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Ian Goldin:
waves of change

Ian Goldin is an academic, economist, author and optimist. Born in South Africa, he was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and returned from exile to work as Nelson Mandela’s economic advisor. Ian was later Vice President of the World Bank, founding director of the Oxford Martin School and now works as Professor of Globalization and Development at the University of Oxford, leading research programmes on Technological and Economic Change, the Future of Work, and the Future of Development. Join Ian on a walk around Oxford as he explores the new Renaissance and critical crossroads moment he believes we’re living through, the opportunities and threats this poses, and how impossible ideas become reality. 

Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


 We’re in University Parks, which is the parks owned by Oxford University. It’s a beautiful big park in the middle of Oxford, and it’s a beautiful spring day. Sun’s out. 

I’m Ian Goldin, I’m Professor of Globalization and Development at the University of Oxford. I’ve been here for 16 years, since I left my previous job at the World Bank, and I’ve had a fascinating time. I feel like I’m in an intellectual Hamleys, just sort of exploring ideas and meeting and seeing incredible things and people, because I’ve been privileged to be the founding director of the Oxford Martin School, which is a big interdisciplinary group of over 400 academics in Oxford, bringing people together to try and solve some of the biggest problems in the world.

I feel that we are living in a new Renaissance. So I think of it as the second Renaissance, so following the Renaissance of 500 years ago. It’s a time of extraordinary beauty, explosion of creativity, and breakthroughs in many areas – in the way that we understand ourselves, the world, our relationship to the environment, and our knowledge, our scientific knowledge as well as our creative knowledge, has just exploded.

A driver behind that, which is rather similar to the Renaissance, which is technological breakthrough. Then it was the Gutenberg press and the development of print, which allowed ideas to grow exponentially, and people to share ideas and to break the monopoly of the Catholic Church, on knowledge, and to democratise information. And now we have of course the internet. 

So that was a time where age-old ideas of the Earth being the centre of the universe, the sun rotating around us, the heart being the soul, not a pump. Many, many ideas which were fundamental to an understanding of the world, and of course the world being flat with Europe at the centre, were broken. And in that process, as you see reflected in the art of the Renaissance, which is why we celebrate it 500 years later, perspective changed on everything. But what it also led to, is a very, very dark moment for humanity: religious wars, Luther pinning his sermon on the door, going viral, splitting the Catholic church, and of course the diversity which had been at the absolute core of the Renaissance.

It would not have been possible without the Muslim pigments that came from Islamic countries, the Muslims in Florence, the Jews in Florence. Da Vinci himself was likely to have been gay and a vegan. That diversity, which was at the heart of the Renaissance, was shattered by a pushback authoritarianism and the inquisitions. So all the Jews and Muslims, for example, were hounded out of Europe, civil wars across Europe, including of course spreading to England. My college Balliol – the wars were fought literally in the corridors. 

And of course diversity of sexual orientation etcetera was totally suppressed for centuries after that. The question today is, if we are in this Renaissance moment – which I feel we are – what’s the outcome? What will people think about this time in the future? Will we be able to look back on it in 500 years time, for the next generations, and say we made the right decisions? Or are we heading for new dark ages. And I think this crossroads moment is very, very exciting because we could make decisions which improve the future of all generations and our ability to live on this planet, but they’re also very perilous. 

This could be our last century for humanity.

It’s the vanity of all generations to say, this time is different, we are very important. Certainly our grandparents must have felt that on the evil of the Second World War, similar things were felt on the eve of the First World War. But those events, as catastrophic and horrific as they were, were not really about the total future of humanity and the planet.

I think it’s also incumbent on everyone to be engaged in whatever way they are. There’s a battle of ideas waging, basically. And if you stand by, one thing is pretty certain, you’re likely to be overwhelmed if you don’t engage. So the responsibility I think is greater in these moments on individuals to take a stand.

You know, science is constantly evolving. You’re not a scientist if you think you have the truth, because the nature of science is exploration and discovery and realising that things are more complex and different to what you think. 

There was, until recently, a battle of ideas around climate change – is it happening? Yeah. You still have some people, but now they’re much smaller minority, but for a long time, a sizeable minority, even a majority of people in some countries, didn’t believe it. They just were seeing other, other stories. There are battles of ideas regarding gender diversity. There are battles of ideas regarding democracy. Lots of people are saying to me, democracy doesn’t work. I don’t want, we don’t want democracy. Let’s have a benevolent dictator. There are battles of ideas in areas that I do know something about, like economics, and austerity versus spending. There are battles of ideas on public versus private provision of health services or other services, water and other services. 

So there’s battles of ideas on multiple dimensions, and many of these, the way people feel about them are not based on facts, but on their own lived experiences, on their heritage, on where they come from and what their families have experienced. So it’s important, I think, to be able to listen and understand why people take the views they do. Because often they – one can’t say to them, that’s not right – because that’s what they’ve experienced. So the idea that something’s not right when you’ve experienced it is quite a strange idea. So in this battle of ideas, it’s not about saying ‘I’m right, you wrong’. It’s about trying to understand why people have ideas, and think about the system changes necessary to change them. 

But in the end, one has to take a stand, and one has to say, I’m prepared to pay more tax, or, I’m not prepared to pay more tax. I’m taking a vaccine for the following reasons. And I will argue with the people that don’t, because I think they’re undermining my health and everyone else’s health. It’s a public good. You know, there’s a strong tension between liberty and freedom and rights; of the individual and the societal rights. 

Maggie Thatcher said there’s no such thing – or is attributed to have said – there’s no such thing as society, there’s only individuals. Or words along those lines. What the pandemic has shown us is that that’s a completely untrue statement. That people made enormous sacrifices for others. The frontline workers, the doctors, the nurses, and many people died for others, as they did in the wars – going off to fight for a principle, and as they are in Ukraine today. So we see all around us, all the time, evidence that people are prepared to make sacrifices for a greater good, which goes beyond their individual self-interest. So there’s both individuals and society. 

And the question is, where does that stop? What are the limits on our individual freedoms? If we believe that climate change is catastrophic, should we be compelling people not to do certain things? Not to use certain fuels, not to travel in certain ways, not to eat certain food stuffs? And how do you do it? If we believe that it’s in our public safety, that everyone has a vaccine, should we have vaccine mandates? These are important questions, which are part of the battle of ideas. 

Can we take a two minute break? Robin! [conversation between Ian and a college that he bumped into]

Change happens in what seems when you’re in the middle of it sometimes, rather mysterious ways. You know, nothing happens and then suddenly, everything happens very quickly. I’m a South African, so I was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. And I’d left to go into exile because I thought there was absolutely no chance of South Africa becoming democratic in my lifetime. And I was living in Paris when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. And I thought it was an amazing thing, but I thought it was totally about Eastern Europe. I didn’t appreciate for a minute that it was really about the world, and changes in the world, and that within two months, Nelson Mandela would be released from the prisons where he had spent 27 years. That he’d come to Paris, we’d meet, and I’d end up going back and becoming his economic advisor and running the development bank of Southern Africa. 

That interconnectedness, how these complex, the complex dynamic system, leads to waves of change that ripple around the world. And about 60 countries became democratic within five years across Asia, Latin American, Africa. Autocratic governments which had existed for decades crumbled because the Cold War was over and there was no need anymore for the US or the Soviet Union to prop these countries up.

So you think that you’re in a hopeless struggle, as I did in South Africa, and suddenly you find that you in the kitchen of history, and building a new country. That happens and we see it all the time. We see how the system, which is inherently unstable – what I call the butterfly defect of globalisation – this complex interrelated system leads to all sorts of ripples and unintended consequences. 

If you had said to me in the 1990s even, by the 2010s Ireland will have a gay Prime Minister, I would’ve thought you were smoking something. It seems so impossible an idea. And yet there we had it. Now he’s back again. These things which seem intractable suddenly happen. Everyone thinks why not? And I mean, when I say this now, you know, the response of many listeners might be, why is he even talking about that? It’s a non-issue. It’s so, it’s so normalised. Something which was so impossible to almost imagine, 30 years ago. So never underestimate the capacity for systemic change. Sometimes it’s very good, but it can also be very bad. The system is not sort of in any way a fixed system. It’s a very dynamic system. That means that where individuals and where groups and where actors engage at particular times really matters, because you can change the course of history. 

I used to believe very much in individuals, I used to believe in groups changing history. Both are important, but individuals can spark movements and be part of processes of change, which lead to absolutely systemic changes. And that will continue to happen.

I’m a great believer in creativity coming out of diversity, and allowing people to explore different ways of thinking and doing, and I think we’re seeing a lot of that in, in not all countries, clearly it’s being stamped out in some countries, but in many countries, and many places. I think we are seeing in many societies, I point particularly to Canada, I think, an acceptance of migrants and refugees as part of the diversity and wanting more. Which is, in this country England, split the opposite. You know, we just don’t appreciate the importance of it and it’s one of the things that’s really slowing the UK down. 

I think we are seeing extraordinary breakthroughs in science. The pandemic vaccine in nine months. That was ex, you know, amazing, that’s never happened before. And the sorts of things that are going on now with generative AI. I’m very excited about the potential of science to deliver cures for things that have bedevilled humanity for time immemorial. You know, for me at my age, a big question is will there be an ability to stave off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia within the next 20, 30 years. I don’t know. I was more pessimistic about this 10 years ago than I am now. New cures for cancer – we all know people that have suffered terribly, and their loved ones, from cancer loss. And other things like of that nature: new energy forms, which will get us to a world of energy abundance, and cleanliness. Free energy. Almost free. I mean, you still have to pay for a generation and transmission, but the sources. So I’m optimistic on many, many fronts that we, we need to do much more. We need to redouble our efforts. We need to understand the importance of these breakthroughs, but it seems to be going in the right direction. 

There are many things which I feel are going in precisely the wrong direction, which is why we are at this crossroads. The thing that scares me most at the moment is the growing tensions between the US and China because there is no global problem, whether it’s climate or whether it’s pandemics or whatever it is, that will not require China and the US to cooperate on the solution. 

And so if we are entering a new Cold War, which seems like a real possibility, that’s going to put us into a very bad place. Not only in terms of job, global job creation, the impact on Africa and developing countries, but the ability to to accelerate efforts on urgent global challenges like climate, like stopping the next pandemic, demilitarisation of nuclear threats, all of these things, will be set back immensely. And of course I think it will lead to what the previous Cold War led to, which is clientism amongst countries again. Where it doesn’t really matter whether you’re democratic or believe in human rights or whatever else, if you’re our country, that’s all that counts. That’s where you head, everything else is subsumed into this global ideological war between superpowers. That’s a very bad place for everyone else to be and for the people in those countries to be. 

The second biggest challenge, I think, is that what we’re recognizing is that far from the internet and new technologies leading to communication which spreads light, it can spread darkness as well. And how you manage the information space, including social media, et cetera, and how you regulate the spreading of really toxic ideas that lead to mass discrimination and worse, is a social responsibility for countries which they haven’t taken on.

The third big issue is that, far from, as Tom Friedman hoped, the world being flat, or as Frances Cairncross wrote the death of distance arising from the combination of globalisation, which means reducing of borders, and technological developments, the world’s becoming much more spiky or uneven. Place matters more than ever, where you born matters to your life expectancy, your income, etcetera, and who your parents are. The tyranny of history and geography is greater than ever. And that’s a big problem, particularly because it’s leading to rising inequality and compounded by systemic risk, which is the fourth problem. Globalisation spreading bads through hyper interconnected, complex systems. Growing inequality leads to a downward spiral in politics. I mean, it’s bad for many reasons. It’s bad in its own right and no one in a civilised society should die of poverty or suffer malnutrition or deprivation, but it’s also very dangerous politically because it leads to rising fractions within society or fragmentation of society, and that’s what we’re seeing. I don’t believe that we would’ve had Brexit in Britain or President Trump in the White House had it not been for the financial crisis, and the massive loss of jobs and loss of faith in the system that came out of that.

I think what we need to understand about technologies is that they all do use, they can be used for immense good and immense harm. We know that. And they basically accentuate human capabilities: for destruction and for creation. They’re aides for that. 

The question is, are we in era where the humans will be disintermediated? So as you don’t need the humans anymore, because there’s so much data out there that the machines will just draw on the past, which is basically what they’re doing, they’re just mining everything that’s out there, legally or illegally mining it to, to create what someone would’ve said in that situation, or a painting that would’ve looked like that if it was done in that style or whatever it is. 

I’m not concerned about that being a top 10 existential risk at the moment. The existential risk, in other words, computers killing humanity, by design or default, I think is a second half of the 21st century problem. That’s what I would worry about if I was in 2050 maybe. But now, the jobs issues, and the inequality issues. Because what the evidence is about the last waves of these technologies is they accentuated inequality. A lot of the jobs that are last  were repetitive, rules-based jobs, manufacturing people being replaced by robots. Now 1.6 million people in the Philippines employed in call centres, chatbots will replace them, of various forms. So that’s real. But the main concern, and it’s the reason I have this group of research on the future of development, is where will unskilled and semi-skilled people get work in the future? The answer is increasingly in services. We move from manufacturing to massages, to waiters, to care workers and all of that. But those are – that doesn’t help people in Africa unless you let them into your country. So that’s a big question on migration. The question now with these technologies is, are they coming for the skilled people? Well, some of the old technologies did – excuse my bike  – some of the old technologies did in that some accounting functions and others were replaced, draughtsmen were replaced. I think that’s, that’s a real possibility. So far the experience has been that it makes skilled people even more skilled, like surgeons are using robotic surgery. The entry salaries of people into law seem higher than they’ve ever been. I mean, we see students coming out of here, Oxford, getting the most extraordinary starting salaries in the City. So if there is a replacement of people by machines, it’s not reflected yet in starting salaries, in many professions. 

What we need to understand is that this, the mining of data is all backward looking. There’s nothing new. I mean, the AI is generating new, new composites of previously existing material. So if you want to be truly innovative, if you want to be forward looking, it can help you, and many, many, many colleagues are using it already, to help them be more efficient in their work. But they just feel, in academia anyway, it’s gonna make them more efficient. Not that it’s gonna replace them. You know, it’s early days. Uh, it might be optimistic! 

You might need to stop your thing here with all this noise… 

Two things that we don’t really teach very well, I think anywhere: one is flexibility, and the other is ethics. Why are ethics important? How do you teach ethics? We have a former Prime Minister from this University, and many others, who just seem to have not got that in their education. How do you make it other than as a rote thing that you can tick the box and do well in exams, but actually internalise it and make you a stronger, better person for it. That’s a, that’s a key and very difficult question. Alright. I’m gonna look for a parking place.