The challenges to social development

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Out of focus aerial shot of a crowd of people walking in a city.

Opening remarks to the Management of Social Transformation (MOST) Forum, UNESCO

Sir Peter Gluckman
President, International Science Council
Director, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland

The ISC is the Paris-based global body bringing national and social science organisations together along with national academies. As the principal non-government body bringing forward the voice of science, we are a close partner with UNECSO as the intergovernmental body.

Humans evolved as social animals and our wellbeing ultimately depends on the state of family, communities, and the societies we live in. And societies are under a range of stresses; how they will respond and evolve is central to this meeting. We need to look at this challenge through the lens of both the individual as well as broader society. Societal or social cohesion can be regarded as a concept that does both. It can be thought of as a state depending on:

  • Sufficient trust and respect between those who are governed and the institutions and individuals that govern them;
  • Sufficient trust and respect between all members of a society – irrespective of the diversity of identities, worldviews, values, beliefs, and interests within a society – to foster cooperation for the good of society as a whole;
  • The outcome should be institutions and structures that promote trust and respect for every citizen and allow belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition, and legitimacy to be universally possible.

There are an enormous number of ways in which societal cohesion can be strengthened or weakened. Sadly, there are too many societies where cohesion is either poorly extant or under great threat.

Clearly the political economy, multiple inequalities, and the realities and perceptions of unfairness drive much that can undermine social cohesion. Prof Mazzucato has already discussed these so I will limit my remarks to other dimensions of the issue.

Rapid change is threatening, and we face existential risks from both climate change and other excesses to the planetary boundaries. These then become reflected both in economic and environmental realities, and in individual mental health, economic issues, and the consequences of human displacement.

We also face rapid change and extraordinary developments in technologies, both digital and life science based, and these can drive loss of agency, empowerment, and greater inequalities. They can undermine trust in each other and in government through weaponized narrative and disinformation.

A sense of agency and identity is important for individuals, and the realities of post-colonial disadvantage and loss of identity are real. Political structures matter too, with great diversity of the degree of agency that citizens might have. Social networks, community support and individuals’ mental health all matter. The conditions that often undermine mental health and economic disadvantage can also lead to community support networks being undermined.

Corruption, autocracy, and cynical government behaviour all undermine trust and impact on the nature of social transformation.

Economic or environmental insecurity, threats to personal safety, or threat from authoritarian rule all impact on social cohesion and individual wellbeing.

The technological milieu and particularly social media has had an enormous impact and in places has polarised rather than united communities and societies. The nature of interpersonal discourse has changed in ways that polarise and exclude. The paradox is that at the same time technologies have empowered and driven opportunity; however, the digital divide is real and rapid change can drive greater inequalities.

Overall, the pace of technological change and its unforeseen impacts are having major impacts on mental health, human development, and societal operations in ways that may have existential consequences. The issues of growing rates of mental health concern, especially in young people, are very real. The rapidly rising rates reflect social and environmental factors including especially the role of the digital milieu. What AI and other technologies may bring is a matter of optimism and pessimism depending on where you sit in a society and how the question is framed. Finding how we will live with or manage rapid technological change may be as big a challenge as facing climate change and on a similar timescale. None of this is easy in the face of rising nationalism and where the potential for technological power can prioritise decision making over the needs of both of the global commons and the social and societal commons.

Both the scholarly and the policy discourse need to come together. The ISC is a key partner with UNESCO in doing so. We cannot afford a laissez-faire attitude; the problems are obvious, but what is also obvious is an avoidance of long-term thinking and deep discussion of causes and solutions. The costs of passivity are too high. Transdisciplinary thinking and action are needed.

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