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

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.