Category Archives: Policy

2012 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window.

Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight.

Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences.

But how does the report relate to public health more specifically?

The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention than I’ve been able to give the report so far. I did however want to pull out some of the points that struck me on a first read-through:

Unintended consequences of nanotechnology. Following a trend seen in previous Global Risks reports, the unintended consequences of nanotechnology – while still flagged up – are toward the bottom of the risk spectrum. The potential toxicity of engineered nanomaterials is still mentioned as a concern. But most of the 50 risks addressed are rated as having a higher likelihood and/or impact.

Unintended consequences of new life science technologies. These are also relatively low on the list, but higher up the scale of concern that nanotechnologies. Specifically called out are the possibilities of genetic manipulation through synthetic biology leading to unintended consequences or biological weapons.

Unforeseen consequences of regulation. These are ranked relatively low in terms of likelihood and impact. But the broad significance of unintended consequences is highlighted in the report. These are also linked in with the potential impact and likelihood of global governance failure. Specifically, the report calls for

“A shift in mentality … so that policies, regulations or institutions can offer vital protection in a more agile and cohesive way.”

The report’s authors also ask how leaders can develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards; how businesses and governments can prevent a breakdown of trust following the emergence of new risks; and how governments, business and civil society can work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks.

Vulnerability to pandemics. Pandemic-associated risks are in the middle of the pack when it comes to potential impact, but not as high as might be expected on the likelihood scale. In 2007 and 2008 pandemics were listed in the top five global risks in terms of impact in the Global Risks Report, but have not appeared this high since 2009. With increasing talk about flu strains like H5N1, I wonder whether the relegation of pandemics from the top-tier risks is an oversight.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are flagged up right in the middle of the risk-pack as an emerging risk, and are one of the highest-ranked risks directly related to public health. The report provides little additional information beyond this though.

Food and water shortage crises. Thee are the highest-ranked risks in terms of impact below major systemic financial failure. And while they are both addressed as systemic risks, failure in each area has clear public health implications.

Rising rates of chronic disease. While overshadowed by higher profile risks, this remains an area of significant anticipated adverse impact and likelihood in the report.

Dystopic trends. The chapter addressing potential drivers of a dystopic future does not directly address public health issues. But trends that have an indirect impact on health thread through it. The impact of the current global financial crisis on jobs, working hours and benefits is highlighted, and it is noted that young people have been especially hard hit recently by a lack of career opportunities. The challenges of an aging population are also flagged. Both areas impact indirectly (and sometimes not so indirectly) on health and well-being. One of the questions for stakeholders posed here is “What measures should be taken today to deal with the changing socio-economic dynamics of an ageing population and a bulging young population?” One could equally well ask what measures should be taken to ensure the health of these two populations.

Regulatory risks. In the case addressing asking “How Safe are our Safeguards?” the report’s authors conclude that:

“far-reaching weaknesses in regulations [suggest] that we may be falling behind in our capacity to protect the systems that underpin growth and prosperity”

This report considers regulation extremely broadly, and spans everything from financial regulation to safety regulation. Yet it also stresses the need for integrated approaches to systemic challenges. The highlighted questions to stakeholders at the end of this section are particularly pertinent to health risk-related regulation and governance:

  • How can leaders break the pattern of crisis followed by reactionary regulation and develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards?
  • How can appropriate regulations be developed so that firms will undertake effective safeguards?
  • How can businesses and governments prevent a rapid breakdown of trust following the emergence of a new widespread risk?
  • How can businesses, government and civil society work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks?

Emerging technologies and emerging risks: In examining information on technologies and risks, the report concludes

“globally, the latest technologies are increasingly accessible to local industries, but indicators relating to confidence in the institutions responsible for developing safeguards, including those that manage the risks of emerging technologies, have not shown proportional increases.”

Special report on the 2011 Japan earthquake. The March 11 earthquake that hit Japan last year and the following tsunami resulted in widespread social, economic and health impacts. In a special report, the 2011 Global Risk Report takes a holistic look at factors, events and impacts. This is a case review that is well worth reading from a systemic risk perspective.

Risk centers of gravity. The report concludes with a fascinating analysis of risk “Centers of Gravity” within the five sectors it focuses on – these are described as the risks perceived to be of greatest systemic importance, or the most influential and consequential in relation to others, within each sector. The risk centers of gravity that emerged in each sector were:

  • Economic: Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Environmental: Rising greenhouse gas emissions
  • Geopolitical: Global governance failure
  • Societal: Unsustainable population growth
  • Technological: Critical systems failure
Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

The bottom line? The report concludes that

Decision-makers need to improve understanding of incentives that will improve collaboration in response to global risks;

Trust, or lack of trust, is perceived to be a crucial factor in how risks may manifest themselves. In particular, this refers to confidence, or lack thereof, in leaders, in systems which ensure public safety and in the tools of communication that are revolutionizing how we share and digest information; and

Communication and information sharing on risks must be improved by introducing greater transparency about uncertainty and conveying it to the public in a meaningful way.

The Global Risks 2012 Seventh Edition is available at

*I was marginally involved in the report as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies

EC adopts cross-cutting definition of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes

The European Commission had just adopted a “cross-cutting designation of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes” (link). The definition builds on a draft definition released last year, but includes a number of substantial changes to this.

Here’s the full text of the definition: Continue reading EC adopts cross-cutting definition of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes

US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

This coming Thursday (Oct 20 2011), the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is releasing the latest version of the Initiative’s federal nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research strategy.  The strategy will be available for download from 10:00 AM Eastern time, with a webinar on the release being held between 12:00 PM – 12:45 PM Eastern (registration required).  Further details can be found here.

A draft of the research strategy was published in December 2010 for public comment – with the aim of using these comments where appropriate to strengthen the final strategy.

In anticipation of the final version coming out on Thursday, I’ve been revisiting the public comments received.  They are still accessible on the NNI Strategy Portal, although you will need to register to read them (my comments are available separately here).  I’m particularly interested in how the NNI has addressed them in the final strategy. Continue reading US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

New models needed to master technology trends – World Economic Forum

In his opening remarks at this year’s Summit on the Global Agenda, World Economic Forum founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab placed the need for new models to support effective use of technology innovation firmly on the table.

This is the fourth year I have participated in the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Summit – an intense two-day meeting of over 700 thought leaders from around the world to explore global emerging issues and opportunities and to begin developing possible solutions.

On the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, we have been working hard on getting the opportunities and challenges presented by emerging technologies on the radar of top-level decision-makers.  Not because we think they should know about the latest cool technologies, but because we feel that effective solutions to complex challenges demand an integrated and proactive approach to technology innovation.

It’s been a tough task – high level decision makers are often uneasy talking about science and technology, and prefer to assume that “techies” will deliver technology-based solutions to pressing problems as and when they are necessary.  Sadly, this is a model that doesn’t work well, and is rapidly running out of steam in the face of accelerating technological capabilities, increasing global connectivity and diminishing resources.

So it was gratifying to hear WEF’s Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab highlight the need for new models to master technological trends in the Summit’s opening keynote.  Schwab emphasized the need for new models in five areas – the fifth being how we handle accelerating technologies:

“Ladies and gentlemen, fifth, we need a new model to master the trend of technology. The velocity of technological change, for which we are not really prepared, will accelerate in an exponential manner, having significant implication on all of us. What is particularly striking, for me as an engineer I may add, is the character-changing nature of technological change. Today’s technological evolution no longer solely affects what we are doing, but also affects who we are. Of course, the internet in many ways is still a tool. But it has also become a part of our internal DNA. This new dimension of technological progress and societal change is still in relative infancy. The other ways of forthcoming evolutions in technology such as genetics and STEM cell technology, nanotechnology, and numerous sciences and so on, will all provide opportunities and threats regarding the ultimation of ourselves. And this raises fundamental moral and ethical issues, for which we are not yet prepared, and for which we have to prepare new models.”

(The full address can be watch on YouTube)

This is an important high-level endorsement to think differently about how we develop and use technology innovation for the greatest good, and it sets the scene for the Council on Emerging Technologies’ work over the next year.

We still have our work cut out – but at least we know that we have the strong support as we explore new models of developing and deploying technology innovation as successfully, safely and sustainably as possible.

Define nanomaterials for regulatory purposes? EU JRC says yes.

Cross-posted from The Risk Science Blog:

In a recent letter to the journal Nature (Nature 476; 399), Hermann Stamm of the European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (JRC-IHCP) defended the need to define engineered nanomaterials for regulatory purposes. The letter, titled “Nanomaterials should be defined”, was a direct response to my earlier commentary in Nature “Don’t define nanomaterials”.

Stamm’s letter is behind a paywall and so not easily accessible to many readers. But these are the main points he makes: Continue reading Define nanomaterials for regulatory purposes? EU JRC says yes.

Seven challenges to regulating “sophisticated materials”

The materials that most current regulations were designed to handle are pretty simple by today’s standards. Sure they can do some nasty things to the environment or your body if handled inappropriately. And without a doubt some of the risks associated with these “simple” materials are not yet well understood – especially when it comes to long term and trans-generational impacts.

Yet it’s hard to escape that reality that researchers are now designing new materials from the ground up that behave in novel ways, that have few analogs in the world of conventional materials, and that exhibit different properties according to the environment they are in. And as they do, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the regulations we rely on are ill-equip them to deal with the pending flood of sophisticated materials that is coming our way.

The development of relatively simple engineered nanomaterials in recent years has highlighted this disconnect between established regulations and the new demands being placed on them. Fortunately, many of the first nanomaterials to emerge have not presented insurmountable challenges, and regulators have been able to stretch existing regulatory frameworks to cover them (although even this in itself has not been an easy task). But these are just the beginning of a trend in novel materials designed and engineered at the nanoscale that will transcend current regulatory mindsets.

So what what are the options here? Before this question can be answered, a clearer understanding of the issues being faced needs to be developed.

Some of these are explored by Graeme Hodge, Di Bowman and myself in a commentary in the August 2011 edition of the journal Nature Materials. Continue reading Seven challenges to regulating “sophisticated materials”

Nanotechnology – has the UK dropped the nano-ball?

I must confess to being rather saddened this morning to read Roger Highfield’s New Scientist blog on the state of nanotechnology in the UK.  Hot on the heels of reports that the company Nanoco is threatening to leave Britain for more fertile grounds, it left me wondering what has happened to the promise of ten years ago, when the UK was without doubt a player in the nanotech arena.  But the real sadness comes from that fact that, beyond the nanotech hype, nanoscale science and engineering are without doubt going to underpin some of the most significant technological breakthroughs of the coming years – and the UK is in severe danger of missing the boat.

Having left the UK eleven years ago to work in the US, I have retained a deep and personal interest in how Britain has invested in nanotechnology. Continue reading Nanotechnology – has the UK dropped the nano-ball?

A plug for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium: Risk, Uncertainty and Sutainable Innovation

Registration is now open for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium, and as I’m chairing it, I thought it worth giving a bit of a plug here.

The symposium brings together a fantastic cast of experts from very different backgrounds to explore the intersection of technology innovation and human health risk – with the aim of stimulating new thinking and ideas.

If you are grappling with emerging risk issues in industry, government, academia or the non-profit sector, this will be the place to be in September (not that I’m bias!).

A warning thought – space is limited to around 220 participants, so early registration is highly recommended.

Further details on the speakers, program and registration can be found here.

Some of the highlights include:

  • An opening keynote by John Viera, Ford Motor Company Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering
  • Insights from Paul Anastas, Science Advisor to the US EPA
  • A UK perspective on technology innovation, risk and policy from James Wilsdon, Director of The Royal Society Science Policy Centre
  • Cutting edge discussions on developments in science and technology that are pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
  • Insights into emerging risk issues and innovative solutions
  • A unique symposium dinner experience with designer Rodrigo Martinez from IDEO
  • A chance to interact with some of the leading cross-disciplinary thought leaders on addressing emerging risk challenges.

Draft Program

Confirmed Speakers


Technology innovation and human health risk – rethinking the intersection

As anyone who has followed my work over the past few years will know, I have a deep interest in the potential benefits and risks associated with emerging technologies, and in particular whether we can swing the balance towards benefits by thinking more innovatively about risk and how we address it. So it’s not surprising that I’m extremely excited to be chairing this year’s Risk Science Symposium at the University of Michigan, which is all about how we can think differently about human health risk to support sustainable technology innovation.

The symposium is shaping up to be a unique event, and one that I hope will expose participants to new ideas as well as energizing them to explore new possibilities as they work toward developing responsible and sustainable products based on technology innovations.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be firming up the program in time for early registration, opening on April 4.

Something I’m particularly excited about is that the symposium is turning out to be a great opportunity to explore some different formats for getting people to think differently about common challenges. Rather than use the tried and tested – but often bum-numbingly boring – “talking heads” lecture format, we will be basing most of the proceedings on a series of moderated discussions. These will be designed to engage experts from different perspectives – as well as other participants – in addressing key questions, under the guiding hand of a strong moderator.

It’s a format that one colleague described as “symposium speed-dating” – but I think it’s one that will encourage new ideas and insights, and lead to some extremely engaging exchanges. And in case you think that these will go the way of many panel discussions where participants simply use their time (and that of their fellow-speakers often) as a soap box for their own ideas, think again. We’ll be working hard to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Rather, the panels will be similar to those in the Risk Science Center Unplugged series of discussions – experts from different perspectives engaged in candid, animated yet carefully directed conversation.

And what about the the content?

Day one will lay the groundwork of why technology innovation is important, explore critical areas of technology innovation that are closely intertwined with questions over human health impacts, and begin to unpack why we need to think differently about risk and how we handle it if these technologies are to succeed.

Day two goes on to considering more closely the challenges of taking an integrative approach to addressing potential human health risks associated with technology innovation, and how new thinking on risk can increase the long-term success of technology innovation.

And in between the two days, we have what is shaping up to be a rather unique and definitely no-to-be-missed dinner event. But more on that another time.

Involved in the symposium will be leading experts from industry, government, academia, civil society, the media and other groups – all challenging and inspiring each other and the symposium participants to take a new look at how thinking differently about risk can support sustainable technology innovation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs on the symposium. But in the meantime, you can check out the details on the symposium website, and follow progress on the Risk Science Center Facebook page.

And remember, early registration for the symposium opens April 4 – but be forewarned, space is limited.

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

Davos 2011 – Committed to changing the state of the world

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog.

As it did last year, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos has left me with a daunting task – how do I summarize the highlights of the meeting in a single, short post?

The answer of course is that I can’t – Davos is so complex, diverse and multi-layered that no single account could do it justice. But sitting here waiting for the flight home, I wanted to capture at least something of the past few days.

World Leaders – world issues

This year saw the usual parade of world-leaders passing through Davos, selling their wares in public, while cutting deals in private.

In public and private, the unfolding events in North Africa, the Moscow terrorist attack and the world economy dominated discussions.

As is fairly typical at Davos, not too much that was startling or new was announced in public. But this is a meeting where off the record meetings and encounters are everything. And given the isolation, camaraderie and personal access that pervades Davos, the barriers to meaningful exchanges are perhaps lower here than at almost any other gathering of the great and good.

As one person pointed out to me – many delegates simply cannot afford to bring their usual entourage, meaning that the chances of conversations that get to the heart of issues – rather than leading a carefully choreographed dance around them – are reasonably high. And of course this is further enabled by the many social occasions that smooth the way for serious conversations.

Business leaders – revealed values. This stripping away of the buffers between public personas and the people behind them is one aspect of Davos that continues to fascinate me. It’s one of the few places I know if where you can get a sense of who someone really is, not who the PR machinery tries to convince you they are (again, because most people end up having to leave the PR machinery at the door). And no-where do I find this more revealing than in talking with business leaders.

It may be because the World Economic Forum actively develops partnerships with organizations that share its commitment to improving the state of the world, but I’m encouraged by the number of high profile CEO’s and business leaders I speak with here who are motivated by far more than bottom-line dollars. A cynic might claim that it’s all part of the PR machinery, which managed to sneak past the barriers. But I don’t think it is. There’s no need for these people to spend a week of their busy schedule talking about how to make the word a better place – and what excites and inspires them – unless they really mean it.

Davos provides a rare glimpse of the idealists still alive and beating in these world-wise corporate leaders. Of course, talk is a lot easier (and cheaper) than action, and these people have to deal with colleagues, shareholders, stakeholders and an economic landscape that doesn’t necessarily allow their true values and passions to flourish . But I suspect that one of the “positive dangers” of Davos is that, having revealed their inner-self to others who have the capacity to fan the flames, many business leaders emerge just that little more motivated to look beyond the bottom line, and toward changing the world for the better.

Global risks – global opportunities

This year, global risks were a central theme of the Davos meeting. The World Economic Forum formally launched the new Risk Response Network, and risk permeated many of the sessions. The aim is to establish resources and mechanisms to respond to emerging global risks more effectively than in the past – whether they are associated with natural disasters, social collapse, financial melt-down or technological failure.

While most of the discussions revolved around avoiding risk or managing the consequences, there were a few that touched on actively mitigating risk – and supporting global economic and social growth through new approaches to risk. These included developing the means to actively reduce risks through technological, policy and social mechanisms. But they also included the need to increase resilience within global institutions, infrastructure and communities – so that when things go wrong, the system can respond and adapt quickly and effectively.

This need for resilience was highlighted in a final session on global risk I was participating in, as we considered what lessons can be learned from events in Tunisia and Egypt on our dependence on and the fragility of the internet.

Science and technology – more than entertainment

Science and technology were more prominent than usual at this year’s meeting. There were packed-out sessions on the current state of science, and on contemporary issues such as the nature of the universe and personalized medicine. Yet there was still a sense that this was entertainment for delegates – a light distraction from the serious business of putting the world right, and something for accompanying partners to attend.

Nevertheless, there were indications that this is changing. The World Economic Forum has established a science advisory council that will be looking at how science can be better-integrated into the program in future years. A number of conversations I had with scientists and technologists – and there were a surprising number of them at the meeting – revolved around their desire to see science and technology rise up the agenda. And business leaders like Ellen Kullman – CEO of DuPont – were vocal about the need to pay more attention to technology innovation in building a better world.

As this is one of the aims of the Global Agenda Council I chair, it was good to see the beginnings of a groundswell toward shifting from science and technology as the Davos entertainment, to making them a significant part of broader discussions on building a sustainable future.

Social media – WEF goes grass-roots?

The use of social media was huge at this year’s meeting.

I’m not sure whether the impact is there yet – that will come – but content generation was significantly higher than previous years. Over 400 delegates were tweeting from the meeting, providing real-time insight into proceedings. Delegates were also encouraged to record short YouTube videos responding to questions posed by members of the public – and many did (including a number of prominent participants). Many delegates contributed guest blogs to the WEF blog, providing further insight into the meeting. And FaceBook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Mark) conducted livestream webcast interviews with everyone from Tony Blair to Bill Gates to Bono.

Having seen social media in action at this year’s meeting, I’m convinced that this is the beginning of a powerful outreach and engagement by WEF that breaks the established boundaries of the organization – watch this space!

Real lives – strong inspiration

There are numerous misconceptions about Davos – many of them characterizing it as a meeting where gray men in gray suits with gray imaginations get together to schmooze with other, equally gray men, usually with no appreciable outcome. But as anyone who has been a part of the meeting can attest to, this is about as far from the truth as you can get.

At the heart of Davos is a common desire to change the world for the better. Invited participants are carefully selected according to what they do – not just who they are (even the celebrities are here because of the initiatives they are involved in, rather than the star status attached to them. And paying participants are carefully filtered and cultured to encourage a meeting where common values permeate the conversations.

This is perhaps best summed up in this year’s closing session, where Klaus Schwab, the Executive Chairman of WEF, spoke with Christine Lagarde, the French Minister of Economy, Nick Vujicic, President of Life without Limbs, and two of the Davos Global ChangeMakers – Raquel Silva and Dan Cullum.

The topic was “Inspired for a lifetime”. Unusually for a meeting characterized as full of “gray men”, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. (you wouldn’t have known at the time, but I’ve yet to speak to someone who was there who didn’t admit to tearing up at times). But I’m convinced that this wasn’t because of an overtly emotional program – it was simply because the delegates recognized in the panelists a common desire to act to make the world a better place.

Without the context of the preceding four days, the session might have come across as overly sentimental. But with the weight of Davos behind it, it was grounded in a reality that transcended mere sentimentality.

But don’t just take my word for it – the closing session of Davos 2011 can be viewed below.

Davos 2011: Global Risks permeate conversations this year, but where’s the science?

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog.

Take a metaphorical slice through this year’s annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, and Global Risk would be writ large through every part of it.  Hot on the heels of the sixth Global Risk report, this year’s meeting saw the launch of the Risk Response Network – a new initiative to facilitate responsive, informed and integrative action on global risks.  And throughout the meeting, sessions and conversations abound that are grappling with understanding and mitigating emerging risks in today’s complex and interconnected world.

But important and impressive as this agenda is, I wonder whether there is something missing.

I’m approaching risk at Davos this year from three perspectives: exploring the relationship between science, innovation and risk; understanding the impact of emerging risks on public health; and developing technology-enabled approaches to risk mitigation.  The common themes here are science and technology – both as potential drivers of risk, and as sources of possible solutions.

From my work in science, technology and public health, it is clear that a deep understanding of the roles of science and technology in addressing risk is critical to building resilient and sustainable responses to global risks.  It is also increasingly clear that integrating this understanding into the process of addressing global risks is vital.

Yet this is where the World Economic Forum’s timely thrust to address global risks seems to be somewhat lacking.

Science and technology are certainly well-repented on the Davos agenda.  But I get the sense that they are part of the alternative program – “the entertainment” as one colleague described them.  This is probably a little harsh.  But the science and technology sessions do tend to be aimed at wowing delegates, rather than engaging them in exploring integrated solutions to pressing problems – a bit of light relief from the serious business of fixing the world’s problems.  Even the IdeasLab sessions, which get the closest to engaging people on emerging issues, struggle to make science and technology part of a larger conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot to get excited about in contemporary science and technology.  But if robust solutions are to be found to global risks, science and technology must be integrated into mainstream discussions – not treated as an entertaining but often incomprehensible sideshow.

And that means elevating science to a seat at the table as new solutions to emerging risks are explored.

I realize that this is a daunting task. I’ll be the first to admit that scientists can be an intimidating bunch – an image they don’t necessarily try too hard to dispel.  But until scientists, engineers and technologists are seen as partners in the process of risk mitigation, not just  consultants or contractors, building resilient solutions to global challenges is going to be one tough call.

Davos 2011: Desperately seeking Google

It’s that time of year again – 2000+ of the worlds top movers and shakers are beginning to descend on the Swiss ski town of Davos for this year’s Annual World Economic Forum meeting.  Political heavyweights like Clinton, Annan, Sarkozy and Cameron will be intermingling with the likes of Gates, Bono,  deNiro, Carreras and a plethora of CEO’s and others as they evaluate the state of the world, and plan for the future.

And amidst them will be a whole bunch of people who don’t live on such an ethereal plane – people like me.

This year’s meeting is on the theme “Shared Norms for the New Reality” – reflecting, according to WEF, the foremost concern of many leaders that we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected and, at the same time, experiencing an erosion of common values that undermines public trust in leadership as well as future economic growth and political stability.

To address this theme, the meeting is built around four “pillars”: Continue reading Davos 2011: Desperately seeking Google

Building a sustainable future: World Economic Forum tackles the opportunities and challenges presented by technology innovation

“Technology doesn’t just happen” – people must be sick of hearing me say this.  Yet as chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, it’s something I seem to end up saying rather a lot as we strive to help decision-leaders maximize the benefits of technology innovation, while avoiding untoward consequences.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy for people to assume that technology innovation will provide bolt-on answers to pressing problems as and when they are needed – a potentially dangerous misconception.  Which is why the Council has just published a new paper through the World Economic Forum that looks at how we develop and use technology within an increasingly complex and interconnected society, and how we can translate this into developing timely, cost effective and acceptable solutions to pressing global challenges.

Building a Sustainable Future: Rethinking the Role of Technology Innovation in an Increasingly Interdependent, Complex and Resource-constrained World is co-authored by myself and Tim Harper – director of CIENTIFICA Ltd. – and takes a hard look at the increasingly tough task of ensuring technology innovation helps solve the problems we need it to solve as a society, rather than just the ones that are easy to solve.

Continue reading Building a sustainable future: World Economic Forum tackles the opportunities and challenges presented by technology innovation

The geopolitics of nanotechnology – an ideaological counterweight from ETC?

Getting an unbiased perspective on nanotechnology is probably as close to impossible as you can get.  Governments invest in nanotech because they believe in its ability to inspire new research and stimulate economies and social change.  Corporations invest in nanotech because they think it will give them an edge in a hyper-competitive world.  Neither is likely to tell you that nanotechnology is not a good thing, without having very strong reasons to do so.  And NGO’s?  Non Government Organizations come in so many flavors that about the only generality that can be made is that they exist for a purpose – and that purpose is rarely based on an unbiased world-view.

One of the more vocal NGO’s in the nanotechnology arena has been the Canadian-based ETC Group. Continue reading The geopolitics of nanotechnology – an ideaological counterweight from ETC?

Emerging technologies at the World Economic Forum – rethinking integrative approaches to global risks

In an interconnected world, global issues demand integrative solutions.  It’s a statement that many people would agree with – in systems where associations between cause and effect are complex, you ignore synergistic inter-relationships between factors at your peril.

But when it comes to technology innovation, it seems that the rules don’t apply.

This week I am at the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils meeting in Dubai – I’m chairing the Council on Emerging Technologies.   Our task is deceptively simple: How do we as a society ensure emerging technologies support responsive, sustainable and resilient solutions to global issues, without them leading to new problems? But as we are learning, finding answers is not easy.  And the first hurdle we face is convincing people of the need to think holistically about emerging technologies.

It seems that all too often, for all the talk of integrative solutions to global issues, when it comes to technology innovation integration is the last thing on people’s minds.

I was forcibly reminded of the uphill struggle we face this afternoon, listening to BBC World News presenter Nik Gowing.  Continue reading Emerging technologies at the World Economic Forum – rethinking integrative approaches to global risks

Basic research and personal responsibility

Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy.

The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community.

Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding.

It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society. Continue reading Basic research and personal responsibility

International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies – sneak peak of contents

Back in the mists of time, I was approached with a crazy proposition – would I help co-edit a book on nanotechnologies regulation!  In a moment of weakness I said yes, and a little more than two and a half years later, the book is finally about to hit the shelves.

I actually think the resulting International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies rather a useful, coherent and engaging collection of chapters – my co-editors Di Bowman and Graeme Hodge did a wonderful job encouraging a bunch of top thinkers in the field to write under occasionally whimsical but always relevant titles.

To whet your appetite prior to the book’s release sometime in November, here’s a sneak peak at the contents: Continue reading International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies – sneak peak of contents

Smart science for the 21st century

In February 2008, the National Academy of Engineering launched 14 grand challenges for engineering.  These were the inspiration for this post, but rather than focus on the challenges themselves, I thought it would be interesting to consider how science and technology are going to help address them.  Over two years on, the ideas I was writing about here seem more relevant than ever – as I write this, I am putting the finishing touches to a World Economic Forum report that echoes many of the challenges I outlined back in March 2008.

Originally posted March 6 2008

Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years?  An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.

Over the next century we will perhaps be facing the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction.  Progress towards sustainability will only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making.  Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges.

And these challenges are immense. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering recently published 14 “grand challenges for engineering” — the culmination of a year-long project exploring and reviewing the greatest technological challenges facing us in the 21st century.  At the top of the list is development of economical solar energy and fusion-energy, followed by crafting carbon sequestration methods, improving access to clean water, creating improved medicines, preventing nuclear terror, and eight other pressing needs.  The challenges are a stark reminder of the limitations of our current capabilities, and what needs to change if we are to continue growing as a society in harmony with our surroundings. Continue reading Smart science for the 21st century

The Global Redesign Initiative and the need for up-front investment in sustainable technology innovation

The global financial crisis of 2008-09 laid bare the inadequacies of global systems in an increasingly interdependent world, and highlighted the need to rethink the “architecture of global cooperation” – the idea at the core of the World Economic Forum Global Redesign Initiative.  As the World Economic Forum publishes and discusses the outcomes of this intensive twelve month initiative, the critical need for up-front and integrated investment in sustainable technology innovation cannot afford to be overlooked.

If anyone is still in doubt that sustainable technology innovation depends on up-front investment in responsible development, just take a look at the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.  With strategic investment in planning for plausible outcomes, the unfolding environmental and human disaster could have been avoided, or at least substantially reduced.  Yet the failure to plan for the future and invest in technologies and strategies that would underpin safe and sustainable operations is indicative of a naive mindset within corporate and policy circles – that when problems occur, science and technology will deliver timely and effective solutions.  Continue reading The Global Redesign Initiative and the need for up-front investment in sustainable technology innovation

Nano Dispersants and nano hysteria – time to think about the science folks!

Catching up with my email after a long day off the net, I see that a group of Non Government Organizations (NGOs) are urging EPA not to allow the use of an alleged nanotechnology-based dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico.  The letter from thirteen organizations was covered in a piece by Andrew Schneider on AOL Online earlier today – which had considerable pickup on the web from what I can tell.

Sadly, a combination of limited information from the company – Green Earth Technologies – and poor understanding by others – seems to have led to the situation being dominated by misunderstanding and misinformation. Continue reading Nano Dispersants and nano hysteria – time to think about the science folks!