Reflections from the first two days of the OECD Forum

Stefano Gunawan, University of Melbourne

“The thing that surprised me the most about the growth of the OECD over the last 20 years is how far it’s stretched away from economics. These days we talk about migration, the environment, climate change, jobs, AI; it’s far from being just an economic forum. And in terms of the countries involved, too, the OECD is so open, and even my country too [Peru] is trying hard to get in.”

- a Female OECD attendee in response to the question, ‘What surprises you about the OECD today that wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago?’

The OECD Forum of 2019 has been a mixed bag. Over two days here, I have attended sessions ranging from Morning Mindfulness and Peace, to Migrants’ Integration, to Artificial Intelligence, to Political Nostalgia and ‘weaponisation of the past’ and so, so many things in between. It has been inspiring, it has been entertaining, and perhaps most importantly, it has been eye-opening. 

In a meeting with the Deputy-Secretary General of the OECD, Mr. Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, I put forward the question: “What are the shortfalls of GDP as a measure of wellbeing, and how might that compare to the Bhutanese measure of Gross National Happiness?” In the context of the question I also mention an example put forward by a friend in earlier conversation, that when a car crash happens in society, GDP still goes up, and yet evidently a car crash is not synonymous with increased societal wellbeing. The Deputy Secretary-General responded in kind, “Yes, most certainly, GDP has its shortfalls and it is far, far, far from being an effective measure of wellbeing.”

After some further elaboration, Mr. Ulrik directed my attention to a promising new sector in the OECD, known as NAEC (New Approaches to Economic Challenges). I learn that indeed, people in the OECD are aware of the flaws in our economic measuring system, and know that there must be better ways to track the things that really matter - sense of wellbeing, connectedness to community, satisfaction and fulfilment in life and each own’s life purpose. 

NAEC, admittedly, is just the name of a new OECD department, but for me it touches on perhaps the most important facet of our time: we don’t know how to maximise wellbeing in this crazy and frenetic modern world. We have become swamped by so much digital technology and mass media and smart phone obsession that we just can’t keep up. And yet, in an age characterised (still!) by vast inequality, corruption, climate change, broken systems and mass public distrust, we just can’t afford to waste the time that we presently are; we can’t afford to be measuring things; to be paying attention to things, that don’t actually matter. 

This might sound pessimistic, but it is fair. I think it is for this reason that the range of topics covered at the OECD has been so diverse. It is because we know; everybody knows, that we haven’t figured it out yet. We’re all aware that something needs to change; something big. It’s because of this looming pressure on the great thinkers and actors and policy makers of our time, that this great forum held in Paris each year is so important - it’s because we all need to figure out what to do next.

What’s my takeaway from all this? Keep an open mind, learn new things and stay curious. But perhaps most importantly, in all your efforts to try and make the world a better place, don’t forget to enjoy the process, otherwise you might lose sight of how beautiful life already is.