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New Vision for Agriculture: 10 Years with the World Economic Forum

The Value Web has finally returned home from Davos and other related activity in Switzerland – at once able to decompress and soak in the events that have taken place over the past two weeks, and at the same time about to embark on a number of exciting long term engagements with new and old friends alike.

In reflecting a bit on Davos I was struck by how incredibly different the tone of this years meeting was. Of course, last year the theme of the event was “Shaping the Post-Crisis World,” and from my (limited) perspective, the conversations I saw occurring between people and in our sessions were fundamentally reactionary, which, although entirely human and predictable, was not what i was hoping or expecting to see. I had come up the mountain expecting and hoping for some heroic feats of bravery from our “global leaders.” I expected them to all arrive at some common understanding that yes, we need to start thinking/behaving/sensing/feeling/speaking/asking differently. I was looking for a collective moment of “aha!” and so left Davos in 2009 feeling disheartened because I didn’t see or sense that this was occurring, and even left feeling as though it wasn’t possible. On my way down the mountain this year I found the beginning of a journal entry that I never finished (from last year) – it reads, “Heading down the mountain after a week and half in Davos with a full plate to ruminate over. Have a feeling of remorse, having realized that “those in charge” are not aware, or at least not responding to, the call for change. There is certainly something in the air. There is a feeling of being on a precipice. It seems that something colossal is about to fall and/or fall upon us…” It ends there. I recall feeling so dejected and exhausted that I couldn’t bring myself to continue.  I left Davos fearful about our collective future. I saw and felt a lot of activity that was very reminiscent of the “old way,” of people either retreating into themselves, their companies, their countries, their old ways of doing things, and not a lot of people breaking forth into uncharted territory – I didn’t get the sense that there was a lot of testing, experimenting, questioning, exploring, nor that there was much appetite for this. At the end of the day, people were clutching their wallets and their seats of power, as all existing structures revealed themselves to be more precarious than we had previously collectively imagined.

In the months after Davos, I spent my free time (limited as it was) reading, collecting stories, trying to crawl out of the dark pessimistic cave I had found myself in after January. What I found, and what I continue to find, are communities and inidividuals and organizations that are doing what I had hoped our “global leaders” would do. In the past year I have mustered more hope and joy for our future than I previously could have imagined possible. I see everywhere I look that people are in fact changing the way they exist in and for the world, that people are really beginning to ask the important questions with louder and louder voices. I see the emergence of more and more forums specifically related to supporting and enabling changemakers, and events and communities are springing up around systems thinking, design thinking, social innovation, social entrepreneurship. These elements have long existed, but this year they seem to be gaining some footing in the collective psyche. The zeitgeist is changing – and it’s thrilling to watch and to participate in the ongoing paradigm shift.

We are in the throes, it seems, of a fundamental shift in power, or at minimum there are indicators that this shift is fast approaching (if not fully here yet). Direction and leadership are emerging from the soil, and many staid structures are becoming unsteady. The Young Global Leaders, one of the communities of the World Economic Forum, are helping to sew seeds, to till the land and at the same time are inviting those who are being ‘uprooted’ to participate in the planting of a new garden. It seems that we are entering into a phase of creative destruction and of more robust, holistic  systems-oriented planning/creation. It seems that we are moving towards a more inclusive and open system, one built on trust and guided by intent…That’s what I hope, at least. As with any sea change, there is potential for this to end very badly – but I am hopeful that we will/can design our future together, in a transparent and inclusive fashion. If the design process is inclusive and intent/impact driven, then I think we’ll be in good shape.

One big remaining question, aside from the how, is one of speed: will our movement forward be fast enough? The looming forecasts of population growth (predicted 50% growth by 2050), water and food shortage, increasing religious and ethnic tensions, depletion of natural resources, etc… – all exacerbated by climate change –  don’t bode well. The scale of our current and future challenges is immense. In the closing plenary at Davos this year Ackerman stated, “The challenges of the future are greater than the failures of the past.” This resonated with me, as I considered the chain of events that could follow from relocating a population from Bangladesh, for example. The implications of ‘climate refugees’ is staggering – but I’m likely preaching to the converted here, so I’ll not bother expounding on the looming climate crisis in this post. Point being – we need to accelerate our movement forward – end of story. I am very grateful to be part of  a network of individuals and organizations that are good at doing precisely this – accelerating the emergence of “GroupGenius” and ideas to action. I have a feeling that we are going to get very busy, very soon…

So (returning to the topic of Davos 2010), after a year of learning and exploring and sensing real change, I went to Davos this year with very different expectations. In fact – I didn’t have any expectations – but was much more interested in how much the collective thinking of this participant base had shifted. I was curious to see if the reactionary tendencies would still outweigh the voices pushing for a future redesigned. It was very interesting to see that the theme of this year was “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild.” In light of the work the Forum has been doing over the past year with their Global Redesign Initiative, this seemed like an appropriate title for this years Davos. I was curious to see, however, how many people actually took these directive words to heart. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. The following is what I really took away from this year…to many it will seem obvious – and to many participants involved in Davos this understanding has been with them for many years – the beauty about this years meeting is that there seemed to be a collective understanding of the complexity and maybe even general direction of the path forward. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s in fact huge. To have as diverse a group as this collectively agree (albeint informally) on something is a big step – then again so is acting on that collective understanding. This is where we seem to be treading water…moving from the understanding into the action, meanwhile building in many recursive loops in order that we emerge with more robust solutions.

So – the big push forward is looking to be around convergence – Everyone knows that new models of partnership are key, but not enough people/organizations/governments are taking bold enough steps forward in regards to the “how.” We need to share examples of success stories, and share learnings and knowledge of how to build these partnerships, and how to ensure that they are built on solid foundations. Impact and intent seem to be emerging as powerful motivating forces in the world of government, business and of course civil society (you’d like to think this was and has always been the case, but unfortunately not in all sectors). There is finally more conversation about the social impact of our decisions, and more conversation about decision making, governance, stakeholders v shareholders and inclusion. There was a much stronger emphasis this year on the balance of the system – again – this may seem obvious, but it marks what I hope will be a very radical shift in the way we collectively move forward. The ideas that are finally being pulled to the surface have been waiting for a long time on the sidelines, trying to eek their way into the mainstream. Here’s hoping that we can grab these ideas with both hand and pull them along and push them forward.

As a quick note – the image above was printed in the Times of London. The image is of Alicia Bramlett, a member of The Value Web, who was capturing one of the closing plenaries of the Global Redesign Initiative.

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