Opinion

The Great Debate

Can the social network of Davos deliver?

January 26, 2010

– Aron Cramer is the president and CEO of BSR , a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming book Sustainable Excellence (Rodale 2010). The views expressed are his own. –

The 40th World Economic Forum at Davos gets underway this week in a world still groping for direction and solutions to structural changes and economic weakness that plague the global economy. Is it realistic to expect that the 2,500 people at Davos will deliver a truly sustainable economic recovery?

The disappointing outcome at Copenhagen was a powerful example of how risky it is to expect grand, global gatherings to save the world. Does that mean it’s best to keep expectations of Davos in check? Maybe not.

Davos is a place where influential government, business, and civil society leaders gather to create new solutions to vexing problems. It is, in its own elite way, more representative of the 21st century world than the summits that rely on formal treaties. You could say that Davos, with its informal opportunities for connections, is a social networking site in the snow, while Copenhagen, with its formal communiqués, is more like the Congress of Vienna.

In proper web 2.0 fashion, much of the goings-on are user generated, organized by participants outside the official program. And by looking at what’s happening at the “off-piste” meetings and events, it’s easy to see that sustainability is at the core of this 40th Davos.

It is precisely the combination of the official and unofficial agenda at Davos that has the potential to contribute to sustainable prosperity—especially if it can deliver systemic redesign, spark innovation for sustainability, and leverage the power of the network it has assembled.

Indeed, one of the WEF’s core themes this year is system redesign. It’s looking to make progress on its Global Redesign Initiative, an effort to promote governance improvements for inclusive economic growth that is also environmentally sustainable. In addition, the chairs of Davos’ 70 Global Agenda Councils (which includes one I will lead on sustainable consumption) will close the event with recommendations to bring to a summit in Qatar this May. It is then that the outputs of these 70 councils, which range from the future of China to the future of journalism, will be presented formally to a group of governments. The goal is nothing less than “fostering transformational innovation in global governance” to solve the world’s most pressing problems. So we should give the WEF credit for its effort to look at global problems from a systemic perspective.

Innovation for sustainability is also on the agenda. I’ll be leading a discussion on “Redirecting Marketing,” in which leaders from fields such as marketing and consumer products will debate the fundamental premise of how we communicate about and sell products. Today, innovation is about much more than just new kinds of products, and we’ll consider whether marketing is mired in a “Mad Men” world, or whether there’s an opportunity to inspire consumers to make more sustainable choices.

Finally, Davos will help us move toward sustainable prosperity if the new network of partnerships and connections formed during these six days can live beyond the snowy Alps. This question is the hardest to answer since it depends on the outcome of thousands of side meetings, random connections, and in-process ideas. But one of the great advantages of being at Davos is the opportunity for global leaders to hear ideas they wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to in the course of their regular workweek. These unstructured encounters are where some of the most interesting and useful ideas can emerge.

Unlike Copenhagen or the G-20 summits, there won’t be a closing communiqué that summarizes the results of Davos. But if the unique network of 2,500 people all go home with innovative ideas that build more momentum for sustainable economic recovery, Davos will be an important step forward.

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