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Reflections on WEF: The big picture

This commitment to achieving societal goals is commendable, but the movement to action through the development of metrics signals a new chapter.

February 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: For the past six years, Lauren Woodman, NetHope CEO, has represented NetHope at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting as a civil society delegate. This is one of two posts detailing Lauren’s observations at WEF—from the big picture to nonprofit trends.

By Lauren Woodman, CEO, NetHope

Marissa Mayer, Co-Founder, Lumi Labs, USA; Young Global Leader, Börje Ekholm, President and Chief Executive Officer, Ericsson, Sweden, Keith Block, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Salesforce, USA, Lauren Woodman, Chief Executive Officer, NetHope, USA, Dan Schulman, President and Chief Executive Officer, PayPal, USA speaking in the Shaping the Future of the Digital Economy session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 21 January. Congress Centre - Sanada. Copyright by World Economic Forum/Sandra Blaser

After concluding a busy week at the 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland—its 50th convening—the best way to describe this experience is that it’s an intellectual and physical marathon. For my data-driven colleagues, the week’s metrics include: key meetings and sharing the stage with 40+ current/prospective tech and funding partners; participating in six panels as either a speaker or a moderator; attending two WEF Board/Council meetings, and proudly accepting an award on behalf of NetHope. Added to this, according to my Fitbit, I logged 98,997 steps or 43 miles. I will outline some of the details in this post and a following one, minus the step count. That requires no elaboration!

First, let’s start with the big picture. Through all the noise at Davos, one theme emerged that was noteworthy for the NetHope community. And four big, key takeaways highlighted the challenges and issues that private and public sectors alike are facing.

If you are a NetHope member and want to discuss potential impacts on your respective organization or are a tech or funding partner eager to invest in this work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

The Dominant Theme

Stakeholder Capitalism. The Annual Meeting theme was “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” Stakeholder Capitalism was the catchword of the week, as companies abandon a narrow accountability to shareholders and embrace a broader focus on customers, employees, community members, and society. There was significant discussion focused on how business can have a positive impact on the world: climate change, the impact of technology, geopolitical tensions, and the perceived decline of the foundations of the international system. In combination, these have driven a significant uptick in aligning business goals with societal goals. 

This wasn’t just talk: led by Bank of America and the four largest accounting firms, the International Business Council has proposed a set of metrics aligned to measure business efficacy in this pursuit. The draft can be found here. If you have suggestions for improvement, please let me know as NetHope will be sharing feedback in the coming weeks.

This commitment to achieving societal goals is commendable, but the movement to action through the development of metrics signals a new chapter. It shows an interest in not just talking about global challenges, but a commitment to action that has not materialized in the past. It’s early, of course, but I was struck by the opportunities that exist for nonprofits and business to work together constructively to achieve the environmental, societal, and governance goals that will lead to a better world. 

Yet, the challenges to get there are significant—nonprofits will have to engage in conversations that, in the past, we have left to others; business will have to partner in more constructive ways with the nonprofit sector; and governments will need to regulate more effectively to protect fundamental rights, enforce ethical behavior, and stimulate innovation.

Four Key, Big Picture Takeaways

  1. Sustainability/Climate Change was front and center in previously unseen ways. Its prominence can’t be overstated: while it’s been on the agenda for many years, the effort was noticeably proactive. The Forum announced an initiative to plant a trillion trees and has asked its partners to make public commitments to carbon neutrality. Recent announcements from BlackRock and Microsoft reinforced this prominence and set the bar for the rest of the sector.
  • The Un-Scale World. It’s a truism that the unrelenting pace of technology-driven disruption and change have yielded new business models and opportunities to scale rapidly and broadly. But the shift we see happening now, driven by the rise of platforms, is what Paul Daugherty, the CTO of Accenture, called the “un-scale” world. Companies no longer seek to “go big” by growing *their* footprint; they leverage others’ resources. This is a theme we’ve heard in the past, e.g. Airbnb is the largest hotel in the world but has no buildings and Amazon sells products but has no stores. Now traditional businesses are adopting these models, too, rather than trying to fight them to build ecosystems of integrated products and services. How organizations increase value in a rapidly changing world—no matter how they define value—was a persistent discussion.
  • (Dis)Trust in Technology. Fears about technology—the “techlash”—are higher than ever: fake news, worries about AI, lack of confidence in institutions to regulate potential harms, to name a few. The Edelman Trust Barometer saw trust in technology fall, for the first time ever (though it’s still #1). But given the ubiquity of tech—and its importance in driving growth and opportunity—the lack of transparency, regulation, and consensus on acceptable behavior is generating fear. While tech companies are now more open to regulation, and some are explicitly demanding it, regulators cannot keep up with the pace of change. Marginalized communities are particularly at risk; their vulnerabilities are rarely considered in thinking about unintended consequences. Concerns about job displacement remain high; resources for reskilling remain low. 
  • Geopolitical Concerns. While business leaders seemed more upbeat than in recent years because of positive economic performance in many countries, the outlook remains worrisome. The PwC CEO report released mid-week of the Forum noted that 53 percent of CEOs expect economic contraction in the next 12 months (62 percent in the US). Economic tensions between the US and China are worrisome. Growing nationalism and a retreat from international engagement are exacerbating tensions and undermining confidence in the institutions that have underpinned the international system for the last 70 years. Yet, as Thomas Friedman noted, we have moved from an interconnected world to an interdependent one—and attempts to extricate oneself from this interdependence will be painful and costly. The traditional left/right continuum in national politics has been upended, and it’s unclear where the new centers will land.

When I reflect on WEF, the stakeholder capitalism theme that dominated this year’s Forum, and these four key, big picture takeaways, I view these as a confirmation of, and a call-to-action for, NetHope to continue its hallmark cross-sector collaboration and laser focus on applying the power of technology to the problems and potential of humanity.


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