The tone shifted in subtle but perceptible ways on the Forum’s second day, albeit with significant continuities in both agenda and preoccupations. Innovation and change, business models, impact, and entrepreneurship were the dominant focus and the “can do” energy that we associate with entrepreneurship ran through all four panel discussions (also in side conversations). One rhetorical and somewhat disdainful comment summed up an aspect of the spirit: “do you want reports or results?” The underlying assumption was that private enterprise offers paths to solutions on topics ranging from medical diagnostics to an “alimentation revolution” to mining community welfare. The power of technology and dynamics of change inspired references to revolutions and paradigm shifts. But the basic underlying theme or challenge was a clear recognition that no group: private sector, religious communities, NGOs, governments, and international organizations, can navigate contemporary challenges and change without the others.
Themes linking the two days included sustainability (a topic that came up again and again), the perils of silos, the centrality of partnerships, and challenges of working across sectors and, notably, with governments and international institutions. Faith was a word used often, though with differing significance, ranging from more classic religious faith (I reread Luke and refocused my work) to the personal drive and belief in self and goals that underpinned some of the successful cases we learned about. There were reminders of the framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and of the miseries of refugees, child abuse, and debt bondage. But overall the tone was optimistic: with drive and discipline problems can be overcome, especially if they are tackled one by one and from the ground up. There was remarkably little reference to policy, though bad governance lurked not far under the surface, as did the specter of bad leadership.
As on the previous day, the Forum focused on people, exploring motivations and the nature and meaning of leadership. Story after story offered insight and inspiration. A recurring narrative was how successful entrepreneurs decided mid-career to shift careers, moving from a company setting to independent and socially focused activities and thus bringing a variety of skills and motivation to their missions.
We heard many stories of success that suggested models, and, if a meetings success can be measured by personal engagement and “handshakes”, exchanges of visiting cards, intense side conversations, and probing questions suggested that the Forum’s goal of spurring action was well achieved.
As examples here are some memorable themes and assertions that caught my attention:
- CSR (corporate social responsibility), signifying, it seems, rather cosmetic “do good” efforts by companies, has little to offer today. What is sought, and what is possible, are corporate cultures and values that encourage innovation and action, in ways that are at least compatible with the SDGs if not explicitly inspired by them. Such cultures offer “win win” solutions, where employees are satisfied and good results are produced.
- There was some exploration of philanthropy and its pluses and minuses (spilling over from the previous day). There is the promise of encouraging innovation and bridging divides but there are pitfalls including nagging questions about representation and accountability.
- Corporate cultures often do not allow or encourage innovation. There was frustration alongside positive comments about working within private companies, large and small. The examples of Anglo American and Danone stood out on both dimensions.
- People in private enterprises (like other institutions, it must be confessed) actually enjoy working in silos and resist efforts to break them down. Cross discipline and sector collaboration is rarely easy.
- Partnerships again emerged as desirable, indeed critical. But many comments pointed to the real difficulties in making them work. United Nations institutions were described as remarkably, frustratingly difficult to work with. Several referred to the need for “on ramps” and for ways to work together in meaningful ways: “to whiteboard” (a new verb for my vocabulary).
- Those left behind, at “the end of the asphalt”, the voiceless, too often invisible need special attention. Abused children and forced migrants may be the best examples but there are many others.
- Context and community are essential. This was one theme that clearly cuts across silos. The capacity to ask unexpected, different questions is a healthy part of collaboration that marks meaningful cross disciplinary collaboration.
- “I love making money and I love helping the poor”: one participant summed up an ideal that links a commitment to faith values, a pragmatic realization of the limits of charity, and unease at programs, policies, and actions that encourage dependence on unreliable outside sources. There need be no contradiction, it was suggested, between being and doing good and entrepreneurship.
Honest discussions highlighted some real problems. At their root money or rather lack of it was cited often as a problem. There was reflection about competition, perhaps necessary and good for the discipline and creativity it can inspire but often the bane of true cooperation, solidarity, and pursuit of common goals. “Pathological suspicions” were described: one example cited was mining companies vis a vis religious communities.
Innovation is essential to overcome problems and to realize hopes for an equitable world, but how can it be encouraged? “Planned innovation”, it was suggested, is doomed to fail, including bureaucratic efforts to structure new ideas. Innovation, rather, like poetry perhaps, emerges often where least expected. A continuing challenge is to recognize the pearls of worthy new ideas, especially those that respond to real needs of real people, and free them of artificial, unconstructive bonds.
Scale is perhaps the greatest challenge: the wide diversity of experience shows what can be done but too often initiatives and projects stay beautiful but small. The overall needs demand trillions of dollars, and though we have faith that the resources are basically “there”, mobilizing them demands new models and approaches. The scale challenge cuts across all the efforts, from the most embryonic to those with global scale.
The day’s diverse concluding events pulled different strands together. A remarkable panel explored both the testing demands of leadership with story after story of courage and grit, as individuals rose above circumstances, learned from adversity and failures, and took on the challenges they saw. Individually and collectively they offered examples and inspiration. An enduring theme and comment was that the fire within us must withstand and exceed the fire outside. It left us with the feeling that indeed we can seize this Kairos moment as an opportunity as well as a demanding challenge.
In concluding, Jean-Francois reiterated his hope that health can bind, open doors, and inspire. His “mantra” is ethics, broken down to include example, tolerance, humility, focus on the individual, compassion, and always planting seeds. Also part of the conclusion, a reminder of the power of art to express and inspire was integrated into the discussion of leadership, suggesting the combination of inspiration, discipline, creativity, attention to others, and innate gifts and skills..[/su_box]
During dinner, three of the younger participants engaged UN Director Michael Moller in a conversation about paths towards the future. And Jean-Francois de Lavison and Setsuko Klossowska de Rola revealed the meaning of the Forum’s Japanese for the Forum: it denotes smiles, explained by what they see as the disarming power of a smile. This symbol echoes the common call to love, going beyond just compassion, caring more than tolerance, and a constant anchor to a practical vision of an ethics of action and partnership.