Leadership failure on a global scale threatens to sow “the seeds of dystopia” — a future beset by rising economic inequality, shredded social contracts,...

Leadership failure on a global scale threatens to sow “the seeds of dystopia” — a future beset by rising economic inequality, shredded social contracts, high and chronic unemployment of the young and an aging population left dependent on cash-poor governments.

Corrupt or hapless politicians aren’t the world’s only worry, though, says the “Global Risks 2012” report from the World Economic Forum. Based on the results of surveys, workshops and interviews involving forum stakeholders, this year’s study explores the potential for major global risks in five areas: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological.

In the technology sphere, for example, “critical systems failure” is singled out as the one risk with the greatest potential impact on society. Cyberattacks, on the other hand, are the threat with the greatest probability of occurring.

Other technological risks identified by the World Economic Forum are (in descending order of risk): massive incident of data fraud or theft, mineral resource supply vulnerability, massive digital misinformation, failure of intellectual property regime, proliferation of orbital debris, unintended consequences of climate change mitigation, unintended consequences of new life science technologies and unintended consequences of nanotechnology.

The forum report closes with three key conclusions:

  • Decision-makers need to better understand how incentives can improve global collaboration and response to risks;
  • Trust, or lack of trust, in leaders is a crucial factor in how risks might manifest themselves; and
  • The public needs better, more transparent and meaningful communication and information sharing on the risks they might face.

“The more complex the system, the greater the risk of systemic breakdown, but also the greater the potential for opportunity,” notes Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. “Together, we have the foresight and collaborative spirit to shape our global future and particularly the survival instinct to move from pure urgency-driven risk management to more collaborative efforts aimed at strengthening risk resilience to the benefit of global society.”

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