Davos Agenda

5 ways business leaders can make an impact in their communities

Water droplets have an impact on clear glass.

Impact at the Forum has involved thousands of tangible projects and collaborations, historic initiatives and breakthroughs. Image: Unsplash: Sonika Agarwal

Sarita Nayyar
Managing Director; Chief Operating Officer, USA, World Economic Forum LLC
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The Annual Meeting is the wellspring of many ideas, acting as a focal point from which action – and subsequently impact – follows.
  • Effecting change – creating impact – is often about many small steps. There is no one decisive factor, but instead a lot of moving parts.
  • Today's business leaders are expected to lead, but also listen, take responsibility and do the right thing, and above all, have a beneficial impact.

Following the global upheaval of COVID-19, the continuing far-reaching effects of the war in Ukraine, and mounting climate-change related problems, the coming 12 months will be marked by unpredictability, further elevating the need for agile decision-making and responses.

Business leaders not only have to manage the day-to-day challenges and risks to operations in their industry, but also navigate the fall-out from several on-going crises – cost-of-living crunch, global economic slowdown, soaring energy prices and climate disasters. And these are just the headline challenges. Shifting business models post-pandemic, as well as changing customer preferences and expectations add to the strategic demands.

At the Forum, our work is, as it has been throughout our 53-year history, about impact. We strive to effect change to help improve the state of the world through all that we do. This has involved thousands of tangible projects and collaborations; breakthroughs that brought into being the likes of GAVI, the vaccine alliance; and many historic initiatives, including the Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which brought the two countries back from the brink of war.

“Impact” is a frequently-used term. Beyond dictionary definitions and corporate theories, like business impact analysis, is it possible to distil the essence of impact? Looking at the Forum’s work and successes, I would say that it is and that there are several overriding tenets.

Ambition to action

At least two transformational changes have occurred in the past few years: we suddenly face multiple challenges that can’t be deprioritized. They all require our immediate, simultaneous attention. And we have come to realize that many of the challenges humanity faces are interrelated, and as such, often global. At the Forum we are ambitious in our goals, which we convert into action through our work with stakeholders.

A strong example of this is our 2030 Water Resources Group. Launched at the Annual Meeting in 2008, it has grown from an ambitious idea to help keep the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on track to an equally ambitious platform involving more than 1,000 partners and facilitating almost $1 billion in financing for water programmes worldwide. Currently, it is concentrating its efforts on accelerator projects, facilitating more than $400 million in financing for schemes that will benefit more than 7 million people.

A long-term ambitious vision offers a strong foundation to a business’s strategy in these taxing times. Volatility and what can often feel like constant crisis management is distracting, which makes fixing on an ambitious goal something of a guiding principle – the greater the ambition, the greater the impact. This is turn will help get us to major targets like net zero and create a sustainable, inclusive economic model without losing our way in the midst of the turbulence in which we find ourselves.

To effect change on the mammoth scale – and in the rapidly closing window required – ambitious ideas and transformations are required. History will reward those who show moral courage, take big, difficult decisions and pursue the radical path

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Actively hear the changemakers

It has also become evident that only by pooling our resources, skills, knowledge and collective intelligence can we effect change – and deliver impact – on the scale required. The Forum has long recognized the power of bringing many different elements together, reflected in its core multistakeholder philosophy.

Events like the Annual Meeting are the most obvious manifestation of this, using our convening power to attract a genuinely diverse group of people to discuss and share their ideas about current issues. Whether they are businesspeople, youth activists, academics, tech entrepreneurs, artists, philanthropists or politicians, all embrace the desire to change the situation for the better, often by seeking out the elusive solutions to the greatest problems of our times.

The Annual Meeting is the wellspring of many ideas, acting as a focal point from which action follows. The Forum’s daily work centres on the creation of, and support for, many high-level groups. We have hubs worldwide in the form of our regional and platform-specific centres, as well as a Global Shapers Community, a network in which almost 8,000 people are involved. Additionally, we have a dedicated innovation platform, UpLink, which provides a space designed to match solutions to the SDGs with the funds to make them a reality. Inventors and entrepreneurs post their solutions to regularly set sustainability challenges, with businesses judging which are the most viable, and backing the best ones with financing and resources. These actions are all designed to give a voice to ideas that might otherwise have gone unheard.

Partnership is vital

With the enormity of the size and number of challenges facing today’s leaders, the cost of solutions to address them has escalated. It is not uncommon to read that trillions of dollars are required to decarbonize the economy or fund climate change adaptation measures, which get more expensive the longer we leave them. Clearly this level of funding is beyond the capacity of any single entity – nation, company or otherwise.

In part reflecting this, increasing numbers of organizations are integrating work with external partners into their everyday operations. Although at one time the idea of working with another business might spark off fears of insider skulduggery, today’s partnership model will ultimately prove a competitive advantage as we progress through the century.

Partnering is not only more resource efficient, but it builds capacity, engagement and importantly trust. With this, it can be a multiplier for good, creating models that can be replicated, thereby fostering transformation.

The Forum has long held that partnership is fundamental to progress. Since our inception, we’ve worked extensively with business, government and civil society. The European Management Forum (our original name) was the first non-governmental institution to initiate a partnership with China’s economic development commissions. Today, we routinely partner with many diverse groups. Recently we’ve hosted 13 grant-funded platforms, which are working in partnership to accelerate progress towards the SDGs, each specializing in a different area, be it nature-based solutions or reducing carbon emissions. Their aim is that collective action through partnership will have greater impact.

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Learn, learn and learn some more

It’s an old adage that we never stop learning, but given the pace of change and the technological transformations shaping our lives, never has the need for lifelong learning and adaptation been as necessary as it is now. Debates about the future of work, and the need to upskill and reskill dominate the discourse, but another facet is learning from and sharing best practice.

One of our most significant areas of recent impact has been the creation of Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. The need for a set of indicators reflects the growing understanding by business of the difficulty in hitting climate-related targets without some means to measure progress on sustainability. During 2020, the Forum consulted with more than 200 stakeholders and worked with the big four accounting groups to identify a set of universal metrics and disclosures. As of January 2023, 137 major companies have now signed up to the metrics, committing to using them as part of their annual reporting process. A number of signatories have created case studies, with the express intent of sharing their experiences from which others can learn.

Have you read?

Best practice examples are invaluable in the march towards ensuring that a project or policy makes a difference. The Forum supports this exchange of knowledge and works with partners who are specialists in their respective fields. From this, we’ve learned that the process is often as important as the outcome. The lessons learned, particularly from managing the challenges that arise, are invaluable. This is why we lay such emphasis on working groups, pooling shared experiences and producing material in which our findings are publicly shared.

Rediscover rather than reinvent the wheel

This may seem a strange tenet in times where disruption is something that we both seem to embrace as well as fear. Why do I suggest going back to basics? The simple fact is that we need to reapply – and in some cases relearn – knowledge that we’ve either lost to time or become divorced from as a result of our modern lifestyle.

At the Forum, we have a workstream that is supporting indigenous stewardship as humanity seeks ways to both repair nature and use nature-based solutions to address some of our greatest challenges. Through the work that the Forum has done, we are bringing traditional ecological knowledge into the mainstream, helping investors engage with, while also empowering indigenous peoples as partners.

The year ahead

Effecting change – creating impact – is often about many small steps. There is no one decisive factor, but instead a lot of moving parts. Today’s business leaders have a difficult task on their hands. They are rightly expected to take responsibility for the impact that their organization has on the planet, and ensure that their organizations are adapting to and shaping the challenges they face. They are by turns firefighters, expert strategists and diplomats. They are expected to lead, but also listen. They are expected to do the right thing, and above all, have a beneficial impact.

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