Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils USA
Roberto Alvarez is a systems-thinker and doer who has been working at the intersections of technology, business, policy, global issues and communications for more than 25 years. Roberto currently serves as the Executive Director of the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils (GFCC), a global multi-stakeholder organisation with presence in more than 30 countries. Before joining GFCC, he was a Senior Manager at the Brazilian Agency for Industrial Development (ABDI), where he led innovation, internationalisation and sectorial development initiatives. Roberto also worked as a management and operations consultant (with a focus on manufacturing and logistics) where he co-founded 3 tech companies, designed and implemented grad programs, and taught graduated courses in different Brazilian universities. He is an author and organiser of publications on innovation, industrial development and manufacturing strategy and operations. Throughout his consulting career, Roberto has managed numerous automotive, energy, building materials, government administration and higher education industry projects.
Competitiveness: A moving target
Competitiveness is not static. Being competitive today does not guarantee future competitiveness for businesses, organisations, nations and regions. In fact, history has shown us that businesses, organisations, nations and regions are in for a never-ending high-tech arms race. Since early 90s, competitiveness has become a discipline that has engineered many key changes around the world.
The internet as we know today only came into existence in 1993 when the first browser was launched. As we know, global connectivity and digitalisation grew exponentially and as a result, transformed businesses, societies, global behaviour and political systems.
Similarly, climate change was not a major issue a few decades ago, but today, it is considered a central issue in policy and business decisions. In 1990, the global population was around 5.3 billion persons and decades later, we are now crossing the 7.9 billion mark. The importance of technology was pivotal then but it hadn’t reached the pace of change it has now as an absolute driver of global transformation.
What is happening to global competitiveness in the face of such prevalent tech-led transformations? How have strategies changed over time? The Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils (GFCC) surveyed its members in 2016 with these two questions in mind and, although a lot of things had panned out since then, some valuable insights, remain relevant.
- There are different generations of competitiveness agendas around the globe. Back in 2016, we identified three generations. The first is mostly about ‘the basics of competitiveness’ and keeping costs in the economy under control, including key aspects such as foreign trade and business environment. The second is centred on value creation, that is, innovation; whereas the third included a variety of emerging issues, such as sustainability, gender and exponential/ disruptive technologies.
- Different competitiveness councils, chambers and agencies across the globe have agendas that are more closely associated to one of the three archetypical generations depicted here. The type of agenda endeavoured by each organisation is normally associated with the level of development of national economies.
- In practice, all of these things are meshed together and all the issues that countries need to deal with to build competitiveness are not strictly sequential, even if priorities may change along the way. In order to be competitive, nations need to simultaneously pay attention to changing business environment, promote innovation and address a variety of new things related to future growth. It makes sense to focus on different aspects in different moments, but competitiveness agendas should not be limited to a single issue.
The backdrop for competitiveness
The world is changing rapidly and the COVID19 pandemic has accelerated trends that highlight structural weaknesses in global societies and economies. Thus, any reflection about future competitiveness should consider at least these four fundamental issues.
Centralisation x decentralisation
A slight tension is emerging where decentralised organisations and configurations are gaining momentum in a traditionally centralised world. Few examples of this have shown up in several places, from business to policy, including our daily lives. Certain cities have progressively gained relevance with respect to the countries they are located in and their respective local governments, while the workplace continues to shift and become more decentralised. Apart from work, new organisational models and innovation are increasingly mainstream. The need to find balance between regional and national interests is something the global society has struggled with for a while. Traditionally, future strategies, foreign trade policies, economic growth, and innovation policies are centralised with a knack of causing tension. However, with a brand-new, technology-enabled push towards decentralisation, local-national coordination will carry more importance than ever.
Increasingly complex world
With the speed of change shaking up the world comes increasing complexity. Now, innovation and competitiveness strategies are compelled to deal with this complexity. To cope with this complexity somehow, innovation and competitiveness strategies have combined trade, internet regulation and data policy, hence becoming more digital rather than physically parallel. Though when this happens, we are combining areas that were originally separated by policy but have evolved to be a lot more connected today. It is therefore our duty to curtail the blurred lines created by these areas being more connected and consider a more systemic approach to look at innovation and competitiveness strategies for the future. This requires a lot of coordination, flexibility, and adaptability throughout government structures. In many cases, it will require deep changes in regulatory framework.
The strategies needed for the future can only be successfully designed and implemented if the necessary government capabilities are in place. It is only reasonable on the assumption that the world is more complex and everything operates at a faster rate. We need a government system that is able to adapt, move swiftly, deal with knowledge, and the capacity to engage with businesses, organisations, universities, societies, and people in new ways. Complexity brings with it the need to integrate knowledge and expertise about a wide range of topics, from law to AI, ethics to synthetic biology, education to the functioning of the internet and many more. Consequently, these interrelations seek to establish future strategies, and governments need
new structures, models of operation, technical capacities and insights on an expanding array of topics. In addition, governments need the operational expertise to integrate and engage a fluid set of stakeholders and increase their collaboration with the private sector.
Foresight the futures
We currently live in an age where global trends are developing at a rapid pace accelerated by sophisticated technology and scattered hasty changes. Compounding the problem is the policy set that is now required to find solutions at unprecedented speed. With that said, policy organisations need to prepare for a lot more to advance in the coming years. Policy organisations therefore need to develop the capacity to anticipate future issues, and not simply lay out future political strategies by looking through the rear-view mirror. In order to look ahead and work on future institutional and policy frameworks, it is necessary to find methods, techniques and mental models beforehand. We need foresight, and that must be a cross-sector, society-wide effort.
Future, community and new voices: Cooperative leadership for a fast-changing world
As I write this piece, the world has not yet emerged from the COVID19 crisis, and we continue to muddle through the pandemic. It has brought about challenges we have never faced in our lifetime before, exacerbating a global scenario that’s already riddled with plenty of critical issues from competitiveness, climate change to persistent social divides. However, this is not an ordinary moment, and neither are the issues at stake. The world looks different now and it is a big ask to push for a new type of leadership to emerge.
However, there are three leadership aspects that stand out as this new reality unfolds. First, leadership is increasingly about designing and navigating the future. Second, leaders need to be tech savvy in operating in new environments that combine the fast pace of the digital world with well-documented analogue challenges. Third, leaders need to come up with new ways to make innovation inclusive and prosperity a collective experience. I will explore these ideas below.
Leaders must take responsibility for designing and endeavouring a better world
Prosperous, sustainable and inclusive societies are not built by chance. Such an enormous task requires collective efforts from leaders at all levels. It will demand astute choices, commitment and, above all, an intentional effort to conceptualise the future and mobilise all society sectors towards its realisation. In other words, societies and policy efforts need a ‘design perspective’ remake.
By adopting a new design perspective, leaders should combine purpose and focus on people and social dynamics. This in turn will provide more clarity on the problems to solve and a clear course to action based on experimentation, learning and engagement. They need to be able to work across various segments of the society to build consensus and support a future vision that can systematically address the challenges we face today, getting to the ‘hows’ along the way and adjusting those as the process evolves. This is not a process that can be fully planned, yet it is highly interactive, and, in some way, it is about recognizing and embracing complexity. Ultimately, it requires resilience.
To create the type of change that can take us to a more sustainable and inclusive society, leaders need to understand the social systems and resources they have to deal with. In reality, designing and realising a more prosperous, sustainable and inclusive world is a large-scale entrepreneurial effort.
Leaders will increasingly operate in a fluid world of distributed resources
We are seeing first-hand a deep change in the work culture within organisations. In the US for example, more than 30% of workers are freelancers, accentuating a trend that was already prevalent before the pandemic. Competencies and skills that could only be accessed via corporate structures in the past are now available in new ways. If you need a designer or a software developer, you can go to platforms such as Upwork, while expert networks can supply professionals with various backgrounds such as strategic consultancy, genomics, M&As and etc.
There is a growing abundance of ‘free talent’ in the market and what is emerging is not just an economy in which organisations operate remotely, but truly one in which highly educated professionals are detaching themselves from fixed organisational structures. We are not simply moving from hierarchy to autonomous teams, but to decentralised and virtual organisations, or professional swarms. This may seem far-fetched for now, but it is already the reality of many. Can governments and policy tap into this potential?
This emerging scenario therefore requires new forms of mutual adjustments. New ways to engage, measure and compensate contribution apart from new reporting models and new digital platforms to coordinate, verify work and clear payments will be needed. Leadership will increasingly be about building communities and teams as businesses will be conducted in a fluid world of distributed resources. A new class of leaders will be relied upon to mobilise scattered resources in clever ways to solve longstanding problems in business and our society. They will need practical solutions and institutional frameworks to allow for that, particularly in the policy space.
Leaders need to include new voices and innovators in the conversation
There are no simple clear-cut answers however for the complex challenges of today’s world and the dilemmas that businesses, organisations and societies face in this defining time of uncertainty. It is clear, however, that ill-structured problems or ‘situations’ can only be properly addressed if different views and perspectives associated with them are voiced and factored into decision making. Leadership has to be a conversation that includes a multitude of voices (and colours, genders, races, creeds, demographics etc.).
Oftentimes, one of the voices frequently absent when the subject involves innovation and competitiveness is the voice of innovators that create future technologies, business models, companies and industries. I once heard Tony Blair said that he “…was always conscious about the importance of convening big business leaders…. But it was only towards the end of my term that I understood the importance of having young entrepreneurs and innovators around the table”. I’ve seen this gap appear consistently across countries and it is a key issue to be addressed in the context of policy and business, especially when innovating means pushing forward.
Leaders are responsible for building the platforms, institutions and processes for this demographically diverse conversations to happen. They will speed up innovation and contribute to their organisations and society at large by doing that.
It’s time to fly!
As competitive organisations around the globe work relentlessly to capture global transformations by offering fresh solutions to current and future global challenges, competitiveness as a result becomes a constantly moving target. It is also important for competitive organisations to develop and deploy new governance solutions, management capabilities and expertise.
As leaders, we are responsible for catalysing meaningful conversations and action. Decidedly, leaders will be tasked to build partnerships and shape forward action. Most of the challenges we are currently facing and the ones that will surface down the road are distinctively unique. Although there are no proven models to address these challenges, leaders will have to learn to fix them on the fly. The good news is that real-world leadership practices are still valid, so are knowledge sharing and collaboration that can accelerate learning. Ultimately, platforms like GFCC can be extremely helpful in moments like these and I invite all readers to join us in our journey for a better future.
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