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How collaboration can help us tackle our biggest challenges

A scientist prepares samples during the research and development of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a laboratory of BIOCAD biotechnology company in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov - RC267H9KYRQD

The work to develop a COVID vaccine has been a global collaboration. Image: REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Carmine Di Sibio
Global Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, EY
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Collaboration is tackling our toughest challenges, from COVID-19 to climate change.
  • Critical coalitions, such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, began at the World Economic Forum.
  • Rival companies are working together to achieve stakeholder capitalism.

As we reflect back on 2020, words like cooperation and collaboration may not immediately spring to mind. Not only were we physically separated from each other – but many divisions seemed to widen.

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In the grip of a global pandemic, people disagreed over its severity and the best way to combat it. As income inequality grew amid economic shocks, 56% of people globally expressed a distrust in capitalism. And, as movements for racial justice expanded, we reckoned with inequities across our entire society.

Yet, for all 2020’s difficult moments, successful large-scale collaborations not only took place, they helped us lay the groundwork for rebuilding and recovery. Now as we move forward; it’s time for each of us to look for new opportunities to collaborate – and even embrace radical collaboration when we can. It’s the only way to truly address the growing global challenges we face.

Collaboration is tackling our toughest challenges

Radical collaboration means, first and foremost, that we should be willing to work with anyone who can help – even a competitor.

Just look at the global effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. No business leader can deny the role competition plays in driving innovation – but 2020 proved that collaboration can be an equally powerful catalyst.

As the outbreak took hold, scientists uploaded the virus’s genetic sequence on a public website, so the most brilliant medical minds could start on a vaccine. Then, rather than retreating to silos and shrouding R&D efforts in secrecy, rival pharmaceutical companies joined forces – even forming groups to share resources and expertise on therapies and vaccines. Governments also spent billions subsidizing research and many are now joining together to help ensure that vaccines are effectively distributed in low- and middle-income countries. Never before have we seen such wide-reaching medical progress so quickly – and we did it because we worked together.

Leveraging the HIV Vaccine Enterprise for COVID-19 Vaccine Research
Collaboration was a powerful catalyst in developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Businesses are forging multi-stakeholder collaborations to build a better, more equitable future in other areas, too. As people marched shoulder-to-shoulder this summer, companies came together to address systemic racism. The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, for instance, brought together more than 125 of America’s biggest law firms. Leading companies like IBM, JPMorgan Chase, McKinsey, Accenture and the EY organization also formed the Jobs Council, which will expand opportunities for Black, Latino and Asian professionals by hiring 100,000 New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds.

When it came to climate change, a group of major automakers voluntarily agreed to even stricter emissions standards than the federal government required – while companies in many other industries worked towards the goal of becoming carbon neutral. C-suite sustainability leaders from major companies, including competitors like BP and Chevron, also came together under an initiative launched by the Sustainable Markets Initiative called S30, which is working to build pathways to sustainability.

Critical coalitions begin at the World Economic Forum

It’s coalitions like this that offer the most hope for our future – and we’re going to need even more of them if we want to find solutions to the most pressing issues on the horizon. And, in fact, that’s exactly what more and more people now expect from the business community. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update found that 65% of respondents believed collaboration with competitors would maintain or increase confidence in business.

We need to restore that trust – which is why we also need to continue supporting organizations like the World Economic Forum (WEF). By creating a platform for leaders from some of the biggest, most innovative companies in the world to come together, WEF can bring competitors to the table and broker critical allies.

WEF is where the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) was born and where the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders first committed to reaching zero net emissions by 2050. And right now, it’s the place where another unique, radical collaboration is paving the way for businesses to make even more meaningful progress on society’s biggest challenges.

Competitors are catalyzing stakeholder capitalism

For some time, WEF’s International Business Council (IBC) – a group of about 120 of the world’s largest organizations – has been working to catalyze stakeholder capitalism. The aim is to give businesses a way to ensure their goals are aligned with society’s – and to communicate the value they create for their stakeholders in a consistent and comparable way. And, in service of this goal, EY teams have spent the last year working with the other Big Four organizations, as well as WEF and Bank of America, to develop a core set of industry agnostic ESG metrics, based on existing standards such as SASB, GRI, and TCFD.

Normally, we and our accounting peers are competitors. But at the invitation of WEF’s International Business Council, our teams worked together to draw on the important work of the standard setters, conduct feedback sessions with IBC members, and eventually settled on a core set of metrics that measure value in four areas: people, planet, prosperity and governance. At a time when more and more businesses are realizing that their own long-term success is contingent on society’s – these metrics provide benchmarks for companies to measure their progress, guide future collaborations and spur much-needed collective action.


Transforming Markets

Efforts like this underline the power of radical collaboration – and offer an example for how working even with your closest competitors can address problems, create societal value and spur innovation. It’s a win-win strategy, proven to create opportunities and new approaches, but one that’s often overlooked due to hesitancy to work with the competition. When we face intractable problems that have existed for years, we should remember that by working together we can accelerate solutions by contributing our unique value proposition, not protecting it.

Of course, competition will always be critical to business. But it’s time to use every tool at our disposal. We should seek more unexpected alliances to find unexpected solutions - and more ways to grow, transform and innovate together.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalStakeholder CapitalismEconomic Growth
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