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Why a good story goes a lot further than the truth

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Nichola Cooper is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores the importance of telling a good story and displaying the right character to engender trust.

Ronald Reagan was renowned for his stories. Arguably more so than his gaining control of rampant inflation and boosting the military, both legacies of the Carter era.

His first story to the American public as 40th President of the United States was of Martin Treptow, a barber, killed in 1918 on the western front carrying a message between battalions. Why did Reagan use his inaugural address to deliver this story? On Treptow’s body was a diary in which he had written, “America must win this war. I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure”. Reagan used this story to reassure Americans they had what it took to survive the problems of the hour. When the New York Times reported the following day that Reagan had made several substantial errors of fact, did Americans care? No. Americans loved Reagan’s stories, they made them feel confident, they made them feel clever in choosing such a charismatic leader. In running against Reagan in 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in his acceptance address as a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party spoke passionately about telling voters the truth: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did”. Mondale insisted voters wanted a politician who told the truth. It was a terrible political decision. He lost to Reagan in a landslide victory of 49 states. Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota and Washington DC.

Why does this story matter? 2017 was the year of trust. We had ourselves in a knot about “fake news”. It subsequently became the agenda of all customer-facing organisations to improve their perceived trustworthiness. Crashing trust levels – 2017-2018 representing the largest slide in US trust levels ever recorded, incidentally – means we can no longer discern the difference between what is true and what is not. While we certainly possess the ability to get at the truth, our brain is not biased in favour of the truth; it is biased in favour of efficiency. Despite the techlash in response to technology firms’ concentrations of power, sinister manipulation of algorithms and the absence of a regulator – reasons suggested for fake news creation – it is the multitude of cognitive biases and heuristics that mean we source and assimilate confirmatory information. We preference simplicity over complexity. In so doing, we believe as true that which is untrue.

As long as humans are biologically hardwired for survival and efficiency, cat videos and crypto-kitties are here to stay. Sadly, for this trust researcher, so too are our declining trust levels. Simplicity protects us from a complex future we are unprepared for. As Richard Nixon headed into the election of 1972 he told his story of restoring America by easing tensions with China, Russia, and Vietnam and cracking down on war protestors. The voters ignored Watergate, explaining away incongruent facts with their mind’s own narrative – a much more efficient process than building a new story.



© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  politics  society  technology 

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What’s So Great About the Great Powers?

Posted By Administration, Monday, February 5, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Craig Perry is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. As you can see from the title, he has a few points to make about the great powers.

Before we can answer the question of whether another great-power war is inevitable, we should first clarify what constitutes greatness in the context of international relations. Scholars have debated this issue over the years, focusing primarily on military strength underpinned by economic vitality—which in turn are functions of population, resource endowment, and territorial expanse. A state’s political system can also contribute to its great-power rank, especially when it mobilizes its potential in pursuit of global interests. And of course, a state’s ability to shape the preferences of others through diplomacy, culture, and values—its soft power—augments its military and economic instruments of national power.

Given all that, the number of prospective great powers will remain quite small through the middle of the 21st century—with the world’s sole remaining superpower continuing to top the list. Although China and India will likely overtake the United States as the world’s largest economies by 2050, America’s steadily growing population should compensate for lackluster growth. Washington shows no sign of retreating into isolationism as it did after the First World War, and it will almost certainly continue investing in formidable military forces to defend its expansive interests around the globe, as well as exercising a significant—if increasingly contested—role in institutions ranging from the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

By mid-century, however, America will no longer be the world’s unrivaled hegemon. The People’s Republic of China has already surpassed the United States in the gross domestic product at purchasing power parity, and this lead will only widen in the coming decades regardless of the Middle Kingdom’s impending demographic decline. The People’s Liberation Army is emerging as a near-peer competitor to the U.S. military, bolstering China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy ambitions in Asia and around the world. Frustrated by U.S.-dominated international institutions, China is developing a rival framework to advance its foreign-policy ambitions.

If China is slowly reemerging as a great power after a century and a half of foreign domination, the Russian Federation clings to delusions of Soviet grandeur despite the collapse of its empire, economy, and political system within the past three decades. Russia retains an enormous landmass and a wealth of natural resources, but it has less than half the population of the USSR—and it is expected to shrink further in the coming decades. Nevertheless, Russia is projected to remain the world’s sixth largest economy through mid-century—its overreliance on oil and gas exploitation notwithstanding—and Moscow will remain capable of fielding ever-more sophisticated military forces and projecting power across much of the globe. Moreover, unlike the Chinese, Russians can recall what it was like to be a superpower within living memory, and their leaders are determined to restore the Eurasian bear to (what they believe is) its rightful place in the international community.

While China and Russia are revisionist states challenging the U.S.-dominated international order, several other former great powers are less likely to disturb the status quo. Japan’s demographic decline and meager economic growth do not bode well for its future influence in a region increasingly dominated by its archrival, China. While Germany’s trajectory is similar to Japan, its influence is amplified by its membership in the European Union, whose combined population and economic output will continue to surpass America’s even after Britain exits the bloc. If Germany, France, and other EU member states were to renew their quest for an ever closer union by further pooling sovereignty in the foreign and security policy domains, it is not farfetched to imagine a European super-state could one day emerge as a great power alongside the United States—or even its rival, should America’s NATO commitments waver.

Of the remaining states whose economic and demographic growth ought to inspire great power aspirations, none are likely to overcome their internal weaknesses or emerge from the shadow of powerful neighbors anytime soon. India, for example, will boast the world’s largest population and second-largest economy by mid-century, but its unwieldy political system and China’s regional dominance will limit its great-power prospects.

Ultimately, what makes great powers great depends not only on what they bring to the table but also on which other states have already claimed a seat. The United States, China, Russia, and (perhaps) the EU will continue to crowd out most regional rivals through a combination of economic strength, military prowess, and soft-power appeal while leveraging their privileged positions in international institutions like the UN Security Council to advance their interests. Rogue regimes, terrorist and criminal networks, and transnational corporations and other nongovernmental organizations will undoubtedly nudge international relations this way or that, but it is the great powers who will continue writing the rules of the game.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  power 

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Can We Live In a World of City-States?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

David Roselle is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article an important question about the increasing importance of city-states.

In 2015, the UN proposed the Urban Development Goals – a list of seventeen ideas for global collaboration that strive towards planetary health by 2030. The UDGs include eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, and developing affordable, clean energy, as representing our most pressing challenges in the 21st century. To achieve the UDGs, the UN must rely on governments and the private sector to execute them. While these goals are aspirational, we must ask: are our current government institutions designed appropriately to deliver legitimate solutions to these complex problems?

The purpose of the proposed question is to investigate the efficacy of our existing geopolitical institutions for the 21st century. Are they structured to handle the world’s most challenging issues? Could a model dating back to antiquity – the city-state – plausibly be a more innovative governing structure for the future to respond to such lofty goals? While we need to avoid apologetics for the city-state government model, the city-state model could be used as a way to consider a new geopolitical landscape within an alternative future. It is a provocative future which could evolve beyond the competition of superpowers for global dominance, allowing new values to emerge.

This question is timely. Ostensibly, we are amidst a major era of transformation in which everything is being challenged — from our currencies to our cars, to the sanctity of our democracies. Yet, the government institutions themselves appear to be overlooked.

While there are valid reasons for concern, there are tools to make a difference. Design, for example, is one cognitive tool of many that has the potential to change organizations fundamentally. What if governments integrated human-centered design methods into the DNA of their institutions? What new opportunities would that afford society? In order to attempt such an overhaul, we first need to be able to name the social invention we are seeking to transform: the nation-state.

The nation-state is a relatively recent political construction that began after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century. The nation-state bounded people together through customs, language, and religion, forming a powerful bond of allegiance to the state and land. This model was then exported to the world through colonialism and reinforced through colonial powers.

Today, the world looks much different. Nations are diverse, multilingual, and secular. The same customs that bonded citizens together before hold less meaning. Consequently, this sparks tension between ethnic groups as some struggle to cope with the change — illustrated through the wave of nationalism sweeping the West. This change brings into question what it means to be a citizen of a country. Within the course of a century, the world gained six billion people with two billion more expected in thirty years. The UDGs serve as a focal point to handle intensified pressure from exponential population growth. Can the nation-state adapt to these technological and social challenges or will a new model need to be innovated? It is a challenging question, but the urgency and importance of these questions are such that we cannot afford to ignore them.



© David Roselle 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Why do we need to think about the infrastructures of tomorrow?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, December 28, 2017
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Bonin is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article discusses the importance of futures thinking for building infrastructure.

By 2050 the face of our built environment will have changed. While this seems to be a long way off, there is good reason to start thinking about tomorrow’s infrastructure today.

Infrastructures outlive civilizations, country borders, and governments. It can take years until they are up and running. Infrastructures have been symbols and indicators of power: from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Golden Gate Bridge in the U.S. or the One Belt One Road Initiative of China. Infrastructures are physical legacies for the generations to come and constitute the framework conditions we innovate around. In some sense, our thinking is not only shaped by bounded rationality but bounded by the existing infrastructure. We tend to think of new ways to use streets, but not about alternatives to streets. As a part of a complex system, partially aged infrastructures cannot be simply removed and re-inserted without risking disruptions. The inert nature of infrastructures is also at odds with faster innovation cycles in technology. These characteristics are at stark contrast with the evolving needs of people and business and the global challenges on our way to 2050.

Depending on whom you ask, you will get different answers to the question of what infrastructures are. Some will spontaneously name airports, high-speed trains or broadband internet access, while you can hear the dreaming in the voice of others when they say wastewater disposal, uninterrupted power supply or well-equipped hospitals. Infrastructures are the physical backbone that allows people and businesses to fulfill their needs and desires. And even a fully digitized world with telecommuting or tele-education would still require some sort of physical infrastructure. The access to infrastructures means somehow destiny – reducing or exacerbating social inequalities. It is evident we need to think about infrastructures in order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in areas like health, education, renewable energy, environmental protection, justice, and peace. A more sustainable world would ultimately be a world where infrastructure converges both between and within countries.

This is clearly an ambitious goal, considering a perfect storm of weaker economic growth, growing governmental debt, workforce ageing and a reduced taxpayer base due to labor automation. These factors will greatly reduce the ability of governments to fund and maintain infrastructures up to the year 2050 and beyond. At the same time, less developed countries and their energy and resource hungry middle classes will grow. Besides the unprecedented demand for expansion in less developed countries, developed countries are starting to fall behind in infrastructure quality as their century-old infrastructures continue to age.

The resulting infrastructure investment gap could be even larger than previously thought, given that economic growth forecasts have shown to be way too optimistic in the past. But infrastructure development comes not only at an easy measurable monetary cost. Each additional square meter of sealed surface, deforestation and land grab of the world’s most fertile soils puts our ecosystem under more and more pressure. Yet the irony is that we will need to expand and adapt our infrastructure to tackle challenges like climate change and push decarbonization efforts. With tighter governmental budgets, economic costs might well trump environmental impacts. It is all the more urgent to develop business models for sustainable infrastructures that are attractive for private investors. On the positive side, higher efficiency technologies and decentralization of knowledge, power, and production might reduce some of the expansionary demand.

The overwhelming majority of our infrastructure for the year 2050 has yet to be built. Each additional infrastructure must be well planned as it adds complexity to the inert infrastructure systems. We have to anticipate tomorrow’s needs to understand future investment requirements. Moreover, we need to design infrastructures in a way that they can be adapted over their lifetime to keep up with the changes ahead and beyond 2050. Otherwise, we will find ourselves drawing upon yesterday’s infrastructure to cope with the challenges of tomorrow.



© Daniel Bonin 2017

Tags:  government  infrastructure  politics 

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