A Case for a “Technological Layer” in Global Governance

-          Can he who is harmoniously constituted, who is not covetous or mean, or a boaster, or a coward–can he, I say, ever be unjust or hard in his dealings?

-          Impossible.

-          Then you will soon observe whether a man is just and gentle, or rude and un- sociable; these are the signs which distinguish even in youth the philosophical nature from the unphilosophical.

-          True.                                           

    The Republic, Dialogues of Plato 

Since antiquity governance and the qualities of community leadership have been extensively debated by foremost thinkers. In the famous Dialogues of Plato one of the central themes in the essay “Republic” is the discussion on who may lead the community with the philosopher advanced as the rightful type of individual for leadership. More than two thousand years later the question appears to be as relevant as ever not just at the level of municipalities or countries, but also for the global community. The global governance system needs not only new layers of governance, but also a greater role to be performed by the scientific community within the governing structures of global institutions. 

Back in 2001 a UNDP report looked at the issue of global governance and concluded: “we derive a subsidiary argument that the failure to outfit technology to the needs of the poor countries is largely a result of the current inadequacies in the global governance system to guide the process of technological change.” Since then the rapid tempo of technological progress was accompanied by significant gaps and inequalities in economic and technological development across countries, with the evolving system of global governance characterized by weakening of global institutions becoming less effective in the face of global challenges. 

The current system of global governance is largely anchored in geography, with the key layers represented by the level of countries, regions (a level that is not fully integrated into the global economic architecture) and the global level of international organizations, whose membership is rooted in national and regional constituencies. The centrality of the nation state in the global architecture renders the whole construct more vulnerable to bouts of instability emanating from the excesses of Realpolitik and zero-sum tactics prevailing over longer term cooperative strategies. One of the possible ways of stabilizing and depoliticizing the edifice of the global economy is to create a layer of global governance that focusses on technological development and that is governed to a greater degree by the leading representatives of the scientific and technological community rather than politicians. 

Importantly there are steps already undertaken at the international level to strengthen the coordination of technological development across countries. One important initiative coming from the World Economic Forum is to create Global Councils to restore trust in technology, with the following key priorities on the agenda:

  • Six councils formed to design how emerging technology can be governed for the benefit of society
  • Top decision-makers and experts from the public and private sectors, civil society and academia participate in inaugural Global Fourth Industrial Revolution Council meeting in San Francisco
  • Leaders of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Dana-Farber, European Commission, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Uber, World Bank among chairs
  • Major global summit on technology governance announced, to take place in April 2020 

Some of the other measures undertaken at the level of international organizations to address the technological gap include a UN-sponsored initiative to create a Technology Bank for least developed countries. The Technology Bank began its operations in September 2017 with the signing of the host country agreement between the United Nations and Turkey According to the UN, the objective of the Bank “is to support LDCs in building their STI capacity; foster national and regional innovation ecosystems; support homegrown research and development; facilitate market access; build capacity in the areas of intellectual property rights;and assist with the transfer of appropriate technologies”.

The key priority in the evolving set of global initiatives in the technological sphere will need to be focused on the assistance accorded to the least developed economies in bridging their technology gap. Some of the other issues that may become part of the of the global technology agenda include:

-      Cyber-security

-      Coordination with international organizations

-      Educational cooperation

-      Propagation of new technologies

-      Environmental technologies to face the challenges of global warming

-      Monitoring of technological advances and global technological vulnerabilities/disruptions

With the creation of a technological layer the global governance construct may become more conducive to addressing the world-wide problems such as cross-country technological gaps or rising vulnerabilities to technological disruptions. It may also broaden the dimensions of international cooperation, which in current conditions appear to be circumscribed largely to bilateral, i.e. country-to-country channels, with the levels of cooperation at the regional level and international organizations relegated to lower importance. In effect, the technological layer of global economic architecture may create the fourth dimension in global governance (in addition to country-level, regional and global institutions) that broadens the time-horizons and reduces the global economy’s susceptibility to the excesses of countries’ narrow self-interest.

The exact contours of a new layer of technological governance in the global economy are yet to be defined, but a key role in this formation may be played by international technological and scientific networks, including alliances formed by leading universities. The emerging technological layer of global governance needs to be not separate but intertwined with other layers of global governance. The linkages need to be developed with the international institutions such as the WTO (on issues such as intellectual property rights), IMF, World Bank (transfer of technology to the poorest countries) as well as the regional development institutions.   

There is also an important “human capital” dimension to the formation of a technological layer of global governance as this allows the scientific and technological community to have more of a say on global issues. Indeed, the mounting problems in global development may be at least in part due to the excessive leverage of politicians at various levels of global governance. A revamped system of global governance needs to allow for a more depoliticized structure with a greater representation accorded to the scientific community. The disheartening results of the past several decades of a politically driven governance system characterized by intensifying global risks do suggest that Plato’s advocacy of community leadership being assumed by philosophers (i.e. scientists in modern sense) may turn out to be topical after all.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.