Disruptive technologies can affect societies in unexpected manners. The thirteen pieces in this report explore the intersection of innovation and global governance. They describe some of the new challenges to global collaboration presented by recent technological developments, and offer a set of visionary perspectives on the ways that emerging technologies could provide a new basis for our global institutions. 

As a first step towards better understanding how technological development may hinder or improve global governance, this report opens with a survey of experts from around the world, conducted by Roey Tzezana, researcher at the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Centre (ICRC) in Tel Aviv University. The results of this survey show a high level of optimism. Among eleven disruptive technologies presented in total to the experts, only two were identified as more likely to hinder global governance: autonomous robots and genetic modification. On the positive side, clean and abundant energy was seen as the most likely to improve global governance, followed by big data, digital governance systems, and biometric identification.

Science fiction has been an important vehicle for anticipating technological developments, including some of the most disruptive – therefore, we turned to this field to consider the ways that technology may impact on global governance. The second piece in this report offers an interview with Liu Cixin, China’s most respected science fiction writer, author of the world-acclaimed best-seller The Three Body Problem, where the United Nations feature prominently. With information technology making the world smaller, global cooperation is becoming increasingly important – particularly as the development path of rising nations may conflict with the values of the dominant West. Virtual reality, AI and 3D printing will all play a role in the future of global cooperation – but in the eyes of Liu Cixin, the technology most likely to unify the planet will be spatial exploration.

Genetic modification is the object of the third piece in our report, Preparing for the global ramifications of gene-editing technology, authored by Samuel Sternberg from Columbia University and Jennifer Doudna, Professor at the University of California Berkeley, and one of the leading figures behind what has been called ‘the CRISPR Revolution’. When a technology is so radical that it might alter the very building blocks of life, it also forces us to think about our common human condition on a new basis. CRISPR now places the power to easily rewrite the genetic code of living organisms – including humans – into the hands of scientists worldwide. What type of oversight is required for this technology to deliver on its immense potential to improve the human condition? Scientific, regulatory and governmental agencies are starting to get involved at the national level. However, as this piece articulates, discussions and guidelines must extend beyond national boundaries, to support transnational policy diffusion and strengthen cooperation on a global scale. 

Among the various innovations emerging at the intersection of governance and technological development, one may revolutionize the very core of the governance process: artificial intelligence based on machine learning used to support decision making processes. This is the topic of Machine learning for better governance by Kok Yam Tan, Deputy Secretary in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office in the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office. Artificial intelligence could overcome the biases and limitations of the human mind, and offer a radical new way to address highly complex problems such as climate change. Cities offer a good testing ground for this technology, and Singapore has made some early inroads. However, to harness the full possibilities of machine learning, insists the author, we must invest in the know-how to deal confidently with questions of ethics and risk management, and how to align artificial intelligence with societal values.

Over the last 20 years, Estonia transformed into one of the most digital countries in the world. What could our global governance institutions learn from this experience? This is what Siim Sikkut, Chief Information Officer for the Republic of Estonia, proposes to address in Digital Lessons from e-Estonia and applications to the global level. The three pillars of ‘e-Estonia’ have been the development of a strong digital identity, interoperability systems, and a decisive embrace of change. These could offer promising pathways for more effective global governance systems.

Trust is a crucial piece of the global governance puzzle. A new technology which is currently the object of many discussions, the blockchain, may offer new ways of negotiating trust on a global scale. A large proportion of international aid money is currently lost to corruption or inefficient intermediaries. The blockchain could offer a solution to this challenge. This is the vision put forward in Promoting sustainable development at the global level through the blockchain technology by Marcella Atzori, researcher at University College London and Blockchain advisor with the European Commission. By design, the blockchain supports transparent and auditable transactions, and provides a way to automate the execution of agreements based on mutual satisfaction. If institutions were willing to embrace this technology, the blockchain could therefore radically transform funding models for international organizations – and herald a new paradigm for global resource transfer.  

The following piece, Blockchain technology and decentralized governance, by David Orban, Advisor and Faculty at the Singularity University, explores another set of possibilities offered by blockchain technology. In a context of exponential change, old centralized models of governance may be outdated. Opportunity may come from a new trend towards decentralization, which allows organizations facing global challenges to trial a range of novel solutions adapted to local contexts. In this perspective, suggests David Orban, the United Nations could operate as a platform, offering a neutral interface to facilitate interactions among a broad range of stakeholders. To bring this vision to life, the author argues that the best vehicle would be an independent UN Labs that harnesses the potential of blockchain technology to support better global data flows and catalize the development of decentralized solutions to global challenges. 

One of the recurring keywords in all discussions about new technologies is ‘data’. Today, we can gather and aggregate data more easily than ever before, but how can we best harness the potential of this data to improve the lives of people and address the world’s most pressing challenges? This is the question addressed in Global challenges call for better data infrastructure by three contributors from the Open Data Institute, Peter Wells, Anna Scott and Alex Leon. Building appropriate systems will require efforts on four fronts: strengthening data infrastructure, but also making more data open, promoting data skills and fostering innovation. Global governance institutions, argue the authors, have a crucial role to play in supporting better access to and use of data, and addressing new challenges around ethics, engagement and equity.

The potential offered by data depends in large part on our capacity to effectively gather and aggregate it on a large scale. The Internet of Things is an emerging network where integrated sensors, communicating through the Internet, generate diverse, granular and real-time data. This technology could revolutionize the way that we monitor the economy and our environment, and respond to risks and challenges, as Australian National University researcher Chacko Thomas explains in The Internet of Things – coordinating data for better environmental management and reporting. What steps do we need to take so that the Internet of Things can effectively support evidence-based and data-driven decision making to benefit humanity? Four areas require particular attention. We must build understanding of this new paradigm, including its limitations; we must shift our discourse from ‘Big’ to ‘Smart’ data; we must embrace open data; and we must unify data standards around the world. 

New technologies allow us to gather more data than ever before. However, what use is all this data if decision makers cannot access its meaning? This is the provocation offered by Tasha McCauley – Board Member at GeoSim, a start-up exploring revolutionary ways of visualising cities in 3D – in Making big data intuitive – the challenge of representation. The information revolution is not just about aggregating more information, but also creating better ways of visualizing it. Recent advances make it possible to create virtual models of entire cities and run accurate simulations of future scenarios, giving experts and non-experts a visceral experience of potential catastrophes such as major floods. This could create a powerful drive towards action and support better decision making on the most pressing global challenges – but only if institutional practice starts embracing the possibilities offered by these new modes of data visualization.  

Developments in data visualization are closely connected to the coming of age of a new form of experience described in Governance in the age of Virtual Reality – from data to experience, by William Hamilton, formerly with Stockholm University and Founder of Mimerse, a start-up building virtual reality experiences to better manage and treat mental health. Virtual reality is an immersive technology that produces the illusion of real presence in a virtual environment – allowing users, rather than receive information, to take part in a mediated experience. What should decision makers know about an innovation that, with large investments from major industry players, will become commonplace in the coming decades? The technology is about to radically change the way we conduct meetings and conceive of interpersonal relationships. Soon, articulates the author, fully virtual summits will be commonplace, and the perspectives gained from immersive VR experiences could be harnessed to make decision making processes at major governance events more conscientious and collaborative.  

When we think of new technology, we primarily think about hardware and lines of code. But these developments, in turn, open and encourage new ways of seeing the world, new ways of interacting, and new practices which, in themselves, can be revolutionary. Pablo Suarez, associate director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, describes the potential of such new practices in Rethinking the future of governance through games. At major governance events, current modes of interaction are far from optimal. As long as series of unidirectional statements followed by insufficient Q&A prevail, can we expect any genuine change? Serious gameplay, uniquely conducive to systems thinking, could provide a precious alternative. Games have already been harnessed in a range of development projects, and resulted in major breakthroughs. Games, argues the author, have the power to reveal systemic shortcomings in current frameworks. If they were to be more systematically deployed, they could deepen the role of citizens in day-to-day governance mechanisms, and even improve the workings of major UN bodies. They could trigger new ways of approaching unfamiliar problems, and harness the power of creative thinking to develop new solutions for the world’s greatest challenges. 

Change in practice and social innovation is also the topic of the following piece: in Decision markets for global governance, Robin Hanson, from the Future of Humanity Institute, puts forward an innovative proposal for improving global governance systems. At present, it is hard for ordinary world citizens to judge the quality of global governance choices. It would be feasible, however, to create open 'decision markets' where traders could speculate on the outcomes of particular global policy choices. On the basis of information developed through those markets, rather than simply trust their representatives to negotiate the right outcomes in relatively opaque governance forums, global citizens could pressure governments to support the choices that they believe will most benefit them.

Digital information technology has reshaped our lives, the way we communicate, and our production systems. However, it has not yet fulfilled its promise of peace, justice and human dignity. This is the premise for the final piece, Finding our shared humanity in the digital age by Jay Naidoo, Board Member at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which focuses on the critical importance of governance and leadership in Africa. In a world where we see so much progress, why are we still witnessing the repression of citizens, rising inequality and the destruction of natural ecosystems? The model of infinite growth adopted around the world is unsustainable and has generated the greatest inequality. We must rethink technology, not as an end in itself, but as a tool that assists in redefining the economy. For this, we need a revolution of values, where new technology becomes the bedrock for a solidarity economy, and results in the development of new public commons. 

The report finishes with a glossary that presents a short introduction to the main technologies mentioned through the text.