• Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, Co-Founder and President, Igarapé Institute, says diverse and intergenerational networks of people are critical to solving the world’s biggest challenges.
  • Three top global priorities include human security, digital security and deforestation, she says.
  • This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, a new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret.

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, Co-Founder and President, Igarapé Institute, has spent most of her life working to build coalitions for collective action and says it will take broad and diverse networks of people to tackle the biggest challenges in the world.

These challenges are no easy feat, she recognizes, and will have to be fought with a necessary change of mindset.

The below interview with Ilona Szabó de Carvalho served as one of 50 inputs from global thought leaders for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that describes how we can create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future post-COVID-19.

Is there anything personal you’d like to share about yourself that we won’t find on LinkedIn, Wikipedia or the web?

There are many things that I do not share on social media or with the wider public. I’ll focus on something that reaffirms my Brazilian identity (I’m also half Hungarian). I’m very passionate about dance and not just any dance. I’m an avid Forró dancer.

Forró is a rhythm from northeastern Brazil. We dance as a couple. This rhythm has deep historical and cultural connotations that are not well known outside of my country. It’s something I’m passionate about and connects me to my people. When dancing, it’s one of the rare moments when I lose myself.

I’m also a shower singer and a devoted yoga practitioner.

Networks of people will prove critical

You cover a very broad spectrum of issues. If you had to distil everything that you’ve been doing so far in one to three sentences, what would you say is your core idea, your main theme?

I have a couple, but let me pick the one I think is transversal. I believe that networks of people are critical to solving the world’s biggest challenges.

These networks operate best when they bring together diverse constituencies from all sectors of society around shared priorities, including people who may not always agree.

A big priority, then, is to collectively define the problem that networks want to tackle, propose solutions based on evidence, build powerful coalitions that could shape debate and influence policies, and then tackle the issues.

The idea that we can all have the power to enact change - when aligned with the right partners and shared interests, purpose and agendas, with very clear objectives and, of course, a publicly interested mindset – is what inspires my organization, the Igarapé Institute. This is at the core of what we do.

The most significant global threats – whether the threat of war, the rolling back of democracy, disinformation, misinformation and of course climate change – require that we work together if we really want to solve them.

We need to harness the power of collective action. As a civic and social entrepreneur, I’ve spent most of my adult life helping to build, support and empower coalitions to drive collective impact. Working together, especially now across ideological lines, is not easy. It was never easy, and polarization is making it increasingly challenging. We need to overcome filter bubbles and algorithmically powered division.

My latest book, In Defense of Civic Space (soon to be published in English), advances an idea that I’ve been very vocal about. This space - of dialogue, interaction and collective action - is being shut down.

We need to protect civic space precisely because it is a public domain where open dialogue and progressive exchange can take place. That’s something I’m very focused on at the moment because I see populist and authoritarian governments trying to close this arena, online and offline. We need to come together, more than ever, to avoid our civic space [shutting] for good.

The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
Image: Forum Publishing

You began by explaining how to harness the power of networks. What defines the quintessential quality of a good network?

A positive network has to be formed by responsible people who can hold different worldviews but who come with a genuine public interest to the table. There must be a common purpose to build a common agenda.

What is needed is a backbone of individuals and organizations to organize the process and champions who will invite other people and influencers of all kinds to join and amplify the discussion. Many times, important issues may not be regarded as priorities.

So first, we need to work to include them in the debate and policy agenda before they can be tackled. To do this, we need to gather evidence and call public attention to consolidate layers of advocacy and support. It’s important not to talk only to people with the same view of a given problem. We need proposals and solutions to be tested and “beaten up” before they are accepted and become an idea that everyone will gather around.

Indeed, bringing “odd bedfellows” to the table is very important and the trickiest part of today’s world. In the process, we must be open to steps forward and steps backwards so that we can learn with the process and are ready to adapt and find different strategies and channels, both to raise the issue and change the policies, whether they’re public or corporate.

[Also] responsibility, honest thinking and engagement, diversity, the ability to learn and adapt throughout the process, and openness to review what’s working and what’s not – often, it’s not linear. But it’s very rewarding when we do it with concrete world questions.

It is tempting to throw one’s hands up in despair. However, despite all this, I’m also feeling bold, empowered and, dare I say, excited about the possibility of creating a different world where we can drive positive transformation through connections, networks and coalitions.

—Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, Co-Founder and President, Igarapé Institute,

Intergenerational changemakers

Can you share with us your vision and understanding of how the world is going to evolve in the coming years?

There are multiple scenarios. They are incredibly consequential. The decisions we take in the next 10 years will determine the future for the next 1,000 years.

If we continue with the status quo, without radical transformations across many fronts, we’re going to be living on a very dangerous and inhospitable planet. If we get our governance, economics, and social policies right, we could live our greatest century. But all of this will require a major change of mindset.

The problems we face are formidable. Climate devastation, deepening inequalities that were worsened by COVID-19, the lack of a common understanding about what constitutes truth and the erosion of democracy – all of these issues need to be addressed.

It is tempting to throw one’s hands up in despair. However, despite all this, I’m also feeling bold, empowered and, dare I say, excited about the possibility of creating a different world where we can drive positive transformation through connections, networks and coalitions.

Today we have the knowledge, tools and capital to achieve a more positive, inclusive and sustainable future. But this won’t happen spontaneously. It will require a great leap from all of us – from how we consume, the energy we use, and the nature of politics.

One thing that is certain is that we need to invest in younger leaders. I’m very enthusiastic about the power and potential of working together with new generations. (Until recently, I was a Young Global Leader but, having graduated this year, we now call ourselves “old GLs”, or old Global Leaders.)

Young people have a different consciousness than previous generations. The power and ingenuity of our ideas to transform the world are without precedent, and we’ve seen extraordinary progress over time.

How can we channel this power? A big part of the answer is through the right connections and responsible leadership, which is why I’m committed to this kind of political transformation. There is an urgent need to harness and empower people with the right emotional investment and the right mindset.

You mentioned your hope that the young generation will be able to change things.

Among the 40 people interviewed so far, I’m struck by the pattern of division among interviewees. Some believe that rising youth activism will be a major agent of change, that the young population worldwide is very much geared towards activism vis-à-vis climate change, LGBT rights, inequalities and more sustainable economic growth, among others. And the other half says there’s no real difference between the current young generation and the separations of the generations that preceded it.

Where do you stand? Given you are involved in these global networks, with a focus on Latin America but with an understanding of how global networks evolve, in which camp do you sit? Is there a real, new aspiration among the young generation, or is it culturally or regionally dependent?

I won’t sit in the middle, but the change will be intergenerational. We need the experience, patience, resilience and understanding of incremental shifts that only middle-aged and older people understand. But we need the commitment, enthusiasm and innovation of the new generations to face the most challenging questions.

After all, the future is about their lives; it’s about their possibility of living on a healthy planet, and they understand this instinctively. They are facing a profoundly unequal world. Some young people have enormous opportunities and potential to make a change, while vast numbers are locked-out and fighting for their survival on a burning planet.

When we speak of truly global challenges, inclusion is a key one. The new generation doesn’t let us fake it, to pretend that today’s problems are not serious or urgent. They’re in our face; they will not let us look away. We know what is at stake. We have the information in front of us. This awareness must lead to action.

We have no other choice.

Without the new generation – my generation and the one before mine – we will not see the change that is so desperately needed. Solving the biggest threats is an intergenerational job, for sure; everyone will have to be involved. But I think younger people are key to ensuring that we don’t shy away from the challenge or throw up our hands in despair.

The decisions we take in the next 10 years will determine the future for the next 1,000 years.

—Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, Co-Founder and President, Igarapé Institute

Can you provide a few practical examples of how your work and the work of your institute have mitigated or alleviated some of the global challenges we face?

The institute I co-founded works on three major existential challenges. One is human security. Without human security, we can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals pure and simple. The second priority is digital security because of the massive implications of our wider digital transformation.

As Klaus Schwab explains in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need basic rules of the game to control technology before it controls us. The third challenge is climate security, which is, by far, the most urgent one because we’re facing a cliff in the next 10-20 years. We know we have to rapidly decarbonize.

Our current focus at the Institute is on getting to zero deforestation. Our work is also emphasizing the protection of the Amazon - home to over 60% of all tropical forests on the planet. The three risks and many others are staring us in the face. We cannot hide from them.

We’re a women-led institute. We’re very committed to working across these issues because they are connected and cascading. We emphasize systems change. We have to act fast but also identify long-term pathways in order to hold governments accountable.

A key way to do this is to ensure we have strong civil societies that hold states to account. Right now, the Institute has a portfolio of 20 or so projects, many of them focused on scaling-up new technologies and working with businesses to improve supply chain traceability.

One of them focuses on using satellite data and high-resolution analytics to reduce environmental crime in eight Amazon countries. Another one focuses on protecting civic space by tracking incidents to avoid the further erosion of democracy in Brazil.

Radical transformation now

Apart from what the institute does, what major change needs to happen to make the world a better place? What would give you confidence that we’re moving in the right direction? A big policy decision?

We need to make several major changes and quickly. Above all else, we have to fundamentally green our economies and promote inclusion. Practically speaking, I am referring to climate finance and reducing exclusion.

Why?

We’ve had a system that treated these two issues – climate change and inequality - as uncounted externalities. We essentially allowed unrelenting growth and globalization at the expense of the environment. We promoted runaway capitalism and economic progress at the expense of appalling inequality. We are only now just waking up to this. And we need to take action to reverse these trends.

My Institute has been working closely with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the development of Our Common Agenda (in the new report published in September) precisely to highlight and underline these challenges and priorities. We launched a consultation with over 1,700 experts in 150 countries to develop proposals to reverse the status quo.

Another issue that we focus on at the Institute relates to the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and digitalization. There are clearly growing tensions among major powers - a veritable arms race in terms of AI, for example, and very few rules govern the future of our digital commons. We need to develop some minimum global standards for how we think about using these technologies in relation to issues of war and peace, the governance of space, how we manage our privacy and data protection and so much more.

It is hard to see this happening right now, given escalating tensions between China and the United States, as well as in parts of Eastern Europe. But the alternative is a digital wild west with potentially devastating consequences.

What are you optimistic about?

I’m optimistic by nature - you could say, stubbornly optimistic. We are living in a defining decade. It is extraordinary how so much depends on the actions we take in just the next few years. We have literally no more time to lose. The way we respond to the present challenges, as we know, will define not just the future of our species but also the very climatic conditions that make life for all species possible.

Are we ready for what is ahead? I think so. Many people yearn for more active citizenship. We need to work on ourselves and encourage others around us to take action. We need to recognize that normal is not enough. We face either a breaking point or a breakthrough point. Things can go either way. Of course, I believe we have a chance but I know that my generation will be in leadership positions over the next 10-20 years. We have a profound responsibility to take the right steps.

It’s true that we’re facing a tipping point, which is, on the one hand, terrifying, but on the other hand, exhilarating and empowering. The good news is that we have the chance to make better choices. We have the knowledge, the tools and the capital. The best way to change the future is to act on it. We have to start now, and many of us have already started.

Do we have the capability to leverage more responsible, inclusive globalization, digitalization and capitalism to really make this difference?

We have to seize the opportunity collectively, with the public interest in mind. We can’t allow polarization to win because it’s a pivotal moment, and we have the agency and tools at our disposal.

On the climate front, we’re very close to a tipping point. My work on the Amazon rainforest is very much looking at how we can avoid this tipping point when the forest would become a savannah, destroying the whole ecosystem, disrupting rain cycles and warming temperatures. These are terrible consequences for not only the region of the Americas but also for the Paris Agreement.

We’ll do our best to avoid that. We’re also facing a triggering point for climate action. In the last two years, there has been a massive expansion of interest in climate change.

For instance, green parties are in power and coming to the fore in so many ways and running countries. Young people are in the streets. The Global Risk Report that will come out this year says that the number one priority for CEOs is climate change. And investors are coming together and calling for more action to decarbonize. It’s in our hands, it’s happening and we need to make it happen at the right time.

Finally, we need to face up to the fact that this is a moment of decision. We should welcome the opportunity to make a difference. Many people don’t have a similar space to take action. We have to understand the responsibility we have and bring others to the conversation. I’m grateful to be in a position to work with people who have the insight, inspiration and drive to take action. The best way to achieve a better future is to shape it.

This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that encapsulates the Davos Vision, and explores how we can shape a constructive, common narrative for the future.

The book is on sale now on Amazon. You can order a Kindle or paperback copy in the Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au and any Amazon store around the world. It is the second instalment in The Great Reset series.