Heads of state and leading figures from business and academia gather this week in Davos, Switzerland to “shape global, regional and industry agendas,” as part of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting. With this year’s conference entitled "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models," we talk to WEF Sustainability Adviser and CIGI Senior Visiting Fellow Simon Zadek on what the forum’s unique composition can offer in terms of economic recovery and a move toward green growth.
CIGI: Compared to past forums, how would you describe the mood among delegates as things get underway in Davos, and how optimistic are you that something positive will emerge in terms of "The Great Transformation"?
Simon Zadek: When I look at the long game over the 10 years that I’ve been coming here, I think my topic — advancing a more sustainable, inclusive economy — has moved from something discussed on the margins to the principle focus in, say, two-thirds of the talks on "Magic Mountain" here in Davos. Some of it will translate into action, some describes real initiative and will, and some of it is hot air. This is a normal distribution for any progressive debate in the mainstream, and there is no reason to believe it's cynical because it's not all real, all sincere or that everything will not translate into action.
Over the last couple of years, Davos echoed with mea culpa moments where people rightly, and often with regret, said, “we messed that up and let’s not blow our own trumpets because people will chuck a rotten tomato at us.” While this year is a euro-bashing year, there is a broader sense of "can do" in the air. The sense of having messed up combines with this feeling to enact the theme, "The Great Transformation." The theme is right whether you are looking at the pain of the euro zone or the aspirational question of whether there is a better future for capitalism and beyond. It’s good that there is a sense of historical discontinuity, or at least the need for change. The challenge is the disconnect between the framing and the solutions on the table, most of which are profoundly incremental and will not unleash our potential as a technological, planning species.
CIGI: In a recent op-ed in OpenDemocracy you praised Davos organizers for allowing an additional class of “internalized disruptors” in response to the Occupy movement. How important is it for these voices to be heard at Davos?
Zadek: If we are serious about the great transformation, you have to be equally serious about the great disruption. It’s not just what has gone wrong, but thinking through how are we going to create significant change given the incumbent interests in place — so much of our political economy has a vested interest in a deeply unequal, carbon economy. For an instructive view of the investment community, read the recent writings of Lord Nicholas Stern, drawing on the work of Carbon Tracker, on the contribution that investors are making to creating a four-to-six degree Celsius world. Most of the folks in the room are not open to disrupting their own success models, even though they understand the broader consequences.
The forum has been quite brilliant in internalizing a controlled disruption process with technological pioneers, young global leaders, social entrepreneurs and now global shapers. And this does help to shake up the Davos community. But it has to be said this is not enough — the attraction of being here is so great that new folks learn old club rules too fast for them to be a real source of disruption.
CIGI: You wrote recently about an increasing role for “B Corporations.” The WEF’s makeup of public and private practitioners makes it unique among international fora. How important is that public-private dynamic in crafting policy solutions to the world’s biggest challenges?
Zadek: It’s a good example because there’s a lot of discussion about the need to improve corporate governance , but it's painfully circular. Martin Wolf’s Financial Times article on "fixing the system" is a case in point, where his solution to poor corporate governance is to have better-informed non-executive directors — a view from the Titanic if ever there was one. Most folks here, if asked the question, would say "let's do what we invented better" rather than probing the fundamentals. Few would seriously entertain the thought that the corporate fiduciary approach should allow for, indeed score against, broader public interest goals and financial interests. Yet we have exactly that out there in the world today: new models such as B Corporations, state-owned enterprises that blend public policy interest with commercial criteria and of course good old co-ops, of which there are millions all over the world.
CIGI: Your comments seem to indicate some frustration at the lack of change in mindsets or actions at the WEF — why do you keep coming to Davos?
Zadek: Meaningful change is frustratingly slow — that is not a peculiar feature of Davos. The Occupy movement spread to 900 cities last year in a matter of days, but its impact is slow and not as grand as I and many others would wish. The same for the Arab Spring. We can put 5 billion mobile phones on the ground and 800 million people on Twitter, but changing the rules of a winner-takes-all economy that messes up the ecology that sustains us is tough. It’s as simple and stark as that. What brings me back to "Magic Mountain" is that many of the folks at Davos have the will and means to make an incredible difference, and it is a place where the potential is there to realize some part of that. Being here is not an alternative to the Occupy movement or other more radical spaces, but we need to pull all the levers that we can find, and more.