Last Friday, a client asked me if Davos is “just a talk shop”. It was the end of the week of the World Economic Forum’s 50thAnnual Meeting in the Swiss ski town, and we were discussing some of the announcements coming out of the meeting. Her question got me thinking about the role of the World Economic Forum and why the Davos meeting creates such a media frenzy – is it really just a champagne-swilling après ski party, or is there any substance behind it all? This blog takes a look at the background to the Forum, its aims and the cross-sector action it catalyses beyond the talking. I have also shared some of the Davos headlines that caught my eye last week.
Full disclosure: I used to work for a World Economic Forum platform for sustainable agriculture (Grow Asia) and Wasafiri has advised various Forum initiatives over the years.
Davos – The Annual Meeting
There is no doubt, Davos is still a ‘hot ticket’ event, which is an incredible achievement after 50 years of annual meetings. Hotel rooms are notoriously difficult to find for the week of the meeting, roads are gridlocked with traffic, and yet people are willing to flock to the little ski resort for this one week a year. Part of the allure is to “see and be seen” (Just take a quick scan of people’s LinkedIn profiles and you’ll see how proud people are to be there… selfies at Davos, profile pictures with the famous blue and white logo behind them, etc.) And rightly so; part of the Davos magic is that it is strictly invitation only, and if you get invited, you cannot nominate a colleague to attend in your place. If you’re there, you’ve made it! Of course, the reason for this no-nomination rule is to maintain the quality of delegates; it’s heads of state, business leaders and civil society champions only. OK, there may be one or two extras here and there, but the Forum does an amazing job of stakeholder management and only a chosen, elite few have the special event badge that gives them access to the most interesting meetings (flunkies and bag carriers: you can wait outside). In a very candid article in The Guardian last week, Micah White – Co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street – describes his dilemma about accepting an invitation to Davos and the value for even a social activist to go.
But Davos is just one week in the year of the World Economic Forum – what else does it do? It’s worth referring to the Davos Manifesto for stakeholder capitalism, which was drafted by Professor Klaus Schwab, the enigmatic founder of the Forum. Writing in 1973, Schwab seems to be eerily prophetic with his call to action: “Businesses should serve the interests of all society rather than simply their shareholders.” This sentiment is now widely accepted amongst NGOs and civil society certainly, but also increasingly by investors and regulators. The USA-based Business Roundtable issued a statement echoing this philosophy last year (Kate blogged about it here). The point is, for almost 40 years the World Economic Forum’s leadership has been talking about the potential for business to create positive, widespread impact at scale, beyond making profit. Tellingly, at this year’s Davos meeting the 1973 manifesto was re-launched as the Davos Manifesto 2020, an updated version which describes a company’s purpose, responsibilities and role in our global future; the language is powerful, clear and compelling.
Public-Private Partnerships for System Change
In the context of this manifesto, the World Economic Forum describes itself as “the international organisation for public-private cooperation” – and this is at the heart of what the Forum does for the other 51 weeks of the year: it convenes and coordinates collaboration between different sectors. For example, within the Forum’s Platform for Global Public Goods, there are myriad multi-stakeholder partnerships structured around some of the most complex and pressing issues of our time such as ocean health, plastics, food systems and financing the SDGs. What the Forum does brilliantly is get key actors to the table including big companies, government bodies, civil society and academia. Most models for creating system change describe the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration (indeed, Wasafiri’s approach – Systemcraft – describes how the critical aspect is not the number of stakeholders, but it is rather about having the right stakeholders at the table).
All talk and no action?
There is then the question about the “talk shop” and this is where I think the Forum often gets unfair criticism. They convene senior decision makers, they organize agenda around key issues and they produce some fantastic insights and research. However, it is not the Forum’s role to set goals and implement solutions; it’s the participants’. The Forum simply creates the enabling environment for collaboration. Undeniably, the success of the multi-stakeholder partnerships will depend somewhat on the participants’ ability to self-organise and to problem-solve (and some of the issues they address are incredibly complex). The Forum is aware of its role as an agent for system change and a convener of collaboration – in fact, I would go as far as to say that the Forum is acutely aware that it is seen as a talk shop and they work hard to be clear about their role. At Wasafiri, we have been lucky enough to work with many of their platforms to help design their theories of change and impact measurement frameworks – in other words, to strategise their role, plan their actions and measure their impact.
But at the end of the day, it is down to the partners whom the World Economic Forum invites to its events (at Davos or elsewhere) because they are in a position to use the Forum’s language to “improve the state of the world”. If Davos risks being “just a a talk shop”, it’s not the World Economic Forum’s fault.
Davos News: the top five headlines that caught my eye
- Climate now tops the risk agenda (and economy has disappeared from the top five issues), as described in the Forum’s annual Global Risk Report
- Professor Schwab wrote to all company leaders who came to Davos and invited them to set net-zero emissions targets
- Even the world’s highest profile climate change denier (President Trump) got behind the Forum’s multi-stakeholder initiative to “grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees” worldwide
- How to incentivise Food System Transformation, summarized in this Forbes article
- [Shameless plug] – Wasafiri was delighted to work with the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship to produce this report, the story of the Foundation’s impact, which was launched at Davos this year: Two Decades of Impact
For more reading about “Davos – The Myths and Facts”, click here.