With the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum starting on Tuesday, the annual discussion about the meaning of this event has begun. Some critics see Davos as a giant gabfest for powerful people. Having attended Davos a dozen times dating back to the 1990s and worked with the Forum on many projects over the years I can say without doubt that this is misinformed.
I find Davos productive for a number of reasons. It’s intellectually stimulating, and I can’t wait to engage in discussion and debate around this year’s theme of The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Yes, there is great networking too. But what drives me, and, I’m guessing, most people, is that the Forum helps me make a difference in the world. If you are a defender of the status quo, you’re not going to have a very good time at Davos, because the discussion is a lot about change.
The Forum began four decades ago as a meeting for European executives to discuss pressing global problems. It evolved into a think tank, researching various issues and convening other events. It then became what you could call a “do tank” that is engendering dozens of communities engaging thousands of people that are researching, discussing and taking action on many global problems year round. With the recent decision of the Swiss government to give the Forum formal Institution status, the organization has taken an important new step.
To me, the Forum is really an example of a new model of global problem solving, co-operation and governance that not only holds vast potential but is already making a global difference.
Throughout the 20th century, nation states co-operated to build global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems. Many of these organizations were created in the aftermath of the Second World War. They include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the World Trade Organization and numerous other organizations based on nation states. For decades, these large international institutions, including the European Union, have wrestled with some of the world’s most intractable problems – the kind of problems that don’t fit neatly into departmental pigeonholes.
But progress has been slow or non-existent. The world is too unequal, unsustainable, too conflicted and too unjust. The inability of the G8 and G20 to address the global economic crisis; the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization; and the continuing challenge of conflict, show that formal international systems for cooperation, while necessary, are inadequate to achieve world goals of economic growth, climate protection, poverty eradication, conflict avoidance, human security and behavior based on shared values.
Conversely, many of the positive developments happening around the world, such as the struggles for democracy in North Africa, are not being made because of our global systems for co-operation but rather through new networks of citizens, civil society organizations and other stakeholders uniting around a common cause.
Today we see a fundamental change emerging regarding how global problems can be solved. New non-state networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity, from climate change, poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the internet itself.
Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are now proliferating across the planet and increasingly having an important impact in solving global problems and enabling global cooperation and governance. As part of a recently-completed, three-year, multi-million dollar research programme I’ve dubbed them Global Solution Networks, (GSN) of which the World Economic Forum is a prime example.
A GSN is a group of independent parties who have been brought together by a world problem they all perceive to be important, and which no single group has the ability to handle on its own. They become a network when they begin communicating about and coordinating their activities to make progress, rather than working independently and competitively. They involve different parts of society and most importantly, unlike the UN, IMF, World Bank, or G8 are not controlled by nation states.
There are 10 different types of these networks. For example there are Advocacy Networks like Kony 2012, mobilizing tens of millions of people to change policy, or Knowledge Networks like Wikipedia, Galaxy Zoo and TED. Policy Networks like the International Competition Network determine policy for global institutions and governments.
Human Rights Watch and Transparency International are Watchdog Networks as they perform an oversight role, while networks that govern important resources – like the ecosystem that runs the internet worldwide – are called Governance Networks. The COP21 agreement in Climate Change was only possible because a multi-stakeholder governance network that has mobilized the world to care about this issue.
The World Economic Forum is the leading example of what I call a Global Institution, because it combines the capabilities of many network types. But unlike traditional global institutions like the UN, World Bank, IMF or G20, it qualifies as a GSN because it is not controlled by nation states.
It turns out that my choice of the term “institution” was propitious, because of the Swiss Government's granting of formal institution status under Swiss law.
So Davos is an important event, but just one set of activities in the Forum’s year-round orchestration of the leaders of civil society, business and government to collaborate and take collective action in improving the state of the world. It is the touchstone event of the world’s preeminent “Networked Institution.”