Two Big Themes from This Year’s World Economic Forum

By Imran Sayeed |  March 1, 2021

One of the highlights of January for me is the annual trek to Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of world leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists. 

It’s an opportunity to discuss solutions to the world’s most pressing problems — and it usually affords attendees the chance to meet some incredible people totally serendipitously. Two years ago, I helped a gentlemen pick up his glasses from the snowy sidewalk; it turned out to be the Prime Minster of Belgium. We subsequently had a fascinating discussion about the role of innovation in government.

Imran Sayeed at a WEF party in pre-COVID times. In the background, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

This year’s forum, held online due to the COVID pandemic, didn’t provide any such opportunities. However, I was able to attend many more panels and participate in a much broader set of discussions, primarily because I wasn’t busy staying out late at one of the many WEF parties! (Some of my photos from past in-person WEF gatherings accompany this piece…and then you can see what 2021 looked like at the bottom.)

While the pandemic and its repercussions permeated almost every discussion, the overarching theme of the conference this year was the need to focus on people and planet, not just profits, to create a better future. The viewpoint of WEF is that the pandemic highlighted the economic and health disparities between the skilled and unskilled workforce, and is giving us a preview of an even bigger crisis if we don’t focus on sustainability. This coincides with the release of the book Stakeholder Capitalism by Klaus Schwab, the founder of WEF, on January 6, which makes the same argument, primarily directed at large corporations and their boards.

In the past, the World Economic Forum has been criticized as a conclave of “rich people feeling good by telling each other how concerned they are about the world.” This time, they’ve created actual platforms to try to effect change.

In the past, when WEF was primarily a forum for discussion, it has been criticized as a conclave of “rich people feeling good by telling each other how concerned they are about the world.” This time, they’ve created actual platforms to try to effect change: Uplink to foster innovative grassroots-led solutions for sustainability, and The Reskilling Revolution to facilitate upskilling and reskilling from childhood until old age. The underlying theme of both platforms is to use innovative technology, processes, and business models to move the needle on both sustainability and reskilling.

Key Messages on Sustainability

On the sustainability front, the key messages at WEF were:

  1. Profit through sustainability, not profit versus sustainability. Several leaders gave examples of this, including the President of Xiaomi, the world’s third largest smartphone maker, who said they saved money by reducing the plastic packaging in their phones by 60 percent. There was also a big emphasis on measuring and monitoring sustainability, with the CEO of Bank of America unveiling 21 metrics to track these goals. Sixty-one Fortune 500 companies committed to using and reporting these metrics.
  2. The need for innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to sustainability. The CEO of Blackrock said it’s going to take $50 trillion to get to a carbon-neutral world, creating many opportunities to create new products and services. Similarly, the head of the UN Development Program said that 30 to 40 percent of everything we grow is wasted. There’s a need for better approaches to food management. To facilitate this, Uplink — a crowdsourced innovation platform developed jointly between WEF, Salesforce, Deloitte, and LinkedIn — has already gotten 10,000 people working on 900 different solutions. The top 50 were highlighted at the conference. To get involved, visit Uplink.

Key Messages on Reskilling

Sayeed chatting with CNN host Fareed Zakaria at a pre-COVID edition of WEF.

On reskilling, the key messages were:

  1. The need for action now. So far, 225 million full-time jobs were lost during the pandemic, mostly by low-skilled and unskilled workers. Once crisis-induced, government-sponsored income support programs wind down, that number will skyrocket unless reskilling becomes a priority. 
  2. Effective and sustainable solutions involve individual, corporate, and government interventions. The CEO of Infosys has made their technology reskilling platform with 1200 courses available to half a million of their workers (as well as their clients’ employees), along with one million students. But the CEO of Adecco said it’s up to the individual to take the initiative to use these platforms. Both the Director General of the International Labor Organization and the Minister of Manpower for Singapore said that governments can facilitate this. Solutions include tax incentives to encourage reskilling over layoffs, and working with key industries to map out skills needed in the next five years. They cited the example of former bank tellers in Singapore who were retrained in digital marketing and successfully re-employed.
  3. We need innovative approaches to reskilling. Without new solutions, unemployment figures will be far too large, especially as more industries are disrupted and automated. The CEO of LinkedIn said that 71 percent of the skills for customer service support are easily attainable by a food industry worker. Similarly, 47 percent of a bartender’s skills are useful in a sales role. So we need to focus on skills and their transferability, not jobs. The CEO of Pymetrics has created a new talent-matching platform that measures an employee’s potential, not pedigree, which she said has been shown to be a far better measure of long-term success. Finally, The Reskilling Revolution platform by WEF has opportunities for educators, chief learning officers, and governments to get involved with creating innovative solutions. Through its efforts in 10 countries, it has already reached 50 million people in the last year. 

The day a company reports its quarterly numbers where it just meets profit targets, but exceeds its sustainability targets, and the stock price still goes up, that’s when I feel we’ll have turned a corner.


A 2021 WEF session on the Reskilling Revolution

While I was personally encouraged by the multitude of world and corporate leaders who are committed to sustainability and reskilling, much still remains to be done. On the sustainability front, the day a company reports its quarterly numbers where it just meets profit targets, but exceeds its sustainability targets, and the stock price still goes up, that’s when I feel we’ll have turned a corner. And on reskilling, I see far too many corporate leaders talk on panels. In reality, their companies are still offering early buyouts and outsourcing work to consultants, because it’s easier and cheaper to rehire or outsource rather than retrain and reskill.

I wholeheartedly believe that we need more innovative approaches, and more authentic commitment, to these issues — because the current system is moving too slowly to affect real change. This is where the corporate innovation leaders in our community need to step up and encourage their employees to get involved. We need them not just to focus on creating profits but also on creating a better world!


Imran Sayeed is Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management; Co-Founder of Teach the World Foundation; a board member at Dawood Hercules Corp.; and Former Chief Technology Officer, NTT Data.