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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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.