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Davos 2016: a window into a rapidly changing world

Image: Melinda Gates, co-founder of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich.

Aron Cramer
President and Chief Executive Officer, BSR
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Davos Agenda

Last Thursday night in Davos, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opened a climate dinner, hosted by We Mean Business and CDP, by saying, “Most of the dinners I do in Davos are bad news dinners. This is a good news dinner.” The group of 75 people erupted in applause, which was directed at the companies, organizations, and public officials who helped make COP21 a success, and specifically at Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC.

This year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting was the first major gathering of the people who made the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals a reality. There were, in fact, several times when the architects of those agreements were saluted in Davos last week.

But as Figueres herself said last week, “COP21 was the easy part.” So Davos this year—for those of us focused on business and society—was one part celebration and one part sobering reminder of work yet to do. This comes against the backdrop of the worries about China’s economy, technological disruption, and the refugee crisis plaguing Europe.

Davos 2016 was another window into a world that is changing rapidly, and not moving in a linear manner. Much talk was about how incumbent companies that shape the world in 2016 will manage to remain equally influential in the next two decades.

More central to BSR’s work, though, it is stunningly clear that the world’s agenda as represented at Davos is also BSR’s agenda, and that of our member companies. Three topics came up frequently that resonate with our direction for the next few years:

-Women’s Empowerment: Davos reflected the absence of women in leadership positions, which continues to be a substantial challenge. Only 18 percent of Davos attendees were women, up from last year, but still too few—by a lot. That said, the importance of changing this was woven throughout the agenda, with strong leaders like Christine Lagarde, Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Melinda Gates, not to mention dozens of less well-known women leaders, reminding all of us why and how this has to change, not only at the top leadership of global business, but in every corner of the world. BSR is continuing to advance both of these through our HERproject and a new women’s empowerment initiative.

-Inclusive Growth: U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden gave a stirring speech on the importance of enabling middle class progress and mobility. It was striking, because Davos tends to focus usually on the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. A somewhat old-fashioned call to address the needs of people who “work hard and play by the rules” was a powerful reminder that inequality leads to anger, which can lead to the xenophobic populism that was routinely decried by Davos Man and Davos Woman. BSR’s Inclusive Economy initiative, launched last year, is helping companies understand how they can address inequality and reach new markets by expanding opportunities and quality employment, even as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” this year’s Davos theme, takes hold.

-Climate Change: COP21 was a rallying point for businesses, governments, and NGOs on climate change. In 2016, the focus is shifting, and the world requires a more diverse array of steps. Businesses are busy translating their commitments into action, and we are working with our members individually, through our collaborative initiatives, and through We Mean Businessto advance business action. The policy game moves from international agreements to national and sub-national action. And movement on a price on carbon, which was never intended to be included in the Paris Agreement, will gain more attention this year, as China, California, and Canada make moves to join the EU in implementing a carbon price.

There is little doubt that Davos includes lots of over-the-top indulgence by the rich and powerful. But there is no single Davos, and “my” event included leading a dialogue between mining company CEOs and prominent NGOs; meetings with many BSR member companies, from Standard Chartered to Unilever to Microsoft; and planning with partners such as those in the We Mean Business coalition. There is little doubt that many of these discussions will lead to greater ambition in reaching 2015’s landmark objectives, so that 2016 builds—and extends—that momentum.

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