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Time for Leaders to Act on Social Issues

Sustainability and social issues take center stage at Davos

All around Davos at this year's Annual Meeting, there is a noticeable uptick in discussions around social issues and the importance of public-private partnership. Both inside the Congress Centre and outside on the promenade, there have been sessions daily, if not hourly, on issues ranging from climate change, diversity and inclusion, to the role of tech in health and education. Davos participants have been wearing pins with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) logo and most of the corporate lounges have the word "sustainable" somewhere on their banners. The World Food Program tent and Female Quotient's Equality Lounge have been bustling and can easily match the popularity of private cocktail parties in the evenings.

The World Economic Forum's Loft this year featured a unique set of sessions under the title "We need to talk about..." and hosted discussions on immigration, harassment, LGBTQ inclusion, race, religion, mental health and most notably social privilege. There is no denying that momentum is building, showing social issues are no longer peripheral but are front and center of the global agenda. There is also a palpable force shaking leaders to wake up from their echo chambers and pay attention. Along with all 7 women co-chairs of this year’s Annual Meeting, NGOs, artists and social entrepreneurs have been reminding leaders about the importance of partnership and dialogue for the world to avert catastrophic challenges ahead.

Some of the key messages include:
Environmental sustainability is featured prominently this year. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018 stated that some of the top risks in the next decade are environmental: extreme weather conditions, natural disasters and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation. There has been a lot of soul searching by companies, governments and international organizations about how can the world move forward with the Paris agreement. Other concerns include greenhouse gas emissions reduction, renewable energy, plastics pollution in the ocean and the role of circular economy in global supply chains and production.

Inequality and inclusion are also the talk of town but not every CEO feels comfortable providing solutions just yet. To kick start the Annual Meeting this year, Oxfam published a report that stated 82% of wealth created last year went to the richest 1% and that 42 people today own the same wealth as the poorest half of the rest of the world. The divide between haves and have nots has triggered a debate amongst Davos participants on how to bridge income inequality. Gender diversity and LGBTQ inclusion have also been top of mind in many discussions.

Education, healthcare, migration have received a lot of attention in terms of how technology can promote affordable and accessible healthcare and education. However, there are also worries about the impact of AI, robotics, blockchain on job displacement and social media's effect on mental health. On education, activist Malala Yousafzai has been featured talking about the link between education and empowerment for girls and poverty reduction, while Alibaba's Jack Ma said this morning that "Everything we teach should be different from machines."Bill Gates was on a panel debating how to provide quality healthcare, and there were sessions on a range of health topics such as precision healthcare, genomics and pandemics. The Open Forum featured a session on the causes and solutions to depression, a worldwide epidemic affecting more than 320 million people worldwide. Refugee issues, human rights and immigration have also been highlighted in the agenda, and Crossroads Foundation hosted a real time simulation of what it is like to live like a refugee. CEOs have been walking out of the simulation with tears in their eyes.

In all of these discussions, everyone is clear that talk is not enough. Business leaders need to act:

Taking a stance on social issues: rather than avoiding difficult issues, business leaders now need to take a clear stance on social issues that were once considered controversial and taboo. By creating change from within their organizations, they can drive wider social change.

Promoting sustainable development goals: how can investments and technology be leveraged by business leaders to promote the sustainable development goals and create tangible impact on social and environmental challenges.

Creating an open dialogue: how can companies, governments and civil society continue to create public-private partnerships that raise awareness about these issues and more importantly tackle them head on with concrete changes.

With this year’s theme of Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World, there is an overwhelming sense that political and business leaders are committed to make the aspiration a reality. It is time to act.