• Polarization has created the Age of Disagreement, which threatens to derail progress to the world's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • We must come together to ensure the Age of Collaboration, in which we can build a better world.

The concept of “inflection points” fascinates me. Inflection points are moments in time when fundamentals are changing. They give us an opportunity to challenge our assumptions and find a new path to a better future.

We're now at inflections points for the future of globalization, the future of climate action and the future of digitization. As I've written before, this is a leadership moment without precedent.

Yet too often progress is derailed by polarization. Disagreement has become an end unto itself. It has become the disease of our time, the Age of Disagreement.

If adversarial and destructive debates flourish, how do we make progress on the big issues we face? How do we move from being “pro” or “anti” towards actually solving problems? How do we enter into a debate with action in mind instead of throwing rocks? Does humanity need a course in anger management, a lesson on how to resolve conflicts?

How can we move from the Age of Disagreement to the Age of Collaboration?

The disintegration of our world

To get an idea of how it all started, let’s look at the past three decades. Following the end of the Cold War, our world became more integrated than ever before in history. Globalized trade lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and enabled efficient international supply chains. In parallel, the rise of the Internet and digital technologies made it possible for billions of people all over the world to connect to the larger world and seize its opportunities.

In recent years, however, this trend towards integration has been reversing. Politics has taken a nationalistic and inward-looking turn in many of the world’s regions. (The lockdowns of 2020, while necessary, certainly didn’t help.) Global agreements, such as the Paris climate agreement, were put into question and in some cases unraveled. And the Internet – once a symbol for the thriving connections between humans around the globe – became a place for polarizing, divisive debates.

We’ve seen a dis-integration of the world. And it’s this disintegration that lies at the bottom of the Age of Disagreement.

How business promotes collaboration

Much has been written about what the public sector can learn from business and vice versa. Certainly, not everything that works for business can be applied to other contexts. However, when it comes to overcoming the Age of Disagreement, I do believe that all global players can benefit from concepts employed by leading modern companies.

In the business world, too, there has been a trend towards decentralization. Decision-making powers and the responsibility that comes with it are increasingly given to “agile” teams. I have always said that, in times of radical change, leadership is about Dreams and Details – inspiring people to pursue a shared dream and collaborating on the critical details to make the dream a reality.

The idea behind all this is simple: In a decentralized, complex, and fast-changing world, rigid plans and highly centralized decision making no longer guarantee success. Networked, self-managing, and diverse teams with flat hierarchies are much better in managing the unexpected. They excel at adapting to change, driving innovation, and defining and fulfilling goals. The incredible resilience of many companies during COVID-19 has demonstrated this really well.

Agile teams have a high degree of autonomy. However – and that’s the salient point – they’re not in it for themselves. They’re embedded in networks of collaboration with other like-minded teams. The network is held together by a shared goal, a “dream”. It derives its transformative power not just from the individual nodes or their sheer number, but from the links between them – the connections between human beings. This is commonly called the “network effect.”

I believe all global players – not just businesses, but also governments, international institutions, and NGOs – should use this “networked” approach to overcome the Age of Disagreement and to make progress on today’s global challenges.

The good news is that we have, for the first time in history, a common definition of which problems we need to jointly work on: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At the inflection point we’re facing, we have to collaborate on solving them. We should always keep in mind that, like it or not, we’re in this together. Either all of us win or all of us lose.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of that. The international community failed to agree on a joint approach. As a result, the pandemic has set us back several years in achieving key Sustainable Development Goals, for example, public health, poverty reduction and access to education – not to mention the immense, tragic loss of human lives and the economic fallout.

The technologies needed to solve most of the global challenges are already available. So, it’s up to us to collaborate and act. We’ve learned to disagree. We’re very good at that. But the key skill in a decentralized world is not disagreement; it’s dialogue, respect and collaboration.

During the pandemic, we have pioneered new virtual ways to connect. Technology can help to unite us rather than drive us apart. This year’s digital Davos Agenda conference is a case in point: It will allow many more people to participate and connect than the physical Davos meetings of the past.

If we manage to cooperate through our words and our actions, we can move from an Age of Disagreement to an Age of Collaboration. If we learn to listen, to compromise, to give and to share, all of us will win. And we will be able to build a better world for our children, grandchildren, and ourselves.