Global pessimism is in fashion. As after previous international financial crises, nations turn inwards when they should turn outwards. They become nationalist when they should become internationalist. They become fearful when they should be in a pioneering mindset. And they build walls when they should be building bridges.
In reality, we have not made as much of a mess of the world as some claim. The average human now lives twice as long as our great, great grandparents. Extreme poverty has halved in the last 15 years. We are understanding the world better, and dying less of disease or violence. We are living in the most peaceful year since records began.
The international system built with such sacrifice and patience post 1945 must take some credit for this. The UN emerged from the devastating conflict of two World Wars as the best idea for global citizenship that mankind had yet had. If the UN did not exist, we would need to invent it.
But we now need to reinvent it. We face a century of change like no other in history. Technology will transform how we meet our needs for peace, dignity and community. This will shatter the global political equilibrium, and shift power away from governments towards individuals. States, ideas and industries will go out of business.
Already, the internet has changed the world faster than any previous technology. The smartphone has given a superpower to much of the world’s population. For many, the web is no longer for our downtime, but for all our time. And we're only just getting started. The patterns show us – data, computer chip advancement, global temperatures, demography - that change is accelerating at a staggering rate.
For the first time, technology gives the prospect of the world’s population having an instant, global and unfiltered means of communicating, of consuming information, of forming opinions, ideas and communities. This could unleash an unprecedented force for global development. But it could also leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to keep up, unequal, exploited by corporate algorithms, reduced to variables to be mined as big data, and our every networked action recorded by big-brother government surveillance.
How humans manage this paradigm shift is the greatest challenge of our time. Yet we are in danger of being overwhelmed by that change. At a time when we have the tools to react globally, we are failing to use them. We have not begun to truly adapt our national and global institutions to the new realities. And we too often mistake demolition for disruption.
If we are in the foothills of a truly global, connected, civilization, where but the UN can debates be led to protect our basic human needs in the Networked Age? But diplomacy is hard in periods of economic and political uncertainty. What the UN represents – a system based on states, hierarchies, and the status quo - is becoming weaker. The pace of technological change means that the internet has often been something that happens to the global architecture, not a force marshaled fully in support of our collective objectives. As Madeleine Albright puts it, "Citizens are talking to their governments using 21st century technology. Governments are listening using 20th century institutions. And delivering 19th century responses."
So how can the UN adapt its methods to the Networked Age without compromising its values? How can technology increase UN effectiveness and efficiency, build public trust, mobilize opinion and action, and weaponize compassion? How to make the sum of the parts more able to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago? From refugees and beneficiaries of UN help, to policy makers and curious global citizens, the UN has a more powerful constituency than it realizes. They need the UN. And the UN needs them.
We want global citizens to be part of building a new UN for the 21st Century. On 18 April, we are releasing a report with twenty recommendations, on how technology – from artificial intelligence to blockchain – can help the UN deliver its mandate, from peacekeeping to disaster relief. We are looking to you to respond with your ideas and hopes for the UN. You can join the debate via @TFletcher on Twitter.
The UN in 2020 can deliver more for the global population it serves. It can take advantage of the huge opportunities of the Networked Age, in order to help us survive the Networked Age. But it needs your help.
Tom Fletcher CMG is a former UK Ambassador, adviser to three PMs, and the author of ‘The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age” (Harper Collins, 2016). His new report, on how technology can help the UN meet the challenges of the 21st century, is released on 18 April.