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The World Economic Forum’s been around for 45 years now, nearly as long as me but this was the first year I’ve managed to get there. I’ve picked out a few themes from the thoughtful discussions about the future.

 
1. China – was unequivocally talking about a new form of balanced green growth. It was clear that extreme urban air pollution has been an enormous shock for the nation’s leadership. There was a recognition that turning the ‘super tanker’ will take 10-20 years but a determination to do it. 

2. Price of Carbon – every business leader seemed to be aligned on the need for a price of carbon. Although there were significant doubts about the political will to deliver it, collapsing oil prices were seen as a chance to shift fossil fuel subsidies towards carbon pricing.

3. COP21 – There were strong calls from policy makers for business to play a greater role in the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris in December this year. In part to embolden Government but also to flesh out more practically sector by sector what low carbon transformation and growth would look like for the economy.

4. Inequality – The word ‘inequality’ and the risks it presents to growth and stability were much discussed. Is Davos moving as fast as society on this? No! But the Heads of the IMF, World Bank and Bank of England were all pushing for capitalism to be smarter and more inclusive. Too little, too late you may argue but those who think more than 6 months out are concerned.

5. UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – there was some gentle chuntering in business circles that 17 SDGs were too many but also a recognition that compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) they were very much more relevant to business and we need to more clearly demonstrate how we help their delivery to everyone’s benefit.

6. Technology – a real sense of technology innovation reaching a tipping point. Driverless cars, 3D printing, drones are going from lab to marketplace rapidly. Robotics, Artificial intelligence and Internet of everything close behind. Lots of business excitement but also a sense of the unknown in terms of what regulation we need and most importantly what it might mean for jobs.

7. Africa – great opportunities to reduce poverty now exist which will create huge market opportunities. Africa can leap a generation technology wise putting in mobile rather than fixed phones; de-centralised renewable energy rather than cumbersome centralised grid systems. Plenty of risks still but the narrative about this great Continent is increasingly optimistic. 

8. Circular Economy – The circular economy offers massive opportunities to enable growth in a resource constrained world. What we saw this year was a realisation that as much as business innovates on clever new circular models it needs partnership with Government to create the research; recovery infrastructure; price on externalities; and procurement rules to take it to scale.

9. Leadership on sustainability – There’s a bit of a Dutch CEO thing going on at the moment (Polman, Bolland, Sijbesma of Royal DSM) on sustainable business leadership. Why? Probably because it’s a trading nation that thinks long term. It was good to see how hard Laurence Tubiana and Christina Figueres are working to create the momentum for COP21 and their desire to see business at the heart of it. Finally President Kagame of Rwanda was astonishing. A humble man who has championed the role of women in the re-birth of his country.

10. WEF Action – One week a year in Davos will always dominate perceptions of the World Economic Forum but increasingly it’s providing convening power year round on sustainable business. The New York Declaration on Forests; the Tropical Forest Alliance and the Banking Environment Initiative working to reduce deforestation; Collectively aiming to engage millennials in more sustainable consumption; and Project Mainstream striving to make the Circular Economy a reality are all examples of this desire to turn talk into action. 

So what’s my overall take-out? A curate’s egg of course. There is some truth in the claims that it is a detached bubble but it’s also a place where CEOs meet, think and change and there were enough of them thinking positively about our future to say it was a trip worth making.

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