Rewiring the Global Brain

ONE PAGER | June 27, 2011     

article11How new communications technologies and old-fashioned human organization and trust can facilitate new century dialogues

In the immediate aftermath of last year’s Haiti earthquake, while many traditional interveners – starting with nation-states – struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster, Digicel used its cellular network to instantly transfer US $10 million in free telephone credits to its two million Haitian subscribers. Google implemented a ‘Person Finder’ tool to help families reunite. UPS, TNT and Agility pooled efforts to quickly move needed materials into the country.

Just as they have since the dawn of time, communications technologies – and their cognate, transportation technologies – are revolutionizing human affairs – and with these, the world’s strategic, economic and socio-political affairs. The recent Facebook-cum-Google-cum-Twitter-fuelled revolutions in the Arab world are but the latest manifestations of an age-old trend of technical revolution upending inflexible political systems.

The old broadcast model – with a central, executive group deciding what is to be discussed – is gone. We decide what we wish to talk about, and how much energy we invest in initiating and responding. For businesses and governments, the words of Xenocrates – “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence” – may once have proved useful, but they are no longer instructive or viable in a world in which issues go viral in minutes, and in which opinions are framed within hours. Silence is no longer an option; it is an abdication.

Attempts to silence others are also increasingly ineffective. When the Mubarak regime cut down Egyptian Internet and mobile lines, Google and Twitter launched a ‘Call to Tweet’ service, which meant that people with landlines could call a number to leave a voice ‘tweet’ on a voicemail. Other citizens could call the same number to listen to the tweet. The Arab expatriate community took this a step further – self-organizing a group of volunteers who would translate these voice tweets into English and French, and then broadcast them on Twitter.

So how to organize in today’s highly connected, multi-stakeholder world in order to absorb and benefit from these new-century innovations? The massive expansion in information available to all has not increased by one minute the time available for its absorption. While technology advances at an ever-accelerating rate, the human brain and its wiring are essentially the same as those enjoyed by humankind’s caveman ancestors some 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Today, people still tend to have tribal instincts; they have a limited circle of close connections (which, even for the Facebook generation, appears to generally plateau at around 100 other people); they tend to learn experientially; and they often react to stressful situations by reverting to behaviour patterns that worked in the past – even if the actual working context has changed markedly.

The global brain must be ‘rewired,’ as it were. This means bringing together the capabilities of groups and individuals from around the world in a wholly interconnected way in order to reflect the inter-relationships of the myriad challenges faced in this new century. One leading approach to this ‘rewiring’ has identified some 78 different global issues, assembled the top 15 to 20 thought-leaders in each of these fields, and then physically brought these 1,500 thought-leaders – all told – together once a year in order to increase the aggregate mutual understanding and problem-solving capacity across the key issues. (A sobering statistic: while experts in these exercises tended to know 70 percent of the other experts in their own group, they tended to know only 10 percent of the key experts in other groups that they had identified as most critical to resolving their issues.)

A critical element of rewiring the global brain will be renewing ‘how we talk to each other’ – this, evidently, in light of the said new communications technologies. Lengthy written texts are increasingly irrelevant when trying to address complex, dynamic issues with a heterogenous set of global actors. Convening and catalyzing the right conversations with the right players is becoming more important than any amount of erudite deskwork. Successful dialogue – or perhaps more precisely, multilogue – will be the synapses that increase the connections between the different nodes of global challenges.

The best conversations – and multilogues – evidently take place in a climate of mutual trust. No surprise, then, that a recent review – conducted by the Gates Foundation and others on the innovative partnerships that are transforming Africa – concluded: “If you want an effective partnership, start by getting to know your partner.”

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Robert Greenhill is Managing Director of the World Economic Forum. Previously, he was President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and President of the International Group of Bombardier Inc.

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