Globalization has reached an historic turning level
COVID-19, which is spreading to more than 218 countries and territories, has forced the world’s economic development to pause for the first time in history.
The pandemic broke out a year after the World Economic Forum’s Globalization 4.0 meeting, which announced that the fourth industrial revolution was heralding a new era.
While the prevailing dissatisfaction, inequality and conflicts from earlier globalization episodes were not resolved, globalization 4.0 was set in motion by the engine of technological development. When the coronavirus outbreak suddenly set in as the new era began, an accumulation of hope and fear, confidence and concern, optimism and accusation embodied the grave preparation of the world for this irreversible historical advance.
Global health, economic growth, and social development faced major challenges that prompted the world to seek a new recipe for global governance and economic order.
The new features, dimensions and dynamic mechanisms of globalization represent a historic turning point – “Globalization @ 2021”, which marks the boundary between the “pre-coronavirus globe” and the “post-coronavirus globe”.
The virus underscores the development and globalization of the past three decades and shows that the world has entered a new phase with two new characteristics. First, globalization has spread across the globe; the world will not get out of this virus crisis until all countries are safe. Second, the global industry and supply chains are fully articulated. A pandemic can shut down airlines, bankrupt clothing giants, paralyze international tourism and cause the collapse of many industries overnight. In the industry and supply chain dimension, there is no opt-out or independent movement without consequences that would affect the world.
Today’s globalization is advancing on four driving wheels: trade, investment, population and the flow of technology. While the other three wheels got stuck because of the virus, the flow of technology continues. Hit by the virus, this bike even picked up speed.
From the late 1990s onwards, globalization was primarily driven by the exchange of capital in industrialized countries and labor in developing countries.
With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, technological development has taken a disruptive and explosive path, rather than a linear one. This enormous and rapid change in technology was further accelerated by the virus.
On the one hand, information and communication technology has made ways of working and living possible, with home work and distance learning being widespread. On the flip side, major tech powers like the United States, the European Union and China have harnessed a new legion of technologies like artificial intelligence, big data analytics and robotics to revolutionize the pandemic response, from early warning and clinical treatments on situation monitoring and vaccine development.
The technological development of countries is no longer a zero-sum game and the relationship between countries is no longer a win or a loss. The technological capacities of the countries are very different in their response to COVID-19. The virus has made it clear to the world that in order to cope with this crisis without national borders, national and international technological activities are more interlinked than ever, although competition is intensifying and the pandemic will survive. Although there has been a race to develop the first successful vaccine against the virus, countries are working closely together.
Led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, economies from 172 countries and regions have participated in discussions on COVAX, a global initiative aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to bring equitable access to countries around the world to safe and effective vaccines.
Countries are also facing a serious new challenge caused by technological development itself as well as competition from others since the pandemic. This new legion of technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution competes with humans for intelligence for the first time in history. It brings an increase in productivity growth, an increase in the standard of living and an increase in investment income. But it also causes massive job insecurity and growing inequality, and even changes entire industries.
A better perspective on globalization requires a rethink in terms of technology: a zero-sum game is no longer relevant. The success of achieving resilience and new competitiveness beyond Globalization @ 2021 lies in new aspects.
First of all, a collaborative global vision is required. While most countries have already armed themselves with a national technology program that supports the decades-long development of new technologies, there is a lack of timely understanding of how to be successful in a global technological ecosystem.
Second, there has to be an inclusive social mode. While the virus has compounded the disruptive impact of technology on society, the main threat to a country’s job security is no longer the displacement of jobs to countries with lower labor costs, but the massive threat from intelligence and automation technology, and the large number of new jobs that require higher qualifications that society is not ready for.
A country’s new competitiveness is determined not only by how many new technologies it can create, but also by its ability to develop social innovation policies and mechanisms to ensure that every member of society benefits from technological developments and get used to it.
A paradigm shift has high priority for the Agenda Globalization @ 2021, away from the dichotomies of trade and protectionism, technology and monopoly, economic development and social justice, national profit and global public good.
An updated understanding of globalization and competitiveness can ensure that countries that weather the irresistible tide of globalization have a resilient future together.
Sheng Wu is a technical officer at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva. Bernhard Schwartlander is head of cabinet at WHO headquarters.