Why Davos risks being a dead end


Davos may embrace challenge, argues John Elkington – but that doesn't mean it's case solved.

Before I begin, full disclosure: I was on the World Economic Forum’s faculty for seven years, starting in 2002 when the Davos summit left Switzerland for the first time—landing in New York, to support that city in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Those years provided key parts of my education, and extraordinary opportunities to network.

That said, I worry about the net impact WEF has. Indeed, I sympathise with Will Hutton when he notes: “More than 2,500 alpha men and women from more than 100 countries will descend on Davos this week to spend four days discussing the world's urgent need to adopt ‘resilient dynamism’. This, the organising watchword for this year's annual gathering of panjandrums at the World Economic Forum, is allegedly the way out of the crisis. It is meaningless.” 
I wouldn’t be quite so harsh, but ‘resilient dynamism’ is hardly a prescription for extracting ourselves from our current messes.  Indeed, the Forum often seems to surf the latest crises, pulling together those most closely involved—and capturing a large slice of the energy by own-branding key parts of the agenda.  
One risk is that some people get the impression that because Davos embraces a challenge, it’s case solved. If that were true, and after several decades of Davos, we would be living in a world much closer to the utopia-for-all that those 2,500 alpha beings briefly sample.  
Still, when I sat down this morning to read the latest issue of the Financial Times over breakfast, it was astonishing to see the degree to which our issues are now covered in parts of the business media.  
Major stories included: Obama pledged to turn back the spectre of climate change in his first Inaugural address, but now must pull his presidential socks up; Beijing, rocked by protests about the devastating air quality problems experienced by the city, breaks all precedent and publishes proposed new air pollution rules; Sir George Buckley, former 3M Chairman, has moved to Ownership Capital, which will invest against environmental, social and governance (ESG) screens; and US business schools are told to include more content on waste management/resource efficiency in their courses.
Which do you see as the most important story? For me, it’s probably the fact that they are all there together. It underscores the analysis I have been evolving since 1994, initially at SustainAbility and now at Volans, tracking a series of societal pressure waves on government, business and now financial markets. The version below is cartoon-like, but is the only version I currently have to hand (it is being updated for our new Breakthrough report).  
Looking back, Wave 1 focused on the environment (which is where Beijing now finds itself), Wave 2 on the ‘Green’ agenda, Wave 3 (truncated by 9/11) was driven by anti-globalization movements, and Wave 4 switched the focus to sustainability. Wave 4 has now peaked—yet the risk landscape looks more threatening than ever, as WEF notes in Global Risks 2013.
Wave 5, the ‘Breakthrough Wave,’ is likely to build through 2020. This was a key focus of our Breakthrough Capitalism Forum, held in London last May, with follow-up events planned for Berlin and Toronto. Our conclusion: this isn’t just something that happens on snow-covered mountain tops once a year, but is building all around—often well beyond the ken of those who occupy (note no capital ‘O’) the Global C-Suite.
John Elkington is a co-founder and Executive Chairman of Volans, and co-founder of Environmental Data Services (ENDS) and SustainAbility. His latest book is The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier.