Reasons to hope are visible within the current crisis. After all, crises represent a time of change. They are periods where creative disorder eradicates old methods of regulation, making way for new ones.
Accelerated changes like the ones associated with economic globalisation and the development of new technologies are all opportunities for reinventing, innovating and envisioning the world, new needs or new ways of working. These times of transition from old to new are important, as they question economic rents and promote social mobility and equal opportunities by rewarding innovation and giving an advantage to those which are not simply the products of reproducing prior cultural, sociological or economic knowledge.
However, in order to exploit the benefits of the technological and industrial revolutions currently under way, we need to unleash creative energy, to offer microenterprises the will and the chance to grow, just as much as we need to promote innovation and creation. Consequently, the quality of the economic and social environment, in legislative, regulatory and cultural terms, is crucial.
The new drivers of economic growth will almost certainly be biotechnology and nanotechnology, which, among other factors, pave the way for living longer, healthier lives and more effectively preventing or curing serious illnesses; energy storage technology, energy saving technology and renewable energies themselves, without which no energy transition or sustainable development would be possible; digital technology and Big Data for creating new services from massive data repositories currently stored but only partially used, thanks also to miniaturisation, for developing robots and other mobile and connected objects even further. All of these sectors are in a position to ensure future growth – if we use them properly and if the context of their emergence is intelligently thought out.
These hopes could indeed be thwarted by dangerous use of new techniques, which could just as easily drift towards applications that would gradually transform humans into machines or be used to establish totalitarian control of society. Their ethical and humanistic use is something that absolutely must be guaranteed. But these hopes might also be crushed if economic globalisation were to lead to uncontrollable distrust, introversion or religious fanaticism. Naturally, with the globalisation of trade, accelerated by new technologies, comes a vital need for proximity and protection, in a dialectic that is specific to human history.
In a more open, more mobile world, strengthening proximity and the protective capacity of institutions may be both essential and a generator of wealth and values – without undermining the responsibility of each individual. In the labour market, for example, flexicurity may be a response to the concomitant need for greater flexibility and risk-taking together with protection for individual career paths in an economy where mobility is more necessary than ever.
If human fears give way to listening more attentively to populist proposals or religious fanaticism, if the national framework cannot offer an open vision and, at the same time, legitimate and reasonable protection for the population, the world will close up, and fear of the future will lead to the refusal of progress. As Gramsci wrote, ‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.’
In order for this hope to thrive, we must fight for the virtue of our humanist values and the secularism that allows different religions to live together. But we must also trust in our ability to invent the world of tomorrow founded on an economy and institutions (labour market and rules, education, security, etc.) that are efficient and close to the people, paving the way both for innovation and for the creation of added value, on the one hand, and better job security and equal opportunities on the other. An open, fluid and dynamic society, but one that is also just and offers protection.
Professor of Economics and Finance at HEC