Winners and losers: who took a step towards a sustainable future at Davos?

One reason why Davos won’t deliver all our dreams is that there isn’t an honest enough conversation about winners and losers. Here are three of the best, and three of the worst types of people at the World Economic Forum.

Helicopters swooping in and out of a picture-perfect Alpine setting, tweets galore carrying the #WEF14 hashtag, trying to capture in real time pontifications from the great and the good, and a slightly guilty acknowledgement that four days on the top of a mountain won’t deliver the seismic shift towards sustainability that many of us know is needed.

One reason why Davos won’t deliver all our dreams is that there isn’t an honest enough conversation about winners and losers. The changes we need to see in order to stand a real chance of delivering a sustainable future - which include weaning ourselves off fossil fuel dependency, as well as lifting millions of people around the world out of abject poverty - requires an acknowledgement that there will be winners and losers, but perhaps not the ones that usually come to mind.

Three Winners

1. The Vested Interest Busters (+VIBs) An extraordinary group of progressive thinkers, including one or two CEOs of pioneering businesses, that are willing to take on, in no particular order: hedge-fund managers who promulgate a casino economy which in turn puts pressure on businesses to report quarterly, and puts the brakes on long-term thinking and long-term investment for sustainability solutions; the hydrocarbon barons, who want to squeeze the last drop of non-renewable resource out of the earth’s crust, no matter how risky, and no matter how expensive; and the policy guardians who go to great lengths to preserve policy instruments, nationally and internationally, that reinforce perverse incentives that discourage, rather than encourage, sustainable behaviour.

2. The Future Folders Perhaps an even larger group than the VIBs, those individuals and organisations that are able to look to the future (that’s 5, 10 years from now, not tomorrow), understand how this future might be different, and use those insights to do things differently. From Steve Jobs, who imagined a future where we used technology very differently from today, to Levis, who looked to the future to really understand that water might not be available in the way it is today (giving us Waterless jeans). There are examples of the huge benefits of looking to the future to deliver positive benefits.

3. The Experimenters Imagine. Crazy folk who experiment with new social innovations, new environmental innovations, new business models, where the pathway to value creation is unknown. In other words, people who are experimenting with better products and better business models, where the pathway to profits is uncertain at best, unlikely at worst. See for example Harish Manwari, COO of Unilever, who has been a YouTube hit with his talk where he says (gasp) "profits aren’t always the point". The Experimenters are winners, as they understand that there are trends at play, serious attempts to put a value on natural assets for example, that mean today’s products, and today’s business models, will not be fit for purpose in the future.

Three Losers

1. The Vested Interest Brigade (-VIBs) See above.

2. The Single Minded Strategist "I have decided and it is thus". A distant cousin of the Linear Decision Maker, this is the business school graduate who has been weaned on the benefits of a clear strategic goal, the value of a detailed implementation plan, and the merits of sticking to that plan no matter what. Even if key groups of stakeholders think the direction is a poor one (look how long it took the UK government to change its mind about selling off its forests), even if the in-built assumptions on where power and responsibility lie change (who would have thought Starbucks would be picketed, in store, by citizens demanding they rethink their tax policies). We live in a complex and interconnected world, where the most effective strategists will also be system thinkers – able to spot patterns, see other’s perspectives, think long-term and challenge assumptions. Remember Einstein’s quote: "No problem can be solved using the same consciousness that created it".

3. The conservative (small c) CEO and Board The ones that want to wait until the ink is dry on every last detail of an implementation plan, before announcing their sustainability goals and commitments. This is not just a loss for sustainability, as wanting to know exactly how a target will be delivered will inevitably mean incremental, not transformational change, but a loss for the business. While the senior management team are huddled in internal wrangles over which decimal point will describe their target, the opportunity for open innovation to find new ways of doing things, is lost. An open innovation, crowd sourcing ideas, co-creation of delivery mechanisms, are hallmarks, I believe, of a sustainable business.

Being clear that there are potential losers, and they often hold the power in our current structures, is key to understanding how to create change. Strategies to make the losers less sore, to show them how to be winners, will also be the strategies that will deliver sustainability.  The problem, I suspect, at Davos is that the –VIBs outnumber the +VIBs by quite some way.

John Kerry arriving in Davos to attend the World Economic Forum. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sally Uren is the Chief Executive of Forum for the Future

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.