Having grown up in the hot Australian weather 15,000km from Europe, the prospect of packing up snow boots & thermals and descending upon a white, icicle-clad Alpine town along with the world’s elite policy makers for a week never seemed to cross my mind. Understandably, I would argue.

But the communications industry has a wonderful – albeit unpredictable – habit of presenting you with situations you typically didn’t expect in life, and so in late January 2020 I found myself standing adjacent to a line of security guards as an army of vehicles chaperoned Donald Trump through the tiny town of Davos, Switzerland. I was at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

Before you picture me chatting sustainability with Greta (first name basis, of course) and casually asking Prince Charles how the family are doing post Megxit (could we not call it Hexit?), it’s important to mention that whilst I required three separate badges to simply walk up the main Promenade, the ‘outer fringes’ of the Forum were my stomping ground for the week. My three badges limited me to activities organized outside of the main WEF program, often by businesses or brands as a way to engage with the 3,000 odd attendees, many of whom like me, were living life on the edge.

For those of you who are just being introduced to the Forum, the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos is the “foremost creative force for engaging the world’s top leaders in collaborative activities to shape the global, regional and industry agendas at the beginning of each year”. This year’s theme, Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World, focused on the concept of stakeholder capitalism, delivering value not just to shareholders, but to all stakeholders.

Seven official themes were announced ahead of the Forum, ranging from ‘tech for good’, to ‘beyond geopolitics’, to ‘fairer economies’, but Davos 2020 was undoubtedly dominated by two key topics: Environment & Sustainability and Gender Equality & Diversity. As guardians for some of the world’s leading ‘business for purpose’ brands, we must take notice.

Environment & Sustainability

“Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour”

Greta Thunberg, Davos 2020

Climate change reigned supreme in this year’s discussions amidst a range of rising global environmental concerns. Whilst Environment & Sustainably has long been on the WEF agenda, this year was a whole new ball game, which I would attribute in part to Greta Thunberg and her relentless campaigning, and in part due to global visibility of climate-linked crises such as the ongoing wildfires in my homeland, Australia.

For the first time, youth environmental activists led discussions around climate change, and in line with previous years, companies sought to prove commitment to CSR with bold sustainability commitments to reduce environmental impact.

Take Microsoft as an example. In a strategically timed announcement just days before WEF2020 kicked-off, Microsoft unveiled its intention to become a “carbon negative” company—one that pulls more climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it puts in—by 2030.​ And, by 2050, it plans to remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. The news drew widespread attention and praise for the technology giant, with many outlets declaring that Microsoft had “set a new ambition among Fortune 500 companies”. ​

Gender Equality & Diversity

“[Female] representation [at the Forum] is creeping up … but clearly among the women there's a sense of urgency that this shouldn't be the way it is, that we need to aspire to 40% [female attendance], and go on to 50%”

Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Davos 2020

Girls, women, and gender equality — particularly pay and income equity, the need to get more women into leadership, or how gender equality drives sustainable development — while not prominent on the formal agenda, organically grew over the five days in Davos to become a key conversation coming out of the Forum. Rightly so.

Despite the fact that an array of companies introduced new programs and commitments related to diversity and inclusion, with a particular emphasis on gender equality, women only made up 24% of attendees at the Forum.

Despite a lack of representation on the main stage, on the ‘outer fringe’, panels, sessions and discussions around gender equality were numerous, and there was some fantastic brand activation around gender parity. P&G’s Check Your Blind Spots exhibit on the main Promenade was an eye-opening pop-up which revealed to visitors their own personal ‘blind spots’ that limit effectiveness on gender equality, offering simple solutions to help close the gender pay gap.

And, in a promising win for women on the global stage, the World Economic Forum has committed to doubling the percentage of women participants at Davos by 2030.

Separately, but no less importantly, in the wider diversity and inclusion space Accenture, Deutsche Bank, EY, Mastercard, Microsoft, Omnicom and Salesforce, in collaboration with the WEF, launched the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality to accelerate LGBTI workplace inclusion globally. Members of the Partnership committed to operating in accordance with the UN’s LGBTI Standards of Conduct worldwide by 2020. The Partnership plans to enlist at least 50 other member companies by 2020.

The Wider WEF Conversation

Beyond the walls of these two critical themes, there was a concentration of conversation around The Future of Work, Digital Governance, Global Economy & Better Business – all of which have the potential to heavily impact the way we work as communicators.

Future of work: A focus on rising automation and the ‘new skills’ that will see us through an uncertain future. The Forum launched what it calls the Reskilling Revolution, an initiative to provide one billion people with better education, skills and jobs by 2030.

Digital Governance: A focus on the digital media revolution, contending that whilst it has been transformative, it also has a negative side. All stakeholders must collaborate to build a supply chain that is good for both customers and business.

Global Economy: Wide-ranging views from Trump who declared that the US economy is ‘absolutely fine’, to a long term (10 year) risk outlook that listed amongst other things, climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, information infrastructure breakdown and infectious diseases as the things we should watch out for in successfully navigating our global economy.

Better Business: A focus on seeking ways to ensure business is striving to improve, and not destroy, the environment and people’s well-being. Business leaders discussed the work that the Big Four accountancy firms are undertaking to create a framework of metrics that define a way to measure companies’ performance in meeting social and environmental goals – a way for companies to judge themselves, and each other, on their performance in creating ‘stakeholder value’.

In previous years images coming out of The World Economic Forum were dominated by men in suits and elite circles of leaders in backroom briefings. This year, we see images of a 17-year old woman advocating for the future of our planet through sustainable action, and some of the world’s biggest brands standing shoulder to shoulder with their direct competitors having formed coalitions in a bid to see tangible results through cohesive action.

If Davos 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that despite an unsettled geopolitical landscape, there are plenty of passionate people & brands out there willing to collaborate to drive positive change. And importantly, they are often engaging people on the sidelines – the ‘outer fringe’ – just as much as those in the main arena.

That, and how taking a tumble on slippery Swiss ice can cause one colorful bruise.