Globalisation was once promoted as the solution to the world’s problems. But increasingly we’re seeing it has bad effects as well as good ones. So is there a way to make it work for all countries, continents — and the planet? Professor Ian Goldin of Oxford pondered the problem at a Stellenbosch University seminar. MICHELLE GALLOWAY reports.

“We live in a world that is hyper-connected – our future is shaped by events that happen elsewhere. The speed of change is accelerating – today is the slowest day you will know for the rest of your life,” said Professor Ian Goldin at a Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) public seminar recently.

Goldin, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, Founding Director of the Oxford Martin School, previous World Bank Vice President, Economic Advisor to Nelson Mandela, and a current STIAS fellow, was presenting a paper entitled “Renaissance 2.0: The Disruptive Changes Shaping Our World”.

He presented a snapshot of the good and bad of rapid change and the challenges it presents to humanity. “The extraordinary growth of the past thirty years is due to unprecedented globalisation and accelerating technological change,” he said. “Connectivity has been associated with rising creativity and accelerating change. This is by far the best time in human history to be alive. It is up to us to shape the change positively.

“We are inventing and creating more rapidly than ever before. We should expect incredible things to happen – hopefully we will solve the big challenges facing us. There are a lot more geniuses out there – but they won’t come from the old streets – they will come from the streets of Soweto and Mumbai,” he continued. “More people have access to formal and informal learning, access to the creativity that can change their lives. It is the best time to escape poverty.”

“However, the speed, scale and complexity of this integration has far-reaching implications for economies and for individuals and societies,” he added.

Goldin pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall as a defining image. “It heralded the movement from a narrow to a global perspective,” he said. “Since then there has been transformation at all levels – widespread elections in Africa, 2 billion more people on the planet, an average 20-year increase in life expectancy, increases in foreign direct investment in the developing world, increases in GDP, income and literacy – all unprecedented in human history.”

He likened the current period to the Renaissance. At that time, “everything changed, old authority was broken; there were massive technological advances, the way of understanding and defining the world and universe changed. Within 50 years of the development of the Gutenberg Press 250 million books were printed, generating a hunger to learn and an explosion of genius which would not have happened without the flow of information.

“Of course, it ended in disaster with the voyages of discovery bringing disease and death to indigenous peoples, religious wars, the burning of books, the Inquisition – all a mirror of what we see today.

People and places get left behind

“With the speed of globalisation and rapid change people get left behind,” he said, “places that are not part of the change get left behind. Change is unstable and also increases inequality.”

He pointed out that people in the wrong place and of the wrong age and with the wrong skills can rapidly become left behind – for example, some groups in the US (like older white males) find themselves with lower life expectancy than their parents. “This is part of the growing tension between the individual and the collective – what may be good for the individual may be catastrophic for the collective and vice versa.”

“Globalisation spreads bad ideas with good ideas. Connectivity means that terrible things also connect not only good – like pandemics, cyber attacks, climate change, antibiotic resistance and a new form of emergent systemic risks.”

Goldin also highlighted changing population dynamics and population pyramids due to the collapse of fertility and aging populations. Rising life expectancy has dramatic consequences for pensions, retirement, dependency and employment patterns.

Africa remains the exception to much of this, partially due to the effects of HIV and AIDS but also due to a still-growing population. “By 2040 Africa will have the largest workforce in the world – whether this is a positive or a negative will depend largely on literacy levels and the integration of Africa with the rest of the world,” he said.

“We can’t think of Africa as one continent – it is so varied. We will see widening disparities. It won’t be the labour force of the world. Some countries will thrive and dance in the new world, others will be left behind. Migration is one solution but many doors are being closed. If people can’t move to where the jobs are they may be locked in the past.”

“Emerging markets are likely to continue to grow at high levels for the coming decades. Many African countries will have increased income although this may not necessarily reflect increasing income per capita. The middle class will grow rapidly as will middle-class consumption.”

Goldin sees Asia is the growing centre of gravity: “What happens in Asia increasingly will shape what happens in the rest of world.”

Turning to science, technology and innovation, Goldin pointed out that change is too quick for accurate predictions but the impact and possibilities of the change are important. He pointed to advances in nanotechnology and 3-D printing which will allow the development of individualised drugs and treatments.

“As one example,” he said. “Our ability to make changes at the genetic level has the potential to fundamentally change who we are as humans. This means we face dramatic choices about how we want to be.”

Enhanced processing speeds, machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics will also fundamentally affect the workforce. “Forty seven per cent of US jobs are vulnerable to machine intelligence over the next 20 years – this has huge consequences for widening inequality.”

“Then there is climate change,” he continued. “How do we deal with all of this while watching the planet fry? There is no question that climate change will exacerbate inequalities.

“Governments will be faced with the challenge of making short-term, country-based decisions on all these challenges, versus making decisions for the collective good.”

Goldin sees the lack of global leadership as a major issue. “Each country is inhabiting a cabin on a ship with no pilot,’ he said. “Most global institutions are unfit for the challenges of current governance.”

Connect but protect

“We know a lot but there is little real connectivity,” he added. “There is excess data and insufficient judgement. The systemic risks and realisation that globalisation is being badly managed has triggered the increase in nationalism and protectionism, growing extremism and threats to reverse integration and globalisation” he said. “But we can’t disconnect…We need to be connected but protected.”

Turning specifically to South African he was asked if we can educate South Africa out of poverty. “Education is essential but it is not sufficient for escaping poverty,” he replied, “but without education there is no escape from poverty. Education with no jobs is a big issue.”

“We are in a new Age of Discovery,” he continued, “and both opportunities and risks are associated with periods of tumultuous change.”

“The question is are we ready and can we do it?” he added. “I think we do increasingly understand where we are, but we don’t understand yet how to manage it.”