Global Cooperation

The time for transformational change and intergenerational leadership is now – here’s how we get there

Intergenerational leadership is critical to achieving system change.

Intergenerational leadership is critical to achieving system change. Image: Unsplash/Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Miguel A Rozo
Advisory Council, Vancouver Hub, Davos Lab
Saif Malhem
Advisory Council, Montreal Hub, Global Shapers Community
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  • A desire to reform the normative structures and dynamics of our world has been growing but the reasons why system change has yet to take hold needs addressing.
  • The current poly-crises remind us of the accumulating challenges that our societies cannot tackle.
  • Creating spaces where intergenerational conversations and solutions can take place and form can harness the collective power needed for transformative or system change.

There is growing consensus that the world and its systems are in dire need of reform. The pandemic has laid bare longstanding socio-economic and environmental issues that our systems are now evidently unfit to resolve.

To see that change take hold, we need to move from rhetoric to bold action by articulating why, as a global community, we have been unwilling to do the work to move the needle on systemic change. And the reasons for that are two-fold.

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Moving system change forward

First, transformational change requires recognizing that our modern world, in many ways, has been shaped by power over peace, collective wellbeing and even love. World military expenditure, for example, surpassed $2 trillion for the first time in the second year of the pandemic.

Second, transformational change can seem daunting, partly because it can be hard to envision a world that has yet to exist. It’s difficult to imagine a utopia in the middle of a “poly-crisis”: crises that occur in multiple global systems and become entangled in such a way that they produce harm greater than those crises would in aggregate.

But as Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, you do better.” Today’s poly-crises should be a wake-up call to self-organize in a higher way as a species. We now know what does not work; it is time to do better.

The Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership, notably led chiefly by women, is an example of how to expand our world’s go-to health metric beyond economic growth. Below, we offer a three-legged approach to doing this “hard work.” But first, let’s bring the discussion from the abstract to the practical.

Systemic connectedness

Today’s crises are converging because of the failure to tackle socio-economic, political and environmental challenges systemically and with an elevated set of human values. The World Economic Forum's 2023 Global Risks Report shows how environmental, social, technological, governance and economic risks are all interconnected.

Negative externalities also often go unchecked with little to no consequences. An external cost occurs when a product or activity results in harm to someone else or the environment. However, this harm is not reflected in the price of the product or service, such as the cost of pollution, which can result in severe consequences for human health, governance challenges, biodiversity decline and food security. This is a design flaw. Systemic approaches are needed to address underlying issues and ensure long-term prosperity. Because in essence, we’re all connected.

Global risks landscape: an interconnectedness map. system change intergenerational leadership
Global risks landscape: an interconnectedness map Image: World Economic Forum

Intergenerational allyship

Moreover, we have to ask ourselves, will it be the generations today – boomers, generation X, millennials or gen Z – who reverse the intergenerational trends we have inherited or will we keep driving towards that cliff edge? The rising cost of living, unpredictable weather events, polarization and fragmentation are just a few symptoms of imperfectly designed systems. We must heed these warning signs and veer to safety.

Different generations hold different but equally needed tools to do so, and there’s innumerable venues to facilitate two-way knowledge transfer. Boards, in their various natures – corporate, non-profit or otherwise – are a great example of how different generations can work together for a common purpose.

Senior generations have perspective and influence, younger generations have numbers and connectedness, which is why the time for bold and intergenerational leadership is now. Here’s how we can deliver it.

1. Spaces to convene and converse

We need to have radically candid, constructive and compassionate conversations, answering the question: “how did we get here?” As famously stated in the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, productive change begins when you confront the brutal facts.

This confrontation is crucial to re-inspire and re-engage civic society and future generations with institutions and each other. As Adam Grant highlights, these spaces must be equipped with masterful communicators who will get us to agree and disagree more effectively. The good news is these spaces, Neue Geographical Society, for example, already exist with thought leaders who care intensely. We need to find them and nurture them.

2. Spaces to create and construct

We need spaces to experiment and design, to deliver bold action informed and inspired by our radical conversations. These spaces need to be empowered with critical networks for global application, scale and delivery, one that is locally rooted and globally minded.

Two examples are initiatives we’re leading incubated by members of the Global Shapers Community: Davos Lab and the AI Future Lab. Davos Lab produced the first Youth-Driven Recovery Plan with a network of 14,000 inspiring young people, featuring the insights and ideas of more than 2 million people in more than 150 cities and 180 countries. The AI Future Lab, covering six continents, is the world’s largest congregation of AI talent – on technical, business and policy fronts – promoting intergenerational collaboration to ensure the inclusion of global communities and democratize access to shaping one of the world’s foremost technologies.

3. Spaces to collaborate and coalesce

We need to iterate on what we build. No one has all the answers and none of those we have already should be presumed perfect. The grace to improve along the way is needed to facilitate exponential engagement.

Systems thinking starts with empathizing and identifying underlying issues, as often practised by social innovators before devising new ideas. Prototyping and continuous improvement follow. Can’t we do the same for policies, for example? Citizens’ assemblies, for instance, in Canada and elsewhere, have shown how citizens can co-design policies with legislators.

Our world is not the same as it was three years ago. The pandemic showed us how resources could be mobilized within weeks with enough will and decisive action. We need to take the next leap in human consciousness, put people and the planet first and build a world centred around peace, love and wellbeing. Because the truth is, we have no other choice.

Through iterative processes and an openness to have honest conversations, coupled with the lessons learned from the pandemic around scalability, the obstacle is no longer the how and the why but rather about the will and the when. Intergenerational leadership is critical to achieving system change, to ensure that generations today and tomorrow live in a more prosperous, healthy and sustainable world.

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