World Government Summit 2023: Four-day Recap
Updated: Feb 23
I spent four days at the World Government Summit, and though I flitted from one session to another, I honestly can say I did not do full justice to the rich content and the opportunities it presented. Those of you who know me, perhaps may have seen my real-time tweets (yes, even on Elon Musk), but I promised someone a blog. Here it is. I am summing up my experiences from sessions, networking, and meetings into five themes. Kudos to the moderators and interviewees for provoking interesting conversations and sourcing many points of view. A big thank you to the country leaders who shared their knowledge, and were so approachable for a quick discussion. So much to learn!
1. Wicked Problems
Governments deal with wicked or messy problems. SDGs are wicked problems. Sir Nick Clegg highlighted this fact by saying it was the one constant in his transition to the private sector (Vice President of Global Affairs, Meta since October 2018). Previously he was UK Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Privy Council from May 2010 to May 2015. He stressed there were a diversity of issues that kept cropping up, which you could not predict. Wicked problems are not easy to solve because they are interrelated and difficult to untangle or even find the source of the problem. They need systems thinking!
Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, stressed that we must be aware that global growth is bottoming out. She reiterated that COVID taught us that we live in a more shock-prone world. The recent earthquake (Turkey and Syria) taught us to think the unthinkable. For this, we need to be agile and resilient (economy, society & planet). Kristalina stressed we need to use opportunities to build bridges, rather than tear them down, when she was questioned about the conflict in Europe. Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation, worried that we may be normalizing the use of force rather than dialogue. He felt that social media was now determining the mood of many governments. Jamie Metzl highlighted the importance of the role of the UN, a forum where different countries could come together to negotiate their differences.
The focus of one of the themes for Day Zero was the SDGs, 17 wicked problems we thought we would achieve by 2030! HE Abdulla Nasser Lootah, UAE Deputy Minister of Cabinet Affairs For Competitiveness And Experience Exchange and Director General Of The Prime Minister’s Office, lamented that globally, we will not meet even one SDG by 2030. He stated that we need to acknowledge (1) the SDGs are interconnected, (2) private sector contribution, and (3) all countries have a role to play, and so do all actors who can mobilize their resources for a common future. UAE is hosting COP28, so there is tremendous excitement about possibilities and the urgency of what needs to be done. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, said, "We want Cop28 UAE to be remembered for uniting everyone in action. "Let's unite in solidarity for the sake of humanity." HE Abdulla Bin Touq Al Marri, UAE Cabinet Minister and Minister of Economy, said the crazy oil prices ranging from US$ - 120 meant we need to give the economy a break and showcase agile policy and open dialogue respecting UN policies and other nations’ sovereignty.
Partnerships were a necessity for solving wicked problems. However, there was worry that much of the work being done in the international arena was just “words and posturing rather than action.” HE Younus Al Naser, Assistant Director General of the Smart Dubai Office, highlighted that the role of partnerships came up either as PPP or multilateralism. He added a fourth P to PPP – people! It was crucial to put people at the center of policies! This concept needs to extend to communities. For example, did you know that there were 35 million digital nomads with a collective income equal to the GDP of Germany? How are governments targeting them? So diaspora, migrants, stateless, refugees, and nomads are categories of people we need to pay attention to!
SDGs need to be measured and tracked. Marie-Aimee Boury, Head of Impact Based Finance at Societe Generale Corporate and Investment Banking, highlighted that GDP and SDGs are contradictory measurements that need to change. Borrowing from impact investing, organizations should look at (1) intentionality (look at SDGs), (2) additionality (bridge the gaps through actions and finance versus labelling), and (3) measurability (reporting and baseline).
Like last year, the expectation divide between countries in the East and the developed Western countries kept popping up in various contexts: trade, humanitarian aid, agriculture, technology, and media. There is a polarisation in the global political arena that needs to be resolved through dialogue and listening (another theme from last year). Taking the example of renewables which are becoming a popular choice for climate change mitigation, HE Francesco La Camera, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), spoke about the need to have a “just transition” - that by moving to renewables, we need to provide more opportunity and less inequality and reduce risk. Policymakers should consider transition periods and plan for them (people, planet, and other resources).
Ray Dalio, Founder, and co-chief investment officer of the world's largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, has looked at the rise and fall of nations (in his book – The Changing World Order). He saw a one-to-two-decade transition between the rise and fall. He stated that countries holding themselves to a higher standard showed their strength. Individuals need the capacity to rise above themselves for the collective good.
Leadership plays an essential role in dealing with SDGs. First, Marie-Aimee Boury stressed that empowering courageous and genuinely caring leaders was necessary. Next, Rudolph Lohmeyer noted that leadership was deeply human. We forget this at times, I think. Finally, Elon Musk spoke about the need for emotional, mental, and social maturity (I would add knowledge that comes from surrounding yourself with experts, experience, diversity of viewpoints, and listening).
H.H. Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi stressed that he never asks his employees more than he asks himself. This behavior is a form of leadership at the highest level. Ray Dalio spoke of failure; he said his most significant failure gave him the humility to face adversity. That Pain + Reflection = Progress. His advice for leaders was (1) to know your nature, (2) to realize that whatever you know is immaterial compared to what you do not know, and (3) to realize that the type of success you want in life (it should not all be material).
Roland Lappuke, Smart Technology Adviser to the President of Latvia, said one of the problems in decision-making is that you can change rational thinking but not emotional thinking. For example, Latvia made a choice to separate from the Soviet Union (lost 50% of its GDP), and this required the government to be agile - solve for the human factor. This was very different from Brexit, which was emotional, and people had not thought rationally about the consequences.
For policymakers, decision-making is not just about risks (a very private-sector economic concept) but also policy trade-offs. Kristalina Georgieva gave an example, “The more we spend on war, the less money we have for education or health.” This ability to think of trade-offs versus risks is more complex as you need to consider the future (foresight helps). You will need to prioritize issues based on existing resources, time available, and public values that may not exist now or then. For example, a panelist stated that ChatGPT was predicted as a technology, but no one predicted how it would catch the public’s imagination!
An interesting perspective was given by Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, who spoke about the power of data. He told an interesting story. He talked about a deterministic mindset. The ability to understand numbers and what they mean is critical. It is a skill all policymakers need, and anyone working with research and AI should understand! For example, he asked, if you tossed a coin 999 times and every time it landed showing heads, what would be the chances next time of it being heads? If you think in probabilities, you'd say 50%, but if you had knowledge and experience (or common sense?), you would say the coin is rigged.
I am a qualitative researcher and do not think everything that matters can be measured, nor that everything that is measured, matters. This was something that Dubai Abulhoul, CEO Fikr, echoed. She spoke about the challenge of multilateralism – we assume that everyone is at the same level, and there is an obsession with quantitative data and KPIs versus qualitative data. HE Dr. Yasir AlNaqbi said we needed to create awareness to get societal participation: Dr. Manal AL Taryam, a Member of the Board of Trustees and CEO at the Noor Dubai Foundation, gave us this example. Did you know that every five minutes, a person goes blind, and 80% is treatable? This is why UAE choose this humanitarian field as one of its focus areas!
Idriss Alba, the actor, spoke about the importance of having a solid narrative – and he said in creating a powerful story, you often needed to work backward – from the end. This is reflected in culture. Erik Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Singularity University, said, “Great organizations create cultures of innovation where everyone works towards the same “WHY.” For proactive decision-making, visualizations can play an influential role in narratives. In one case, we were given a pneumonic to remember to avoid narrative traps; Paul Dolan, LSE Professor of Behavioural Sciences, calls this ABCDE: Acceptance, Balancing, Checklists, Diversity, and Evaluation: more here. In a crisis, which is a high-velocity situation, anything can happen, and policymakers get caught in emotional traps that narratives lay for them. So how do we still have empathy and make sound policy trade-offs?
Another essential point for leadership was the relevance of technology in providing further accessibility of service to everyone. This example is from Estonia, a small country with less than 1 million people and 117 dialects. AI was used to preserve and recognize dialects with citizens volunteering their voices. You need 10,000 hours of recording for this! Governments are supposed to be inclusive – here, it is listening to the voice of people, but what about those with no voice? The marginalized, the unborn, the aging? How about the planet? So it was evident that governments need to make services accessible by having multiple channels and go to the customer rather than have the customer come to them. Now as they close physical service centers (or make them one-stop shops), they need to think about who these people they are catering for. The elderly (they cannot walk long distances and may prefer a human connection). The young – have they learned digital safety?
3. Agile Government
HE Huda Al Hashimi stressed that you needed leadership support to be an agile government. For example, in 2015, in the UAE, they created the post of the Chief Innovation Officer, who reports to the Ministers – that is how important innovation is. They also set up the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation in 2019 to test, create and encourage innovation in the UAE and internationally. Her Excellency highlighted that forums such as WGS were vital for dialogues and sharing best practices.
HE Dr. Yasir AlNaqbi highlighted the need for policies to be refreshed in a timely manner. He explained that many were outdated and initially focused on the need to govern (looking at the past or the present), but few looked at creating future impact. Over two years, the UAE has changed 800 policies and laws. Dr. Yasir stressed that in this sphere, policymakers needed to simplify procedures, not make them so complex that they are difficult to understand and implement. A successful policy is understood by all, serves the purpose it was designed to do, and its impact can be measured. Michele Gervais, VP of Global Data Policy, VISA, has explained that in 2021 there were 62 countries with 144 different data regulations worldwide. The navigation of these policies, in the USA alone, without a clear federal policy, was costing US$1 Trillion in the last decade!
Being agile means you need to shift from your comfort zone constantly. HE Huda Al Hashimi said, "15 years ago, we introduced KPIs, but today that is now stable, so we are working on new projects to be delivered using agile budgets. Once a crisis is over, you either go back to the same stage or build on agile. Don’t ever let a crisis go to waste. Transformation is harder as we don’t have the urgency, but that challenge is that you also need stability.” The impact is critical – to asses (measure) how you are doing. Still, these are also contextual, as we saw recently with global shifts from health (pandemic) to military protection (Ukraine-Russia) to refugee and humanitarian aid (earthquake in Turkey and Syria).
One of the challenges for those work yng in the infrastructure and energy sector was the time taken to get approvals for projects - about 2+ years which would take 15 years to implement – if there were a new technology, this would not be easy to replace without the support of the government. The panelists (from Tesla, Siemens, Guggenheim Partners, and Gehl People) stressed faster approvals, more access to funding, and more straightforward and quicker processes would be much appreciated! Hence the speed at which governments process requests, tenders, and approve funding is critical in adopting new technologies !A last point to mention was that of resilience in government agility.
We had a special edition of our book on agile government released (more later). This book targeted national governments, organizations, society, and individuals.
Innovation kept popping up again and again in various contexts – either to collect data and for sensemaking or to help us solve SDG problems. Innovation goes hand in hand with experimentation. HE Huda Al Hashimi stressed that platforms were necessary for governments to provide safe spaces to experiment and fail safely, as people fear change and the consequences of failure. The UAE has created the government accelerator to accelerate policies (the first in the world) and RegLabs to help with new technologies. Rolands Lapukke, Smart Technology Advisor to the President of Latvia, spoke about some of the work they are doing – “Our role as a government is not to impose but encourage as a platform.”
To build an innovation ecosystem, HE Faisal Al Bannai, Chairman of the Board of EDGE and Secretary General of the Advanced Technology Research Council, recounted the efforts of the UAE over the last two years. They needed talent, so they hunted for them across the globe, bringing them to the UAE and changing policies (new visas and pathways to citizenship) to make it happen. In two years, they now have a critical mass of 750 members, of which 144 are Emiratis, the others representing 71 nationalities (55% women). They focussed commercialization around priority sectors, resulting in 100+ projects, 500 papers, and 60 products at TRL4+. Some innovative projects are an Arabic Language model, GPS-less AVs, a quantum computer, and more. Many projects are funded by the UAE, which partners with the best universities worldwide. Of course, there are different innovation ecosystems and context matters, but so important to listen to the diversity of voices.
I met a participant who spoke about the Swedish innovation ecosystem and how a professor could 100% keep their IP, especially if they raised their own funding for research. This helps Sweden to be one of the most innovative countries with many unicorns, even if the universities did not own IP. Speaking to Prof. Roger D. Kornberg, Nobel Laureate of Chemistry 2016, he talked about Synthetic Biology – specifically siRNA – but the regulatory process is long (he thinks five years – remember, mRNA was 45 years in development and for siRNA, the challenge for two decades was how to cross a cell wall). Another invention he spoke about was superconducting energy transmission which is being piloted in Israel and will be a game changer in multiple industries. So countries can pilot new technologies! Manish Pant, VP of Schneider Electric, stressed the need for a mindset change to transition to the adoption of promising technologies. Rolands Lapukke stressed that “Agile is not an IQ issue. It is a state of mind!”
One exciting exhibit at the WGS was the Edge of Innovation. The exhibits were part of a collaborative competition with OECD and MBRCGI, UAE (an example of partnership), for which a new report was launched by Carlos Santiso, Head of Division - Digital, Innovative and Open Government - OECD Public Governance Directorate (here). A total of 1084 innovations from 94 countries were part of the competition! A relevant quote on government innovation is below.
Behind innovation are people. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said (referring to the crisis in Turkey and Syria), “Yes, we need innovation and to built infrastructure, but the people pulled from buildings were done so by their families, their sons, and daughters, as were the surgeons and nurses treating the wounded in their local communities. We must remember that emergencies begin and end in our communities. Sometimes that can get lost when we speak about technology and innovation.” Idriss Alba, an actor, highlighted that Technology could play an important role. And while the policy is important, so is education, as education is an incubator of thought.
5. Metaverse & AI: Exponential Change
Whether we wanted it or not, exponential change was here. However, most leaders still think linearly! To navigate this change, Erik Anderson, CEO of Singularity University highlighted the importance of purpose and the ability to forecast. The Dubai Future Readiness Index (measured by 65 sub-indicators across five key areas) was launched at the WGS, and now all government entities will be evaluated by readiness to address new opportunities and challenges, future-ready ecosystems, and their ability to adopt new technologies in the Dubai Government Excellence Programme. Future Readiness can be highlighted with the example of the South Korean Digital New Deal, launched during Covid, to create job opportunities in the new digital data economy, where individuals could work on government-opened public data sets [More here].
AI is a two-edged sword; it can do tremendous good and danger. To onboard new technologies, while you needed to think systemically (infrastructure, who has access and for what), you also needed to think about customer interface according to Vishal Gondol, Founder & CEO, GOQii, who spoke about a health metaverse, where your health data could be digitalized and reflected in an avatar. You could earn tokens based on your health, and these certificates can be used for dynamic insurance.
AI and metaverse (and SynBio – see my previous posts) are all exponential technologies. I was pleasantly surprised and agreed with Elon Musk’s comment that AI should be regulated. He believes parents should control what their children view on social media, or an algorithm may control the kids. At one point, a panelist spoke about gamification in the metaverse. How you could use it to nudge citizens ….there are dangers in this, and we need to address these questions holistically from multiple perspectives. According to Robert Wolcott, Chair of the World Innovation Network, it was clear that the metaverse needs a new rule of law, and global forums like the WGS are excellent places to have these discussions. He also spoke about pivot points – like accepting a corporation as a human being (India was as early as 800 BC and in the USA in 1886 to do so!), and he believes we will do in regards to to AI too. HE Huda said governments need a mindset of early adoption – rather than being risk-averse and hiding away from the inevitable.
If you like this synthesis of four days (compare it with the one Chat GPT wrote on 19 February, 2023 before I posted this).
So I changed the prompt