BioRegional’s Sue Riddlestone reports
Media images of Davos last week portrayed world leaders making keynote speeches in a huge hall. My own experience (I attended for the second time this year), was one of collegiate ideas, labs and workshops with CEOs, professors and social entrepreneurs and mind-expanding working lunches and dinners with leading experts in their chosen field: Lord Nicholas Stern on the economics of climate change and business guru Roger Martin. You find yourself chatting to famous people as you collect your coat and snow boots from the cloakroom, or over drinks at the evening parties. IMF chief Christine Lagarde was my favourite. Only rarely did I enter the main congress hall, and that was mostly to get some rest as I listened and multitask by catching up with emails.
Klaus Schwab started the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos in 1971 as a retreat where leaders could talk about ‘improving the state of the world’ and that is still the strap line. The event - and the equally important accompanying regional events throughout the year, really do fulfil that mission. The WEF has numerous sub- communities. My husband, BioRegional co-founder Pooran Desai, and I get to go as part of the Schwab Social Entrepreneur community. It’s a real privilege to participate in such an amazing event. To get the most out of it, there’s a fair amount of prep before you go, to see who else is there and what events to sign up to. Once it starts, it’s a 7am to past midnight week-long whirlwind of fascinating stuff. As Klaus Schwab said as the event wrapped up on Saturday night, ‘We have collaborated as never before.’
Of the 2,500 delegates, 1,400 were allocated a job to do. Mine was to be a rapporteur on a session about cities where we explored approaches to engaging communities and embracing nature. Chinese RIBA Fellow Ma Yansong of MAD Architects showed us their amazing designs following natural forms like an apartment village echoing a mountain range, stuffed with plants from green walls to trees in pots and community meeting places. We heard from artist Theaster Gates about community re-purposing of abandoned buildings in Chicago and Habitat for Humanity on upgrading the homes of the poorest using volunteers.
In another session a panel of four experts considered whether China could continue to grow at 8-10% every year. Wang Shi, chairman and founder of China’s largest private property developer which sells 100,000 homes a year, pointed out that we don’t have enough resources for this level of growth and spoke of his mission to tackle sustainability in real estate development. The great thing about Davos is that everyone is there to meet and talk to each other, so he was happy to chat afterwards, and when I spotted him in a corridor later we went for a cup of tea. I was able to directly share our UK-FCO funded analysis of how low carbon development can be made cost effective in China.
Many of the sessions were ‘ideas labs’ where people work in groups, while artists capture it all on whiteboards. In the ideas lab called Pioneering sustainable growth, participants included big name CEOs like Mark Bolland of M&S and scientist Johan Rockstrom who conceptualised the nine planetary boundaries.
Of course, I proposed sustainable urbanisation as one solution, which was adopted and worked up by a group, Pooran did our group’s report back and I tweeted it! The interplay of health and the built environment kept on coming up and delegates swapped ideas on innovative financing mechanisms.
But the work doesn’t stop with Davos. There are almost 100 WEF Global Agenda Councils who work the year around on analysis and projects. All the members and communities can ask to join. We are linked in with the Urbanisation, Sustainable Consumption and Climate Change Councils and have come away with germs of projects which we are currently picking up on.
The mood at Davos this year was a lot more optimistic than last year in that everyone seems to have come to terms with the financial crisis and is ready to face up to the big issues like income inequality and climate change. Climate change has zoomed way back up the agenda, with President Obama promising to tackle it in his second term and the new World Bank president Jim Yong Kim making it a priority. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde, rather than just talking about figures in her speech, took ‘a broader view of the new global economy taking shape before our eyes.’ She spoke brilliantly about the big issues that I care about for a better world and told a packed hall: ‘Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.’
Davos is about expanding your mind and sense of possibility and then taking that back to work with you the next week. Of course many people are there making less noble deals, but for me and many others, it is a place where partnerships are forged which can improve the state of the world.