WEF Global Technology Risk Trends: Looking Back Over 18 Years
The World Economic Forum has been analyzing global technology risks since 2006 — this is how the landscape has changed over nearly two decades of analysis
The World Economic Forum has just released the nineteenth edition of its Global Risk Report ahead of the organization’s annual meeting in Davos. This year the report focuses on artificial intelligence for the first time.
I’ll be writing more about the inclusion of AI in the report in my next article. But before then, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how the included global technology risks have changed since the first report was published in 2006.
I’ve been following the WEF Global Risks Report since close to that first edition, and am regularly asked to contribute to it. It is, in some ways, a flawed report as it crowdsources perspectives on emerging risks — usually using a survey with pre-identified risk categories. Because the report relies on a combination of pre-identified areas of concern, and perspectives that are synthesized across many sectors and areas of expertise, it tends to reflect the current “risk perception zeitgeist” rather than over the horizon emergent risks. However, the analysis applied to the survey results is always sophisticated — especially at the intersections between risk domains and emerging social, economic and environmental trends. And for all its limitations the report is a highly useful barometer of where experts from government, academic, industry, and civil society, believe there are emerging global concerns.
The report is typically divided into economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological risks. Within each of these categories, the likelihood and severity of emerging risks is assessed, as well as clusterings and potential synergistic impacts across categories.
Just focusing on trends in technological risks, I was intrigued to see how identified risks have shifted over the past two decades — especially leading up to artificial intelligence featuring prominently this year.
Comparing across years is challenging as the approach, analyses, and formatting of insights changes from year to year. It’s something that would be worth someone spending some time doing at some point. But for now I wanted to simply see how identified areas of tech risk focus have changed between 2006 to the present.
This is an exceptionally crude way of approaching the data, but one that I think is still insightful.
Technological Risks, 2006 - 2010
Starting with the risk reports from 2006 - 2010, it’s interesting to see that there’s a marked shift from the first year of publication (2006) and the following four years.
In the first global risks report, technological convergence, electromagnetic fields, pervasive computing, and nanotechnology were identified as important areas. Of these, only nanotechnology continued to be an area of concern — and did so until 2013.
Looking back, it’s fascinating to see that electromagnetic fields made the list in 2006 — most likely responding to concerns at the time over potential health impacts from non-ionizing radiation from cell phones and wireless communication. Pervasive computing is also an interesting one — and probably not something I would have pegged as a global risk at the time.
By 2007 the risk domains had become more focused. 2007 is the first year that critical information infrastructure appears on the list — an appearance that continues every year until 2024.
2009 also saw data fraud/loss added to the list. This is a risk that has been reflected in the report in one form or another in most years since then.
It’s worth a particular mention of nanotechnology’s persistence in the report. In 2006, the potential risks of nanotechnology were making headlines around the world. I was the chief science advisor to the DC-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the time, and we were front and center of global discussions around the potential dangers of not developing nanotech responsibly. These were headline-making discussions, and so it’s not that surprising to me that nanotech appeared in 2006.
What is surprising is that it persisted for so long, and at the expense of other disruptive emerging technologies — an omission that wasn’t corrected in any substantial way until 2014.
Technological Risks, 2011 - 2015
2011 to 2013 saw a departure from previous tech risk trends before things temporarily reverted in part in 2014.
By 2011, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils — effectively the “brains trust” of WEF — had shifted from a focus on nanotechnology to focusing more specifically on emerging technologies (2011 was the year I chaired the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies). This may explain in part why nanotechnology was replaced by new technologies that year.
Then, in 2012, the World Economic Forum published for the first time its annual list of top ten emerging technologies. It may be a coincidence that the lists of global technology risks in 2012 -2013 are two of the longest and most specific in the series. There is, admittedly, little correlation between the top ten technologies and the list of global technology risks. But there is a suggestion here of WEF becoming more sensitized to emerging technologies from a risk perspective.
This is a sensitization (if in deed that’s what it was) that didn’t last — and 2014 looks remarkably similar to 2010, with the substitution of cyber attacks for nanotechnology.
I am intrigued looking back that orbital debris was highlighted in 2012 and 2013 — a risk I would suggest is substantially more important now than it was then — and that digital misinformation appears for the first time this year.
By 2014, the tech risks list was back to almost the usual suspects of critical information infrastructure and data fraud/loss. But then in 2015 massive and widespread misuse of a range of technologies was added to the list, paving the way for a sustained change to come in 2016.
Technological Risks, 2016 - 2020
2016 marks a substantial change in the core technological risks identified each year, which remained the same for every report between 2016 - 2020. It’s also the year that the World Economic Forum began focusing explicitly on the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Gone is the emphasis on nanotechnology, and in its place we have risks associated with adverse consequences of technological advances. The specific technologies this encompasses shift from year to year. But this is the first time in the report’s history that the broad area of emerging technologies and their potential adverse impacts is highlighted in some depth.
The other substantial change is the sustained reintroduction of cyberattacks — back from a blip of an appearance in 2012. This most likely reflects growing concerns around cybersecurity as security breaches continued to hit headlines.
Over this period, critical infrastructure remains a stalwart global tech risk, and data fraud/loss is elevated to massive incidents of data fraud/loss.
Technological Risks, 2021 - 2024
Compared to the stability of identified tech risk domains between 2016 - 2020, 2021 saw a distinct shift in the areas of technological risk that the annual report focused on.
Critical information infrastructure continues to appear (but is dropped in 2024), as do adverse consequences of technological advances (at least until 2022). But now there are risks that are more explicitly associated with the intersection between technology and society — including digital inequality, digital power concentration and, significantly, failure of technology governance.
The shift between 2020 and 2021 indicates a change in awareness around the deep integration between emerging and transformative technologies and society, and the importance of approaching sociotechnical systems from a risk perspective, rather than simply focusing on technologies alone.
Disappointingly, the focus on technology governance only persisted for two years — with growing awareness around the governance challenges associated with AI over the past year it would have been good to see this continue to be highlighted. But it remains significant that it appeared at all.
Between 2022 and 2023 the technology risk domains continue to evolve. In 2023 we see the inclusion of “frontier technologies” for the first time, defined as “Intended or unintended negative consequences of technological advances on individuals, businesses, ecosystems and/or economies. Includes, but is not limited to: AI, brain-computer interfaces, biotechnology, geo-engineering, quantum computing and the metaverse.”
This shift from advanced technologies to frontier technologies indicates a growing awareness of the disruptive potential of advanced technology transitions, and sets the scene for branching out more thoroughly into transformative technologies.
This is most clearly seen in 2024 where AI is explicitly mentioned for the first time.
Looking to the Future
Given the hype, speculation, and concerns over the potential impacts of AI over the past year, it’s not surprising that the technology features in the 2024 global risks report. What is surprising is that this is the technology’s first explicit appearance — perhaps suggesting that the risk domains are driven more by headlines than foresight.
Nevertheless, over the past eighteen years there has been a clear move from a rather naive and limited perspective on global technological risks, to a more nuanced, expansive, and informed approach.
Hopefully this is something that we’ll continue to see as the WEF Global Risks Report hits its 20th anniversary next year — it’s certainly needed. But I still worry looking back over these reports and the trends that the areas of technological risk identified are more reflective of what’s on people’s minds because of the hype, speculation, and headlines of the day, rather than over the horizon risks that, if not mapped out, are the ones most likely to take us unawares.
The fact that AI took so long to appear is suggestive of this, and indicates that a change of methodology might be useful.
That said, the annual risk report continues to have an important role to play — especially for decision makers who, otherwise, would be ill-prepared to understand and respond to an evolving global risk landscape. And the level and sophistication of the analysis conducted by the team behind it is impressive.
But maybe it’s time to incorporate more foresight methodologies to augment the wisdom of the expert crowd which, while useful, isn’t always capable of looking over the horizon to what’s coming rather than responding to what’s already here.
Update: The original table posted for 2011 - 2015 had a number of errors in it. The article has been updated with the correct information, and the text changed accordingly.