We live in very fast-paced and extremely interconnected world in which the effects of the war in Ukraine reverberate around the countries of the Middle East and Africa, where 80 per cent of their food supply is entirely dependent on either Russia or Ukraine, and innovations from Silicon Valley travel fast to meet globally competitive talents in the Western Balkans. The World Economic Forum is working on these and many other urgent topics, seeking solutions for inclusive and sustainable growth
This interview with Mirek Dusek, Head of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East at the World Economic Forum (WEF), was conducted while our interlocutor was at the airport between flights and in one breath. Our topics spanned from ongoing geopolitical threats of the war in Ukraine to excitement with the new WEF summit in Davos taking place this spring, as well as his impressions following very productive visits to Belgrade and Zagreb, during which he discussed opportunities for the technologically driven growth of the countries of the Western Balkans, with both country leaders and globally competitive tech entrepreneurs from the region.
Inevitably, our conversation started with the global effects of the war in Ukraine and other conflicts that are currently in its shadow and reflections on the achievements during the “prolonged peace” in which at least some parts of the world lived after World War II.
Geopolitics is a word that governs our world even in the most secluded parts of the globe. If you had to rate today’s geopolitical threats, how would your list look?
We do live in a more geopolitical world and some are saying that the era of the global peace dividend is over. We have seen decades of globally increased interconnectedness, increased cooperation on issues of trade, the environment, but also geopolitical issues. During this same period, we’ve also seen many geopolitical uncertainties in many countries and regions. I found myself doing a lot of work in the Middle East and in this region, and it hasn’t really been a period of prolonged peace, as we had buckets of conflict. However, we can say that we had this period at a geostrategic level, which led to great advances in the fight against poverty, the integration of supply chains, more innovation and more efficacy in raising the overall standard of living in many countries. Now, when I say that we live in more geopolitical world, there is this realisation at a strategic level globally, involving the great powers. There is now more competition within the system and that’s been something that we’ve seen for some years.
The pandemic struck an already vulnerable world, a world in which some of the institutions of the international system were already under strain. That realisation has now been escalated by war in Ukraine
When we wrote about the covid-19 pandemic, we already said at the Forum that the pandemic struck an already vulnerable world; a world in which some of the institutions of the international system were already under strain. And that realisation has now been escalated by war in Ukraine, which has tragic humanitarian consequences in terms of what it’s doing to the international system and great power relations. So, overall, yes, we do live in a more geopolitical world, but that doesn’t mean this should lead to passivity or that this thing just happened to us. There is a great deal of urgency regarding what needs to be realised, hopefully, and this is what the WEF is working on. We are seeking to find ways for international stakeholders to cooperate.
For example, the African Trade Agreement, as a pan-continental free trade agreement that we’ve seen emerge over the past years, is an amazing achievement of multilateralism in that region. We also see great strides elsewhere, most obviously in the Abraham Accords between Israel and some countries of the Middle East.
Viewed from this perspective, how fast are global challenges emerging today? Is our world faster in that respect than it was a century or two centuries ago, or are we too deeply immersed in the current historical perspective to see the bigger picture?
We do live in very fast-paced and extremely interconnected world. So, absolutely, in terms of the manifesting of what we call global risks or global trends, it is certainly a feature of this system that this is a much more complex world. If, for example, we take a look at the repercussions or cascading effects of the war in Ukraine, first there are, of course, the tragic humanitarian consequences reverberating throughout the international community. However, then, of course, there are staggering cascading effects.
We see the impact on the world food system. We are realising how interconnected we are in terms of food supply chains. We can see in certain countries of the Middle East and Africa that 80 per cent of their food supply is entirely dependent on either Russia or Ukraine.
So, this is a huge disruption that can lead to their economies being subjected to heavy pressures overnight. Another example is the energy security issue, or the energy system issue in which we suddenly see a huge impact on the system and a complete re-evaluation of how countries, and stakeholders within countries, view their energy system and energy security.
And this is not only in Europe, but rather we also see it around the globe. It is also important to know why we have set up this system globally again during this period of “prolonged peace”, if I may use that phrase. We have had amazing efficiencies within that system, which has led to unprecedented innovation and led to growth, with many countries raising their standard of living. It is now about how we make sure that, in response to the realisation that we live in a world that’s more exposed to risk, we can come together as much as possible and consider how we build more resilience. We’re actually preparing a new WEF initiative, in which we’re examining the notion of resilience, but not through the prism of defence, which would be the usual instinctive reaction. This is more about how we use resilience to drive future inclusive and sustainable growth.
In a globalised world, do we still have regional threats that are confined to one area, continent or state? In that respect, how do you see the state of regional affairs in our part of the world?
I think that, overall, in this world that is slightly more fragmented, there is more competition geo-economically and geopolitically. Regions and regional cooperation are so important and play a more important role, particularly if you compare today to a decade or two ago. We see countries and regions responding not only to the current cascading effects of war in Ukraine, food and energy, but we see also their covid response that preceded this crisis. Again, there were actions from both individual countries and regional groupings that played a major role. The Western Balkans is a region of key importance, obviously in Europe. At the WEF, we have a long and rich history of engaging both public and private sector leaders, as well as young people in the region, in support of the things that we believe can be the fundamentals of future growth. We focused a lot on supporting competitiveness. We published our Global Competitiveness Report, which represents a major piece of knowledge that countries use to benchmark themselves in terms of economic indicators. We’ve been working on this agenda with many institutions in the Western Balkans.
We’ve also been working on skillset innovation capabilities in the region through private sector involvement. We were very recently proud to launch the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Belgrade, together with Prime minister Brnabić, who came to Geneva to launch it with us. We also have good cooperation with, and support from, President Vučić. We believe that we can help by connecting economies like those of Serbia and Western Balkans with economies around the World. The purpose is to integrate and exchange knowhow on technological governance. We have published quite extensively on the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. You might know that 15% of global GDP is generated by the digital economy. So, we already live in the age of the digital economy, and by 2040 it’s contribution could be 26%.
We were very recently proud to launch the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Belgrade, together with Prime minister Brnabić. We also have good cooperation with, and support from, President Vučić
A major part of global GDP is driven by the digital economy. We believe that, while a lot of innovation has been driven by private sector players in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, it is so important that stakeholders around the world are on the front foot, wherever they can be, in terms of making sure that these technological advances have a positive impact on society. And that’s where technological governance comes in, and where we believe that connecting to this global network of countries that work together on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, initially in Serbia and Belgrade, but perhaps also in other countries of the region, will also contribute to increasing the competitiveness of this region in the future. We’re also monitoring some developments in the region regarding dialogue and further integration, which of course always has efficiencies that lead to further innovations. My last point on this is that we are preparing our annual meeting in Davos, to run from 22nd to 26th May. We are following the tradition that we’ve established over past years by inviting the leaders of the Western Balkan economies to discuss the economic future of the region.
We’ve been confined to our homes for two years, working from if we’re lucky, while Davos has been missing its guests. How has this situation impacted the World Economic Forum? How do you nurture the important networks that have usually been established during the annual gatherings? Are you more intertwined today, or is conversation somewhat lacking?
Obviously, we were all unprepared when the pandemic struck, because no one could have foreseen it. I must say that I feel that we are much closer and more connected to the different stakeholders around the world with whom we work. What we’ve been doing since the beginning of the pandemic is to establish a covid response platform, which was really a way for us to ensure we can support publicprivate cooperation, through the Covid Action Platform, to see how different countries started responding to this unprecedented disruption. Throughout this two-year period, we’ve maintained a constant dialogue with our partners in the private sector, but also with many governments, proactively reaching out for them to exchange knowledge and insights with their peers. When such a shock hits, knowing and learning from your peers is at a premium, as it ensures that you are really well-informed regarding their response and are able to learn ways to cooperate.
We’re also working on many global agenda issues, such as the transition to net zero, ways that we can combat climate change, improve trade, supply chains, energy etc. And we’re also working on specific regions across all those areas that we’ve been in touch with constantly through digital channels, and we see more intensified interaction among the top decision-makers. We’ve had corporate CEOs and government ministers interacting around different issues, both mutually and with us, on an almost monthly basis.
Of course, we are happy that the epidemiological situation now allows us to hold a summit that will take place in person in Davos. This is going to be the first time that we will stage Davos in the spring, so it’s going to be a new experience. However, on the whole, we are hearing from all the key decision-makers with whom we work, and actually – given the multiple challenges that we see, the fast-changing geoeconomics and geopolitical landscape that we’ve discussed, but also urgent imperatives around climate change – the health systems will not wait for the geopolitical picture to sort itself out. We are receiving a lot of demands even on this front, so the meeting of leaders that will convene at the end of May is going to be unprecedented.
The World Economic Forum was instrumental in establishing Serbia’s National Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as part of the global network of such centres. What role do they play within national borders and within the network?
This is a new way in which we see governments interact on technology governance. Governments around the world want to be at the forefront when it comes to shaping technology governance. They want to be at the forefront vis-à-vis the private sector innovations that we see around the world and realise that, in order to do so, they need to be in the network, to learn from each other, but not only that, they also need to integrate with each other. So, we have a number of projects in the network. Some of them are being developed by us. We have a network mothership in San Francisco, where we have lots of policy experts with lots of experience.
We are preparing our annual meeting in Davos, to run from 22nd to 26th May. We are following the tradition that we’ve established over past years by inviting the leaders of the Western Balkan economies to discuss the economic future of the region
However, the magic happens when these different nodes in the network start collaborating with one another. We have a project that was developed in Brazil on the ways SMEs can use IoT technology. This project has now been used by centres in Turkey and elsewhere in the network. We also have a project that was developed by some of our preceding initiatives with the United Kingdom, using AI in public procurement, and that project is also proving quite popular. Those are just two examples, but there are multiple projects that have been integrated like that and developed. Serbia is now part of that network, and we look forward to working with the centre in Belgrade on some of these projects, but also adding more future projects that would benefit some of the priorities of Serbia and other Western Balkan countries in this domain of the digital economy.
Are we already lagging behind when it comes to governing ethical parts of the implementation of new technologies, including artificial intelligence? As someone who hails from this part of the world, what concerns you the most and what fills you with optimism when it comes to the development of this region, and Serbia in particular?
I think that, of course, what we need to watch out for is to ensure that – in the context of these larger geo-economic and geopolitical tectonic shifts – the constructive agenda can be maintained around economic growth, the humancentric agenda and the innovation agenda. These factors are at the forefront of our minds as we work on the Western Balkans and Europe as a whole. What excites me is that I recently had a really productive visit to Belgrade, but also to Zagreb, and it’s really nice to the energy, particularly of globally competitive tech entrepreneurs in different industries. This means that these amazing personalities that I met – some of whom have returned from abroad, while others grew their business entirely in their own country and are nonetheless globally competitive – are creating global businesses and represent great promise for Serbia, Croatia and the Western Balkans overall. That excites me, and that’s also why I’m quite passionate about work with my colleagues to support these priorities in the Western Balkans, and Serbia specifically.
Economic growth, the humancentric agenda and the innovation agenda are at the forefront of our minds as we work on the Western Balkans and Europe as a whole
We live in a more geopolitical world than ever, but that doesn’t mean this should lead to passivity. We can come together as much as possible and consider how we build more resilience
During the period of “prolonged peace”, we had amazing efficiencies within that system, which led to unprecedented innovation and growth, with many countries raising their standard of living