So for very strange reasons I find myself in Davos for the 2014 World Economic Forum – not exactly where I expected to be, but a huge opportunity to get a sense of where the global agenda is on the idea of the citizen as the role of the individual in society, and one I intend to take.
Monday and Tuesday have been about working with a group of young ‘leaders’ brought together by the World Economic Forum from all sorts of backgrounds – despite inauspicious beginnings (the poster below was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in town), this was very interesting. But today things really got started with the opening sessions of the conference proper, so I thought I’d share a few reflections (necessarily slightly limited by the Chatham House rules nature of most sessions).
in short, I feel like I’m seeing two stories playing out. There’s a headline tone, one of renewed confidence as the worst immediate effects of the financial crisis recede, tempered with a healthy if slightly superficial respect for the Pope’s opening incitement to “ensure that humanity is served by wealth, not ruled by it.”
But digging into the sessions, I get a real sense of quite deep uncertainty emerging – a sense that perhaps deeper systemic questions can and must be asked, not just a return to business as usual but with a moral veneer.
This first came through in an opening session on ‘Doing Business The Right Way’ (streamed live and available to view here – so no Chatham on this one), with a panel including Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and PWC International Chairman Dennis Nally alongside Dutch and Australian CEOs. The conversation ranged without clear structure – and with a lot of defensiveness (as one person tweeted, everyone seemed to be to blame but businesses themselves) – but out of the confusion, I sensed three stories seeming to blend and merge.
The first was one of a few bad apples, but an underlying good system – this basic defensiveness is still very much in evidence across the conference. The second is along the lines of Michael Porter’s ‘shared value’ construct – the idea that profit is still the thing to be maximised, though with a longer term view and with stakeholders not just shareholders in view. The third, coming mostly from PWC’s Nally, was more radical and less well formed, but seemed to be about putting business purpose first as the vector to be maximised, with profit to be optimised against that. As Nally put it, ‘There will always be conflicts, and without a clear idea of purpose, it will be profit that makes the decisions.’ It will be fascinating to see how and if these stories emerge and develop over the rest of the week – there were at least hints at the sort of radical-but-obvious story told so compelling in this Radio 4 Four Thought programme.
As the day continued, the sense that there really are no clear and confidently held solutions kept coming back – whether it was Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain closing his big data session by joking that we should regroup in 20 years to laugh at the inadequacy of our attempts even to adequately conceptualise the challenges, Al Gore discussing the latest climate science, or a panel including Tim Berners-Lee and the Pope’s representative Archbishop Turkson struggling to understand the emerging global morals and norms, the emerging sense for me was of a gathering of people disconcerted by their own lack of power to solve the problems in front of them.
It will be fascinating to see how this develops over the next two days – whether sticking plasters are found, or whether deeper questions start to cohere and gather people to them.