WEF strategy meeting seeks to use SDGs as a roadmap to purpose

By Catherine Cheney 09 June 2017

A panel during the annual Industry Strategy Meeting. Photo by: Stephen Porter Productions

At its annual Industry Strategy Meeting this week, the World Economic Forum encouraged chief strategy officers from across the United States and around the world to pioneer new models of responsible capitalism.

The executives gathered in Silicon Valley, home of the new WEF Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, for meetings that spanned topics such as artificial intelligence, autonomous transportation and digital finance.

WEF says it works with stakeholders who are “committed to improving the state of the world” and the organization often points to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for action. The 17 goals offer a roadmap to companies that might otherwise have a hard time eliminating the perceived tradeoffs between profit and purpose, as cited in the World Economic Forum’s Compact for Responsive and Responsible Leadership, which WEF launched at the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year.

“The fast pace of science, technology and digital developments is affecting the operating and business models of all industries,” said Sarita Nayyar, managing director at WEF, in remarks opening the event, which built on three past industry strategy meetings, and focused on the theme: “Creating Value in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The Responsive and Responsible Business session at the World Economic Forum’s Industry Strategy Meeting in San Francisco.

Following the opening panel Wednesday, the group of 300 chief strategy officers divided into smaller industry breakout sessions on topics including global health and health care, energy and materials, and infrastructure and urban development.

"You cannot possibly understand the future of your own industry without looking at adjacent industries,” Amy Webb, chief executive officer and founder of the Future Today Institute, said. “Look outside your industry at adjacent industries and movements of trends in areas that touch upon your own.”

WEF also organized opportunities for chief strategy officers to learn from their counterparts in other industries, which several panelists emphasized as the reason a forum like this is so critical.  

“How do we get to a place where we improve the do-to-talk ratio?” Cheryl Martin, head of industries at WEF, said of one of the goals of the industry strategy meetings.

Devex moderated a session Thursday on responsive and responsible business, where leaders from the transportation company Lyft, as well as financial services companies UBS and MasterCard shared actionable insights for an audience of chief strategy officers.

Inequity persists when people live in bubbles, said Hal Gregersen, a leadership expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He shared insights from his recent paper “Bursting the CEO Bubble” on ways senior executives can break free of isolation and make real change. His call to action for the room was for everyone to ask themselves when the last time was that they spent time with someone different from them, who asked a question that made them awkwardly uncomfortable.

“If it doesn’t happen once a week, capitalism has failed,” he said. “I don’t want that. That’s a hopeless world.”

The panelists discussed the benefits and limits of frameworks like the SDGs to promote this shift toward responsive and responsible business.

“The 17 goals basically cover everything that’s good out there probably, so you could hit it if you throw a stone in the right direction which is great, but the point is that’s not enough,” said Raj Kapoor, chief strategy officer at Lyft.

He was also the first investor in the company, an investment he said he made because he wanted to see the private sector do more on climate change. But most of the world does not care about these goals, he said, explaining that companies need to provide their customers with value, and ideally they can benefit the world in doing so.

“If it were only those goals, the consumer really wouldn’t care,” he said. “What caused this industry to take off was a breakthrough in price and a breakthrough in experience."

Services such as Uber and Lyft were a major improvement on the alternative, which was the taxi, he said.

“If you're trying to fix something that's not broken and add SDGs on top, good luck,” he said.

WEF’s Compact for Responsive and Responsible Leadership now has 130 signatories, and the team at WEF is interested in getting more companies to sign the compact. Ahead of Davos 2018, the organization is working on a way to quantitatively measure the impact of this shift toward long-term thinking and inclusive leadership. WEF is mobilizing business leaders around the SDGs at a time of growing recognition that reaching these ambitious targets will require blended capital from public and private sector sources.

Over 10 weeks Devex and our partners will take an in-depth look at the innovative financing mechanisms driving forward the 2030 sustainable development agenda. We’ll explore how the funding gap can be filled, ask how cross-sector collaboration can lead to improved global health care, and look at what it takes to build successful partnerships for change. Join us as we examine the innovative financing powering the Global Goals by tagging #Going4Goals and @devex.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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