This 12th edition of The Global Risks Report is published at a time of heightened political uncertainty following a year of unexpected electoral results, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Polarized societies and political landscapes are taking center stage in many countries, with deepening generational and cultural divisions amplifying the risks associated with sluggish economic recovery and accelerating technological change.
These tensions have been building for some time, and over the past 10 years a nexus of social, political and economic fragilities has been a consistent focus of The Global Risks Report. The events of 2016 should serve as a wake-up call and prompt us to reassess our preparedness in the face of an evolving risk landscape.
While we should be wary of attributing too much influence to a series of very recent electoral results, the consequences of which are still unknown, major unexpected events can serve as inflection points. Long-term trends — such as persistent inequality and deepening polarization, which ranked first and third in perceived importance in the Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) this year — can build to a point at which they become triggers for change. This kind of change might involve risks intensifying or crystallizing, but it is important to recognize that shocks and releases of tension might also lead to a brightening of the risk outlook. We are in a period of flux; paradoxically this is, therefore, a time when things could improve.
The world is undergoing multiple complex transitions: toward a lower-carbon future; toward technological change of unprecedented depth and speed; and toward new global economic and geopolitical balances. Managing these transitions and the deeply interconnected risks they entail will require long-term thinking, investment and international cooperation. It will also require policymakers to bring voters with them — one of the lessons of 2016 is that we are very far from consensus on how to proceed.
This year’s Global Risks Report takes as its starting point the societal and political polarization that besets an increasing number of countries and that looks set to be a determining feature of the political landscape, not just for the next few years but for the next few electoral cycles.