Don Tapscott is an author, executive chair of the Blockchain Research Institute, adjunct professor at INSEAD and a member of the Order of Canada. He formerly led the Global Solution Networks research initiative exploring new methods of global co-operation, problem solving and governance.
For years, critics have viewed the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum as a cabal of the rich and powerful, conspiring to bend the world to corporate interests.
Today, the political right leads the criticism, spinning up conspiracy theories on how the global elites seek to run the world. Plots range from forced vaccinations and mandatory ID cards, to radical limits on property rights and wealth ownership, to chips implanted in people’s brains. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has aligned himself with the some of these theorists – saying he opposes the WEF’s “socialist agenda” and declaring that, if elected prime minister, he would ban cabinet members and other top officials from any involvement with the forum.
So what’s the real story?
If the war in Ukraine and the global pandemic show us anything, it’s our interdependence. It’s tough for any country to succeed in a world that’s failing. Today, the sheer number of crises – including climate change, food and energy inflation, geopolitical fragmentation and declining prosperity in many parts of the world – calls for bold collective action.
Global problems require global solutions. But how, and by whom?
The WEF is really an example of an answer to that question – a new type of “multi-stakeholder” approach to global co-operation and problem solving.
Throughout the 20th century, nation-states co-operated to build global institutions that addressed these problems. The winning allies of the Second World War created the first such organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations. For decades, these large international institutions were the only entities capable of solving global problems.
But new, powerful approaches have emerged that complement the work of nation-states. I was fortunate to lead a multi-million-dollar analysis of them under the auspices of the Rotman School for Management. We identified new organizational forms – namely, collaborative networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders who are orchestrating large-scale co-operation, social change and even the production of global public value. Often using tools of the digital age, they address every conceivable issue facing humanity – from climate change, poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of resources such as fisheries, diamond production and the internet itself.
The WEF is one such new organization. I’ve attended Davos since the late 1990s, and I’ve watched it evolve from a think tank into what you could call a “do tank,” and now a global network that engenders dozens of communities that engage tens of thousands of people to research, discuss and address many global problems year-round.
Does all this make a difference?
Quite a bit. In 1998, WEF attendees came up with the idea of setting up a new global institution comprising both developed and emerging economies. The group, which met for the first time in June of that year, became known as the G20. In 2000, the WEF launched Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which by 2017 had saved the lives of more than 13 million children. In 2018, it founded the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to help mitigate the dark side of the digital age. I personally participated in a WEF global council that created a bill of rights for blockchain called the Presidio Principles, which has been adopted by companies around the world.
In 2020, the forum organized chief executive officers from large corporations to support the EU’s European Green Deal as part of the WEF’s Regional Action Group. Today, more than 30 companies have committed to take serious action on climate change.
Consider the WEF’s Reskilling Revolution. Three years ago, it brought several countries and companies to re-skill one billion people for the new world of work; today, it has achieved one third of its goal. Dozens of other equally bold and results-driven initiatives are under way: for example, 1t.org aims to “conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030,” and has thus far brought together scores of companies from around the world to pledge about 4.6 billion trees to that end.
Over the years, prime ministers including Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have used Davos to encourage investment in Canada, initiate partnerships and influence world leaders about the country and its democratic values. But this year, Mr. Trudeau will not attend. Given the misinformation and conspiracy campaigns at home, I wonder whether the event is too hot a potato.
If so, that’s a crying shame.