Davos 2014: The Responsible Recovery Begins

Alan Mak, former Green Mondays/The Crowd speaker, reflects on his fourth trip to Davos.

The theme for this year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was "Reshaping the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business". A bit of a tongue twister, but the aim was certainly laudable: to encourage the 2,500 CEOs, celebrities, journalists and political leaders gathered in the Alps to move beyond the financial crisis, focus on the nascent economic recovery, and ensure the upturn benefits more than just the 1%. “It is a time to be optimistic: the world economy is turning a corner, but we must ensure politics and business serve society better this time”, seemed to be the prevailing mood this year.         

The feeling of optimism was certainly pervasive. The annual PwC CEO survey, launched at Davos, showed that the proportion of CEOs who believe the global economy will improve hit 44%, double that of a year ago, while only 7% believe things will get worse, in contrast to 28% the previous year. My first event at this year's Davos reinforced this: a 7AM breakfast panel event to launch the always-excellent Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey measuring public trust in business, government and the media around the world. The panel was led by sustainable business doyen and Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Polman, who I work with on youth leadership summit One Young World, was in great form. He said the CEO's new role in the post-crisis business environment was to act as the "Chief Engagement Officer", spreading the word that business' role was to "maximise values not just value". He quoted leadership guru Stephen Covey who said "you can’t talk yourself out of something you’ve behaved yourself into" and emphasised the need for business to match fine words about a responsible recovery with real actions, such as reducing their environmental impact, ensuring their staff did not burn out, and helping solve societal challenges like youth unemployment. Key to the responsible recovery would be business building trust with customers and society. Polman cited Indian tycoon Ratan Tata who said his company "made millions of cars each year, but built just 1 thing: trust". The invited audience, including me, certainly left inspired and energised for the coming week.  

Sustainable business, environmental protection and responsible capitalism were all high on the agenda this year. The Friday of Davos week was even designated “Climate Day” for the first time ever. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank came together to global climate and energy action, following the publication of the EU's climate and energy framework to 2030, whilst PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi led a discussion on “Doing Business the Right Way”. Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus headlined a panel on “Ethical Capitalism”. Environmental aficionados were treated to a presentation by The Crowd speaker and newly-knighted Kingfisher CEO Sir Ian Cheshire and yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur launched a project examining the circular economy, and Yale and Columbia Universities’ launched the 2014 Environmental Performance Index ranking of national-level environmental performance and introducing a new Global Scorecard that gives insight into global environmental performance over the past decade.

Later in the week, Akira Amari, Japan's "Minister for Economic Revitalization" headlined a standing-room only session on "Re-Shaping Globalisation" which also featured the CEOs of Møller-Maersk (the world's biggest shipping company) and Cargill (the world's biggest agribusiness). The consensus was that the "new era of globalisation has to work for everyone" and that wealth must be shared more equally within countries as well as between them to avoid the types of civil unrest we saw in southern Europe and Latin America  last year. This spirit was shared at a working dinner that night convened by the WEF's expert panel (aka “Global Agenda Council”) on civil society. Being seated between Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin and Frances O'Grady. General Secretary of the TUC (UK Trades Union Congress) was a novel and illuminating experience, and the conversation was no less punchy, focussing on how civil society could act as a watchdog on business in the new economy to ensure wealth and success were open to all, especially to young people and those in developing economies. Everyone agreed business was a force for good (even Frances) – creating wealth, new jobs and innovation – but that we should all work hard to ensure more people felt the benefits. At this year’s One Young World, in Dublin, we hope to inspire a new generation of young leaders to take this message forward.    


Of course amidst the optimism there were also salutary warnings from Davos' elder statesmen: FT Editor Lionel Barber predicted a consumer backlash against "Big Tech" firms that play fast and loose with consumers' data, whilst his colleague Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator, who spoke at my panel event last year, warned that Chinese growth wouldn't last forever. Despite talk about emerging threats from cyber-hackers, currency instability, social inequality and regional conflicts, the mood was overwhelmingly positive which makes a great change from the last few years at Davos. Even the branded coasters in the PwC Lounge at the main Davos hotel (the Belvedere) were upbeat. Their bold orange print summing up the mood best: "Caution. Optimism ahead". The responsible recovery has started at last. 


Alan Mak is a co-author of the Next Generation Vision, an Ambassador for One Young World and one of the youngest ever speakers at The Crowd/Green Mondays. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Shaper and an authoritative voice on Gen Y and sustainable business.


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