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In tomorrow’s world, people who see change as opportunity will succeed: WEF founder

SINGAPORE – Young Singaporeans who learn to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat will find themselves better equipped for the future in a turbulent and uncertain world, says World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab.

“I think it’s the first time in global history that people are so pessimistic about the future,” Professor Schwab told The Straits Times editor Jaime Ho in an interview on Aug 31.

He explained that the difficulty of understanding many of the changes around us in recent times – such as technological evolution, in particular artificial intelligence (AI) – has resulted in a growing sense of dread about the future among populations.

“Now, my advice would be to embrace change,” he said. Those who do so can respond more swiftly to new developments in the increasingly competitive and fast-paced global environment, giving them an edge over others elsewhere.

“In the world of tomorrow, it’s not the big fish eating the small fish, but the fast fish eating the slow fish,” he said. “Change will be a constant factor in our lives, and those people who see change as an opportunity and not as a threat will succeed.”

Prof Schwab was responding to questions posed by Mr Ho, who asked how he viewed the flux of plurilateral groupings – countries forming more of their own separate alliances – in recent years, and what advice he had for young Singaporeans to compete effectively in such a world today.

He described today’s world as multipolar, being dominated by two superpowers, the United States and China, while at the same time greatly influenced by middle states like Saudi Arabia, with its energy reserves, and India, with the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Smaller powers such as Singapore, Switzerland and Israel also play an essential role in the global system. And big corporate powers, including Google and Microsoft, have a say on the global stage as well, he added.

“It’s not a very stable world, because we are now witnessing a kind of dynamic system that is constantly changing,” he said.

“We have to conform to a very fragmented and… turbulent system because these countries compete not only in economic terms; they also compete (in) having different values and different systems. So the world is relatively full of complexities and certainly also uncertainties.”

Regulating AI

During the 40-minute interview at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, Prof Schwab said AI offered tremendous opportunities that could prove “a game changer” for both businesses and societies.

But it posed challenges as well, he said, threatening democracies with its ability to influence elections by producing and propagating disinformation, and disrupting workforces by rendering some jobs obsolete.

To address these challenges, the WEF launched the AI Governance Alliance in June, working with governments around the world as well as tech giants, including Google, Microsoft, Meta and IBM, to set guidelines and safeguards to ensure the responsible design, development and deployment of AI systems.

“Traditionally, governments looked at a new technology and set the necessary rules for the first development of that technology. But here, the technology is moving so fast, and it’s also very difficult to really understand this technology,” Prof Schwab said.

“The danger is that governments will be too late in creating the necessary borderlines around the technology… So we have to put much more emphasis here on self-regulation, and that’s what the World Economic Forum is doing: To make sure self-regulation is also, maybe some time afterwards, approved and endorsed by governments and civil society.”

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Need for health literacy

Prof Schwab, 85, was visiting Singapore to explore ways that the WEF can work with institutions here to address issues, including the ageing population. The latter is a topic close to his heart, the octogenarian said with a wry smile.

A German citizen and an engineer and economist by training, Prof Schwab founded the WEF in 1971. He has been deeply involved in its work ever since, remaining the institution’s executive chairman long past the typical retirement age of around the 60s.

The WEF, based in Switzerland, is an international non-governmental and lobbying organisation for multinational companies that aims to improve “the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”, according to its website.

Societies can shape new, more positive narratives on ageing and longevity by educating their populations on the issue from a young age, Prof Schwab said.

“We should introduce in schools the teaching of health literacy because we have today, in many parts of the world, unhealthy behaviours that afterwards have a big impact not only on health insurances, but also on the quality of life,” he said.

Many studies have found that unhealthy behaviours such as keeping poor diets, lack of physical activity and inhaling second-hand smoke put children at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer later in life.

More than two-thirds of deaths from heart disease worldwide could have been prevented with healthier diets, according to one study published in 2020 in the European Heart Journal – Quality Of Care And Clinical Outcomes.

“Our efforts should not only be to prolong life, but also to make sure that we have a healthy life for as long as possible. And this starts with health literacy – to know what are actually the factors that make your life healthier.”

On retirement, Prof Schwab noted that the concept of retirement age first came about decades ago when people had much shorter life expectancies. But the world has changed a lot since then.

Governments today should be more flexible and consider how to better integrate older people into the workforce, he said.

“It’s also a question of what is the meaning of life,” he added. “I would say my own most important resource for being active is this notion of having a mission in life.”

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