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Davos 2010: The World Is Broken

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As a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, I've been attending the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland for a dozen years. But I've never anticipated the event more than this year (Jan. 27-31). The theme is to "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign and Rebuild."

Music to my ears. Evidence is mounting that the world and many of its institutions are stalled and need reinvention -- from the financial system, the old model of government, the media, our energy and transportation systems, our cities, the university, science and even democracy. Needless to say, transforming these is a daunting challenge that will require the efforts of many parts of society.

"Global multi-stakeholder cooperation lies at the heart of the Forum's mission to improve the state of the world," says Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the Forum. "We have to rethink our values -- we are living together in a global society with many different cultures. We have to redesign our processes -- how do we deal with the issues and challenges on the global agenda. And finally, we have to rebuild our institutions."

Most significantly, our systems for global problem solving are broken. Says Professor Schwab: "We have to look at the Forum meeting in the context of what's happening in the world ... and we see that, clearly, the present system of global cooperation is not working sufficiently. So we want to look at all issues on the global agenda in a systemic, integrated and strategic way, and we want to address in particular the issue of global cooperation."

While the Davos event is often misrepresented as a meeting of the business and political elite, this year's 2,500 attendees will again include a broad cross-section of society, with representatives from business, government, the media, science, religion, the arts and civil society.

Nearly half of participants come from outside business, including more than 30 heads of state or government, at least double that number of government ministers, over 100 heads or top officials from international organizations and NGOs, over 200 leading academics, and more than 200 media leaders. There will be over 30 social entrepreneurs present, and there will be almost as many labor leaders as central bankers participating, with over a dozen representatives from each category.

Like me, many attendees will have participated in the Forum's Global Redesign Initiative, which began following the 2009 Forum. The Initiative is a multi-stakeholder dialogue addressing many of the challenges confronting our world today. Over the last year we have been developing recommendations to help adapt and improve the structures and systems of international cooperation.

Now, I appreciate that such an initiative sounds grandiose. Is it delusional for the Forum to try and pull off such an ambitious undertaking? My response: If not the World Economic Forum, then who?

To achieve new models for global problem solving we have to overcome a major obstacle: The world is organized around nation states based on national economies and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The idea of national sovereignty dates back hundreds of years with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. After World War II there were many bold initiatives to create better systems of global cooperation, including Breton Woods, The United Nations, The General Agreement of Trades and Tariffs (GAAT), The Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later the World Trade Organization and now the G8 and G20.

But, as evidenced by last month's UN Climate Change Conference fiasco in Copenhagen, the existing structures are increasingly inept at fixing what ails the world.

Contrast the Copenhagen failure to the growing global networks and movement of millions of people motivated to turn back warming. Evidence that the solution to global problems is not to create some global government. Rather there are new possibilities on the digital age to create networks involving business, government and civil society. The Forum is a case in point -- a global collaboration that is actually making the real progress in solving global problems on many fronts.

I for one am in!

Some might say this is all just talk and no action. Wrong there too. At the 2009 meeting, I participated with Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, in presenting an idea called the GreenXchange (GX) project to a group of about 80 CEOs of large companies. Over the last year several other companies have been working to incubate this idea and this year at Davos it will be formally launched. My company, nGenera, is supplying the GX's technology platform pro bono, because we think this idea is so important.

The GreenXchange is a clearinghouse for unpatented innovations ("know-how"), patent pledges, and patent licenses related to sustainability. Companies participating in the GX will be able to make both patented and unpatented "know-how" available for research uses and commercialization on standard and transparent terms and conditions.

Nike conceived the GX because there is too much duplication of effort in sustainability, and collaboration on shared challenges is a proven way to reduce costs and increase innovation. Companies face very similar sets of sustainability challenges -- how to reduce resource consumption and achieve greater efficiency -- but without the ability to share learning and best practices in response to those challenges, good solutions fail to take hold or make a broader impact. The GX was created to address this problem by making it easy to enable sharing and promotion of industry best practices leading to sustainability, while making sure that credit is given where it is due. The GX will also help reduce some of the barriers separating innovators from entrepreneurs in the sustainability space.

In the short term, the GX will make it easier for companies and individuals to identify, share, and obtain licenses to available technologies. The GX will enable rapid identification of commonalities in technology across industries and in turn identify gaps in available technology. In the long term, the GX will create a clearinghouse of public license offers for entrepreneurial development, innovation, and technology adoption. This is the sort of creativity the Global Redesign Initiative is designed to promote.

Contributing to the brainpower of the Global Redesign Initiative is the Forum's Network of Global Agenda Councils -- over 1,000 experts representing more than 50 thematic areas of international cooperation (e.g. Water Security, Pandemics, Migration). Approximately 3,000 participants drawn from the Forum's industry, governmental, civil society, academic and media communities provided input. They were selected as the most innovative and relevant thinkers to capture the best knowledge on each key issue and integrate it into global collaboration and decision-making processes.

I have spoken to many other members of the Councils over the last year. Most of us were impressed at the high-caliber and sincerity of the discussions. Our job at Davos will be to not only challenge prevailing assumptions, monitor trends, map interrelationships and address knowledge gaps, but to propose solutions, devise strategies and evaluate the effectiveness of actions.

I'll be blogging and tweeting throughout to let you know how it's going. Stay tuned.