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With the benefit of hindsight: Currents 2023

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With the benefit of hindsight: Currents 2023

What became of the trends that SEI presented at the start of this year? Was our foresight accurate and, if so, how did SEI’s four Currents shape sustainable development over the last 11 months? Robert Watt, SEI’s Engagement Director, reflects on turbulent times.

Robert Watt / Published on 6 December 2023

What does a scientific organization like SEI have to offer by squinting into the future? What is in our crystal ball? In January this year, SEI presented our analysis of the trends and disruptors shaping sustainable development – our “Currents 2023”.

How do we identify our Currents?

During 2022, we carried out dozens of interviews with SEI experts, conducted an institute-wide survey, and sought insights from members of the Institute’s Science Advisory Council. We then whittled nine candidate trends down to just four Currents.

There are more thorough foresight processes, using large amounts of data or interviews with influential thinkers. But two features make SEI’s crystal ball unique. The first is perspective. Our foresight is based on insights from eight centres on five continents. When thinking about trends, we start with the local and regional realities of environment and development, communities and decision-makers. The second is expertise. SEI has leading experts in a wide range of scientific fields. For more than three decades, we have sought to combine this expertise to provide relevant and practical knowledge.

As we prepare to launch Currents 2024 on 17 January, it is time to take stock. Did we detect the way the winds were blowing when we looked ahead to 2023?

The democracy deficit

Events worldwide raised new concerns about the state of democracy in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and even in long-established democracies, such as the UK.  

Africa experienced such an upheaval that it was described as suffering from an “epidemic of coups”. Just one week before the coup in Niger, President Hassan of Tanzania spoke about the reasons for this creeping democratic deficit and argued that “unless and until African governments address the deficiencies in democratic governance and deliver essential public services to their people, democracy will remain an aspiration never to be meaningfully realised.”  

Concerns over the “rule of law” in some European countries have led to the European Commission withholding funding from both Poland and Hungary. In Israel, large protests protested measures that limited the independence of the judiciary. Russian forces continue to occupy and attack Ukraine. In Latin America, concerns are surfacing throughout the region about “democratically elected leaders who undermine democracy”.  In Asia, despite pro-democracy movements, concerns continue throughout the region, as evidenced by growing repression in China, erosion of democracy in India, prevailing human rights issues with the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and human rights abuses under military rule in Myanmar, among others. Even, in longstanding democracies, concerns are growing – as evidenced by the passage of measures that allow police to shut down protests and arrest protesters in the UK, and the erosion of democratic institutions in the US. 

Nine out of the ten nations with the lowest Human Development Indicators have experienced conflicts or violence in the past decade. The UN Global Sustainable Development Report, co-authored by SEI’s Åsa Persson, stated that “incremental and fragmented change is insufficient to achieve all 17 SDGs in the remaining seven years, or even by 2050.” As UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said at the UN Security Council on 20 November 2023: “No peace is secure without inclusive and sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Just as progress towards one goal lifts all others, failure in one area risks reversing gains across the board. And no failure is more calamitous than the failure to prevent conflict.” 

SEI continues to investigate these issues in the Mistra Geopolitics programme, which examines the interaction between geopolitics, security and global climate and environmental change.

The cost-of-living crisis

This year’s IMF annual report contained a chapter devoted to the cost-of-living crisis. It noted that ‘a combination of climate shocks and the pandemic disrupted food and energy production and distribution, driving up costs for people around the world.’ This chain of inflationary pressures have hurt mostly poorer households. Food banks in the US and UK have seen record queues, and according to the World Food programme “more than 333 million people are facing acute levels of food insecurity in 2023, and do not know where their next meal is coming from”.

The response from monetary policy has been to raise interest rates. This seems to be influencing inflation in some countries. But higher borrowing rates, combined with disruptions in supply chains, have transformed the business case for some renewable energy projects. The Danish renewable energy major, Orsted, had to write down investments in America to the tune of USD 4 billion.

The effect of higher interest rates on previously bankable projects illustrates the why the cost of capital is such a determining factor in financing the energy and climate transitions. For many years, the high cost of capital has been one of the key limiting factors in breaking ground on renewable energy projects in developing countries. The cost-of-living crisis is a tale of 2three i’s”: inflation, interest rates and inequality.

SEI’s research programme on finance for sustainable development and work on achieving a Just Transition – to a low-carbon economy; by using financial levers to support sustainable development; and in addressing public health, diets and animal agriculture – are examples of how we are tackling these issues.

Technological disruption

In February 2023, an investigation by an international consortium of journalists revealed the operations of a consultancy that claimed to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media. In June, the UK Government Chief Scientific Officer held a roundtable to discuss the impact of climate change mis- and disinformation, concluding that it resulted in “reduced climate literacy [and] greater polarisation”.

As the UN gears up for the Summit of the Future next year, one of the policy briefs that it published in June 2023 concerns “Information integrity on digital platforms”. It notes that the “ability to disseminate large-scale disinformation to undermine scientifically established facts poses an existential risk to humanity and endangers democratic institutions and fundamental human rights”. The brief proposes a Code of Conduct for Information Integrity and commits the UN to stepping up efforts to monitor and counter misinformation and disinformation.

SEI continues to work with Wikipedia to ensure that its information on the SDGs is scientifically correct and easily understandable. The project has analysed the quality of articles on SDGs 6, 13 and 14 against an index of nine parameters. Where gaps or inadequacies are identified, we involve experts from the North and South to edit existing content and write new articles.

The meaning crisis

An investigation published in early 2023 by Time revealed that workers in Kenya were being employed to improve the performance of ChatGPT by sifting through and labelling a very large number of examples of violence, sexual abuse and hate speech. This was not the first time that tech giants outsourced “content moderation” to poorer countries.

The ethics and safety of AI have come under scrutiny this year. These issues may even have played a part in the upheavals at OpenAI, the company that produces ChatGPT. In 2023, AI was a constant presence and emerging worry, as evidenced by efforts to raise concerns on inherent bias, to warn of unregulated devil-may-care approach to developing AI capabilities, and to set up an AI Safety Institute. But few of these initiatives address the emerging power dynamics in AI development, in which a relatively small number of companies race forward in research and deployment of AI, fuelled by investors that dream of trillion dollar returns.

But AI’s power is also being harnessed to address key climate and sustainability issues. For example, it can be used to analyze the many complex and evolving variables of the climate system to improve climate models, narrow the uncertainties that exist, and make better predictions. SEI has used AI to track rapid permafrost thaw, and an ongoing project is using AI to analyse oceanographic data to help understand changes in sea temperatures, currents, and ecosystems and how climate change is affecting marine environments.

Written by

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

Engagement Director

SEI Headquarters

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