The world is always entering uncharted waters, but never have the winds blown so unpredictably, or the tidal rips been as strong. Seismic economic shifts, unprecedented Climate Change and population growth, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are changing the very dynamics of the global system.
No nation is immune. Climate Change and population growth have greatest impact on poorer nations and the associated drive towards renewable energy places stress on oil producing nations. The current economic shift from West to East is leading to national responses aiming to maintain citizen wealth, and thence cementing political power, but leading to resurgent nationalism in nations like the UK and USA that is more akin to the 1930s.
This is the playing field upon which countries seek to achieve national objectives on the world stage. Geopolitics links political power and diplomacy with geographic space, traditionally land and territorial waters. Geopolitics can be global, particularly in respect of resource supplies, investment and trade. It can be regional, for example in considering the water resources of the Nile. It can be internal, particularly where there are diverse ethnic, religious or voter groupings.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) introduces a new dynamic atop of all this. Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous machines and Augmented Reality (AR) bring new opportunities, new industries, new precious mineral resource needs and a new capital — data.
The explosion in data from Space, business, social media and the IoT is leading to the realization that data is not “the new oil” but capital with measurable value. According to the European Commission, the value of personalized data is almost 8% of the EU’s GDP, and according to the McKinsey Global Institute, cross-border flows of data grew 45 times from 2005 to 2014, accounting for 3.3% of global GDP in 2014. By these outdated figures alone, data becomes a tool within geopolitics, just like any other capital asset.
The 4IR is driven by data, much of it with associated geolocation. The value of data is realized through the derivation of knowledge by combining user need, data, partners and applications, including AI. This has led to recent calls for a geospatial knowledge infrastructure as part of national digital approaches.
The instruments of geopolitics can extend from conventional diplomacy, trade and investment to war, through a “grey zone” where wider levers of power are employed to project power at home and overseas. For example, Russia employs military threat and proxy wars, cyber-attacks, industrial spying, assassinations and social media disinformation campaigns. Some argue that this grey zone is a “new era”; it is not. What is new is the widespread application of data to the instruments of geopolitics.
Geopolitics requires knowledge — knowledge that enables the right decisions and the application of geopolitical instruments to implement the desired change. Today’s geopolitical problems are too complex to navigate with conventional information gathering. Access to data and the means to analyze effectively are now essential in geopolitics.
The 4IR opens knowledge to everyone through the Internet and social media, although in some States, such as China, access controls are in place as a lever of power. Equally, manipulation of data through AI techniques enables external geopolitical influence as we are seeing in some national elections. This creates a challenge: how do governments and citizens find the truth? Accessible trusted national foundational data is one such route.
Another significant trend is the growth of a few global companies with turnover far bigger than the GDP of most nations; Amazon and Tencent are two examples. Their balance sheets are lifted by their data holdings, and hence they have interests in protecting and growing that capital value. Whether for shareholders or State benefit, these companies can engage in geopolitics on an unprecedented scale, dwarfing previous examples such as the East India Company and some oil companies.
How then do governments ensure they know enough to counter the data-fed AI analyzed geopolitics of globally aspiring nations and global businesses? Put simply, by investing in better data and knowledge. Whilst understanding geopolitical adversaries through analytics is part of this, it is equally important to know about the people, resources, finances, assets and value of your nation. Only then can nations counter the moves of others. In deriving that knowledge, good data such as statistics, foundation geospatial information and asset data should become part of the critical national infrastructure. Data needs investment, protection and to be accessible.
Data is capital and trusted national data has national value. Data is an element of today’s complex geopolitics, both as an instrument of power and in giving governments the knowledge to navigate these uncharted waters and retain their national sovereignty.