BY J. PHANG. Thursday March 11,
2004. The Star,
THE term “Future Shock” was
coined by futurist Alvin Toffler over 30 years ago to
describe a state where the future arrives so fast that
we are unable to adapt to it.
Our global environment is undergoing profound and
continuous change, socially, politically, and
economically. These changes have far reaching impact
on individuals, organisations and government. Many are
already feeling the impact.
The two forces of change are 1) economic and
political liberalisation which bring about
globalisation; and 2) technological
Already cracks are beginning to appear in the
Globalisation, which appears to provide
opportunities to all nations, now invokes massive
demonstrations as suspicions grow of a “sinister
agenda.” Technological changes have also made social,
cultural, and economic relations more intertwined and
complex, and inherently more difficult to predict or
Decisions addressing the borderless world are very
much more complicated than the ones needed to address
traditional local settings.
Businesses have to cope with foreign competition,
mass customisation, and short product life cycles.
Individuals face a work environment that favours
knowledge workers, increased employment stress and the
“death of traditional jobs,” with contract letters
replacing employment contracts.
Governments are also facing issues that cut across
ministerial portfolios, often involving consultation
with their foreign counterparts, global labour
standards, disease outbreaks, and a more knowledgeable
and informed public.
Organisations face a series of critical choices in
responding to these fundamental challenges. Creative
new arrangements are needed urgently to allow
governments, organisations both public and private,
and individuals around the world, to work together to
address these pressing global problems.
It's about governance
The negative effects of these two sweeping forces on
institutions of governance (both global and national)
may be characterised in terms of two governance gaps.
First, an operational gap has opened up
where policymakers and public institutions have simply
found themselves lacking the information, knowledge,
and tools they need to respond to the daunting
complexity of policy issues in a liberalising,
technological, globalising world.
Second, related to the first, a participatory
gap has manifested itself as this same increasing
complexity thwarts common understanding of, and
therefore agreement on, critical policy issues.
This has sometimes led policymakers, intentionally
or not, to exclude the general public or particular
stakeholders from their deliberations.
These new problems confronting organisations,
governments and communities contain many dimensions,
and have their own stakeholders. Satisfying one group
may upset the stakeholders in another.
When governments, businesses and communities work
together in a trisectoral partnership they are
effectively forming a trisectoral network.
These networks are “smart” and “biologically”
adaptive. Their structures evolve and mutate to
address differing and unique issues, and they are
difficult to define.
This is precisely so, because they have grown up
largely independent of each other, to serve widely
They do, however, have a few things in common.
One common denominator is that they link together
interested individuals and institutions not only from
diverse countries but also from diverse sectors of
activity: Local, national and regional governments;
transnational corporations and local businesses; and
They thus cut cleanly across the fault lines
between various sectors, existing organisations and
Another commonality is that all these networks have
made intense and often ingenious use of the new
information technologies that have for several decades
been transforming our workplaces, our markets, and
many of our other social institutions.
These “trisectoral” networks have already proven to
be effective, often remarkably so, in bringing
together diverse and sometimes opposing groups to
discuss common problems that none of them can resolve
by themselves; and in gathering resources –
intellectual, financial, physical – to bring to bear
on those problems.
Trisectoral networks are in effect learning
Their broad membership allows them to tap
information and expertise from a variety of
backgrounds, thus providing a more complete picture of
particular policy issues and giving voice to
previously unheard groups.
These networks are meant to complement
public-policy institutions, not replace them. They
help governments and multilateral agencies manage
risks, take advantage of opportunities presented by
technological change, be more responsive to their
constituents, and promote change within
UN takes the lead
The leadership of the United Nations has begun to
place the idea of trisectoral networks at the
forefront of its vision and strategy.
In his 1999 address to the annual meeting of the
World Economic Forum, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
said: “The United Nations once dealt only with
governments. By now we know that peace and prosperity
cannot be achieved without partnerships involving
governments, international organisations, the business
community, and civil society.”
This statement indicates a clear recognition that
for the United Nations to succeed in its mission in
the new millennium, it needs to develop a systematic
and reliable approach to working with all sectors.
Trisectoral networks address governance gaps by
performing a variety of diverse functions. Six of the
most important of these functions are:
Trisectoral networks get involved in placing new
issues on the global agenda or raising the prominence
of issues that have been neglected.
All such networks do this to some degree, but one
type of network – what has been called a transnational
advocacy network – makes global consciousness-raising
its primary objective.
2) Global standards
Trisectoral networks facilitate the negotiating and
setting of global standards. This is happening in
areas as diverse as financial regulation and
While agenda-setting can often be accomplished by a
relatively few dedicated individuals, the complexity
of negotiating and setting standards, as well as
concerns of fairness and equity, typically requires
the involvement of stakeholders from all sectors on a
3) Knowledge sharing
Trisectoral networks gather and share information. The
information technology revolution allows all kinds of
knowledge, technical and non-technical, to be shared
without regard for distance or borders, and at
Networks that focus on this kind of activity tend
to be especially successful when they link
participants with access to various knowledge bases
and when all participants are willing to rethink their
own ideas and practices – to learn and relearn as well
as to teach.
4) New markets
Trisectoral networks also have a commercial dimension
– making new markets where they are lacking and
deepening markets that are failing to fulfil their
George Soros, in his new book entitled Open
Society said: “The free market mechanism of supply
and demand satisfies personal interest but not common
Left to their own devices, markets sometimes fail
to produce certain goods – public goods – that the
broader public interest demands. Trisectoral networks
can help bridge this gap between demand and supply.
5) Innovative implementation mechanisms
Trisectoral networks can be designed specifically as
innovative implementation mechanisms for traditional
The Global Environment Facility has increasingly
turned to trisectoral networking to achieve its
mission of funding and implementing worthy projects in
the area of environmental protection.
6) Greater trust
The intangible outcomes of networks – such as greater
trust between participants and the creation of a forum
for raising and discussing other new issues – are
often as important as the tangible ones, and they may
endure even longer.
Transparency International, for example, has not
only scored significant successes in the fight against
official corruption but also built coalitions of trust
between very diverse actors in this sensitive issue
Malaysia, like all the other nations of the world, is
facing a political and business environment that has a
set of new and emerging paradigms.
It is urgent that the three sectors of government,
business and community (civil society) learn to work
closely together to solve new problems which they
would be unable to solve alone.
Trisectoral networks embrace the very forces of
globalisation that have confounded and complicated
traditional governance structures, challenging the
operational capacity and democratic responsiveness of
governments. They are distinctive in their ability to
bring people and institutions from diverse backgrounds
together, often when they have been working against
one another for years.
Making use of the strength of weak ties, networks
can handle this diversity of actors precisely because
of the productive tensions on which they rest.
Trisectoral networks do not offer an easy ride, but
the difficulties are well worth the risk, given the
daunting challenges of a complex world with an
ever-expanding multiplicity of actors, interests, and
issues to be resolved.