Commentary

Hacking for Humanity

CAMBRIDGE – “Life,” Oscar Wilde famously said, “imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In the case of Sony Pictures’ movie The Interview, the world found itself confronted with a further iteration: life imitating art imitating life. The movie’s release sparked international intrigue, drama, and shadowy geopolitical power struggles. It even prompted a grave US Presidential address – all for a simple case of hacking.

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Aid in a World of Crisis

DAVOS – Never in the 64-year history of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has it had to address so much human misery. At the beginning of 2014, more than 51 million people were displaced from their homes, uprooted by conflict and persecution. Many more have had to flee in the past twelve months.

Protracted wars, environmental disasters, and state failure have stretched the international humanitarian-aid system passed its breaking point. If the UNHCR and other relief agencies are to address the unprecedented amount of human need, they will have to broaden their base of support. Without a massive scaling up of private-sector involvement, both in terms of shared expertise and funding support, we will fail to provide for millions of people who have lost almost everything.

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From Welfare State to Innovation State

PRINCETON – A specter is haunting the world economy – the specter of job-killing technology. How this challenge is met will determine the fate of the world’s market economies and democratic polities, in much the same way that Europe’s response to the rise of the socialist movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped the course of subsequent history.

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The “Impact” Illusion in Science

STANFORD – Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Given limited resources, grant-making authorities are always tempted to channel a higher proportion of funds toward the latter. And, faced with today’s tight budget constraints, the inclination to favor projects that have demonstrable short-term returns is arguably stronger now than in the past. But to succumb to it is a mistake. Some of science’s most useful breakthroughs have come as a result of sustained investment in basic research or as by-products of unrelated efforts.

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Charlie and the Anti-Muslim Media Factory

PARIS – It is easy to discuss the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo as an attack on freedom of expression. But are we supposed to be surprised that a global terror organization known for its brutal disregard for human rights and humane values would attack a media outlet that has specialized in provoking it?

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A Surfing Reflection

MELBOURNE – For me, as for most Australians, summer holidays have always meant going to the beach. I grew up swimming and playing in the waves, eventually moving on to a body board, but somehow missing out on learning to stand on a surfboard.

I finally made up for that omission when I was in my fifties – too old ever to become good at it, but young enough for surfing to give me a decade of fun and a sense of accomplishment. This southern summer, I’m back in Australia and in the waves again.

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Globalizing Sustainable Development

WASHINGTON, DC – The question of how the world can end extreme poverty and improve human wellbeing will take on new urgency in 2015, as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire and a new set of goals – the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – are finalized.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “Synthesis Report,” outlining the main elements of the post-2015 agenda, provides strong guidance regarding what sustainable development should look like and what world leaders must do over the next 15 years to achieve it. After two years of crafting the “what” of sustainable development, the year ahead must focus on how to get it done.

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Preparing for the Unknown Unknowns

LONDON – We live in perilous times. Just as we seem to get our bearings, something happens to make us feel as if our legs have been knocked out from under us. Actions and events often are intertwined, and what happens on one level – affecting individuals, states, economic sectors, and companies of all sizes – may have repercussions on others.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris are a case in point, affecting not only the families and friends of the victims, or even only the people of France. The reverberations are being felt around the world, and they will continue to have an impact – far beyond Europe – on public policy, electoral politics, media freedom, and more.

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A New Ceiling for Oil Prices

LONDON – If one number determines the fate of the world economy, it is the price of a barrel of oil. Every global recession since 1970 has been preceded by at least a doubling of the oil price, and every time the oil price has fallen by half and stayed down for six months or so, a major acceleration of global growth has followed.

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What Are We Betting On?

LAGUNA BEACH – When I consider the prospects for the global economy and markets, I am taken aback by the extent to which the world has collectively placed a huge bet on three fundamental outcomes: a shift toward materially higher and more inclusive global growth, the avoidance of policy mistakes, and the prevention of market accidents. Though all three outcomes are undoubtedly desirable, the unfortunate reality is that they are far from certain – and bets on them without some hedging could prove exceedingly risky for current and future generations.

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