As the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos gets underway later today, I am looking forward to a few days of tackling some serious topics—and some interesting paradoxes. The theme for this year’s event is both ambitious and timely: Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. Whether its healing aspirations are realized depends not just on what happens at Davos, but on whether the event catalyzes a commitment to action the other 51 weeks of the year.
The shared future that the Forum’s theme calls for has already been defined. Most of the world has aligned around a clear set of global goals, reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.
It is equally true, however, that there are significant fractures interfering with progress: Nationalism in particular will be a common theme and threat debated by we globalists attending Davos. The Forum’s Global Risks Report, released late last week, cites geopolitical turmoil as a major risk for the world this year, complicating efforts to align around shared goals.
The impact of technology, which features ever more prominently at Davos, reflects both the great promise of shared prosperity and the risk of deep societal fracture. The triumphal techno-optimism that has been celebrated at Davos since I first attended in 2005 has in some ways darkened. We still have many reasons to cheer on the connectedness, human agency, productivity, and base of the pyramid opportunities tech has delivered. However, concerns about cyber-threats, privacy, artificial intelligence (AI) run amok, job-killing robots, and interference with democracy will also be top of mind.
In times of turmoil, it is particularly crucial to stay focused on a north star, which is exactly what the 17 SDGs represent. Amidst all the panels on fake news, cyber-security, and a certain plenary speaker coming to trumpet his America First agenda, there will be considerable effort to advance collaborative work on sustainable development.
Climate will again be center stage, and women’s empowerment is having its (long overdue) moment at Davos. For the first time, the meeting will be overseen by an all-women set of co-chairs, an impressive group that includes Sharan Burrow, Isabelle Kocher, Christine Lagarde, and Erna Solberg.
Interestingly, there will be more and more attention to the very economic model that has benefitted so many of its participants. The circular economy, once on the far fringes of Davos, has now come to the very center of the agenda—something we will explore in the Future of Consumption Systems initiative, which I am co-chairing.
Many of us will also discuss what a just transition—ensuring that the rise of technologies, fundamental changes in our energy systems, new forms of commerce, and new business models are designed, implemented, and governed in a manner that ensures that economic opportunities are generated for those who need them—should look like, and what it means for the 21st-century social contract.
In this context, there are four things that the business leaders gathering this week can do to advance our shared future:
- Commit to business strategies that are dedicated to social purpose in addition to value creation. Larry Fink of BlackRock made the case for this powerfully in his annual letter last week.
- Strengthen corporate governance systems to ensure that goals and incentives are aligned with this vision.
- At a time of deep and wide business disruption, design consideration of social and environmental outcomes into new business models and technologies. The Forum’s call for maximizing the broad benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and mitigating its negative impacts is of urgent importance.
- Use the voice of business to advocate for systems change. Business leaders can—and should—use their voices to ensure that the global community, indeed all of us, resist the xenophobia, nationalism, and authoritarianism that threatens to slow or reverse human progress.
The question hanging over Davos this year, as it has to varying degrees since the financial crisis hit, is the lack of faith so much of the public has in the kinds of institutions that are represented there. Doubling down on the SDGs, and more importantly, the powerful vision of a shared destiny for all the world’s peoples, can help us make progress this week. Failing to make good on that vision will only widen the cracks we see in local communities, nations, and the world at large.
My hope for Davos is that we will all walk away recommitted not only to this shared goal, but also to a shared action plan to achieve it.