be the best place to begin.

Any takers?

Hello, Google…?

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