Global Cooperation

The evolution of Davos

Simon Zadek
Principal, Project Catalyst, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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Davos is with us again. Thousands of people will scale the magic mountain and debate the world’s most gripping challenges, protected by an equal if not greater number of Swiss military and police.

Disrupting Davos used to be an annual sport, with protesters playing cat and mouse with the event’s attentive security. Today, disruption has waned as leaders of major campaigning organizations have joined Davos for canapés and conversation. For a while, the Occupy movement reawakened the urge to protests. Like the Occupy movement, however, the urge has largely dissipated.

Disrupting Davos made more sense when it focused on doing business in a troubled world. Less so today with the focus now more on how the trouble itself can be overcome. Davos’ program reads like the accumulated agendas of Greenpeace, Oxfam, Transparency International and the United Nations, with a dab of the daily routines of Avaaz, Alibaba and Angelina Jolie.

Davos has changed over the decade that I have scaled the mountain. The World Economic Forum has evolved from a Swiss non-profit institution staging a series of annual events headlined by Davos to an on-going international process involving thousands of individuals and institutions and hundreds of pop-up initiatives on topics from women’s rights to corruption, and from education to climate. Davos and the Forum has become an embedded part of the way we manage our global affairs. Presidents, CEOs and rock stars come and go, and Davos has outlived them all. Such survival is not just about the glitz, but because the Forum provides the world’s most sophisticated market place for forging disruptive collaborative initiatives designed to overcome toxic, embedded challenges.

My Davos this year fits this picture. I am co-leading a two-year inquiry established by the United Nations Environment Program into how to change financial and capital markets in ways that align the behavior of lenders and investors with our need to live inclusively within our planetary boundaries. Today, their behavior is far from what is needed, as they continue to channel money into environmentally destructive enterprises and demand short-term financial returns that drive businesses to cut costs and jobs rather than invest in skills and future economic rewards.

Our job is not just to think of interesting solutions, but to catalyze ambitious action by the central banks, financial regulators, finance ministries, international organizations and standard setters which set the rules. Exemplary practice shows the way. Dr Atiur Rahmen, the governor of the central bank of Bangladesh, has been recognized as Asia’s leading governor for 2014 for his leadership in shaping inclusive and green central bank practices. Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor, has initiated a review of the impact of climate change on the UK financial sector. Brazil and South Africa’s stock exchanges have tough sustainability reporting requirements, and the Peoples Bank of China is driving green into the development of China’s financial systems.

Despite such leadership, customary norms and practices, particularly in major financial centers, still marginalize sustainability. Guardians of the financial system don’t see the pursuit of sustainability as their job, and incumbent interests resist challenges their business models. In such situations, Davos comes into its own. Most leading central bankers, financial regulators, ministers of finance will be there, along with leaders of the world`s most powerful financial institutions. Unusually, they will mix with disruptors they normally try to avoid, including new financial players powered by new technology drivers, and campaigners on transparency, governance and the environment.

Davos will blend these actors over several 18-hour stints, typically starting with debating breakfasts and ending with deep-night conversation over drinks. Steering this is Davos’ invisible hand, laying down safe pathways that organize such serendipity into productive moments with defined next steps. You cannot force a horse to drink, but few leave Davos having not seen some things differently.

The Inquiry will travel to Davos seeking to engage the right people, in the right combination, in the right informal setting, and with the right, carefully-prepared agenda. It will contribute its own content and insight to the party, adding to the orchestrated wealth of knowledge, whilst seeking to build the relationships needed to catalyze action in pursuit of its mandate.

Without Davos, life would go on, and other pathways would be found and invented. In a world with Davos, however, disruption for the common good gets just a little bit easier.

This article is published in collaboration with The Huffington Post. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Simon Zadek is Co-Director, UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable FInancial System

Image: Aerial views of the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland where the World Economic Forum holds its Annual Meeting.

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