An Era of No Easy Answers: Nine Takeaways from Davos 2020

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

*Denotes APCO client

I wanted to capture a few key take-aways and observations from this year’s milestone Davos—World Economic Forum’s 50th anniversary—from official sessions, discussions I moderated and participated in, to many sidebar conversations with fascinating people. Apart from “taking a pulse” on key global issues and leadership priorities, Davos has always given me a lot of food for thought, informing business strategy for the year ahead:

Action Speaks

This year’s Davos has been at the center of global attention—old models of leadership have been put to question by a sweeping wave of youth activism and mobilization, especially on climate. Far from many come to Davos committed to action, but those who do, stand out. WEF has shifted its own model, putting more emphasis on multi-stakeholder collaboration around 18 key platforms it has identified (from future of consumption to global public goods), working to catalyze year-round action among its members – beyond Davos. Many of them, from gender parity to food action alliance have been announced this week.

Youth activism is also undergoing a transformation: Melati Wijsen—an Indonesian teen who catalyzed a single-use plastics ban in Indonesia spoke about a new organization she is setting up called Youthopia—collecting knowledge and helping transform youth activists to change makers. Private sector leaders are still debating on how to best integrate these young change makers – either formally (Siemens* CEO offered a 23-year-old German climate activist a seat on the supervisory board of the company’s soon-to-be created energy business, which she refused) or informally through dialogue and action. IKEA’s* Tradhus space in Davos this year tried to model it by convening series of discussions and encouraging participants to make individual and organizational pledges on climate and circular economy.

Responsibility of business and investors to see the change through

There is definitely a building momentum and mobilization of business and investment community on climate, but also on a host of other priority issues. From the launch of The Principles for Responsible Banking by 130 banks from 49 countries — with more than $47 trillion in assets, committing the banks to “strategically align their business with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals” to Blackrock CEO’s letter, where one of the world’s largest investors in coal, oil, gas and climate-destabilizing deforestation, announced making sustainability its “new standard for investing, to Goldman Sachs announcing at the end of the Davos week, that it will no longer take companies public if they don’t have at least one “diverse” member on its board of directors.

Technology – the great divider or equalizer?

According to Satya Nadella there will be more tech applications built in 2020 than in the past 40 years combined. Many discussions this year examined the tech for good premise and whether the benefits of technology are shared equally, contributing to more inclusive growth or are concentrated at the top and in the hands of the one percent. Yuval Harari had a rather daunting prediction that we were entering an era of “useless” class with many jobs and professions being eliminated at a pace faster than any reskilling or upskilling initiatives (after all, a 50-year-old truck driver will likely not shift career to become a software engineer or a yoga instructor).

Regulation a la carte?

At a time where innovation and technology solutions outpace the established regulatory regimes and legislation, tech leaders hope to preemptively shape the new rules of the game—Facebook’s call for “new internet rules,” to Microsoft’s* launch of the Cyber Accord to IBM launching a Policy Lab in Davos, with Ginny Rometty calling for precision regulation of AI and emerging technologies.

From a role model to a troublemaker

Donald Trump returned to Davos to give a pre-election speech on blue-collar boom and the growing economy (astutely fact-checked here, by the BBC) and was largely embraced by the Davos plutocrats publicly. In private, however, many leaders spoke about the dangerous implications of erosion of trust in United States’ leadership and its shift from being a role model for democratic institutions and the role of law.

Risk in context

Climate, environment and biodiversity crises certainly dominated the official agenda in Davos, dubbed at the biggest risks for our generation. In private discussions, many focused on China’s role—both in its rapid industrialization and disproportionate contribution to GHG emissions, but also on its increasing leadership role and central government effectiveness on climate mitigation. At a dinner that Marsh & McLennan hosted, Niall Fergusson called infectious diseases outbreaks the most immediate threat to humanity, given that our species are networked an interconnected as never before. Coronavirus in the headlines and widespread travel restrictions in China perhaps conceptualized this short-term risk better than anything.

Cities as drivers of change

There were a number of discussions that put cities on the map – as hubs for innovative decision-making and laboratories for change on topics from climate & resilience to combating inequality, circular economy and smart mobility. There are a number of initiatives – such as the voluntary local review, spearheaded by NYC’s Commissioner for International Affairs, Penny Abeywardena – that bring together best practices from city leaders committed to action.

Authentic partnerships

I had an opportunity to shape two sessions on my area of passion—impact partnerships. In one of them, leaders from sectors as diverse as retail, healthcare and tech each spoke about their approach to identifying common societal threatscarefully listening to the marketplace and scaling their ambition—which has given rise to groundbreaking initiatives like Johnson & Johnson multi-year partnership with Apple* to detect and diagnose heart disease to Salesforce’s One Trillion Trees to combat climate initiative, in partnership with WEF and more than 300 companies. In a similarly diverse group of organizations from IKEA Foundation to UNHCR, MIT Solve*, IDEO and Unilever*, we spoke about the need for radical collaboration and alignment between organizational purpose advocacy and business strategy in order to tackle world’s wicked problems from climate to inequality.

Inclusion 2.0

There is a lot one can learn from WEF’s own evolution and the types of stakeholders it brought around the table at its 50th anniversary. From a white-male dominated gathering in its early days, WEF had many points of inflection—from globalization protests at the start of the century to youth protests sweeping the globe last year. WEF gradually co-opted its critics and brought them to the table—launching communities of Global Shapers, tapping in to the next generation of leaders, expanding the invitee pull from its most ardent critics—the civil society (from Greenpeace to Transparency International and Oxfam), to including leaders of Occupy Wall Street and young change makers under 20 years old this year.

One of the more inspiring and authentic private sessions this week was hosted by Jesper Brodin, the CEO of IKEA, who spoke about how we all have to work at the edge of our courage: “if you’re being courageous but still feel comfortable you need to take another step.” Jesper spoke about this in the context of the Green New Deal for Europe, but I think it is applicable across the board for the decade ahead.

Are you working at the edge of your courage?