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27 January 2014

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.

By Sally Uren

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.

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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.

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