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Are we ready? Consumer protection in a new era of global consumption

Blog author - Gilly Wong

With new technologies emerging across the globe at a seemingly unrelenting pace, monitoring the implications for consumers can be a daunting task.

Using insight gained at the World Economic Forum New Champions event in Dalian, China, our Vice President Gilly Wong shares her thoughts on whether businesses are ready to put consumers first in a new era of consumption, and if the global consumer movement is ready to step in to mitigate the risks consumers are exposed to.

We keep talking about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is developing at an unprecedented pace and influencing the way economies and societies organise, including the global consumption environment. However, the new prototypes and innovations discussed in Dalian have given me a far better grasp of the pace and significance of the change, and have driven me to re-examine just how ready my organisation is to meet a whole new era of challenges in consumer protection.

Monitoring innovation in a constantly changing world

The products and services we enjoy today may soon be replaced by new business models, new service mechanisms or even alternative solutions. Some changes may be directly experienced by consumers: new technology to provide a better quality of life for the elderly, mobile banking to make financial services faster and cheaper, driverless cars to enable environmentally friendly point-to-point transportation are just a few interesting examples.  

But other developments, less visible but just as significant, are quietly transforming the ways that we are being served. A few examples are the adoption of blockchain to track resource flows, AgriTech to boost farming outputs and quality, and 5G to bring a new era of connectivity.

For consumer advocacy groups to sustain our value to consumers, globally and locally, we are bound to follow the vigorous momentum of change very closely and to be vigilant in our assessment of the implications of these new developments for consumers. Where necessary, we may need to take speedy and precise actions to either optimise the opportunities or mitigate the risks.  

Are consumer risks being mapped into digital strategies?

Do all businesses have a clear strategy for the coming years for mitigating risks to consumers? The answer is yes, and no. Based on the presentations from major consulting firms, the large corporations have a variety of risks, including risks to consumers, to consider before defining their strategies and investment levels in the digital economy.

If we, as consumer champions, are ready, if we are competent enough to understand how the digital wave will affect different industries and individual players, I see a high chance that we can, through pro-active engagement and lobbying, influence their decisions to ensure they embrace consumer interests more positively.

Undoubtedly, regulation of new technology must also play an important role in holding business to account and setting a benchmark for products and services that consumers can trust. And, as mapped out in the Consumers International Summit 2019 Highlights report, delivering impact for consumers will require a collective intelligence and combined action from consumer advocates, governments and regulators to businesses and thought leaders around the world.

Is my team totally ready for the change? Before the New Champions event, my answer was a fairly positive yes. Now, it is a yes and no. Like many consumer protection bodies, we have a robust engine for research, public communication and dispute resolution, and are well respected and trusted by the public. But after attending the event, I clearly see the need to accelerate our path of knowledge acquisition and business engagement activities to ensure we are always in the mind of business leaders and able to play an active and meaningful part in influencing their business decisions on digital development.

Responsible leadership more important than ever before

Another highlight at New Champions was the discussion on the quality of new leadership required under the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In a dynamic era of globalisation, with its epoch-making technical advances in robotics, AI and social interactions, in which these changes are being adopted at a speed that exceeds the pace of adoption by citizens and the ability of government to establish policies and to regulate, we have more uncertainty than ever before. In order to ensure the world is heading in a positive direction, responsible leadership is even more critical than ever before, to navigate the challenges that threaten us.

The new breed of leader needs to function both like a scientist and an entrepreneur. The skill set required for leading the businesses of tomorrow will be diverse: the ability to hunt for evidence, to troubleshoot, to act promptly in a fast-changing business environment, and to track and create new, inclusive opportunities.

I think such requirements apply not only to businesses, but also to consumer advocacy groups like us. Time to re-assess the readiness of my team and the talent development plan, again!