What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? In my case – and assuming the kids are enjoying a rare bout of combined slumber – I check my smartphone and scroll through Twitter. A bad habit, but an addictive one. And just one example of how technology has uprooted the habits of previous generations.
This year, in particular, I seem to be checking the news with a certain amount of dread. From the Korean peninsula to Turkey to the ongoing and grim events in Syria – with which I am all too familiar – global pessimism is in fashion. As after previous international financial crises, nations have turned inwards when they should be turning outwards. They have become more nationalist when they should be internationalist. They have become fearful when they should have a pioneering mindset. And they are building walls when they should be building bridges.
And yet, as Bill Gates and others have shown, we are becoming collectively richer, living longer and less likely to die from disease, poverty or violence. Of course, this is little consolation to a civilian in Syria, Gaza or Chad, but it is remarkable nonetheless. And the post-1945 international system, with the UN at its heart, must take some credit for this.
The UN emerged from the devastating conflict of two world wars as the best idea for global citizenship that mankind had yet had. If the UN did not exist, we would need to invent it. But now we need to reinvent it. We face a century of change like no other in history. Technology will transform how we meet our needs for peace, dignity and community. This will shatter the global political equilibrium.
The UN is not immune to the pace of technological change – far from it. That’s why I was asked to examine whether technology can help the UN meet the challenges of the 21st century. The draft report – now out for consultation – is optimistic, but it warns that the UN risks a slow slide into under-resourced decline and irrelevance unless it innovates with urgency.
As crucial today as it ever was
Wherever you are in the world, the UN remains a force for good. A quick scroll through its functions reminds us why it is so important. Just as your first instinct is to call the police if you’ve had a break-in, the UN is sent for to combat natural disasters, preserve human rights, tackle peacekeeping or help address the effects of climate change. And these are just a few examples – there are plenty more.
And yet the challenges of 2017 are very different from those that faced the UN’s founders in 1945. Extremism is on the rise. Inequality, too, remains prevalent – and can be fuelled further by the impact of technology. This is because digital technology moves power away from governments and towards individuals, weakening the increasingly fragile structures for global security and peace established over past decades.
The internet has already transformed the world faster than any previous technology. The global population now has at its fingertips more information than it could have ever previously imagined – and this is even before the impending revolutions of artificial intelligence (AI) and driverless cars, to name but two.
Enabling individuals to take control of their lives is something we should welcome. Who doesn’t like the sound of freedom to do what you want, when you want? But it can work in more than one way. While it could unleash an unprecedented, empathetic force for global development, it could also leave us as mere variables to be mined by corporate algorithms – with our every networked action recorded by Big Brother government surveillance.
Unfortunately, we have not begun to adapt our institutions to these new realities – and the UN is no exception. Internally, its structures, systems and processes – like many governments around the world – have failed to respond to the pace of technological development. And externally, what the UN represents – a system based on states, hierarchies and the status quo – is being weakened. All too often, the internet has been something that happens to the global architecture rather than a force to be marshalled in support of collective objectives.
So why, then, do I remain optimistic?
Seeing the bigger picture
I am writing this in my hotel room in New York City, but with a swipe of my iPad or tap of this keyboard I can instantly Skype my wife and kids back home in Abu Dhabi. And just as we can use technology to bring families together, so we can use it to bring more people into the political process and to build social cohesion. It shouldn’t just be the world’s billionaires, for example, who commit a proportion of their income to humanitarian causes, because the fact remains that we are all in this together.
Our survival as a species depends to a great extent on our ability to innovate across traditional boundaries. Today’s threats differ from those of the 19th and 20th centuries and so, too, should our responses. At a time when the implications of diplomatic failure are more catastrophic than ever, we need both technology and the UN at the heart of our hunt for fresh solutions.
So how can the UN adapt its methods to “the networked age” without compromising its values? How can technology increase UN effectiveness and efficiency, build public trust, mobilise opinion and action, and increase compassion? How to make the sum of the parts better able to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago? From refugees and beneficiaries of UN help, to policymakers and engaged global citizens, the UN has a more powerful constituency than it realises. Citizens need the UN. And the UN needs them.
We want global citizens to be part of building a new UN for the 21st Century. The report makes 20 recommendations (see below), on how technology – from artificial intelligence to blockchain – can help the UN deliver its mandate from peacekeeping to disaster relief. We are encouraging people to share their ideas and hopes for the UN. Please do read, circulate and respond.
The UN in 2020 can deliver more for the global population it serves. It can take advantage of the huge opportunities of the networked age, in order to help us survive the networked age. But it needs your help.
Read the full report, UNITED NETWORKS, Can Technology Help the UN Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century?
Summary of recommendations
- Set out a simple, compelling case for UN as the spiritual home of global citizenship, coexistence and universal value
- Appoint a Deputy Secretary General for The Future. Their role will be to highlight where the best creativity and ideas are, and ensure that innovators have constant access to the tools and networks to build on them
- Create a UNSG-chaired Innovation Panel with leading technology companies to discuss how they can help the UN deliver its mandate
- Publicly review all UN partnerships against tangible, practical results, and provide real time, online access to UN spending statistics
- Open up all top positions to public hearings, debates, and online Q&A
- Get all senior UN officials on social media in an authentic, engaging and purposeful way
- Overhaul the UN web presence, improving search functions, user experience, and rapid response
- Equip peacekeeping missions with the right technology, including a cloud-based information platform and advanced mobile devices for peacekeepers on the ground
- Overhaul membership of the Internet Governance Forum
- Better protect the creative industries from digital counterfeiting
- Create a Geneva Convention for Cyber Security
- Redirect resource towards challenging online hate
- Get the world online
- Back an online global curriculum, and pioneer a global effort to back the next generation with the right skills for the digital age
- Crowdfund compassion
- Develop data modelling for migrant and refugee flows
- Lead work on how blockchain can help create a single digital identity, and allow every individual to see how entities access their data
- Produce a universal declaration of digital rights
- Establish a Data Science Partnership to help all UN operations deliver a faster and better service, increasingly driven by artificial intelligence
- Lead a public debate on a UN Code of Practice on Artificial Intelligence
- Deconstructing diplomacy. Tom Fletcher is the former British ambassador to Lebanon. He tells us about advising three prime ministers, the perils of modern diplomacy and the impact of technology
- Doing well abroad: Britain’s youngest ever ambassador on delivering diplomacy. Serving as the UK’s youngest-ever ambassador is just one part of Julie Chappell’s packed career. Currently taking a pit stop in the private sector, she tells about achieving impact – diplomatically
- 50 ways to leave EUR lover. Nadine Smith explains why uniting the UK over Brexit is a job for the many, not the few
- The right question? Reflections on the Brexit referendum. Adrian Brown explains why the most important question in the UK’s European Union referendum isn’t even on the ballot paper
- A life of diplomacy, in the government and private sector. David Handley has had an eclectic career at the sharp end of Britain’s foreign service and then senior roles in business. He tells Drosten Fisher about process and people-power
- Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, looks beyond borders. Age has proved no barrier to Sebastian Kurz. Austria’s youngest ever minister tells us about life as a diplomat and his tips for successful transformation projects