OPINION LEADERS Lessons from Davos

Get ready for radical disruption – of markets, societies and ecosystems. That, for me, was the headline message from this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) summit at Davos, Switzerland, in February.
In one of the best received sessions, former US President Bill Clinton named climate change, global inequalities and cultural and religious divides as the major challenges facing today’s world. Climate change, said Clinton in conversation with WEF founder and executive chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab, is the only problem “that has the power to end the march of civilisation as we know it”.
Other risks, including the US deficit, impending fiscal crises, oil-price hikes, pandemics, terrorism and counterfeiting, were also underscored in WEF’s Global Risks 2006 study. But when I chaired session in the Global Risks stream, focusing on environment and the bottom line, the mood was different from when I took part in the summit five years ago. This year’s event was by far the most interesting of the five I have attended. The theme was “The Creativity Imperative”, though it might equally have been “Disruption!”.
When the forum ran debate for 600 to 700 participants this year, two themes topped the priority list: ‘environment’ and ‘sustainable development in China and India’.
Indeed, I got the feeling that if you showed the many CEOs present at the summit “horizon event” graph which shows that for the first time in the 1980s we exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity and trend line that is moving steadily upward toward ever-greater unsustainability, most would have given the evidence sympathetic hearing.
Recent announcements by companies like GE (with its Ecomagination initiative) and Wal-Mart (including its pledge on sustainable fish) are both symptomatic of growing business unease on questions like climate change and are helping to trigger waves of concern and interest.
This year’s summit attracted the highest-ever number of top-level business participants – some 735 CEOs or chairmen. But despite them being some of the best-briefed people on the planet, I suspect most are, in fact, still ignorant of the ’80s “horizon event” when we moved from potentially sustainable world into an unsustainable one.
The challenge facing our world now is to convert the great problems of rapidly expanding population into market research, into landscapes of opportunity that business brains can recognise and respond to. And whereas in the past most business people responded with disinterest to challenges like those raised at the summit, the mood was significantly different this year. Wherever I went there was palpable sense that things had changed, partly because of the US hurricanes, partly because of China’s eruption into the world energy and natural resources markets, and partly because of an uneasy sense that the world production of oil may soon peak.
You could see the precursors of the coming quantum jumps everywhere at the summit, though to date it’s more talk than walk, more pilot than planet-scale. Still, WEF has done much to catalyse the necessary conversations and thinking.
One priority for WEF and those who carry its ideas out into the world, will be to ensure that this agenda is addressed not just in worthy citizenship ways, but in an increasingly creative, high-leverage fashion. “The challenge is to weave creativity into the very DNA of Davos,” Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO argued in the concluding session of the summit. And the same is still true of much of the sustainability agenda, both in terms of weaving that into the Davos DNA and, dare I say, of injecting more creativity into the sustainability movement itself.
It is time for quantum jumping our unsustainable world to more sustainable states. But for those with an inclination to wait and hope for an ultra-creative and “with-one-bound-we-will-be-free” escape from the pressure cooker realities of our looming “beyond-the-limits” future, Davos provided the odd tiny glint of hope. It was offered by the ever-piratical Sir Richard Branson with description of his branded venture capital group Virgin and his soaring plans for Virgin Galactic. But Branson’s service is unlikely to penetrate deep space for decades. And, it will bear only small numbers of super-wealthy people aloft for very short period and have nowhere to take them should return to earth prove impossible. For the moment, this is the only world we have.
So, I am keeping my fingers crossed that Klaus Schwab and his partners and successors succeed in putting WEF’s considerable resources behind real ‘Beyond the Limits’ agenda.
If you are interested in what an international sample of sustainability experts think WEF might do next, take look at the results of recent survey carried out by GlobeScan for SustainAbility and Value magazine (www.valuenewsnetwork.com and www.sustainability.com).
WEF, you may conclude, has plenty to keep it busy for the next decade or two.

John Elkington is chief entrepreneur of the London-based SustainAbility consultancy and attended this year’s World Economic Forum as speaker.

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