The “New Renaissance”: Ian Goldin on managing complexity

Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford

Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford

“We are living in a time of the most progressive change in the history of humanity,” observes Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford, as he reflects on the “rapid rate of innovation” that is shaping the modern world. The networks underpinning this change add layers of complexity that have never existed before and he argues that these leave us vulnerable to far greater risks.


By Alicia Mitchell


In his 2014 book, The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to do About It, Goldin and his co-author Mike Mariathasan suggest that the hyper-connectivity of globalised society – whether it manifests itself in a physical form (for example, in the increasingly uninhibited movement of people and goods), or a digital or cultural one – means that very small events can have a huge, even catastrophic, global impact: the so-called “butterfly defect”.


Goldin describes our current era as “the new renaissance” and compares it to the explosion of creativity and scientific advancement that followed the invention of the printing press nearly six centuries ago.


In a time of rapid innovation, he is overwhelmingly optimistic.


“This is about how the internet and the resultant spread of ideas have led to revolutions in science and society,” he says. Before accepting his Chair at Oxford’s Martin Institute, Goldin was Vice President of the World Bank for three years and his expertise in global development leads him to warn against techno-utopianism.


“One shouldn’t assume that technologies always give rise to good outcomes; that’s not always the case. It’s not just good things that travel rapidly but really bad things too.” As examples, he points to the cascading global financial crisis, cyber threats and the spread of extremism.


“ISIS has become the organisation with the largest foreign recruitment since the Spanish Civil War, in part due to its effectiveness in using social media.” On the internet, toxic ideas can spread almost instantaneously.


In December, Goldin will address an audience of over 2,000 people at OEB 2015, the global conference on technology supported learning and training. With a vital message for educators who are trying to equip the next generation to live in an increasingly complex environment, Goldin will share his views on our shared responsibility for managing systemic risk.


“While the opportunities are enormous and people’s ability to learn using technology has grown, we need to be aware that this is a very precious thing and also a very fragile thing – this connectedness. We need to be more effective with managing it and managing globalisation, to ensure we sustain the good and are able to minimise the bad.”


According to Goldin, systemic risk management is a multi-level synergetic system of shared responsibility, which starts with individuals making choices about the energy we use, the products we buy, the food we consume and the medicines we take.


Once we come together into communities, he says, there are more choices to be made – about transport, energy, the climate, cyber defence and financial systems.


“At a national level there are big choices about how joined up we are, how much we cooperate with others, how much we help solve problems elsewhere, or create new problems ourselves or aggravate them.


“At the global level, the choice is whether countries communicate about these crucial issues as well. Are we prepared to be part of coalitions of countries that work towards the solutions for some of these issues, or are we part of the obstructing group?”


Goldin stresses the role of businesses in this system – they hold the special position of being able to cross  many borders and they often have capabilities that governments and individuals do not. They also have a responsibility to behave.


“The terrible case of Volkswagen is an illustration of how these technologies can be gamed, but so too are the banks who brought down the financial system, and the many corporates that act only in the short-term. Businesses need to be long-term in their visions and think about the spill-over effects of their decisions, incorporating them into their decision making.”


He highlights carbon emissions and water scarcity as potential spill-overs. Misappropriation and misuse of data by global corporations and widespread corruption are also areas in which a lack of responsibility has recently had a wide-ranging impact.


“We all have multiple responsibilities because we are individuals who also live in cities, who also work in businesses, who are also part of nation states, and so on. Our intersection is in many, many different dimensions and it’s whether we are effective with that connectivity or notthat is going to determine whether there’s a happy ending or a much more dystopian future.”


Professor Ian Goldin will be giving a keynote speech during the opening plenary session of OEB 2015 – the global, cross-sector conference on technology supported learning and training (Berlin, 2 – 4 December). Visit the website to find out more about the event and other speakers:

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