Recognizing the central role that technology now plays in the global economy, the World Economic Forum is establishing a new center in San Francisco to connect tech companies and policymakers in the heart of the world’s technology industry.
Building off the Forum’s thesis of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the new facility will focus on bringing government officials and tech companies together to create frameworks for more productive legislative policies that can be implemented worldwide.
“Depending on the collective choices we make -– as consumers, as communities, as business, government, and civil society leaders -– these technological breakthroughs could give us the power to move into a world that is even more prosperous, while being more sustainable and more inclusive,” reads an early version of remarks prepared by World Economic Forum founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab. “Alternatively, we could end up in a world where our economic, political and social systems are more rigid, more unequal and more conflicted.”
Despite their deep roots in government-funded research, the relationship between policymakers and the tech companies that have sprung from the civic-minded seeds they nurtured with financing has always been a thorny or even openly antagonistic one (cf. Uber and the governments of some of the most populous countries in the world).
“There’s a policy question about how do you maximize the benefit to humans and minimize the downside” of most innovations coming from technology companies, according to Murat Sönmez, the man who will lead WEF’s efforts in San Francisco.
“Already the forum works at a global level with policy makers, governments, and international organizations. They’re all intrigued by and interested in these technology developments,” Sönmez said. “We’re bringing the rest of the world to Silicon Valley.”
The WEF’s “Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” will be home to around 60 employees working on 10 distinct policy areas, ranging from drones and autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence and robotics to precision medicine.
The rapid pace of technological innovation and adoption is creating a global society increasingly divided along an axis of access to technology.
In both the slow-growth economies in North America and Europe and the high-growth economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the ability to use technology is one of the key factors influencing economic success and failure.
Schwab, himself, notes this in his prepared remarks, saying:
One of the issues we all should be seriously concerned about is the rising level of inequality. In many developed countries, including the United States, median incomes have stagnated or fallen and many people feel that life will be worse — not only for themselves, but also for their children. Millions of people around the world lack not just economic opportunity but, even more importantly, hope and meaning in their lives. In this sense, we need to take a far-sighted systems approach to avoid the popular backlash that already dominates our political discussions.
Some technology companies in the U.S. and abroad recognize these issues and are already grappling with them. Meanwhile, governments are wrestling with the issues, as well. The mounting tension between policymakers and the innovation economy certainly needs to be resolved, and perhaps the forum can help.
From their new offices in the Presidio, the working groups will develop recommendations and policy frameworks that can be adopted globally. It’s akin to work the WEF has already undertaken in Boston with autonomous vehicles, in a program that Sönmez says other cities around the world are clamoring to replicate.
And, Sönmez says, the relationship between government and industry is just as important for the industrial players as it is for the politicians. “As [tech companies] get into the deployment phase, currently the policy frameworks in place can get in the way,” according to Sönmez.
For some, seeing the World Economic Forum set up shop in San Francisco could just be another sign of the consolidation of a monoculture of the global elite that extends from Alibaba in China to Alphabet in Silicon Valley (with some stops in Japan, Russia, Korea, India, Germany, France and the U.K. along the way).
That criticism is also something that Schwab attempts to acknowledge, as well (at least according to his prepared remarks):
Globalization and capitalism are seen as the main reason for people’s anger, but the most profound anxiety comes from disruptive new technologies such as robotization, big data, distributed ledger, artificial intelligence, and many more. We know that these developments hold great promise, but they also raise legitimate questions. The global economy may have entered the “new normal” — as some say — but society is facing the “new unknown”, adding to the general morosity.
Ultimately, mapping the uncharted territories of this new unknown will require governments and industry to work in tandem to solve the problems of the day — and address whatever new challenges the global economy will face. Challenges, that in many cases, may be caused by the innovations of the industry itself.
Follow the live stream of the WEF’s San Francisco launch here.