Nation-states are failing to solve our most pressing global challenges. Will an emerging group of digital-friendly multi-sector networks succeed in their place?
If we reduce carbon emissions by a whopping 80 per cent by the year 2050 it will take a century for planet earth to cool down. Despite our concerted efforts, this is the bleak point we’ve arrived at. It is estimated that within the next couple of decades 2 billion people will lose much of their water supply.
Climate change is one of dozens of pressing global problems nation-states have struggled to solve by working together through global institutions. Many of these organizations were created in the aftermath of the Second World War — beginning with a meeting of 42 countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. They include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the World Trade Organization and numerous other groups. For decades these institutions have wrestled with some of the world’s most intractable problems – the kind of problems that don’t fit neatly into departmental pigeonholes.
But progress has been slow or non-existent. Take climate change.
Today we are seeing the emergence of a new and fundamentally different way of tackling global problems. New non-state networks of private-sector, civil society, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of co-operation and social change. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity, from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even Internet governance.
Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are now proliferating across the planet and are increasingly having an important impact. Call them Global Solution Networks (GSNs).
GSNs depend on the co-operation of once-discrete sectors. There were no businesses at the table at Bretton Woods in 1944. But now business is being forced to become one of the “pillars of society.”
Individual businesses are more aware than ever of the benefits of social responsibility. In the past Corporate Social Responsibility advocates argued that companies “do well by doing good.” But this wasn’t always true. Many companies did well by doing bad — by having bad labour practices in the developing world, by externalizing their costs onto society by, for instance, polluting the environment. But in an increasingly transparent world the adage about doing good is truer than ever. If it wasn’t so before 2008, it certainly is now: companies “do badly by being bad.”
There were only a few dozen NGOs at the time of Bretton Woods, and while some were in the room they had no say.
Today the civil society is a major force, representing up to 15 per cent of the economy of some countries. And, increasingly, young people seek to do good in the workforce by becoming social entrepreneurs, creating new businesses that have a societal purpose on a mass scale.
In an age where everything and everyone is linked through networks of glass and air, no one — no business, organization, government agency, country — is an island. And no organization can succeed in a world that is failing.
GSNs, which have arisen from this world and are designed to respond to its problems, have four characteristics. They involve civil society, business and government; they attack a global problem; they make the most of the Internet and digital tools; and they are not controlled by states or corporations. These networks engage tens of thousands of organizations and tens of millions of people on a daily basis.
And we are already seeing the influence of GSNs on international policy. For instance, for the first time, thousands of businesses were invited to participate in the Climate Change Summit in Warsaw last year. Meanwhile, hundreds of advocacy networks such as the Alliance for Climate Change are working to educate, mobilize and change government policies.
GSNs take many forms and serve many functions. Some, like Ushahidi, are platforms for those who seek change — websites that allow people to share information and organize around a cause. Some, like the International Competition Network, create policies for companies and governments. Some, like Human Rights Watch, are funded by corporations and philanthropists and scrutinize the behaviour of governments everywhere. Some, like TED, create unprecedented access to global information and ideas. Some, such as the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Network, resemble more traditional state-based institutions in the scope of their mandate, but unlike those institutions are self-organizing, not controlled by governments.
Incredibly, GSNs can manage resources, too. It is a diffuse GSN, more than any collection of states, that governs the Internet. This year’s September conference on climate change will be a true multi-stakeholder network comprising business and civil society, which may eventually yield a GSN to govern carbon emissions.
As we go forward, global problem-solving and governance will be co-owned by a variety of stakeholders, including corporations. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once put it, “We [now] live in a world where human problems do not come permanently attached to national passports.” Global governance is not owned by any one governing body. It is becoming a challenge owned by all of us.