Can governments cope with the sea change ahead?

posted in: Social innovation | 0

‘Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is’ ― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Changing seas.

The World Government Summit recently took place in Dubai on 8-10 February. The public sector today faces seismic changes and outright threats from the role of technology to rising inequality and a growing youth population. The World Government Summit was a unique opportunity to understand, reflect upon and brainstorm solutions to address these major shifts and foster innovation in a traditionally slow-moving sector.

Noa Gafni, CJBS Fellow of Social Innovation
Noa Gafni, CJBS Fellow of Social Innovation

The fourth industrial revolution

Many believe that we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, which is defined by disruptive technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological. From artificial intelligence and robotics to bioengineering and nanotechnology, the fourth industrial revolution is still in its nascence. But its transformational presence is already being felt – and feared.

Many of us have noticed the early benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. We walk through the electronic passport gates at Heathrow, see recommendations for items based on algorithms and access retail bank services from our smartphones. As these technologies continue to make our lives more efficient, they displace low-skilled workers as well as white-collar ones – particularly those with routine functions. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that over seven million jobs will be lost by 2020 due to labour market changes [1].

Rising inequality

At the same time as disruptive technologies change our lives at an unprecedented rate, approximately a billion people live without access to electricity – as Dr Mahmoud Mohieldin, Senior Vice President at the World Bank, reminded participants during a session on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The rise in inequality is apparent in other ways as well. Mohammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank, mentioned that 0.1 per cent of the top one per cent of the population holds all its wealth. He claimed that economic inequality could – and will – be the most destabilising factor for governments in the coming years, a sentiment which was echoed by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. This trend could be worsened by the rise of new technologies, which are anticipated to replace human jobs with artificial intelligence.

Growing youth population

The world’s growing youth population can be a source of innovation and opportunity but also instability. Approximately 86 per cent of civil unrest occurs in societies with large youth populations, according to the US State Department [2]. These negative impacts can be witnessed in the extremism that plagues the Middle East. With over 100 million young people between 15 and 29 years old, the Middle East has now the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history [3].

And young people across the board are placing less trust in institutions, particularly governments. Millennials’ trust in the public sector is now at an all-time low [4]. Young people view the private sector as a more efficient – and viable – alternative to address society’s biggest challenges[5].

Brainstorming solutions

It is clear that governments are recognising these challenges and attempting to address them. They are experimenting with disruptive technologies, particularly big data and smart technologies, to address challenges in healthcare, pollution and education. Policy experts are exploring – and several countries have already implemented – a universal basic income to combat rising economic inequality. And many are trying to bring young people into their fold, including the government of the United Arab Emirates, which recently appointed a 22-year-old youth minister.

Will these small, incremental shifts be effective in stemming the tidal wave of change? Not likely. But, by dipping a toe into the water, governments are slowly grasping the vast transformation underway and their need to change alongside it.


[1] Executive summary: the future of jobs and skillsWold Economic Forum, 2016



[4] “Harvard Poll Shows Millennials Have ‘Historically Low’ Levels Of Trust In Government“, Business Insider, 29 April 2014

[5] Executive summary: The Deloitte Millennials Survey. The Big demands and high expectationsDeloitte, 2014

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