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Decisions for Davos

19 Jan 2016

Decisions for Davos
This blog post is published as part of a Series by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd, called Through the Social Lens. In the Series, Paul shares his reflections on current issues in development and how UNRISD's work on social development ties in to these concerns. We would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts while reading the piece. Put your comments in the box at the end and we will do our best to get back to you.

From today, over 2,500 people will descend on Davos for the World Economic Forum. Most will be leaders from business, joined also by representatives from governments, international organizations and civil society. The official theme of the meeting is “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. This means that they will huddle together and think about how advances in technology and systems are changing the way that people work, access services, and live their lives to the fullest potential. This covers the impact of things like 3D printing, the soon ubiquity of our digital connections, the prospects for robotics and artificial intelligence, and the long-awaited move to renewable energy.

An important backdrop to Davos this year is the formal start of Agenda 2030, a set of commitments that governments made last September to shift the world onto a more sustainable path. One way of looking at Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is as an attempt to tidy up the messes made in the three previous industrial revolutions, notwithstanding the huge advances that have also been made for much of humanity. Business will have to play a key role in making sure these SDGs are met.

UNRISD’s starting point is always the well-being of people, regardless of their circumstances or characteristics. Typically we focus on people and communities in the global south—precisely those that have fared less well since their neighbours in the north and west have embarked on the huge transformation seen in the last two centuries. We seek to understand the reasons why this happens, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these usually relate to power and politics.

Nobody has a crystal ball to see what the triumphs and tragedies of this rapid technological change will be. And yet here are three simple suggestions for how leaders in business can commit to the SDGs and not only help to make the world better for people now, but also more resilient to respond to future shocks—whether these are driven by technology or not:

Mind the technology gaps

Technology is both an asset and a source of power. UNRISD research shows that it plays out within a social setting. Unless we are careful it can lead to growing divides in access and opportunity. Inequality can erode communities—whether local or global—and their sense of common purpose. We must therefore be careful that technology doesn’t exacerbate inequalities across groups—whether these are characterized by gender, age or ethnicity. More than that, we should use technology to bring communities together and reduce the gaps. Where the benefits of a technology seem clear, business or governments can subsidize the inclusion of poorer countries and people so that they can catch up more rapidly. From a human development perspective, this will expand the capacities and opportunities for people. Enlightened businesses will also grow their markets when they conduct their business in socially responsible and sustainable ways.

Pay your taxes

Nothing signals the avoidance of global corporate citizenship more clearly than the careful—even if legal—misuse of company governance structures and tax loopholes. In a world of growing information and transparency, this will increasingly be called out as outrageous and unacceptable. With reasonable fiscal governance, citizen engagement and parliamentary oversight, tax revenues usually get spent on good things: education, better health and infrastructure. Like technology, these also have a strong feedback loop to better business. The incentives to pay less tax are easily understood, by people and companies alike. The politics of reform are slow and difficult. Yet building a new social compact for international tax is in everyone’s interest in the long term. To that end, there are parallels to be drawn from UNRISD’s work on the Politics of Domestic Resource Mobilization—especially the case for universally applicable regimes, and full transparency.

Support decent work

This week has also seen the launch of two important reports that emphasize the importance of decent work for all—UNDP’s Human Development Report on Work for Human Development, and the ILO’s annual World Employment and Social Outlook. Decent work is not only one of the best ways of ensuring dignity, it means that people can then meaningfully participate in other aspects of their societies and economies. Both reports point to the changing world of work and the impact of technology, and caution about persistent or growing divides. From UNRISD’s own research, one of the most important ways of supporting people through their active working lives and beyond is the provision of universal social protection. This includes ensuring a minimum level of income that can guarantee a socially acceptable standard of living (whether in work or not), access to essential services, and the opportunity for lifelong education and skills training. It also means proper attention to the care economy so that women are not disadvantaged. Once again, these investments are in no way antithetical to business. A diverse, well-skilled and remunerated workforce is the foundation of any customer base, and indeed the backbone of a sustainable business model.

Paul Ladd is the Director of UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.