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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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.