Rupert Duchesne is the group chief executive for Aimia Inc., a Montreal data-driven marketing and loyalty analytics company
Early next week, more than 2,800 delegates will make their way to Davos, Switzerland, for the 2016 annual general meeting of the World Economic Forum. Of those 2,800, 47 will represent Canada and fewer than 20 Canadian businesses are represented. It seems just one Canadian news outlet is sending a formal delegate: this newspaper. Yet, the event is important enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has now registered to attend, together with several cabinet members, the mayor of Calgary, the premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick, and the Governor of the Bank of Canada.
They'll be in good company. The event is traditionally attended by both the leaders of government, major global businesses, foundations, not-for-profits and academia who, together, take on the lofty mission of working together to tackle topics of global concern – in short, they want to make the world a better place.
Some will look at that notion with cynicism and fundamentally disagree that businesses, particularly those that are publicly traded, should invest time in anything not entirely motivated by profit.
I suspect many of those very same people, though, would hold business accountable for its impact on income distribution, the environment, rights, privacy and security, and gender equality, among other issues.
Furthermore, with so many of the world's major businesses represented (many of Aimia's current partners and prospects attend, for example), there are exceptional opportunities to conduct business between the formal program elements.
Business participation in global issues is vital.
The challenges that face Canada and the world today are too complex to expect any one entity, particularly government, to make meaningful progress on alone.
The theme of this year's Davos meeting is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which WEF founder Klaus Schwab calls "a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres," an era that affects individual consumers and how and what they buy, the government and how it leads, how business adapts for success and how the jobs of tomorrow will differ from those of today.
But beyond a contribution to the greater good, there are compelling business reasons for Canadian companies to participate in the World Economic Forum.
This is particularly true in today's economy, where resource companies are under pressure due to commodity prices, and the low Canadian dollar can provide some advantage.
Companies operating in the knowledge economy have an opportunity to provide badly needed growth for the Canadian economy, and support for these types of companies will benefit all of us.
Those businesses that have an international outlook, that build real relationships, share ideas and recognize opportunities have a competitive advantage; while Canadian manufacturers and resource companies have a long history of international trade or expansion, the country's service and knowledge businesses make up a disproportionately small amount of our international business engagement.
It should be noted, of course, that there are likely many Canadian businesses that would be interested in participating in the World Economic Forum community but are too small, or cannot afford to attend; certainly, a Forum membership is a multiyear investment, but one with real returns.
Participation also requires some time commitment. But for those companies that are interested in participating in the international conversation, there are many other excellent opportunities, through chambers of commerce, government initiatives and industry groups.
At the same time, the World Economic Forum is actively trying to engage more Canadian companies, as exemplified by its plan to host an event in Toronto in April.
The Prime Minister's decision to attend Davos with several of his top ministers is both a significant break from the past and recognition that the country must reverse isolationist tendencies to succeed tomorrow. Businesses would be well served to follow his lead.