We live in times of unprecedented change and have, as never before, the responsibility and potential to build a better future together.
Times of unprecedented change, with major economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological challenges that coincide and amplify each other, require unprecedented action. Premised on the belief that we have both a responsibility and the potential to respond to these issues, The Great Narrative is a call to collective and individual action. The thinking behind the book is inspired by a profound conviction that to ensure a better future for humankind, the world needs to be more resilient, more equitable and more sustainable.
In COVID 19: The Great Reset, published in July 2020, we raised the curtain on these issues. The Great Narrative places a cast of possible solutions to them on centre stage. What the epilogue to our human saga will be will depend on which narrative prevails.
Why do narratives matter? As human beings and social animals, we are storytelling creatures, and the stories we tell (the narratives) are our fundamental tool of communication and transmission. Narratives are how we make sense of life; they provide us with a context, thanks to which we can better interpret, understand and respond to the facts we observe. Most importantly, compelling narratives have the power to inspire us to act. But why a single great narrative? Because the constellation of important interrelated stories that this book offers coalesce around one central story. It addresses a broad spectrum of issues aiming to shed light on what’s coming and to offer some clarity on our options in terms of a collective response. Even so, The Great Narrative proposes a framework for future action, not a prescription.
The Great Narrative expresses our personal convictions about the best way forward. We recognize that the problems we collectively face are considerable, but we also believe that solutions do exist and are within our grasp. In that sense, it is a hopeful book that categorically rejects the doomsday mindset consigning humanity to a future of oblivion. Human creativity, ingenuity and innate sociality are much too powerful for that and can prevail.
Our views and convictions are informed by our humanistic values: the book is evidence-based and informed by science. It is also underpinned by 50 conversations that took place with foremost global thinkers and opinion-makers representing a variety of academic disciplines and points of view. Some corroborated our convictions. Others challenged them. All enriched our thinking. We are grateful to them.
What future do we face? What future do we want? What must we do to get there?
These three questions preoccupy us all. The Great Narrative provides a response to the first two and lays the foundations to address the third. We can’t predict the future. However, we can imagine it and even design it; no outcome is predetermined and, as cognitive human beings, we retain the agency to shape the world we want. Perhaps most critically, we can also prepare for the future, by confronting both the risks that we can mitigate and the things that will surprise us.
The pandemic was one such thing. Many international organizations and individuals had warned for years that a pandemic would occur but, despite this, it took most of the world by complete surprise. Now (in December 2021), almost two years since it began, the pandemic seems never-ending and continues to drag on. We hope that the COVID-19 crisis will soon be over, but will it? “There is always a beginning and an end to every outbreak” as a former Director-General of the World Health Organization told us,[i] but pandemics as a social and psychological phenomenon are not episodic: they linger for years. A historian of science and medicine puts it this way: “We are living in the COVID-19 era, not the COVID-19 crisis. There will be a lot of changes that are substantial and persistent. We won’t look back and say, ‘That was a terrible time, but it’s over.’ We will be dealing with many of the ramifications of COVID-19 for decades.”[ii]
Indeed! Lessons from past pandemics tell us how hard it is to understand how, exactly when and why they end, and what their wide-ranging effects are. Throughout history, when the physical disease, measured in mortality or infection rates, subsides, the impact of the pandemic still remains. It continues to affect our lives, as economies and societies progressively adjust, and individuals strive to return to a semblance of normalcy. The psychological shock provoked by different forms of fear triggered by the disease – like the fear of illness, the fear of isolation, the fear of “others” or even the fear of the “future” – takes much longer to subside. It is already clear that the COVID-19 crisis has put into motion momentous changes that will unfold in a multifaceted fashion. Some of these changes were already apparent prior to the crisis but have been accelerated (even “turbo-charged”, as some pundits would argue) by the pandemic. Among them are the acceleration of automation and innovation, rising inequalities, the growing power of tech and surveillance, the rising rivalry between the United States and China, the partial retreat from globalization, the economic paradigm shift, and an increasingly fractious geopolitical landscape. But other changes now in the offing go beyond a mere acceleration of pre-existing trends, including a handful that would have seemed inconceivable before COVID-19 struck. The reconsideration of our social priorities (as expressed notably in the “Great Resignation” phenomenon), more radical welfare and taxation measures, new forms of state intervention, the rising appeal of well-being policies and a new appreciation for nature – these are just a few examples of new systemic changes that will grow in relevance.
Over the past millennia, pandemics have been the rule, not the exception. This being so, how can history help us understand what lies ahead? Pandemics are by nature a shock that divides and traumatizes. As such, they tend to exacerbate the same major issues and problems that have recurred throughout human history: wars and conflicts, inequalities and impoverishment, social cohesion and strife, political turbulence, the disruption of supply and demand, debt distress – to name a few notable ones. However, because of their inherently disruptive nature, pandemics can also prove to be a force for lasting and often radical change. COVID-19 is no exception. It has revealed, in a quasi-photographic manner, two things: (1) the main fault lines that beset today’s world, like social divides, lack of fairness, limited cooperation, failure of global governance, geopolitical turmoil; but also (2) our extraordinary ability to mobilize and innovate when confronted with conditions of intense adversity. Who could have predicted back in the early days of the pandemic that so many governments and central banks would come to the rescue of their countries’ societies and economies with such extraordinarily accommodative fiscal and monetary policies? Who could have imagined in the spring of 2020 that not one but several vaccines would be available less than a year later? A new world (not a “new normal”) is now emerging, the contours of which will largely be defined by the narratives that evolve to inform and construct the way forward.
Throughout human history, this has been a key attribute of pandemics. They are an existential threat and, as such, they force us to think about the big questions, not only in relation to ourselves – our lives and our own mortality – but also vis-à-vis others. Pandemics serve as a big mirror held up to our collective “faces” that reflect back who we really are, both as individuals and societies. For this reason, like all deep crises, they force us to rethink the social contract that binds us together and the way we do things, which can in turn trigger innovation and pave the way for institutional, policy and societal ruptures. Momentous shocks (such as the one inflicted by the pandemic) can create momentous change, and dealing with adversity through the sheer power of ingenuity has always been part of our human condition. Why would it be different this time? It won’t, except that two specific features of today’s world will render the changes that are coming more abrupt, more complicated and more far-reaching than we might imagine.
Concatenation of risks and systemic connectivity
Interdependence – the by-product of technological progress and globalization – is the defining feature of the 21st century. It means that we live today on the brink of major consequential changes that are not independent from each other but are taking place simultaneously with their risks concatenated (i.e. linked together), reinforcing one another through cascading and contagion effects.[iii] The pandemic has occurred at a very particular juncture when our economies and societies seem ill-suited to many of the challenges that lie ahead, when the geopolitical and technological landscapes are being reshaped in a way that will make them unrecognizable in just a few years, and when the environment is on the brink of disaster and climate change is an existential threat. The conjunction of all these challenges concurring simultaneously and impacting each other defines “systemic connectivity” and makes our current era unique in history: not only are all the changes happening at once, but they are also being exacerbated by the pandemic (and unfolding very fast). As we will see, solutions to the major challenges we face do exist and are within grasp, but they will require a great deal of innovation and dramatic changes in our economies and societies, as well as in the institutions, laws and rules that govern them. Our life habits and modes of consumption will also need to change drastically.
Social media and the age of fake news
Falsehoods, misinformation, disinformation and conspiracies have always existed, but today they are served and magnified by the dominance and reach of social media and the virality of fake news. Furthermore, the manner in which social media now structure the communication between individuals can affect the collective ability of certain groups to form reliable beliefs. This manifests in two ways. (1) We can opt, as we so often do on social media, only to interact with people who share our beliefs and refuse to do so with people who challenge them. In the process, by virtue of only connecting with those who think like us, we lose true connectivity and close down channels of vital communication. This creates partitions and polarization. (2) All sorts of influencers, be they government agencies, industry groups or even individuals, now have direct access to “ready-made” large groups of people with whom they can create a relation of trust and dependency, thus aggravating and even inflaming polarization. It should come as no surprise that research conducted during the pandemic has exposed a link between COVID-related uncertainty and anxiety and an increased likelihood of adhering to conspiracy theories.[iv] This is part of the reason why powerful anti-science movements prolong the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, hindering both public health and, more fundamentally, our ability to move forward in unison. Beyond the limits of the pandemic, the abundance of fake news and its ability to magnify and manipulate polarization hinders our ability to deal successfully with the momentous collective action problems that humanity faces.
In light of this, how can we best understand the necessity and relevance of the changes that are coming, the way we can influence their trajectory, and the role that systemic connectivity, social media and fake news play in all this? This is hard and there is no one simple answer. We must respond to questions like: What do we do next? What choices do we want to make? How can we fix what doesn’t work? How can we put in place the corresponding new policies and solutions? How can we grasp the ideas that underpin them? How can we make these ideas palatable so that a large majority of citizens embrace them? The magnitude of the task is head-spinning! Its complexity far exceeds the cognitive capabilities of any single individual or the collective understanding of any single academic discipline and/or professional practice. The reason is straightforward: academics and other professionals tend to excel at thinking in a narrow field and to do so rely on a particular conceptual and methodological framework, leaving little or no time to connect with other disciplines or professions. This can and often does result in a shared disquiet of being both overwhelmed by the complexity of the task and having a limited understanding of its scope. Take the concatenation between economic, geopolitical, societal, technological and environmental issues as an example. Apart from the obvious cognitive limitations that an overload of information and rising complexity impose upon us, we are all restricted in our understanding of things by the boundaries of our professional lives. If we are an economist, we specialize in economics and find it hard to grasp what’s happening in other fields, like geopolitics, technology or the environment. If we are an artificial intelligence (AI) specialist, we may find it difficult to comprehend what happens in the realm of social sciences and to understand the extent to which culture and social norms dictate how or if societies will “adopt” and adapt to new technologies. And so on. The point is this: we all tend to operate in our silos and often fail to connect the indispensable dots between disparate fields. Therefore, our response to new facts or situations and how we make sense of the world is over reliant on, and ultimately shaped by, how those people we know, or trust, are doing so. This fundamental process of exchanging, understanding and evaluation takes place via stories, or narratives.
The power of narratives
As the most effective of conduits for ideas, narratives have the unique power to help us determine what’s going on, what lies ahead and what needs to be done, hence the title of this book. Defined in the simplest possible terms, a narrative is a story about something. More aptly for the purpose of The Great Narrative, it is also “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values”.[v]Some of the “narrators” we interviewed for this book go further, like John Hagel who draws a distinction between stories and narratives: “Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and end (…). Narratives [are] open-ended. There is no resolution yet. There’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not yet clear whether it will be addressed. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you – the people being addressed by the narrative. Your choices and actions will help to determine how the narrative plays out.”[vi]
Stories are essential to us because as human beings and social animals, we are storytelling creatures. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said it in Nausea (1938): “A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.” Robert Shiller, the “father” of Narrative Economics, goes one step further, linking narratives to the decisions we make: “The human brain has always been highly tuned towards narratives, whether factual or not, to justify ongoing actions.”[vii] The rich scholarly literature about narratives makes it clear that we think, act and communicate in terms of narratives, and each interpretation, understanding or model of how the world operates begins with a story. Narratives provide the context in which the facts we observe can be interpreted, understood and acted upon. In that sense, they equate to much more than the stories we tell, write or illustrate figuratively; they end up being the truths, or the ideas we accept as truths, that underpin the perceptions that shape our “realities” and in the process form our cultures and societies. Through narratives, we explain how we see things, how these things work, how we make decisions and justify them, how we understand our place in the world and how we try to persuade others to embrace our beliefs and values.[viii] To sum up: narratives shape our perceptions, which in turn form our realities and end up influencing our choices and actions. They are how we find meaning in life.
This book offers a constellation of interrelated narratives that shed light on what’s coming and what to do about it. The Great Narrative coalesces around one central story and derives from a collaborative effort with some of the world’s leading thinkers to fashion longer-term perspectives and co-create a narrative that can help guide the creation of a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable vision for our collective future. It relies to a substantial extent, but not exclusively, on interviews conducted with 50 of the world’s foremost global thinkers and opinion-makers who come from a broad spectrum of academic disciplines and from diverse geographies and backgrounds. Undoubtedly, thousands upon thousands of prominent academics, researchers, scientists, professors, foresight specialists and influential writers exist who could have made it to the list. There was, therefore, a degree of arbitrariness in deciding on the 50. We are confident, however, that the 50 we chose are “legitimate” in the sense that all of them will leave an imprint in their domain of expertise (and often beyond) and tend to be listened to by people outside their field. In short, their narratives are influential – they do matter. Whether or not we agree with them, these narratives titillate our imagination and entice us to flirt (even engage) with the ideas they present. This is critical. All too often, we tend to favour well-established ideas that are deeply interwoven with and influenced by our personal and professional lives. Put another way, we don’t think “out of the box” nearly enough. As a result, we limit our exposure to those other ideas that can create an “Aha” or “Eureka” moment and compel us to think a bit differently, question some of our beliefs and assumptions, and make new mental connections. As you read this book, we hope you’ll come to the realization that the 50 narratives can help us see the world differently and expand our mental map about what needs to be done to make it a better place. Each narrative does it from its own perspective and by the mere virtue of cognitive diversity. Each exposes us to other people’s influential ideas. Drawn together, they create an interesting canvas – a great series of narratives in which we can engage to shape the society and the economy we want.
Exposing and discussing the ideas embedded in diverse narratives is what this book is all about. Moving them forward in the realms of decision-making and policy is also part of our endeavour. Actions, solutions and policies always begin with a “big” idea. Big ideas not only power our economies (they are the real engine of economic growth), but they also drive the world. When a big idea breaks through and becomes influential, it can turn into a viral narrative: it takes off and becomes contagious, making its way into policies as well as business and investors’ decisions. Through the sheer work and imagination of those who originate them, ideas spur creativity and become the foundation of discovery, innovation and change. They can also become a call to action. If ideas were to be considered as an economic good, economists would call them in their jargon a “non-excludable” and “non-rival” good. Ideas are non-excludable because of their free nature: nobody can effectively be excluded from consuming (or generating) an idea. Ideas are also non-rival because they can be utilized by someone without reducing their availability to others: all can enjoy “consuming” an idea without preventing others from doing so. As the saying goes: “If I give you a dollar and you give me a dollar, each of us will only have one dollar. But if you give me one idea and I give you another idea, we will both have two ideas.” This specific feature of ideas bestows them “with a natural property to generate aggregate nondecreasing returns to scale”.[ix] Put in plain language: the more the better, and the more ideas we have, the more they will generate! The Great Narrative offers a profusion of interesting and sometimes intriguing ideas mediated by the interviews we conducted with 50 global thinkers and opinion-makers.
This book is about ideas and how they may coalesce to form a Great Narrative. It is also, and most importantly, about how some of these ideas may or should make their way into policy-and decision-making. To reiterate: they go beyond the realm of theory and are a call to action. We adopt the view that, as they recover from the pandemic and embark on a path to radical and accelerated change, our societies and economies should be more inclusive and attuned to the needs of our global commons – and more resilient.
The Great Narrative is a hybrid between an essay, a manifesto and a light academic précis. It addresses such a large range of subjects that it is by necessity very synthetic (synthesis is a process of simplification but it goes without saying that being simple is not the same as being simplistic). Some ideas and narratives presented in the book may seem a bit out of the mainstream, but they are always supported and constrained by the factual evidence available in academic literature and in policy circles. The Great Narrative is deliberately written with a minimum of academic jargon to make it palatable to the broadest possible readership. The text is accessible and easy to read but remains conceptually and methodologically robust. To interrupt its flow as little as possible, the multiple references to the academic and business literature appear at the end. The Great Narrative draws primarily from the interviews and conversations we had with our chosen 50 global thinkers and opinion-makers from June to November 2021. It is complemented by numerous other conversations we were privileged to have with leaders from business, government, civil society, as well as academia. In addition, it benefits from the input of a two-day brainstorming session hosted in November 2021 by the Government of the United Arab Emirates in Dubai with most of our 50 narrators and some of their peers (a most propitious place to elaborate a Great Narrative as, to our knowledge, the UAE is the only country in the world to have a “Ministry of Possibilities” aimed at building “new government systems for the future”). It is, in that sense, a community-sourced book, the product of the “enlightened wisdom” of a crowd’s (the Forum community) vision. Direct attributions have been minimized, but all our interviewees are mentioned by name when we refer to their ideas or quote them verbatim. The list of the 50 contributors appears at the end of the book.
We would be thrilled if this book allows some of our readers to broaden their perspectives and if it even incites some of them to change their mind about a particular issue and helps them more meaningfully address it. Again, The Great Narrative is a call to action and a platform to move the agenda forward on some of the most critical issues that we collectively face.
The Great Narrative is structured in two main blocks. The first part is about problems. The second part is about solutions. The introduction sets the scene. The first part assesses the issues and challenges that we will collectively face in our post-pandemic era in five intertwined macro categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological. The second part looks at the solutions and the way forward from a multiplicity of perspectives – both individual and collective in nature. The conclusion investigates the way in which our mindsets and our sense of optimism, pessimism or pragmatism can help us (or otherwise) navigate the current maelstrom. The list of foremost global thinkers and opinion-makers and their titles are appended in the Annex. A summary of the conversation we had with each of them can be found on the World Economic Forum website. They make for a most enjoyable, interesting and insightful read.
[i] Margaret Chan, in conversation with the authors.
[ii] Allan Brandt, a Harvard University professor quoted in: Gina Kolata, “Past Pandemics Remind Us Covid Will Be an Era, Not a Crisis That Fades”, The New York Times, 14 October 2021 update, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/12/health/when-will-covid-end.html.
[iii] The work of the Global Risks Network at the World Economic Forum makes this plain: all risks (be they of an economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal or technological nature) affect each other through a web of complex interactions. For example, economic risks turn into political ones (like a rise in food inflation triggering social unrest), and environmental risks turn into geopolitical ones (like extreme weather events triggering uncontrolled migration and border conflicts). See The Global Risks Report 2021. Section 021 in this book elaborates on this fundamental point.
[iv] Various reports can be found on the Center for Countering Digital Hate website, https://www.counterhate.com.
[v] Merriam-Webster dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narrative.
[vi] Interview with John Hagel, and John Hagel, “Narratives Shape Our Emotions”, John Hagel Category Archives: Narratives, 23 May 2021, https://www.johnhagel.com/category/narratives.
[vii] Robert Shiller, “Narrative Economics”, NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 23075, 2017, https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w23075/w23075.pdf.
[viii] The academic literature on narratives is extremely rich. A compelling introduction on how stories shape our thoughts and memories and even change how we live our lives is provided in: Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, Guilford Press, 1997. McAdams, a psychology professor who has spent much of his career studying stories, argues that storytelling is not just how we construct our identities, they are our identities.
[ix] See Maurice Kugler, “The Economics of Ideas: Paul Romer, former Berkeley Economics Professor, receives the 2018 Nobel Prize”, University of California, Berkeley, 17 October 2018, https://www.econ.berkeley.edu/content/guest-post-economist-ideas-paul-romer-former-berkeley-economics-professor-receives-2018. Paul Romer is an economist whose essential contribution is the understanding that new ideas lie at the heart of economic growth and that their non-rival character gives rise to increasing returns to scale.