World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013

  • Meeting the Innovation Imperative

    Friday 25th January 2013 - 2:45pm - 3:45pm

    Download PDF

  • How can business, science and society push the global innovation frontier to meet the needs of a population of 9 billion?

    Key Points

    • The innovation imperative arises from the need to meet the needs of an additional 2 billion people by 2050.
    • Meeting the innovation imperative will require investment in scientific research by governments, business and other funders.
    • Food companies are seeking to increase yields and incomes of farmers in developing countries through new products and technologies.
    • Mobile phones and the Internet are helping rural farmers and fishermen identify markets.


    The innovation imperative arises from the fact that, if current population trends hold, by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, up 2 billion from today. All these people will need and deserve adequate and secure food supplies, clean water, decent housing, good health care, a healthy environment and education to allow them to participate as economic actors and citizens. These needs cannot be fulfilled without significant innovation – both scientific and social.

    This session focused principally on the need to foster food security by increasing crop yields in developing countries. Currently, many young people in developing countries are leaving their family land to move to the cities. Multinational food companies have launched initiatives to improve crop yields, increasing supply and smallholder farmers’ income, and thus encouraging more young people to stay in agriculture. These companies are partnering with NGOs to identify villages where the people will be receptive to such initiatives.

    Multinational companies are working with scientists, governments, NGOs and local village leaders to encourage the use of more productive, pest-resistant seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and better planting techniques. The goal is to transform subsistence farming to agricultural businesses using modern agronomic techniques.

    Multinational companies are also helping African dairy farmers get their milk to market through enzymes that preserve milk longer. Mobile phone technology and the Internet are helping developing country farmers and fishermen identify that best markets for their produce and catches on a daily basis.

    For the innovation imperative to be fulfilled, governments, other funders and business must invest in science-based research. A global research council has recently been created that provides a platform for global funders to collaborate and scale up innovation. Sharing the results of local experiments is important in discovering what works.

    Panellists addressed the question of whether there is now an innovation deficit – most useful innovations are based on 20th-century ideas and now, in the 21st century, there are not enough new ideas in the pipeline. Most panellists rejected the idea of an innovation deficit. They noted, however, that it takes years to research and develop new products, such as chemical products, and scale up for commercial exploitation.

    Social innovation is also needed to meet the innovation imperative. Attitudes must change if innovations and new technologies are to be accepted by local people. One multinational offered a village in rural India to pay for an experienced teacher on that condition that the village agreed to improve hygiene and girls’ education. People need incentives to accept innovation. If people think an innovation will make their situation worse, they will oppose it. Dialogue and engagement are required.

    Improving education in developing countries cuts across many other innovation imperative issues. Online education holds the promise of reaching people all over the world. However, inadequate infrastructure still limits Internet access in many parts of the developing world.

    Panellists agreed that young people in both the developed and developing countries lack sufficient science education. They suggested that youth today learn science through gaming and that science should be connected with social media. 


    This summary was written by David Watkiss. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum. 

Session objectives

How can business, science and society push the global innovation frontier to meet the needs of a population of 9 billion?

Dimensions to be addressed:

  • Prioritizing innovations for human development
  • Rethinking partnerships to accelerate impact
  • Building a co-creation paradigm for solutions
  • Aligning science with global challenges


  • Helga Nowotny Helga Nowotny
    President, European Research Council (2010-2013), Austria

    PhD in Sociology, Columbia University, NY; Doctorate in Jurisprudence, University of Vienna. Profess...

  • Ellen Kullman Ellen Kullman
    Chair of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, DuPont, USA

    BSc in Mechanical Engineering, Tufts University, US; Master's in Management, Northwestern University...

  • Vineet Nayar Vineet Nayar
    Vice-Chairman, HCL Technologies, India

    With HCL Technologies: currently, Vice-Chairman and CEO, responsible for doubling the company's empl...

  • Irene B. Rosenfeld Irene B. Rosenfeld
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Mondelez Global, USA

    BA, Psychology, MSc, Business Admin. and PhD in Marketing and Statistics, Cornell. Since 1981, with ...

Moderated by

  • Jim Frederick Jim Frederick
    Contributing Editor, Time International, USA

    BA in English Literature, Columbia University; MBA, Stern School of Business, New York University. F...