As we reach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it feels as though the world as we know it is on a cusp. The threats that we are facing can no longer be considered as a natural part of the background operating environment that we, as humanity, are an intrinsic part of. Within a few years they have reached a stage where they are challenging our ability to live our lives in ways that have become accepted as normal by billions of people across the planet.
‘OUR WORLD CURRENTLY STANDS ON THE BRINK OF A MASS POLITICAL, TECHNOLOGICAL & SOCIAL SHIFT WHICH WILL TRANSFORM OUR EXISTENCE IN WAYS WE CANNOT YET POSSIBLY KNOW’
Klaus Schwab, WEF Executive Chairman 2019 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report
The foundational question that the ISRM Manifesto: Crisis 2030 discussion paper is built upon is both simple and transformational. It is this. Is the nature of the changing risk environment that we are experiencing one that can be characterised as evolutionary or revolutionary, or is it in fact so completely different in its nature, scale and scope, that it can be considered as mutational?
If it is evolutionary, then that would suggest that is part of a natural pattern that has been constant throughout human history. There have been upheavals before – even, going back to the ice ages, upheavals that have proven potentially existential in terms of human survival. There have been natural disasters, pandemics, wars and pestilence, and for the people involved in them it might well have seemed that the world as they knew it had come to an end.
We have seen periods of revolutionary change, when the underlying assumptions about how our society is structured were questioned. The transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one, with the growth of the mega-cities of the time, dirty, unhealthy, with a constant dynamic tension between poverty and wealth, progress and human suffering, must have seemed to those caught up in it as a historical transition without parallel. The ‘progress’ that urbanisation brought with it as part of the industrialisation package included pollution, disease, infant mortality, human suffering and the loss of the connection between labour and a prosperous life.
And yet, there could still be seen to be a connection between the mean of production and the drivers of those revolutionary changes, and the lives of the people involved. The evolution / revolution process was brutal – but then so has much of human history been brutal.
We have recently seen a change in global political rhetoric that has characterised the geo-political discussion since the end of the Second World War, where it was accepted almost without question that multilateralism, social democracy and the benign impact of a market-led economy were not only making the word a better place, but had led to the demise of the social, political and economic tensions that had driven human development up to that stage. We are currently seeing the breaking up of (or at least, unprecedented pressure against) global multilateral organisations, whether political (European Union), military (NATO), financial (World Bank) and internal political systems across Europe, South America, Middle East, Africa and Asia.
We are experiencing a level of change that seems, at least from our present historical perspective, to be unprecedented. If the Fourth Industrial Revolution was characterised by an exponential growth in data management, allowing for the fusion of multi-disciplinary approaches across the physical and digital arenas, creating virtual worlds where things were not only possible, but instantaneous (think of the ease of exchanging information, agreeing contracts, transferring money in 2019 as opposed to even twenty years previously), then the Fifth Industrial Revolution will be characterised by Artificial Intelligence.
The single most significant aspect of artificial intelligence is that it has taken the control of the underlying infrastructures that support the global economy and operating systems, and has put them in the hands (to use an outdated metaphor) of algorithms. It is algorithms, rather than humans, that manage the automated trading platforms transferring more than $5 trillion every day based on changes in the market that are calculated on a millisecond basis, or satellite technology that manages everything from the data in the ATM that allows you to withdraw money to the information in your cell phone that allows you to call a number, or the connectivity that allows the ten thousand planes that are in the air at any one time to know where they are, and how to get to where they are going (and to land once they get there).
Mega-urbanisation has reached a stage where it is difficult to see how many of those cities can support a level of functionality that will allow the people living in and around them to maintain the activities on which those conurbations depend. We are constantly bombarded with the rhetoric around the development of ‘smart cities’, but the truth is that most cities are not only not smart, they are stupid (i.e. dysfunctional) – and are getting stupider by the year. For anyone who has tried to get to work in the morning and return home in the evening using either their own vehicle or public transport, the idea of a super-fast, super-efficient city of the future seems not so much a joke as a cruel punishment designed to make the experience of their daily commute even more unbearable.
Major cities are seeing the infrastructure on which they have depended for the last one hundred and fifty years becoming overwhelmed. Whether it is buildings, roads and bridges, or water, power and health care, the systems designed to provide those basic building blocks of urban living are no longer supplying their services to a level that can be considered reliable and dependable.
The speed and scale of the growth of mega-cities – much if not most of which is taking place in unmanaged developments that have limited access to the supporting infrastructure that have characterised urban growth until now - has continued to grow exponentially. If we take that trend and project into the future, and then combine that with rising sea levels leading to normalised urban flooding and the spread of diseases that could easily lead to pandemics, we can then add in rising temperatures that means that many of those cities will be living in a normal living environment of 40 degrees and more. Add to that the increasing danger of water shortages that will affect both urban living and food supplies – then it is clear that the nature of these problems are going to demand an overarching, strategic, integrated, multi-agency approach that has been sorely lacking both from operational realities but also from the political dialogue and discussion concerning emerging risks and threats.
It is our belief that the most significant responsibility for those with knowledge, understanding, influence and power in today’s world is to 2030 is eleven years away. That will be here before we know it. The changes are inevitable, the impacts will be significant and the consequences may well be catastrophic (and irreversible) in the damage they cause.
There is a significant community of academics, practitioners and policy makers who are engaged in modelling these issues in a way that will impact on and influence public policy. However, their voices are being lost in the demands of political short-termism, budgetary pressures and the inability to see how solutions can be provided. It is the desire of the ISRM to use this manifesto to create the space that will both encourage and enable a global dialogue between people from multiple sectors and with multiple perspectives, but sharing a single objective: To use the power of our combined energy, expertise and experience to create a coherent model of what Crisis 2030 means, and to establish the global networks that will be required to share knowledge, develop ideas and offer options that can then be utilised in living environments across the world.
The ISRM and its manifesto is non-political, non-partisan and non-dogmatic. It believes that we have the ability to understand and adapt to the fundamental changes that are already underway, and that we are a living part of, whether we chose to acknowledge that or not. It believes that through collaboration and cooperation, and the creation of a network of global connectivity, we will establish a critical mass of connections that will develop solutions that are currently unthought of.
We seek your support for this initiative, and look forward to welcoming you to the Crisis 2030 network.
Dr David Rubens, ISRM Executive Director