WEF 2024: why the world’s corporations need to learn to dance

The annual chinwag in Davos needs to translate ideas into action faster than ever before, as global instability grows.

It’s tough being Davos Man these days. Making the annual pilgrimage to the Swiss ski town to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) has always been a sign of having “made it”, having joined the global elite. But that’s always come with complications, with the lurking edge of conspiracy. And in 2024, it might seem like a recipe for facing unusual criticism.

The WEF accidentally created a fill-on global conspiracy theory during the pandemic, with the publication of their book The Great Reset. It’s a good read, full of the sorts of ideas we’ve been exploring here for years. But an awful lot of people who haven’t read the book now think it’s actually a global conspiracy to remake the world in a new image. And thus, the Great Reset follows the 15-minute city (a sensible urban planning ideal, not a means of government control) through the door marked “great ideas, tainted by conspiracy theorists”.

It feels like the WEF, and the class of people it represents, could do with a PR win. But the polycrisis makes that incredibly difficult to do.

Corporates, the WEF, and the Polycrisis

At its heart, the WEF remains a positive organisation. It deeply, culturally, believes that the power of global corporations can be harnessed for worldwide good. But even the most starry-eyed optimist and true believer might struggle with their faith a little in the current environment.

How much can corporates do about the war in Ukraine? Or the war in Gaza? How can they contribute meaningfully to dealing with the losing climate crisis, when they’re struggling to get goods through a main shipping route through the Red Sea?

After the supply chain damage wrought by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, a whole new problem is the last thing businesses need. Yes, they’re responding, mainly by sending ships around the tip of Africa, massively delaying shipments. And it’s governments that are responding actively, not corporates.

Proactive Corporate Sustainability

The key, of course, is to get off the back foot and start being proactive. And that means building businesses that are resilient against future threats, both the known and the unexpected.

Against the known, we have time to plan and re-engineer things, but that’s going to require a lot of flexibility, thinking and organisation. As Gim Huay Neo, managing director of World Economic Forum Geneva, put it while chairing a panel at Davos this year:

The big question that companies have to navigate is, can they continue to grow, can they continue to generate profits, while cutting emissions and stopping depleting natural resources?

Degrowth is a tough idea to sell to companies — especially those with shareholders. And so, finding new ways of growing that are less dependent on resource extraction and consumption seems like the only way forwards. Gim Hay Neo again:

We have to build new economic models, new businesses and possibly new lifestyles for humanity that are just as good, or even better, than what we have today.

Governmental or corporate solutions?

The same applies to the geopolitical volatility we’re all facing. We need to build business sustainability solutions that allow flexibility in how we operate. And that means that warm words at summits need to be translated rapidly into action.

Former NEXT speaker Parag Khanna proposed a solution to the supply chain issues:

The solution to today’s perpetual volatility won’t emerge from episodic summits between Beijing and Washington or G-7 group therapy sessions or from talkfests such as the World Economic Forum or U.N. climate conferences. Instead, there is precisely one pathway for a world plagued by dire mistrust and unpredictable crises to take meaningful collective action in the global public interest—and that is to build more pathways for supply to meet demand. The solution to supply shocks is more supply chains.

Building new supply routes so we’re not dependent on the Red Sea will take time, and the sort of transport infrastructure that remain the preserve of governments. And it’s going to require governments to work together to build these transnational routes.

That’s not to say that the corporate world can’t participate in this: if governments need to build new infrastructure, the corporates who stand to benefit could certainly help out, financially, at the very least. But that’s a much tougher ask than the sorts of statements that they were able to make before the polycrisis hit, the ones that committed to transforming their own businesses and not much else.

Pulling together, the WEF way

The WEF’s official wrap-up of the event highlights the need for cooperation:

But, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned on Wednesday, we mustn’t allow geopolitical divides to prevent global responses to global challenges, like climate change or AI, as he called for reforms to global governance systems.

AI, for example, needs a global response in terms of regulation. LLMs are available everywhere — and are being trained on copyrighted material from all over the globe. Sorting that out is going to require a global rethink of what we mean by copyright, and derivative works.

The nimble corporate

And there lies the apparent contradiction at the heart of the WEF 2024. To gain entry to an event like this, you need to be big: a government or a global corporation, with the size and complexity that entails. But to respond to the multiple layers of the polycrisis, these organisations also need to be nimble.

As Accenture’s CEO for EMEA, Jean-Marc Ollagnier put it:

The companies that will succeed in this environment are those that will focus on reinventing every part of their business using technology and data, including harnessing the power of generative AI, and ensuring their people are at the centre of their transformations.

For the big, clumsy corporate giants, the message from the WEF 2024 was simple: learn to dance, learn to be nimble, or be broken on the rocks of the polycrisis.