Above: NetHope CEO Lauren Woodman at the “Responsible Digital Transformation for Social Impact” panel at the World Economic Forum in January 2019.
In late January, I attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and I wanted to share my impressions. It’s always a busy week filled with valuable insights and new knowledge, but I left this year with an odd mix of urgency and renewed energy around the NetHope mission.
This year’s focus was “Globalization 4.0” and the discussion focused on how we, as a global community, might best weather the rapidly approaching changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There is well-founded fear that current challenges could be exacerbated―widening the gap between haves and have-nots―without careful consideration and cooperation across the private sector, government, and civil society. I strongly recommend referencing the links here. The Forum has assembled a wide set of viewpoints that frame the discussion well.
Much has been written about Davos this year (Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post article is on-point); I agree with Neal Keny-Guyer’s assessment that the meeting was more subdued, with more humility and less hubris. In the final analysis, three things struck me:
- The notable absence of many global leaders―many at home dealing with political crises―created a leadership vacuum and an underlying uncertainty about who might carry forward the aspirations of the global community;
- The increased recognition of the impact of climate change on everything from humanitarian aid to economic competitiveness brought an urgency to discussions, but few unifying options for concerted efforts to effectively address the challenge; and
- The relentless pace and ubiquity of technological advances simultaneously holds both tremendous promise and risks for developed and developing economies alike.
Against that backdrop, three major themes dominated:
- Data, data, data. Data protection, big data, AI, ML, Virtual/Augmented reality, data ownership, data inequality, algorithmic bias―all were discussed in various fora, in general terms and more specific contexts (i.e., health data). It’s complicated and to address it comprehensively, we must collectively begin to identify the risks and opportunities associated with data more methodically. “Data is the new oil” is a widely accepted truism, as is the reality that how we govern the collection, use, and sharing of data must be more equitable if we are to avoid exacerbating current inequalities among companies, communities, and countries.
- Skills. There is significant concern that ongoing technology developments will displace a large number of workers, and we are not moving quickly enough to reskill current workers or adapting training/education programs to train youth to be employable. There is no question that millions of jobs will be displaced; there is also a general agreement that the net creation of jobs will be positive if skills and employability initiatives keep up with demand. As one global consulting CEO put it, “most of the workers you need to make digital transformation happen in your organization already work for you,” highlighting the need for retraining/skills development programs in every sector, including ours.
- Technology Governance. Given the growing ubiquity of technology in every aspect of our lives, ensuring a wide variety of voices are heard and engaged in how we govern technology in the future is critical. A recent survey noted that skepticism is increasing about whether technology is a net-positive for society, especially in the U.S. and Europe where recent missteps have undermined the previously and widely accepted belief that technology use would bring tremendous benefits. The question of “at what cost?” is the question of the day. This is a critical question as tech companies, policymakers, and civil society struggle to find the right balance between upside and risk, while ensuring that already marginalized communities are represented.
The Forum has embraced this question head-on with an initiative to “Prepare Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” NetHope―along with a handful of members―is helping lead this conversation. WEF recently released a white paper on how we collectively might build a more inclusive future. The paper is comprehensive and clearly lays out the challenges ahead of us.
Take-Aways for NetHope
For us, the question is always “now what?” The big picture is there is a real opportunity for the NetHope community to provide insight and leadership in tackling these critical questions. At the CEO Forum at the NetHope Global Summit last fall, attending CEOs spoke about the need to “speak with one voice” so that the full impact of our collective strength is felt. I agreed with that sentiment then, and even more so now. No single organization―civil society, government, or private sector―can address all these challenges, but collectively we can be part of the solutions. With a seat at the table, we have the opportunity to influence the critical decisions that are being made now―whether purposefully or through inaction―that will inevitably shape the world for the foreseeable future.
It's also evident in the work that we’re doing with The Center for the Digital Nonprofit as we strive to speak with one voice, to have a point of view that reflects the sector and not just an individual organization or company. Our reference points are the shared experiences and knowledge of our member organizations that are innovating and learning along with their colleagues in the sector and at NetHope. That knowledge―built on real-world experience―is invaluable as these conversations move from hypothetical to reality.
The more discrete issues―how do we develop best practices to address the issues raised about data; how do we build capacity in the sector and with our constituent communities; what are the right ‘asks’ of our technology partners to help mitigate potential harms―are being addressed through NetHope Working Groups and Chapter Meetings so that all of our members can benefit from the learnings and experiences of other members. It’s the nature of the collaborative focus at NetHope, and one that is more critical now than ever. Interestingly, just after Davos, NetHope hosted DFID Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft for a visit and held a series of roundtables with NetHope members and technology partners where he heard directly the very same concerns highlighted above. We’re exploring how DFID might support greater capacity building across the sector in these areas.
In the coming months, we’ll be reaching out to identify areas where our executive leaders can constructively engage to help shape answers to these questions that best reflect the vibrant, committed NetHope membership.
P.S. Please also read NetHope member Steve Hollingworth, CEO of the Grameen Foundation, on Using Data as a Lever to Combat Poverty.