A World Economic Forum sign hangs from a building near the conference centre in Davos, Switzerland. File Picture: BLOOMBERG/MATTHEW LLOYD
A World Economic Forum sign hangs from a building near the conference centre in Davos, Switzerland. File Picture: BLOOMBERG/MATTHEW LLOYD

With the 50th round of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting concluded, the collective resolve with which we begin to piece together our individual commitments towards making the world a better place for all will be truly tested.

Does the WEF still hold any weight, both for our business and the country? Will any real action result from the many discussions that have taken place? While the answers to these questions will differ from person to person, my interactions in Davos provided reassurance that there is a heightened sensitivity over the need for urgency in driving economic, social and environmental change.

The real power of the WEF is its ability to be at the forefront of emerging trends that will inevitably affect economies and societies globally. The determination with which organisations and governments alike use this information to drive the necessary changes the world needs to see is the issue we now come back to.

Last week’s discussions yielded a number of important insights. First, the principle of delivering the sustainable development goals and generating broad-based value, rather than just shareholder value, is now completely normalised and mainstream. The climate change discussion has been elevated to the extent that there does not seem to be a single CEO of a major corporation who isn’t taking its impact seriously.

Much of the climate debate at WEF 2020 was focused on the implications of the transition of the global energy mix to renewables, given that 80% of the world’s energy mix is still hydrocarbon-based. While a more joined-up solution is desired by many, it seems the push is going to come from individual organisations deciding to deploy capital to other energy solutions.

In some instances, and especially in contexts where hydrocarbon-based energy dominates the debt and equity investment profiles of organisations, the decision to change is being left up to shareholders themselves. The world needs more energy but fewer emissions. However, the required pace of change is so fast that an unnatural transition to alternatives may be necessary, an approach divergent from the current one.

WEF 2020 brought the raging debate around data standards, privacy and data management to the forefront of global growth and development. Fundamental debates about how data is used, people’s rights as well as the frameworks that should govern this usage were prominent, though somewhat unresolved. There appears to be consensus that data sharing to facilitate, for example, the prevention of fraud and financial crime, is appropriate. However, there are differing views when it comes to use cases around revenue generation for business.

Questions around whether data can and should be used for competitive advantage, and whether different rules should apply to different categories of data, underlie the debate over potential frameworks. Compounding issues include time limits on data subject consent and a gender bias towards male practitioners in the data and AI spaces that certainly needs to be addressed.

As far as the future of financial and monetary systems is concerned, the trend is towards digital, digital and more digital. Both the banking and insurance sectors are being affected by rapid developments in the digital space, and the need to be able to manage and then be ahead of this change is top of mind for most organisations. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Stakeholders for a cohesive world”. Public-private partnerships to deliver sustainable development and shared growth were thrown into sharp focus.

Driving all of this progress are employees, who are being recognised as a constituency that needs to be genuinely nurtured. The culture journey of organisations across the globe continues to shift towards greater transparency and a need to ensure an environment of true belonging for the workers tasked with delivering the strategies of their respective businesses. The relationship between culture and digital innovation, for example, is one that many have grappled with as new methodologies affect workplace dynamics.

While Davos has a reputation for being a talk shop, those willing to see the forum as more than this can take away real and practical lessons that can be immediately implemented. In addition, we would all be wise to consider the work coming out of the many well-resourced WEF working groups in our efforts to drive change.

hat struck me most is that there are more opportunities than challenges to solve our common problems while growing at the same time.

• Williamson is interim CEO of Old Mutual 

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