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Reflections on Davos: Who solves ‘wicked problems’?

Davos 2020
World Economic Forum/Pascal Bitz
Impressions from the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, on Jan. 17.

This was my first year at the Digital Life Design Conference in Munich and the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The back-to-back events were well in sync as the theme for the Digital Life event was "What are you adding?" and for the Davos gathering, "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World."

Not only were the themes largely connected, but I was off to both conferences with an assignment to "do good things," given to me by my wife on the way out the door. 

The design conference in Germany was about the digital world we live in and challenges in the digital transformation of society, along with environmental issues such as climate change and loss of biodiversity — with a splash of a water discussion from J. Carl Ganter (founder of Circle of Blue which reports on global water issues).

The attendees and presentations were diverse and inspiring (in particular, from social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, economist Jeremy R. Rifkin, inventor Bill Gross and digital inclusion and policy expert Clara Barnett). I left the conference with a deeper appreciation of the social dimensions such as the workforce capacity for adopting digital technologies or ethical issues with artificial intelligence and the process of innovation. 

For example, idea lab's Gross presented how it builds successful startups and scales them. Scaling innovative tech startups is an ongoing challenge in the water sector. There is no shortage of global water tech hubs and accelerators, but few entrepreneurial concerns coming out of them become successful companies. I learned about different innovation models and programs that have the potential to increase the success rate for water tech startups.

The attendees and presentations were diverse, but the most compelling aspect of the event was the call to action, "What are you adding?" It was a brilliantly simple question to start 2020, to make the transition to Davos and to answer the headline question of this article: Who solves "wicked problems"?

The Davos theme of "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World" dominated my conversations with friends, colleagues and new acquaintances at the event. Who are the stakeholders that can create a sustainable world? The question is critical and timely, as the WEF Global Risk Report 2020 (PDF) was released just prior to Davos.

Once again, the water crisis was ranked among the Top 5 global risks (it was the fifth top risk in terms of societal impact). While it is important that the water crisis was called out once again, it does raise the question: How many years as one of WEFs biggest global risks will it be before the world starts valuing water?

The call to action at the Digital Life conference, the WEF Global Risk Report and the question of "when do we value water?" will shape how I spend my time in 2020 on high-value, high-impact activities to truly make progress in solving water challenges.

The WEF articles, "3 actions business leaders can take to help solve our water crisis" and "Look to cities, not nation-states, to solve our biggest challenges" as well as scholar Yuval Harari's "Blistering Warning to Davos," also made a lasting impact.

I highlight these two articles and the presentation as they get to the heart of the question: Who solves wicked problems?

The WEF article on business and water frames what the private sector can do to solve the wicked problem of water. The actions cited include aligned action (similar to collective action) where businesses work collaboratively with other stakeholders, including the public sector, to solve water challenges.

The second WEF article correctly (in my opinion) acknowledges that, in general, the public sector has failed to solve global challenges such as climate change and water ("The myth of day zero: what we got wrong with water") but does acknowledge that cities have the blend of scale and speed to implement solutions to solve climate and water challenges. For example, the city of Los Angeles’ ambition to recycle 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035 (Mayor Eric Garcetti's water goal) is impressive.

Finally, Harari (historian and author of "Sapiens" and "21 Lessons for the 21st Century") concisely articulates the three existential threats to humanity: nuclear war; ecological collapse; and technological disruption. He declared: "We should focus on them." This was a clear call to action.

My sentiment coming away from the events is that the public sector or the private sector alone will not solve a wicked problem such as water. The public sector has not demonstrated the will or capacity to solve water, and it is not the role of the private sector to replace the public sector. Rather, all of us collectively are needed to solve the goal of creating clean water and sanitation for far more of the world’s population.

So, when we ask ourselves, "Who solves wicked problems?" the answer is us. Let’s do good things this year.