How can technology help the UN improve its effectiveness and reputation?

Ryan Gawn looks at a new report on how emerging technology can help the United Nations reform

The September gathering of world leaders has come and gone, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is now back at his desk. Whilst his attention is likely to be focussed on headlines coming from North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, he is also battling to advance reform of the UN system. As with any large bureaucracy (not least one which has to manage the expectations of 193 member states) the ever present reform agenda can quickly become  all-consuming for a Secretary-General. This leaves very little time to look outside the UN system and its political machinations, and identify challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Such as emerging technologies.

Big Questions

The pace of technological change brings with it extraordinary opportunities and challenges for the UN and its work. A new report looks ahead, shines a spotlight on the future, and makes some practical recommendations for the Secretary-General on how the UN can respond. Authored by former UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher and supported by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, New York University and the Makhzoumi Foundation, “United Networks – How Technology can help the United Nations Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century” sets out some big questions for the future of the UN:

“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, mobilise opinion and action, and weaponise 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?”

20 recommendations

As part of a team of expert contributors (including young people, tech gurus and activists), I led on the public engagement and political issues which emerging technologies can bring. Consulting with innovation leaders, governments, tech companies and NGOs, we were astounded by the many examples where existing technology is already being used to tackle many of the problems which the UN seeks to solve. It also makes 20 recommendations for the Secretary-General to consider, proposing international agreements (e.g. a Geneva convention on state actions in cyberspace, a universal declaration of digital rights, a single digital identity), equipping the UN with the right skills and resources (e.g. a Deputy Secretary-General for the Future, a global crowdfunding platform to fund humanitarian work, machine learning & data modelling to predict migrant and refugee flows, harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to make better decisions), and using the UN’s status to enhance citizenship and reduce extremism (e.g. diplo-bots to reduce online extremism, enhancing internet access and reducing the digital divide, a digital global curriculum).

Reputation & public engagement

A critical factor in the reform agenda and the ability of the UN to effectively innovate and harness technology is its reputation and public engagement – the UN is nothing without public, business, civil society and member state support. Considered by many to be the closest humanity has to world government, many of the criticisms of the UN are borne from the high expectations citizens have of the organisation, particularly regarding transparency, accountability, legitimacy, demonstrating impact, and regaining trust. And so in engaging with its audiences, the UN faces a profound dichotomy in managing expectations – how to balance the aspirational and moral value of the UN with the realist politics of a multilateral organisation within a cumbersome bureaucracy. UK Prime Minister Theresa May highlighted this very issue in her recent address to the General Assembly: …throughout its history the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes and the effectiveness of its delivery. When the need for multilateral action has never been greater the shortcomings of the UN and its institutions risk undermining the confidence of states as members and donors.”

The report presents this expectation / impact gap with 21st century digital twist – emerging technologies in public engagement will only exacerbate citizens’ demands for information, evidence of impact, authentic engagement, and compelling narratives on the value the UN brings. This is coupled with the rapid pace of technological change, media consumption and marketing shifts (voice, mobile, AR & VR), changes in attention spans, information expectations and social media echo chambers.

Nevertheless, emerging technologies can also help solve some of these challenges. The report provides some practical recommendations in this area, with a common thread involving harnessing technologies to provide both wider and deeper engagement – empowering audiences to both input into and communicate the UN’s work and mission. Examples include a digital first strategy, stronger authentic social media engagement by officials, a more transparent process for S-G selection, crowd sourcing of solutions, digital platforms for policy debate, chat-bots to enhance audience engagement and democratisation of user generated content to empower citizens, activists and campaigners in the digital space.”

More opportunities than challenges

An inherently optimistic report, it does not see emerging technology as a panacea to solve all the UN’s many challenges. It won’t always be as empowering and enlightening as Silicon Valley tech gods may opine, and will inherently be somewhat limited by our mere human use (or misuse) of it. Nevertheless, it recognises that there are opportunities, and that the UN must innovate with urgency or face a slow slide into under resourced decline and irrelevance. More importantly, it highlights the need for the UN to be ahead of the curve – looking outwards, partnering and engaging, and setting the agenda – just as it has already achieved in many other areas. A stronger reputation and public engagement can only help in making this aspiration a reality. As Fletcher concludes:

“If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between people who want to share ideas and those who want to exploit them. Between those who want more transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want more secrecy. Between old and new sources of power.”

Update – 27/09/17: United Nations opens new centre in Netherlands to monitor artificial intelligence and predict possible threats

Banks screwing with price discovery mechanisms: water’s next

Frederick Kaufman in the current edition of Nature:

Making money come out of the tap means that fresh water must be given a price anywhere it is traded — a global price that can be arbitraged across the continents. Those in Mumbai or midtown Manhattan who understand the increasing value of water in the world economy will speculate on this undervalued ‘asset’, and their investments will drive up the cost everywhere. A water calamity in China or India — and the food inflation, political instability and humanitarian crisis that will surely follow — will reverberate in price spikes from London to Sydney. This is how bankers will profit.

Economists have begun to model a global water-based futures market featuring financial puts, calls, shorts, longs, exchange-traded funds, indices of indices, options piled on top of options, and all sorts of opportunity for over-the-counter swaps. Flood-insurance companies will certainly want to buy stakes that could mitigate their financial risk. In fact, every corporation that conducts its business in a flood plain, anywhere, would probably participate. Farmers will want to hedge their bets that it will or will not rain, as will frackers and fishermen. As for the speculators, we know who they will be.


The reverberations of a global water futures market can hardly be imagined. This much is clear: a water betting game will leave crops thirsting and push the global price of food far beyond the peaks of the past five years.

The good news is that, unlike the failed attempts to regulate the derivatives markets in food, something can still be done in the case of water. There are plenty of examples of valuing water outside the realm of pure commodification. One of the best examples has been developed in the Ruhr basin in Germany. This riverine resource is managed not by the invisible hand of the market, but by a policy-creating body called the Ruhr Association. Cities, counties, industries and enterprises in the region are represented by associates and delegates. A total of 543 stakeholders negotiate water-abstraction fees and pollution charges. The politics may be messy, but it works. Unfortunately, that is the way with democracy.

There is no easy panacea for the world’s water needs, least of all the global derivatives business, which has proved that it is not to be trusted with mortgage-backed securities, much less our most precious resource. There is no need to initiate a futures market in water only to create yet more financial madness that seems to resist all attempts at regulation. This time around, let the business stop before it starts.

Worth reading the whole thing. He’s pretty scathing about Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) and work on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

Kaiser Wilhelm II adds his two pfennig-worth to UK National Security Strategy horizon scanning

A few days ago, I did a post on the UK government’s current horizon scanning exercise – part of the process leading up to its second National Security Strategy – in which I suggested that “the really stand-out risk that barely got a mention in the events I attended was the possibility that serious erosion of states’ capacity and legitimacy [will undermine] their ability to respond to all the global trends that we were discussing”. 

As regular readers will know, that observation comes straight out of the writings of ‘fourth generation warfare’ theorists like William Lind, Martin van Creveld and John Robb.  But what may come as more of a surprise is the interesting revelation that Kaiser Wilhelm II made a similar point yesterday in his birthday conversation with Lind*:

“My generation of kings and emperors were fixated on the age-old contest between dynasties. Would the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern defeat those of Romanoff and Savoy or the other way around? We could not see the paradigm shift welling up all around us, the onward rush of democracy and equality and socialism and all the rest of that garbage. What we needed was an alliance of all monarchies against democracy. Instead we wiped each other out, putting the levellers in charge everywhere, to the world’s ruin.”

“Does that hold any lessons for our time?”, I asked.

“From Olympus, the picture could not be more clear,” His Majesty replied. “As we were mesmerized by dynastic quarrels, so your politicians cannot see beyond the state. They think only of states in conflict. Will America be threatened by China? Should India go to war with Pakistan? Is Iran a danger to Israel? They cannot see that states are now all in the same, sinking boat, just as all the dynasties were in 1914.”

“What should states then do?”, I enquired.

“Form an alliance of all states against non-state forces, what you call the Fourth Generation,” the Kaiser answered. “The hour is late, and the state system itself has grown fragile. That is the lesson of America’s quixotic war in Iraq. You destroyed the state there, and now no one can recreate it. That is what will happen almost everywhere when states fight other states. But none of your leaders can see it, because they, too, are time-blinded. It is the human condition.”

* Since you ask: in addition to being one of the top experts around on counter-insurgency and fourth generation warfare, William Lind is also an ardent Prussian monarchist.  Consequently, he marks the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (“my reporting senior and lawful sovereign”) with a column each year in which he records a conversation with that leader’s ghost.  Previous editions are highly recommended – e.g. here and here.