Forum Institutional

Why 2021 can and should be the year for breakthrough collaboration

'To change underlying systems, massive collective effort from diverse actors will be required' Image: Reuters

Melanie Maas Geesteranus
Chief Executive Officer, Porticus
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum Geneva
Carolien de Bruin
Head, COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • A radical new mindset and approach are needed to drive transformative change and redefine collaboration in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis;
  • Nurturing the seeds of trust and collaboration sown in 2020 can help unlock the power of social entrepreneurship for an inclusive and sustainable recovery;
  • The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs (CRASE) launches 10 areas of collaborative action in support of social entrepreneurs around the world.

Spiralling COVID-19 infections and deaths, economic turmoil and political instability have continued unabated into 2021, further rattling our economies and societies. Last year has left us in no doubt that global systems, already under strain at the start of the pandemic, are broken. Failing to meet the SDGs, widening inequality and climate breakdown are just some of the symptoms of our crisis-stricken world.

But something else has been thrown into sharp relief in the past year: a strong thread of human resilience, cooperation and solidarity has characterized the emergent response to these challenges. People and organizations everywhere have stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis, joining forces and protecting lives and livelihoods – from the unparalleled global scientific collaboration to develop a vaccine; to innovative networks (including the World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform) that have emerged to unlock the capital needed to respond to the crisis, provide last-mile healthcare or protect the jobs of vulnerable communities. These cross-regional and, perhaps more importantly, grassroots initiatives have redefined what true collaboration looks like.


The pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the fact that complex systems are inherently about interconnections and that trying to fix a problem in isolation or being too wedded to a single “theory of change” can in fact do more harm than good.

To change underlying systems, massive collective effort from diverse actors will be required. This action needs to go way beyond the conventional notion of collaboration, where different entities work together on a specific project, often for a specified period of time. What we would call "breakthrough collaboration" requires a radical step into the unknown; it is being prepared to give up something in order to gain a more significant common goal – the collective trumps the individual.

Take, for example, the Global Commons Alliance, which the World Economic Forum and Porticus helped form. The Alliance is a network of 50 partners that empowers citizens, cities, companies and countries to become stewards of our global commons. It does this through a powerful network of partners scaling science-based action and targets to protect people and planet, applying decades of accumulated knowledge of effective management of common resources (biodiversity climate, land, ocean and water).

The Alliance's call for greater accountability and science-based targets is only the first step and needs to be accommodated with ways to hold companies, cities and countries accountable for their commitments. An effort which in itself requires collaboration across unique groups that may not have joined forces in the past, such as groups engaged in civic accountability, the financial sector, businesses and governments.


The adaptive, emergent and evolutionary nature of this network represents a new model of collaboration and is the absolute prerequisite to go high, fast and together as we enter the next chapter of our journey towards an inclusive, sustainable future.

This new kind of partnership requires a degree of courage, selflessness and trust – as well as an adaptive mindset. In the past year, we have increasingly seen seeds of this kind of breakthrough collaboration sown. Many of those stepping into this space are social entrepreneurs who were already working with local communities and have naturally become first responders to the crisis. Often unseen, many struggle to access the support and funding they need to do this work. They have responded, in many cases, by forming innovative networks and partnerships to continue to deliver frontline assistance.

It is now time to grow these pockets of cooperation and partnership, to think bigger and more strategically. For those of us that work to support social entrepreneurs, our role must be to put in place what Otto Sharmer describes as the “architectures of connection”; to link systems of changemakers to hold the space for diverse actors to connect across boundaries of institutions, interests, political views and worldviews. In this way, we can unlock social entrepreneurship to support the recovery and The Great Reset.

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The COVID Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs (CRASE), a World Economic Forum initiative formed in April 2020 in partnership with global leaders in social entrepreneurship, is doing just this. It was clear that as the novel coronavirus advanced across the world with devastating effects, none of these organizations was in a position to respond to the magnitude of the crisis on their own. Nine months later, what started as a small group of collaborators has grown to 84 social enterprise leaders that represent 90,000 entrepreneurs, who jointly called on their peers to take action in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere in a shared Action Agenda.

Now, the Alliance is launching its 2021 Roadmap: 21 projects across 10 areas of action in which it will collaborate in support of social entrepreneurs working on the frontlines of the crisis around the world.

COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs (CRASE) roadmap and action portfolio for 2021
COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs (CRASE) roadmap and action portfolio for 2021 Image: COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs (CRASE)

Concretely this means, for example, that Alliance members are putting their weight behind initiatives such as the European Social Enterprise Data Monitor (ESEM), an effort which was launched with the support of the European Commission. This support for the ESEM will let the voices of thousands of social entrepreneurs be heard and influence evidence-based policy, legislation, social enterprise strategies and funding. It will also include an effort to collectively surface those “corporate-ready” social entrepreneurs across the Alliance community that, as they recover from the crisis and rebuild their businesses, are able to supply or serve large corporations, providing inclusive, social procurement options to these organizations who are on their own path to a new way of working.


What are the Alliance’s 21 Action Projects & who is in the lead?

We have seen before how periods of crisis drive cooperation and solidarity and can give rise to new and better ways of doing things. While the past year has created shocks of seismic proportions and fanned the flames of political unrest, it has also shown us what we are capable of when we work together. We’ve seen first hand that pursuing division and fear is a dead end; the opposite is needed now.

This year can and should be the year of breakthrough collaboration. We must act resolutely and courageously to nurture trust and build partnerships, specifically to unlock social entrepreneurship, if we want to create an inclusive and sustainable future – for planet and people.

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