Transitioning from spectator to participant at Davos meeting


Special To The Japan Times

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is underway in Davos-Klosters in Switzerland from Jan. 21. The theme of this year’s meeting is “The New Global Context” for decision making.

This meeting serves as a window to the world for 2015 as many speeches are given by the heads of states and plenary sessions are held where global leaders across business, government, international organizations, academia and society discuss and debate current issues in the face of profound political, economic, social and technological transformations. It is an exceptional opportunity for many leaders to gather in a secluded ski resort in Switzerland for five days and set the world’s agenda for the coming year.

With webcasts now available for many of the speeches and major plenary sessions, we can follow the discussions no matter where we are. With social media updating the events in real time, we can get a glimpse of diverse views from different stakeholder groups, despite participation in the meetings being exclusive and limited.

However, if we consider the meeting only as a window to the world to understand global trends and political and economic outlook, we only get half of the benefit it offers. This is because some of the more exciting aspects of the meeting are, in my view, brainstorming sessions where participants generate and share new ideas; private meetings for industry participants on relevant topics; and bilateral meetings where policy makers and business leaders negotiate deals. In other words, the true benefit of the meeting emerges when people become participants and engage in the debates, discussions and problem-solving activities.

Rather than remaining spectators just observing the discussions, we need to make the meeting relevant to each one of us. However, from my experience of having participated in the annual meeting and other forum events, many participants from Japan have been rather reluctant to engage in discussions — except for those sessions focusing on Japan — and tend to remain spectators.

How can we make the annual meeting more relevant to us and make the most of this exceptional opportunity? It is precisely for this purpose that I started two initiatives; the Global Agenda Seminar series (GAS) and the Davos Experience in Tokyo series (DEX).

I began the GAS in 2010 to provide opportunities to:

• Expose young (including the young at heart) people to the global agenda identified and discussed at the forum by navigating through the enormous volume of knowledge assets of the forum,

• Introduce young leaders from international organizations by inviting them as guest speakers and

• Allow participants to try “forum style” interactive sessions by offering low-risk opportunities to discuss and debate relevant issues while brainstorming to develop solutions to issues in English.

For example, at the GAS 2014 in December, we gave the following situation:

“Suppose we hold a follow-up session on “Abenomics” at Davos in January 2015, and four groups will present proposals to support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of encouraging entrepreneurship and of increasing startups in Japan to revitalize the economy.” The four groups we selected were the education ministry, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, MIT Media Lab, which offered support, and Women Corporate Directors, a group interested in promoting female entrepreneurs in Japan.

Participants were to assume the role of one of the four organizations and present their recommendations. By taking a specific role in a fairly realistic situation, participants experienced what it would be like to participate in an actual Davos meeting. Through this exercise, participants learned the importance of understanding the context of the annual meeting and the need for the unique solutions expected by the audience.

The DEX began in 2013 right after the Davos meeting. The series was started to:

• Offer casual and informal opportunities for young people to discuss global topics of interest raised at forum events,

Provide easy participation, by holding it every month,

Develop logical thinking, discussion skills and storytelling through repeated practice of debate, role-play and other activities in English,

Offer networking opportunities after the sessions so participants can get to know people from different fields and

Introduce some emerging issues.

The key concepts of the DEX are “learning by individuals doing,” “practicing in small groups” and “sharing with all.” I decided to focus on them as I find many Japanese do not feel comfortable discussing issues in English, though English has become a de facto global standard and it is an absolute must today. We experiment with the format often used at the forum and other places, such as brainstorming in breakout groups and reporting back, debating, role-playing and simulating in small groups, allowing participants opportunities to try what is used elsewhere. Participants find it easy to engage and are encouraged to take part in a low-risk environment.

Topics we discussed over the past two years include “Innovation and Employment,” “Leadership in the 21st Century,” “The Role of Business,” “Technology and Education,” “Solving Aging through Technology,” “Work-Life balance,” “Abenomics and the Perception of the Country,” “Big Data,” “Bitcoins” and others based on themes discussed at forum events.

We have also recently began collaborating with some companies. For example, Google helped us discuss big data and Benesse worked with us when we discussed new business models for elderly care using technology. By holding the sessions at the companies we tried to address issues of interest to the sponsoring companies to develop creative and innovative solutions.

At our session in December, we asked participants to pick the most important issue for 2015, from the list of items in the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, including Top 10 trends and Future agendas. In a way, we made them respondents to a survey on the outlook. The issue they selected for 2015 was the “Future of Work.” In addition to selecting the issue, we asked them to brainstorm on how to address it. One of the group’s main ideas was to set up a virtual company for large corporations that have had difficulty innovating, as well as for companies that had suffered recent scandals. The key concept of designing the virtual company was to personalize the “work” to meet individual needs, because it is what participants wanted for their future work. Other ideas included creating applications so that IT is used more for farming on a global scale.

The general consensus of the groups were that traditional systems and processes of employment and jobs such as lifetime employment and full-time jobs are disappearing quickly; individual and personalized career plans are emerging; and inventorying one’s skills, self-branding and constant learning are critical.

As I serve as a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs and we are conducting surveys of multinational companies and organizations to identify the present status of jobs, drivers for change and adaptive strategies, this is right on target as one of the hottest issues in the world.

What is encouraging for me is there seems to be synergy between the two series. The base of those interested in participating is expanding as we have some 500 participants of the DEX cumulatively and about 200 alumni from the GAS.

People have a choice; they can view the annual meeting as a window to the world and remain spectators. Or they can be players, expressing views, sharing and collaborating with others and working to create a better world. New games to shape the world are open to all of us, regardless of age, gender, nationality or background. Are people ready to play?

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University. After working for McKinsey and Co. Japan and teaching at universities in Japan, she is currently an independent consultant in the area of global strategy and global talent, serving as non-executive director for Nissin Foods Holdings Co., Lifenet Insurance Co. and Sojitz Corp.

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