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Examining the True Meaning of Davos

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(DAVOS, Switzerland) The European skiers have once again checked into the hotels of this small Swiss village, replacing the attendees of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.

One occurrence this week caused me to stand back and reflect more broadly on the meaning of this event and the challenge of improving the state of the world.

It came from unexpected source. I received a call from the producers of The Current, the national CBC radio public affairs program, asking me to go on air to debate Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian newspaper. He had written an article saying Davos was an elitist gabfest. You can listen to the CBC discussion here.

Mr. Chakrabortty argued that Davos is a privileged club of white male billionaires and millionaires who pretend to discuss issues of concern to society; that the real action is away from the public sessions and occurs in many secretive meetings in which capitalists conspire to grow their wealth. The forum "is the most perfect case study of how the practitioners of free-market, globalized capitalism give the public one explanation for what they are doing and why, while privately pursuing the complete opposite," he wrote.

I told the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, that it was odd for me to listen to this broadside, as earlier that day I had several incidents that weren't exactly part of his storyline. I ran into Geoff Cape, co-founder of Evergreen, a Toronto-based national charity working to make cities more livable. He was beaming to tell me that Accenture and Cisco had just agreed to become strategic partners.

Then I ran into Canada's Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, who had made enormous progress getting support for his initiative Me to We.

After that I spoke with Juliana Rotich, co-founder of the amazing organization Ushahadi, which is based in Kenya but is enabling social change and human rights projects around around the world. She said she had just met with a Latin American government minister who showed her how they were using Ushahidi to map poverty down to the individual-residence level, in an effort to turn the tide.

The CBC discussion was cut short, so I want to complete my thoughts here. But first let me summarize my radio argument about why Chakrabortty was factually wrong writing from his perch in London -- much like someone describing what is happening on the surface of Mars when they're not there.

The culture of Davos

To begin, it's not just white men in Davos. The Forum pays a lot of attention to diversity and the crowd at Davos reflects that. I don't have the data, but in almost every meeting there are many women and people from every part of the world. There will be a Forum meeting on Latin America this April in Peru, and a meeting focused on Africa in Cape Town this May. They will be followed by Forum meetings in Jordan, Myanmar, China and India. All in all, the Forum organizes meetings in cities and countries around the world.

Mr. Chakrabortty is not right about the Forum delegates all being corporate fat cats either. Almost half of the attendees come from NGOs and other civil society organizations, universities, governments and the arts.

Even if it were a meeting of business leaders, what's the point of assuming it would be a bad thing? That argument presupposes that all corporations and their leaders are evil. Are there business executives in the financial services industry here who one might disagree with? You bet. That's neither here nor there.

There are executives present who make trucks, trains, food, fabrics, office towers, clothes, software, networks and satellites. All of the biggest wealth creators and entrepreneurs of the world are here. There are the people who are trying to create jobs. There are people from hundreds of the hottest startups on the planet -- many of them social innovators. Fully 80 per cent of new jobs come from companies less than 5 years old. Does Mr. Chakrabortty not believe that a market economy is a good idea?

Mr. Chakrabortty goes on a diatribe about Sharon Stone being at Davos, which, for starters, wasn't proven. But what's the point anyway? The Forum recognizes good work done by people around the world, and sometimes that will include those in the film industry.

This year, Oscar-winning actress and HIV and AIDS campaigner Charlize Theron was given the Forum's Crystal Award. Theron received the award because of her commitment to improving the lives of African youth -- in particular, those suffering from HIV and AIDS, through the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach project. Pakistani Emmy and Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was another winner. A recent film of hers persuaded politicians in Pakistan to treat acid attacks as an act of terrorism and be punished with prison terms.

I don't think it's accurate to describe the Forum as a gabfest designed to help businesses make more money. I attended one of the "private meetings" Mr. Chakrabortty ranted about hosted by the consulting company McKinsey & Company on overcoming youth unemployment. This is a huge problem, with the jobless rate for young people more than 50 percent in Spain and Greece, and close to 25 percent in Sweden.

But there are also millions of unfilled jobs. How do we overcome the skills mismatch? McKinsey announced some deep research at the meeting, since there is a complete lack of reliable information on the topic, explaining what could be learned from more successful countries such as Germany.

In another meeting hosted a private Ukrainian foundation, educators, policy makers and business people had sessions dealing with higher education, and the potential for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Representatives from Harvard, Stanford and MIT all came to Davos to discuss the issue. See my article on that extraordinary discussion here.

To be sure, business executives have private meetings to discuss new opportunities and partnerships or sell their goods and services. Country leaders meet with business executives to pitch their countries for investments too. But the norm is more like the Forum event I attended yesterday on the "moral economy," where executive after executive discussed practical mechanisms that would force corporations to be more fully responsible members of society.

One speaker was Bill George, a former CEO of Medtronic and now a professor at Harvard Business School. He made a strong case that the purpose of a corporation is not simply to make a profit. Rather, society gives a licence to corporations to perform certain functions, including to create employment, innovate and create broader social value to society.

After Michael Porter wrote his famous article in the Harvard Business Review that capitalism has to be rethought along "shared value" principles, he immediately headed to the 2011 Davos meeting to promote his concept. He knew he would be talking to thought leaders from around the world.

As for the fact that there are cocktail parties? As someone who speaks at 60 conferences a year, I can't remember one cocktail-free. True, some of the private events hosted by unnamed web entrepreneurs might be over the top. But I'm not sure we should all agree that having fun is a bad idea.

A curator of communities

I find Davos productive for a number of reasons. It's intellectually rewarding; for example, there was a dinner last night with 10 Nobel Prize winners in attendance. And yes, there is great networking. But what drives me, and, I'm guessing, most people, is that the Forum helps me make a difference in the world. If you are a defender of the status quo, you're not going to have a very good time at Davos, because the discussion is a lot about change.

Which brings me to my main point of discussion: What is the Forum, and what is its real meaning in terms of improving the state of the world?

The Forum began four decades ago as a meeting for European executives to discuss pressing global problems. It evolved into a think tank, researching various issues and convening other events. Today you could think of the organization as a "do tank" that is engendering at least a dozen communities that are researching, discussing and taking action on many global problems.

Earlier this week I discussed the Forum's Network of Global Agenda Councils, which were created in 2008. They bring together more than 1,500 of the world's most relevant experts from academia, business, civil society, government and international organizations. The councils are the vehicle for the Forum to achieve its year-round dialogue.

Through its Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, the Forum is getting high-level leaders to pledge personal and organizational commitments towards gender parity. The goal is to close the economic gender gap through best practice exchange, collaboration and innovation.

The Forum also helped form a group known as the Young Global Leaders, which brings together 700 exceptional young people under the age of 40 who share a commitment to shaping the global future. Members come from all around the world, and represent business, government, civil society, arts and culture, academia and media, as well as social entrepreneurs. The group is an independent not-for-profit foundation supervised by the Swiss government. It works closely with the Forum to integrate young leaders into deep interaction with other stakeholders of global society.

In a trip to Sao Paulo last year, I met with a number of my young Twitter followers who created a hashtag #coffeewithDon. One of these, 25-year-old Tomás de Lara, was building a successful crowd-sourcing platform to finance social entrepreneurs in Brazil. He asked me about the Forum and I told him about the Global Shapers -- a Forum community of thousands of young leaders under the age of 30 in cities around the world. I arrived at Davos this year to learn that Mr. de Lara was one of the Global Shapers in attendance. We celebrated his success and discussed his plans going forward.

The meaning of Davos

The key point is that the Forum is really an example of a new model of global problem solving, co-operation and governance.

Throughout the 20th century, nation-states cooperated to build global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems. Many of these organizations were created in the aftermath of the Second World War. They include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the World Trade Organization and numerous other organizations based on nation-states. For decades, these large international institutions, including the European Union, have wrestled with some of the world's most intractable problems -the kind of problems that don't fit neatly into departmental pigeonholes.

But progress has been slow or non-existent.

Just look at the inability of the G8 and G20 to address the global economic crisis; the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization; and the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences on climate change. They show that formal international systems for co-operation are failing in achieving world goals of economic growth, climate protection, poverty eradication, conflict avoidance, human security and behaviour based on shared values.

Conversely, many of the positive developments happening around the world, such as the struggles for democracy in North Africa, are not being made because of our global systems for co-operation but rather through new networks of citizens, civil society organizations and other stakeholders uniting around a common cause.

Today we see a fundamental change emerging regarding how global problems can be solved. New non-state networks of civil society, private-sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of co-operation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity, from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.

Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are now proliferating across the planet and increasingly having an important impact in solving global problems and enabling global cooperation and governance. Call them global solution networks, of which the World Economic Forum is a prime example.

It was a network of governments, private companies, civil society organizations, and individual citizens -- the new four pillars of society -- that organized to solve the crisis in Haiti. Rather than building more massive global bureaucracies, it makes sense to embrace more agile, networked structures enabled by global networks for new kinds of collaboration.

As I said in the CBC exchange with Mr. Chakrabortty, people like him throw mud on the windshield of progress. They do a disservice to the hard-working people around the world in organizations like the Forum that are trying to make a difference.

To be sure, there are tough issues with all these new networks. To whom are they accountable? They may be inspired, but are they legitimate? Ultimately, these new approaches will be measured by their efficacy -- as the world scrutinizes their actual impact on solving global problems.

But if you ask Marc Kielburger, Geoff Cape, Juliana Rotich or Tomás de Lara, they'll tell you that this is, in fact, progress.

Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management and the author of 14 books. He just released a TED book (with Anthony D. Williams) called Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success. You can follow him on Twitter @dtapscott.

Originally published in TheGlobeandMail.com