The Future of Power at Global Soft Power Summit 2020, Oxford

February 26, 2020 at Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford

Peter Fisk, global thought leader on strategy and innovation, explores the changing nature of power. He will look forwards to the future, making sense of the megatrends driving society and business, to understand where is power heading, and how can it be built and deployed for the future.

Other speakers include:

  • Ban Ki-Moon, 8th Secretary-General, United Nations
  • Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics
  • Sir Ciarán Devane, CEO, British Council
  • Dr Yu Jie, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House
  • David Haigh, CEO, Brand Finance

Megatrends and Metapower

We live in a time of incredible change. Dramatic, pervasive, and relentless. More change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years. The challenges are numerous, the opportunities are greater. Incredible technologies transforming our lives and work, expectant consumers and disruptive competitors, power shifts economically and culturally, climate crisis and social distrust. The 2020s will be a decade of transformation.

The 2020s will be a decade of transformation. It will be a decade of shifting power. Whilst we used to think of power as hard and hierarchical, new power is soft and social. I call it “Meta Power” because it goes beyond our traditional sources of power, and boundaries of control. In particular it goes beyond nations, beyond the power nodes and codes of the past.

Meta power goes beyond nations

Meta power is not about having the largest army, it is about having the best story. It harnesses the new structures of our society, and is achieved through inspiration and influence. It comes from the voice of people who are loved and respected. It is the emotion stirred through culture and sport. It is the actions that positively contribute to a better society, healthier and happier. It is less tangible and less structural, more human and collaborative. It is a pull not a push, a carrot not a stick.

Thunberg is more respected than Trump, U2 has more influence than the UN, Messi is more followed than Macron. Leaders realise that social media is more effective than press releases, nations realise that culture is more potent than politics, media realise that people love stories of real people beyond celebrity. The best brands win through word of mouth rather than advertising, music and movies are promoted through immersive experiences.

Think of the power of social media in driving the Arab Spring, which no nation was able to influence or contain. Think about reality television which immerse people in trivial yet everyday lives. Think about the most memorable Olympic stories: Jesse Owens as he underminded Hitler in Berlin, Eric “the Eel” Moussambani who have never swum in a pool before Sydney, or Sarah Attar, who ran in London in a headscarf, and inspired the liberation of women in Saudi Arabia.

We are only starting to appreciate the seismic nature of change in our world, technologically and socially, and how it is changing the very concepts of power.

We are all familiar with how the smartphone has transformed the way we live, how we shop and connect, how we work and learn, how we vote and identify ourselves. The rising economies of Asia, its new brands and new middle class, transform business, but also the power behind movies, fashion, and sports. Jurassic Park to Harvey Nichols, Volvo Cars to Weetabix. We might be concerned about Huawei, we should probably be more concerned about TikTok, and its disruptive impact on our children. Indeed, artificial intelligence will be the most powerful transformative force of all, with its applications from genetic recoding to self-learning machines.

Take a look at three megatrends shaping our decade ahead, and the consequences for power, be it for nations, and also for entities that exist beyond or across nations:

Trend 1. Cities are the new the power nodes

Rapid urbanisation is redefining our world, the nature of markets and nations. 1.5 million more people live in cities every week. By 2025, Asia will be home to 33 of the world’s 49 megacities, of over 10 million people. In fact China expects to have 200 cities with a population of over one million people by 2025. To tackle overcrowding in Beijing, China is building a new city – Xiongan New Area – from scratch 100km southwest of the capital. Delhi will replace Tokyo as the world’s largest city, whilst all 10 of the world’s fastest growing cities will be in India, with the port of Surat growing fastest of all.

Economic growth is driving the rise of a new global middle class, 3.2 billion people today, growing across Asia to 5.3 billion by 2030, the world’s fastest growing market. At the same time, people have migrated across the world. Nations are increasingly heterogeneous, multi-cultural and diverse. Over 350 million people live in a different country from their birth, a number that will triple in 10 years. Diasporas and tribes, driven by culture or religion, a love of hip hop or running will spread across the world, dispersed but connected.

“Meta power” lies in the new communities of cities, and the global tribes of the future.

Trend 2. Social issues are the new power drivers

Environmental threats are intensifying, challenging our desire for industrialisation and progress, demanding a new balance between short- and long-term impacts. As individuals and brands embrace more resource-efficient behaviours, from bike-sharing to material recycling, social and environmental issues have become critical drivers of decision making. 66% of consumers, including 73% of millennials, say they will pay more for environmentally-friendly products.

Last year Formula 1 pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2030, and to make all grand prix sustainable by 2025. For a sport that produces 225,000 tonnes of CO2 each session, and transports 10 teams to 21 races around the globe, this is a huge commitment, and demonstrates the shift in society’s priorities. In a world under threat, people seek positive solutions, authenticity and hope, more human and sustainable solutions. Economic inequality is at an all-time high, whilst trust in all types of institutions is at an all-time low.

“Meta power” lies in stories of humanity, and improved lives and social progress.

Trend 3. Technology platforms are the new power brokers

Connective technology means that by 2020 there will be 7 times as many connected devices as people on the planet. The power of networks, formal and informal, grows exponentially, as we can see from the rise of new platform-based companies – Alibaba to Amazon, Airbnb to Netflix. They thrive as exchanges, fuelled by immense amounts of data. 90% of all data on the planet was created in the last 2 years. Intelligence accelerates growth, through personal relevance and precision influence. These businesses realise that they don’t need to be big to be powerful, instead they are smart and collaborative. Maybe this is a model for the future of nation power.

AI accelerates the data trend, from driverless cars to smart homes, personalised medicines to brain-linked controls. 90% of stock market trading is now done by algorithm. Look too at the addictive power of participation through technology – 2.2 billion people now participate in eSports, more than any other social activity, whilst games like Fortnite drive youth culture and aspiration.

“Meta power” lies in the hyper-connectedness and intelligence achieved through technologies, augmenting and fusing with the real world.

Welcome to a new power generation

“Hard power” succeeded in a world of borders and controls. It is aggressive and coercive, imposed through physical size and strength. “Soft power” is more effective in a world of connections and cooperation. It is more engaging and influential, independent of physicality. Meta power goes further, it harness the new structures and dynamics of a changing world.

We have reached a tipping point. The notion of power has changed, and its effectiveness.

Nations are wasting huge amounts of public money on traditional forms of hard power such as military interventions and economic sanctions, increasingly ineffective in today’s world. Instead they should refocus investments into activities that have a positive influence on other nations, communities and individuals.

Soft power activities, such as more cultural and sporting investment, more humanitarian and environmental support, deliver a better return on their investments, enabling nations to influence their stakeholders and build positive national reputations with enlightened influence.

Meta power goes beyond nations, but can be embraced by them.

In a world of blurred boundaries and multicultural tribes, power lies in the new stories of society – the sports teams we love, the influencers we follow, the movies we watch, the people who reflect our aspirations. This new power transcends nationalism, it embraces globalism, but in relevant ways. It gives individual people the freedom to choose how they are influenced.

Change is power

Perhaps the most potent source of power in today’s world is change itself. Embrace the changing world, its new structures and codes, and become more powerful. Neglect it, and your power will rapidly diminish.

Change is power, because it is the story of the future, which any one of us can write, and shape to our advantage.

© Peter Fisk 2020

About the Event:

Brand Finance has just completed and will launch its new Global Soft Power Index, the world’s most comprehensive soft power study from Brand Finance, surveying opinions of over 50,000 people in more than 85 countries.

It specifically explores the ranking of nations, built on a new model of six power drivers. It seeks to understand the relative standing of countries by publics around the world, how effectively they build this new power, and what they can do to better more effective. The summit will explore what does foreign policy success look like? Is soft power at the heart of diplomacy? Are we witnessing a shift in global soft and hard power dynamics? What are the key drivers of soft power? Is hard power making a resurgence?

There are two summits, in London and Oxford. Tickets are complimentary, See below:

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