Global Governance Institute


Thinking Horizontally, Multi-Temporal Decision-Making and Surfing Analogies

21 May 2014

Alice Vincent (MSc International Public Policy) reflects on the Global Governance Institute Scoping Workshop on 9 May 2014.

ggi symposium 2015

Who would have thought that surfing and global governance had so much in common? As an MSc student in the School of Public Policy I was fortunate to be invited to observe UCL's Global Governance Institute (GGI) Scoping Workshop on 9 May 2014. The GGI was launched in September 2013 as a university-wide initiative with the aim of addressing problems and solutions to global governance from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Whilst such academic cross-fertilisation is rhetoric at other universities, UCL has made it a reality as was evidenced by the variety of disciplines represented by the 30 participants around the table. The aim of the group is to think vertically by drawing on individual members' expertise and horizontally by exchange and connectivity of ideas and disciplinary methodology.

This all-day workshop was designed to bring members of the Institute together to reflect on the dimensions of global governance, enrich one another with presentations on issues ranging from the role of science in global governance, institutional design, global health, human rights governance, and climate change and environmental governance. For the full programme and some of the memos from the presentations see here.

Jason Dittmer (Department of Geography) was the first to make the analogy between surfing and global governance, both trying to navigate a constantly moving complex mass. Whilst for surfers that mass is the ocean, in all its tides, waves and currents, global governance is buffeted by multiple temporalities that shape global decision-making. Take for example a decision on an environmental policy. We make this decision based on a number of temporal considerations: an environmental tipping point, a recovery from a recession and within the temporality of political election cycles. We also operate within virtual temporalities by invoking past events and future predictions and scenarios.

Who gets to term their issues global? The implications of this powerful terminology were a further recurring theme of the day. 'Global' elevates the issue to utmost importance, but who are the winners and losers from this labelling? Are non-global agendas on the regional and parochial rungs conceivably demoted in their importance?

James Melton (School of Public Policy) drew attention to the high stakes of institutional design. Poor design can negatively affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and amendment is near impossible, as unanimous votes across member states are needed to make corrections.

Global institutions are captured by the most powerful states. Actors that are highly motivated but lack the political weight are often on the margins. Small Island States (SIDs) are highly motivated in climate change discussions due to their precarious situation but are not the main decision-makers. This engenders suboptimal outcomes as the most innovative and impassioned ideas are not heard. A feasible solution is to improve access to information and study the design structures to identify and implement processes are the most inclusive and flexible.

Waves are unpredictable. You cannot assess their size or speed until they approach. Global governance is a thinking issue where defining the problem is just as challenging as finding the solution. Maybe we should begin thinking about global governance not in linear terms from problem to solution but in a more circular, reflective and incremental manner? "Surfing's one of the few sports that you look ahead to see what's behind" Laird Hamilton.

Problems need to be identified in their interconnectivity before moving on to the solution. Andrew Barry (Department of Geography) brought this issue to the table. This approach actually minimises the steps of action. If you identify the problems in their contingency, the solutions will naturally address the problems holistically, rather than arduously having to connect all the solutions developed in different silos. 

Afternoon group discussions revolved around how you make decisions if there isn't a correct answer?  People create narratives in which they imagine a future, in which they believe in and which they are comfortable with, essentially a narrative of subjective conviction. Problems in global governance are anchors around which we create societal conviction narratives. Joining the dots between the problems constitutes the waves on which global governance must learn to ride.

These and more were the fascinating discussions I was privy to in the workshop. With such a diverse and distinguished group of academics and policy practitioners, grappling with these weighty issues, the output from this Institute and the upcoming events are something not to be missed.