Owen Gaffney, one of the founding editors of Road to Paris, was at the World Economic Forum in his role as the incoming Director of Global Strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He sent us five things that caught his attention during the week.
1. It’s all about the footwear I
In Davos it is not manners that maketh the man: it’s footwear. Your social status is easily discerned by the contents of your welcome pack. In particular, whether or not you are allocated anti-slip grips to attach to the soles of your shoes. The BBC’s Evan Davis could stride confidently down the icy streets but opined that his crew, who carried the heavy baggage, were forced to risk life and limb.
2. It’s all about the footwear II
Footwear maketh the woman, too. Women were just 17% of the participants list this year, and a Forum report predicted that we’ll have to wait 81 years for gender parity in the workplace. The perennial female dilemma – power heels vs practical boots – was ever present despite the icy conditions, and underscored the unresolved and unresolvable tensions between between power, status and gender.
3. Who pulls the strings?
The World Economic Forum famously claims to set the agenda. But the agenda is, of course, determined by things the forum can’t control: geopolitics, macroeconomic trends, grass-roots movements and the media. This year, the 2015 development agenda, inequality and even well-being were visible throughout, though the media mostly ignored these issues. Several plenary discussions covered the Sustainable Development Goals and climate and Al Gore’s session concluded with pop star Pharrell Williams announcing the Live Earth: Road to Paris concerts in June this year.
4. A new mood
Something has changed. A slight sense pervaded the air of a new era of business leadership and responsibility. The French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, a Davos regular, remarked that ten years ago he could not imagine altruism and the idea of ‘caring economics‘ making it onto the agenda. Now these terms are all the rage amongst the likes of Arianna Huffington, who is on a power drive to promote the importance of mindfulness in the workplace.
Huffington is part of the newly-created “B Team” – an alliance of business leaders who want to redefine the role of business in society, led by the likes of Richard Branson and including Unilever chief Paul Polman. Polman, who demonstrated a formidable knowledge of global change and sustainability, demanded businesses take more responsibility. “If you are not yet involved – get involved. If you are involved, simply give a bit more.”
Rhetoric around climate and poverty came from some unlikely quarters. IMF chief Christine Lagarde took to the main stage to call for the urgency to deal with climate and inequality: “It’s collective responsibility…We are at risk of being grilled, fried and toasted”. The Economist ran an editorial ahead of Davos arguing that the oil price collapse was the perfect moment to remove fossil fuel subsidies and introduce a global carbon tax. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made the same case in the Financial Times.
5. It’s all about confidence
Davos’ convening power creates an almost unique forum to build trust and coalitions. This is important for its stated mission: “improving the state of the world”. These are essential factors to create the requisite confidence for any move beyond the status quo in the absence of overt leadership. Whether it is business or government, no one wants to risk splitting from the pack to go it alone. While critique of the number of private jets and helicopters is well founded, in a networked world where confidence and contagion are integral components of the system, the World Economic Forum has its uses.