Uncovering Davos Ma’am

Although it can seem as though not much gets done at Davos, the event, in the end, is worth it.

A women walks past logo of Davos/Kloster
'The Great Transformation' was announced last year at Davos, but did it accomplish anything? [AFP]

Paulo Coelho, Imran Khan, Mohammed Yunus and Aung San Sui Kyi. World-renowned authors, sportsmen, politicians and Nobel prize winners, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting them all last year, thanks to the World Economic Forum. The allure of Davos for many participants is the access it provides to people of character, power, and fame. For that, not much can top it.

Yet for many delegates the real draw remains the chance to do business; whether in the official curated programme for industry sectors, or the many side meetings organised by firms and governments. The official “public” programme, which is the one the media cover, often stresses the serious deliberation of world issues, thereby presenting the Forum as a catalyst for global collaboration. For instance, it addresses “The Great Transformation” which is “… an indisputable leadership challenge that ultimately requires new models, bold ideas and personal courage to ensure that this century improves the human condition rather than capping its potential”. Wow.

Ah, but that was last year. It sounded good at the time. A year on, how is the great transformation coming along? Did discussions at Davos help? Was it worth the expense, the world attention? The Ford Foundation once analysed the summits of the United Nations to decide whether to keep funding participation. They didn’t. Davos doesn’t have such external inquests, as it doesn’t rely on progressive foundations – even in tough times companies pay for the world’s premiere networking event.

Young global leaders

I’m not going to do a systematic evaluation, but have been asked for a view on whether Davos is worth it. I’m a professor specialising in social change. When assessing Davos, I therefore consider what it offers individual participants as a venue for contributing to positive social change, and how overall it is enabling or inhibiting such change. Despite the language of social transformation, looking back on last year, I don’t recall hearing much from the speakers on the needed transformations, the way they occur, or how we learn about them. I quickly learned that the main programme is mostly bunting. The real feast is what happens in the specialist communities and the conversations between individuals.

I’m involved in one of those specialist communities, as the Forum made me a “Young Global Leader“. They select about 150 thirty-somethings from amongst their member companies and others who they think are playing an exceptional role in positive social change.

Counting the Cost
Money for nothing

For over a decade I’d been helping pioneer alliances to tackle global challenges, and so someone on the selection panel thought I deserved recognition (I like to think it was Bill). I have benefited greatly from joining this form of young(ish) change agents. Most of us face the day-to-day drag of bureaucracy, those horizon-shortening, imagination-numbing and confidence-sapping devices masquerading as committees, forms and reports. Amongst the YGLs, as we abbreviate ourselves, we reconnect with that spirit of what’s possible and gain energy to continue our work, learning about and devising new more effective strategies with our peers. Most of us when we started our work did something different because we believed in it, and were lucky or privileged or capable or mad enough to achieve something of note. Believe in yourself and go for it, that’s the vibe. We all need friends like that.

The YGLs are supported by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to do projects together. One I’m involved in is to promote awareness of what we call the “Sharing Economy”, where people and organisations find ways to share things rather than own them. It’s an old idea – think of libraries – but is finding new manifestations due to technology. Now we have Couchsurfing and Airbnb for sharing accommodation, Zipcar and Whipcar for sharing cars or rides, Yerdle for sharing stuff with neighbours. The idea is that we can increase wellbeing while reducing consumption of resources. My part of the project focuses on the sharing that occurs without official money, using credits and alternative units of exchange – something my Institute works on separately with the UN.

A limited worldview

Is this type of project going to transform the world? Not in itself. Rather, it will increase awareness of the topic, due to the convening power and notoriety of the WEF and its summits. So does the world need a forum that really does bring insight on the global challenges we face? More than ever. Especially when we recall that the great transformation that actually occurred in 2012 was in the Arctic. Compared to the average for that time of year, a chunk of ice the size of India disappeared during the summer melt. Climate change was featured heavily in the WEF Global Risks report, and will be prioritised in public discussions at Davos this year. Sadly, I don’t expect many breakthroughs.

Why the pessimism? Currently the WEF secretariat appears to have a worldview. Their starting assumption is that the underlying fundamentals of our current economic system work well for people and the planet, and that the solution to any social problem is better management of that system, or extending it to problem areas (places or issues) that do not currently “benefit” from it.

The WEF Secretariat sometimes use the language of transformation or system redesign, but in three regional summits last year I did not see a proposal, project or dialogue that is really tackling core political economy issues or seeking to re-programme capitalism. For example, let us take the growing unemployment crisis, which was a priority at every summit last year. Not once did a speaker mention how unemployment results from a reduction in the money supply, which is under the control of private banks. Most people I spoke to did not understand that over 90 percent of our money is created by private banks as debt, rather than governments or central banks, and the implications of that for our economy and society; something I discussed on Counting the Cost.

On the topic of climate change the WEF reports that “the world is more at risk as persistent economic weakness saps our ability to tackle environmental challenge”. Note the use of the term “ability” rather than “will” displays a delusion that we are any less capable or resourceful due to the financial crisis, which is really just a crisis in accounting. The wealth is us, and our talents, our communities and environments, not electronic digits. We need to redesign our economic systems so they serve real wealth creation and enable us to address common threats like climate change.

The WEF and its agenda-setting corporates will most likely overlook that and conclude that we need more economic growth to then rebuild our capacity for “fixing” the environment. It’s a convenient conclusion for incumbents, but not a real search for answers at this critical time in human history. The view that sustainability is about protecting what exists, rather than a fundamental change in political economy, is less challenging to people in power-broker positions. Therefore this year’s theme of “Resilient Dynamism” is more appropriate for Davos, as it resonates more with continuity than fundamental change and transition to a new system.  

How is this limited worldview maintained? Partly because the mythical Davos Man, and woman, is busy in a world of international deals, presentations, parties, and sparkly new ideas, not deep inquiry into the nature of reality. It’s just easier to side-line ideas which sound critical. Although the Forum has been an advocate of stakeholder engagement for decades, in practice I’ve seen a business voice on any public issue, but never the voice of a Non-Governmental Organisation on matters like corporate law, tax reform, economic reform, or financial regulation.

Elite sycophancy

In 2008, as the financial crisis was in its first flush, the founder of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, effectively apologised for the Forum not having provided insight on the coming storm. “We let it get out of control, and attention was taken away from the speed and complexity of how the world’s challenges built up,” said Professor Schwab. I wondered at the time whether an institution that pays its bills by convening the world’s largest companies to entertain them at high-powered meetings would be beset by a form of systemic sycophancy, restricting its ability to explore any root causes that might challenge members. Five years into the crisis, with more scandals in the past year than ever, from libor to money laundering, we don’t see a major shift in approach at Davos. Banks participate in many of the Global Agenda Councils, and this year UBS co-chairs the Davos summit.

The question therefore formulating in my mind as I head to Davos this year is whether sufficient people in powerful institutions really understand how broken the current systems are, and if they are brave enough to look honestly at what it may take to change them. If so, could the WEF evolve its approach to use it multi-stakeholder gatherings to explore real transitions? Or might other venues be required?

Frost Over the World
Developing a new world model

In my book, The Corporate Responsibility Movement, I described the growing movement of people in and around corporations who are working to transform corporations and economic systems. A few years on, I am less sure insiders can do the job. The mother of sociology, Harriet Martineau, once noted that “The emancipation of any class usually, if not always, takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class.” I came across her work as she lived in the Lake District town where I’m founding the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS). We rarely hear the wisdom of past political economists or sociologists in the deliberations of any leading forum. Yet, if we are truly interested in how change happens, then we need to draw on diverse insights from many places and times. What Ms Martineau was saying should resonate not only with activists but with business leaders, as the creative destruction of incumbent institutions is a typical and thankful facet of capitalism – incumbents being too slow to really invest in innovation and change.

I have found that exciting insight is born of the freedom to intellectually rebel, and is therefore found on the edges of incumbent institutions or their polite societies. As such I have always sought to connect different disciplines, sectors, ideas, people, to explore and hopefully act on challenging issues together. Could WEF embrace more edges? It has made efforts to diversify participation, most recently with the Global Shapers, who are twenty-somethings chosen by local representatives. In addition to diversifying the participants, new approaches to facilitating dialogue at the Summits may have potential to shift discussion to a deeper level. To embrace the edges, rather than co-opt and corrode them, the WEF must provide senior backing for a radical agenda. That means Professor Schwab, his senior colleagues, the board, and key corporate members, must give the secretariat support to explore core problems in our economic systems, and free them from the concern that something is too “left wing” or might upset a particular company.

Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace, and a fellow YGL, reminds us: access is not influence. Holding the door open for new constituents is not the same as real engagement as equals. Martineau once described how male chivalry to women was used by some as an excuse for on-going subjugation; “Indulgence is given her as a substitute for justice,” she noted. And I have to say, a week in a Swiss Ski Resort with fantastic facilities and parties does feel like an indulgence. I’m less in danger of becoming a Davos Man, as I am of becoming a Davos Ma’am – someone of good intent who is sedated by the chivalrous indulgence of elites. We YGLs may confidently think that our projects are great and our characters strong enough to resist self-censorship, but I have personally experienced how being “feted” by an elite club can reduce ones criticism of others and oneself. Access is influence after all, but influence over ourselves.

Back to Davos

For an individual, Davos seems worth it. At a minimum, it shows you what world leaders consider a smart and progressive thing to say on a world stage: that’s an insight into the state of the public debate, rather than any “truth”. It also forces you to prioritise your goals, as you consider what you will talk about when you bump into a world leader at the bar.

For me, being there last year gave me the insight that many people in powerful positions are actually just like the rest of us – with very partial understandings of what is happening, a limited sense of agency as an individual, and a desire to fit in. Yet, amongst that sea of caution, I met YGLs who connected me to a sense of the potential to achieve great things. New collaborations are emerging, such as on the Sharing Economy, and because of the reach of the WEF many more people will hear about this approach to sustainability – even people in Myanmar, where we will launch the report!

Last year Davos helped me accept that any great transformation will be up to us, not those holding positions of power at incumbent institutions. Maybe this year it will help me discover some “resilient dynamism” to get on with the job. Hopefully enough of us YGLs won’t end up becoming Davos Ma’ams, and work towards a transition from the current unjust and unsustainable system.

For those who attend, whether Davos is worth it or not depends on whether they stick to their principles. For the wider world, we must not wait for Davos or other networks of elites to wake up from their delusions that the current system is not fatally flawed and participate in more explorative agendas and processes.

So maybe the Ford Foundation should fund participation in the UN after all. Invite Paulo, Imran, Mo and Daw Suu, and it could be just as fun. 

Dr Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founding Director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria Business School, in the Lake District, UK.