Where have all the bold ideas gone?

Simon Jackson on the failure of summiting.
Empty deckchairs and an artificial lake. Welcome to the G20. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

As the G20 summiters motorcade into Toronto, any anger so far has been focused on the transportation nightmares, the fake lake and the billion-dollar security cost, to be picked up by Canadian taxpayers.

Yet there is a far bigger problem with the G20: It is the complete lack of bold, innovative policy initiatives up for discussion, to address the multitude challenges facing our world.

While we have yet to see the final agenda, or any real agenda for that matter, what's been discussed so far isn't very inspiring.

I am not a fan of Europe's proposed "Robin Hood tax" on banks, but at least it offers an opportunity to discuss bold economic reform. However, it seems even that idea has been shunted aside in the run-up discussions.

We Canadians, it seems, have already written off the G20 as a waste of money, a pointless exercise for talking heads. Though I don't fully agree — I still want to believe in the power of politics if done correctly — if previous summits are any indication, it is hard to blame people for not getting their hopes up.

So why does the G8 and its more recent incarnation, the G20, seem to perpetually fail?

It starts with the leaders who attend. For them, international politics is rarely a vote getter and more of a minefield. Tangible, short-term politics like fixing potholes will beat confusing, long-term issues like global warming almost any day of the week.

Tired activism

But if the politicians fail to lead and innovate on the global stage, who will?

Native groups and climate change protestors paraded through Toronto in advance of the summit. But who is listening? (Mike Seger/Reuters)

A quick glance at the activist landscape in the lead up to the G20 suggests no boldness in the tired retread of 1960s-style antagonistic protests.

There may have been a time when civil disobedience served a purpose in Canada and, in certain parts of the world, it undoubtedly still does have an impact.

But in the big cities of the developed world, it is clear that large-scale protesting does more of a disservice than anything else.

Not only do chanting protesters turn politicians off, they turn off much of the media and the mainstream public and seem only to close off our collective ears to new ideas or a heightened social conscience.

Neutered debate

When it comes to embracing new ideas, business has clearly been a leader. But the ability to shape the global political agenda is not its forte.

Nor is it usually possible for corporations to look beyond short-term risk in the name of long-term good.

Those that try often pay a price. Take British Petroleum, which a decade ago aligned itself with the millennial mood for change, promising to be the poster child for renewable energy and now sees its efforts undone and thrown back in its face with the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And while academia was once a bastion for deep thinking, education at all levels these days appears paralysed by the fear of offending, in the process neutering our policy debate before future leaders even have the chance to graduate.

Having had the opportunity to attend and speak to numerous youth conferences in recent years, I have met many young people who wish to tackle the big, controversial issues of our time, only to have their desires watered down by administrators who would prefer engagement be limited to stream clean-ups or anti-famine fundraisers.

These are worthy efforts, but we need the next generation — the so-called multi-partisans — to become the innovators of today, not the activists of yesterday.

To me, what all of this shows is who really has stolen innovation from the G20 agenda: Us.

We are the ones who elected these, for the most part, cautious political leaders. We are the ones who support civil society at all costs. We are the ones who seem to willingly accept black-and-white media analysis of important issues and who have created a culture of fear around the more challenging ones.

What to do?

T change this course and help the G20 realize its potential to address the important problems of our time — from climate change to a functioning global economy — we have to find new ways to engage each other as a community across national borders.

We have to find ways to make each other care, debate and act — starting with debate, which is so conspicuously absent from big ultra-diplomatic summits like these.

Take global warming, for example. The policy debate on climate change is stuck on who is to blame and not how it is to be resolved without having producing provinces like Alberta or cities like Fort McMurray shoulder the burden on their own.

Not enough people are actively championing the construction of a stronger, renewable economy across the board that could resolve climate change in the process. I doubt few climate skeptics would stand in the way of green change if it meant more green in their pockets.

With few exceptions, our debates dance around the critical realities of issues we face while our stubborn determination to hold onto the stale left-right axis divides our conversations and prevents us from seeing the ingenuity in someone else's position.

At the end of the day, when the security perimeter is lifted and the photo-ops are over, the G20 will most likely produce a few nice words that will amount to little more than cold comfort to those who are directly affected by the issues on the summit's agenda.

But rather than getting angry at the price tag for this exercise in futility, we should get angry at ourselves and start doing our part to make this the last, pointless G20.