AUTHOR: Robert Whitfield, Chair of Trustees
The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) in 2016 asked a question of fundamental importance to the future of humanity. It deserves wide appreciation for seeking answers to this question, assessing those answers and launching a global movement to implement the ideas that emerge from them. But did it address the right question? Not entirely: it failed to adequately address existential risk and the emerging challenges of the 21st Century. It is not too late to adjust however.
GCF launched the New Shape for Global Governance Prize (New Shape) in November 2016. Participants in the competition were invited to “Design a governance model able to effectively address the most pressing threats and risks to humanity.”
Each word in the above sentence is powerful: combined they define the essential challenge for humanity in the 21st Century. The requirement went on:
“The task is not to come up with direct solutions to specific problems. Rather, it is to design a general model for decision-making, with the aim of generating such solutions and the ability to do so, and possessing the resources to effectively implement them.”
This made it clear that what was sought was not a list of solutions but a set of institutional changes that would reliably generate those solutions.
Finally the requirement set a time frame: “The governance model must also be such that it can be implemented within the foreseeable future. This requires that it be acceptable to major states and the wider international community. A significant measure of civic acceptance is also required. This requirement eliminates models that rely on time-consuming and controversial changes in the political system of individual states, e.g. models that postulate that all states should be democracies.
This time condition avoided the arbitrary confines of a specific date, but at the same time indicated a “sooner rather than later” message. This condition added a necessary element of reality to the question, without being too prescriptive.
The framing of the question successfully avoided the trap of being too constrained by the starting position whilst on the other hand avoiding the trap of being too theoretical.
The New Shape Prize attracted a remarkable 2,702 entries from 122 countries,. This reflected the substantial prize and extensive promotion around the globe. Furthermore, GCF organised and resourced an effective assessment and adjudication process. Of crucial importance is that they do not appear to be stopping there. By organising the New Shape Forum at the end of the assessment phase, they started to bring together a global community to nurture its development. The current phase consists of working groups on the major themes to create coherent proposals in time for the Paris Peace Forum in November 2018.
The missing risks
There is one aspect of the question however that is open to some criticism. It is not too late to remedy this weakness now, but it is essential that it is indeed remedied. The weakness relates to the wording of the challenges that humanity faces. The words used by GCF in the competition were as follows:
“The major problems and risks are climate change and other large-scale environmental damage and politically motivated violence (war, civil war, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction). Other major problems faced are extreme poverty and rapid population growth.”
The problems and risks listed are certainly major and need to be able to be addressed in an effective and timely manner. But the GCF wording is not all encompassing and indeed omits some of the most devasting risks. An all-encompassing term for the most serious of risks facing humanity is existential risk A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks.
Nick Bostrom identified, in his key 2002 paper a list of 23 existential risks. This list included some catch-all items and some post-human risks that need not be addressed in this current governance design. But the key point is that apart from the risk of a comet or asteroid collision with earth, the first existential threat in human history was not until the mid 20th Century, with the first detonation of an atomic bomb. Nuclear Armageddon and comet or asteroid strikes are, in Bostrom’s words, “mere preludes to the existential threats we will encounter in the 21st Century.”
The GCF wording identifies two categories of risk that cut across the Bostrom classification, namely
Such an error or loss of control may lead for example to
Identification of such risks continues as technologies develop, our technological forecasting capability improves and our search for risk intensifies.
Whether these risks arise from malintent or from error, what is clear is that governance for the 21st Century must be designed to protect humanity from both the global catastrophic risks of the 20th Century and the new existential risks emerging in the 21st Century.
 Bostrom, Nick (2013). "Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority" (PDF). Global Policy. Future of Humanity Institute. 4 (1): 15–3. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12002 – via Existential Risk.
 Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University www.nickbostrom.com
[Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002). (First version: 2001)]