Astana Economic Forum now global in scale, relevance

No one who attends the 11th Astana Economic Forum taking place this month will be complaining that its agenda does not get to the heart of global challenges or those invited to speak will lack insights on how we might overcome them. The revamped format provides opportunities for debate on an extraordinary range of important topics while those contributing to discussions will bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the forum.

The ambition of the organisers underlines how the AEF has grown over the last decade into an established part of the international calendar. Its appeal and focus now reaches far beyond Kazakhstan or even Central Asia and is undeniably global in its perspective. Thousands of participants from as many as 80 countries are expected to attend.

What is also true is that the AEF has evolved as the need for fresh ideas has become more urgent. When the first forum was held in June 2008, of course, the full catastrophic shock of the global financial crisis was still a couple of months away. There were, of course, concerns about what was happening in the world economy but too few anticipated the scale of the disaster which was about to hit nor just how widespread its impact would be.

As the crisis spread rapidly from small-town America to every continent, it brought home – for many people for the first time – how our economies were now linked. The crisis demanded a global response to repair the damage and tackle the faults in the system now exposed.

Over the last 10 years, the AEF, as international organisations, such as the UN have recognised, has helped shape this response. Measures and mechanisms now adopted to prevent the crisis being repeated and to remedy flaws in the system can be traced back to recommendations out of the forum. From the beginning, its discussions have been focused on the practical rather than the purely theoretical.

Even a decade later, the world has failed to shrug off the legacy of the crisis.  Real wages in many countries have failed to recover while debt levels remain high. Inequality both between and within countries has worsened. Indeed, how we can reduce this gap at a time when global growth is slowing – and whether priority should be given to increasing GDP or reducing inequality – is one of the challenges which this year’s AEF will debate.

There will be discussions, too, on husbanding natural resources and the role of sustainable energy as well as how we can better arrive at – and deliver – solutions to global problems. Whether, for instance, it is tackling climate change or strengthening international trade, our world can appear to be moving away from the common action which is necessary.

But it is a measure of how the forum has evolved that it will also examine a whole host of other economic and social issues which will have a profound effect on our lives in the future. So,among the 11 global challenges to be discussed, for example, is how we tackle the impact of increasing longevity on our economies and societies. There will also be discussions on crypto-currencies as well as what we must do to ensure we get the benefits that the digital world and big data can bring while preventing them from being misused or abused.

There will be sessions, too, focused on how our megacities must change to meet the needs of the growing number of people who want to live in them. And the role of AI – Artificial Intelligence – in our workplaces and economies, the opportunities this will bring and the risks that we guard against will also be examined. There will be a fascinating discussion on what humans can offer which even the most intelligent machines cannot.

Issues of such importance and complexity need insightful speakers if the discussions are to be fruitful. There will be no disappointment in Astana at the list of those attending and contributing.

Among those scheduled to share their expertise are the former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and former French President Francois Hollande. The delegates will also hear from economists such as the World Bank’s Hans Timmerand, Jim’ O’Neill, who famously devised the BRICS concept, as well as world-leading scientists such as physicist Michio Kaku.

It promises to be a lively and rewarding couple of days. Even more importantly, we must all hope that the outcome of the discussions will help us find the answers to the big challenges we face just as past forums have done.