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What The Scenarios Teach Us:
Fostering Opportunities
Through Resilience

Examining the trends across the three scenarios makes vivid that the world will become more volatile in the years ahead. States, institutions, and societies will be under pressure from above and below the level of the nation-state to adapt to systemic challenges— and to act sooner rather than later. From above, climate change, technology standards and protocols, and transnational terrorism will require multilateral cooperation. From below, the inability of government to meet the expectations of their citizens, inequality, and identity politics will increase the risk of instability. Responding effectively to these challenges will require not only sufficient resources and capacity but also political will. Moreover, the extent of these challenges might overwhelm the capacity of individual states and international institutions to resolve problems on their own, suggesting a greater role for a wide range of public and private actors.

The scenarios also highlight, however, that the very same trends heightening risks in the near term can enable better outcomes over the longer term if the proliferation of power and players builds resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty. In a world where surprises hit harder and more frequently, the most successful actors will be those that are resilient, enabling them to better adapt to changing conditions, persevere in the face of adversity, and act quickly to recover after mistakes.

Although resilience increases in importance in a more chaotic world, traditional calculations of state power rarely factor in a state’s resilience. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of state authority in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” suggest that states can be fragile in ways that conventional measures of power do not capture.

  • For example, by traditional measures of power, such as GDP, military spending, and population size, China’s share of global power is increasing. China, however, also exhibits several characteristics, such as a centralized government, political corruption, and an economy overly reliant on investment and net exports for growth—which suggest vulnerability to future shocks.
  • Alternatively, the United States exhibits many of the factors associated with resilience, including decentralized governance, a diversified economy, inclusive society, large land mass, biodiversity, secure energy supplies, and global military power projection capabilities and alliances.

The governments, organizations, and individuals that are most capable of identifying opportunities and working cooperatively to act upon them will be most successful, but the window for forging new patterns of cooperation is narrowing. The collective action challenge is becoming more pronounced as global challenges grow. The near-term choices of individuals, organizations, and states will shape how the current governability and cooperation crisis is addressed, or whether an extended period of ad hoc, uncoordinated responses to uncertainty and volatility will intensify tensions within, between, and among states. Alliance management, improvement of national governance and international institutions, and openness to mobilizing a wide range of commercial, religious, civil, and advocacy organizations at all levels of government will be key to sustaining positive outcomes.

Issues that lead to shared vulnerabilities and the need for global approaches—such as climate change and expanding terrorist threats—might induce states to increase their resiliency, particularly if cooperation were limited. These issues might also push states to find far greater utility in international institutions and other transnational forums to develop solutions and coordinate actions. In turn, such developments might prompt a new era of global engagement that includes states along with local governments, companies, and civil society groups working cooperatively to deal with existential challenges facing humanity.

  • Two high-profile UN initiatives—the “Sustainable Development Agenda” and the “Framework Convention on Climate Change”—set broad strategic goals to be pursued through cooperation between governments and public-private partnerships. Such efforts allow parties to refine the programs over time and enable corporations and civil society groups to play a role in forging international norms and global governance arrangements.
  • Increasing resilience at the institution level could also occur through the employment of dedicated strategic planning cells, exercises, technologies, and processes that would accelerate responses during crises.
  • The election of future UN Secretaries General also will provide opportunities to pivot the strategic direction of the UN’s system of agencies and to rethink priorities in light of emerging challenges as senior leadership and appointments change.

The downsides of globalization that drive some governments to adopt protectionist and nationalist policies might also create opportunities to increase resilience and innovation at local levels. The slowing of globalization and trade and the advent of additive manufacturing (3-D printing) technologies might lead to increased emphasis on near-by services, improving the self-reliance of local societies and groups. These developments might set the stage for a new wave of entrepreneurship and manufacturing that provides economic benefits to local communities. Governments and academic institutions, historically the source for science discoveries that enable private sector development, could encourage local developments that boost additional productivity and innovation by expanding public access to science and technology education and resources and by providing basic research.

Assessing State Resilience

Measuring a state’s resilience is likely to be a better determinant of success in coping with future chaos and disruption than traditional measures of material power alone. Tomorrow’s successful states will probably be those that invest in infrastructure, knowledge, and relationships resilient to shock—whether economic, environmental, societal, or cyber.

Factors enhancing the resiliency of states, according to existing research, include:

  • Governance: Governments capable of providing goods and services, promoting political inclusiveness, enforcing the rule of law, and earning the trust of their populace will be better positioned to absorb shocks and rally their population in response.
  • Economics: States with diversified economies, manageable government debt and adequate financial reserves, robust private sectors, and adaptable and innovate workforces will be more resilient.
  • Social System: A prepared, integrated, and orderly society is likely to be cohesive and resilient in the face of unexpected change and have a high tolerance for coping with adversity.
  • Infrastructure: The robustness of a state’s critical infrastructure, including diversified sources of energy and secure and redundant communication, information, health, and financial networks, will lessen a state’s vulnerability to both natural disasters and intentional attempts to create disruption through cyber and other forms of attack.
  • Security: States with a high military capacity, capable and trusted domestic law enforcement and emergency responders, good civil-military relations, and robust alliances will more likely be able to defend against unexpected attacks and restore domestic order following a disruptive shock.
  • Geography and the Environment: States that have a large land mass, high levels of biodiversity, and good quality air, food, soil, and water will be more resilient to natural disasters.

Initiatives to provide continuous workforce education, enable a mobile and secure workforce, and preserve technology leadership in multiple disciplines will enhance the resilience of states to potentially disruptive advances in technology, such as automation, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnologies. Such resilience would mitigate the near-term risk to jobs and markets and allow the technologies to produce greater economic efficiency and productivity over time.

  • Public-private continuing education would assist workforces in affordably adapting to changing job markets and potentially diffuse populist sentiment that elites disregard the average worker. Such initiatives, akin to the German apprenticeship model, could involve collaboration between governments, private industry, and education institutions—private or public—to train new or newly arrived workers, recently displaced employees, and the long-term unemployed.
  • Academic institutions could develop curricula through consultation with wouldbe employers on necessary skills, creating pools of workers fully prepared to make use of new and evolving industries— commonly cited as a constraint on hiring for many high-tech businesses. These efforts could help academic institutions remain current and relevant, as well as reduce the long-term need for public assistance for idled workers.

Such programs, which could encourage corporate participation through tax incentives or wage subsidies for new hires, would particularly benefit developed industrialized countries experiencing rapid technology adoption, global labor competition and shrinking, but highly educated, working-age populations. Such initiatives might also protect intellectual property rights, provide incentives for new-industry start-ups to locate in sponsoring communities, and preserve national leadership in defining technology protocols and standards.

Transparency enabled by communication technology will build resilience by enhancing citizens’ visibility into government processes, supporting anti-corruption measures, and moderating divisive impulses. The creation of media and technology organizations that provide objective reporting and support transparent fact-checking would be a step toward building a foundation for enhanced trust in government and institutions. Coupled with education on critical thinking skills, increased transparent communication could reduce fear and broaden citizens’ understanding of different perspectives. With greater trust, historically disengaged populations such as minorities could seize on the opportunity for greater inclusion and a more free exchange of ideas.

Generating resiliency in currently troubled societies, such as those in the Middle East, also requires reducing the forces promoting extremism. Nascent indications of popular frustration in the Middle East with the abuses of extremism couched as “Islamic” might propel local populations to reject extremist ideologies and instead push for new political reforms. Across the Middle East and North Africa, extremists who claim Islamic affiliation are inspiring some to disaffiliate themselves with Islamists, openly or in private. For example, Ennahda, Tunisia’s ruling political party, recently announced its intention to no longer identify as Islamist but rather as Muslim democrats, citing, in part, sensitivity to the connotations of the label.

Investments in data, methods, modeling, and surveillance of critical human and natural-support systems—such as infrastructure, energy, water, and air quality—could spark emergent technologies in sustainability, increasing community and environmental resilience. The likely widespread privatesector demand for mitigation technologies and services will drive some countries and corporations to dominate this new market early. The profitability of such developments could in turn offset the need for a natural disaster or other crisis to change the politics of this issue. Programs that simultaneously strengthen short-term crisis response capacity and the long-term development of climateresilient and adaptive systems would minimize potential economic losses from ongoing demographic and environmental pressures. Beneficiaries would span construction, energy, mining, agriculture, insurance, finance, and R&D sectors and have local to international impact.

The most resilient societies will also be those that unleash the full potential of individuals— including women and minorities—to create and cooperate. Such societies will be moving with, rather than against, historical currents, drawing upon the ever-expanding scope of human agency and skill to shape the future. In all societies, even in the bleakest circumstances, there will be those who choose to improve the welfare, happiness, and security of others—and who will use transformative technologies to do so at scale. The opposite will be true as well—destructive forces will be empowered as never before. The central choice before governments and societies is how to blend individual, collective, and national endowments in a way that yields sustainable security, prosperity, and hope.