Submachine guns, social impact, and selfies: A trip to Davos.


Social Change

World Economic Forum

At about half past six in the morning, our shuttle bus was stopped at the security checkpoint between Tiefencastel and Davos by a man with a submachine gun. He explained that, as we were over the legal capacity, some of us would probably have to wait on the road side for the next shuttle.

This was alarming for a number of reasons.

First, as an Australian, I’m not really accustomed to seeing guns just out and about all the time. Every time I get off a plane in Europe and see police carrying machine-guns, it’s always a bit of a shock.

Second, as an Australian, I was not at all well dressed for the negative-three-degree cold and snow outside. The thought of having to wait in the dark in a measly suit, pea coat and scarf chilled me — quite literally — to the bone.

But then, this is Davos: security is tight.

And for good reason: in the words of Stephen Colbert, if Lex Luthor was going to point his Giant Space Laser at something, it’d probably be the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

The Annual Meeting is, for the uninitiated, a yearly gathering of world leaders, captains of industry, social activists, artists and social elite.

According to the World Economic Forum: “More than 3,000 leaders from over 100 countries came together to focus on finding ways to reaffirm international cooperation on crucial shared interests, such as the environment, the global economy and international security in the spirit of the theme of the 48th Annual Meeting, Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

Ask Me Anything About Davos

The Annual Meeting is a pretty amazing event to get invited to. So, to share some of the experience I asked on social media what people wanted to know. This is also a fairly easy way of me explaining the experience. So, you know, win-win.

How did you get invited to the Annual Meeting in Davos?

Good question! I’m a member of The World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community — a group of young people who form around city hubs all across the world and work to improve their local community through hub projects. Each year, the Forum selects fifty of the Global Shapers to bring to Davos.

Why me? Who knows. I joined the Global Shapers in February 2017 and knew very little about it beforehand. It might have been the years of work building social impact group SPUR: or they just liked my boyish charm.

The 2018 Davos 50: a bunch of true blue legends.

What sort of access did you actually get?

The Annual Meeting has many layers of access. Your access is determined by who you are — journalists, business partners, invited guests and so on - and your corresponding badge. World leaders obviously get the highest level of access.

It was pretty amazing that as the youth representatives brought by the Forum, we were still provided with the coveted ‘white badge’ and near-top level of access to events, sessions and people.

Indeed, not only did the Forum bring us along, house and feed us — but helped arrange sit downs with the likes of Jack Ma, Bill Gates and — my personal favourite session — P&G America CEO Carloyn Tastad.

There were very few places that we couldn’t go — and no actual moments that I recall that we were shooed away from something. Wearing the white badge also grants you a certain level of intrigue from other guests. A helpful tool to break proverbial ice.

I was able to sit in on sessions that ran the gamut from an interview with Sundar Pichai on artificial intelligence to a panel discussion on gender equality or a interactive session detailing the movements of armaments around the globe.

What’s the coolest thing you experienced that made you think -OMG IS THIS REAL LIFE?

On the last day of Davos, I had one major task to not mess up: join a panel on depression in global youth. I’d be sitting alongside the Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, Professor Suzanne Fortier, renowned brain and behavioural scientist Professor P. Morali Doraiswamy, Senior Partner at Mckinsey, Vivian Riefberg, and Olympic medallist and mental health commentator Ariella Kaslin.

Not bad for a university drop out like me, I suppose.

The headphones were to hear the translator. But also make me look a bit retro-punk.

To sit on such an esteemed panel, at Davos, wearing the icon of SPUR: was really quite moving. We’ve been toiling away on the SPUR: family since 2011, learning, tweaking and generating social impact in our chosen areas. So to be in such company, at a session co-curated by the local secondary school, was a moment of severe and heart-warming profundity.

Not bad for a largely self-funded organisation that was started in borrowed warehouse.

Yet, the real highlight came afterwards. A young man had been waiting around after the panel to chat. His name was Isaac, from the UK. Isaac explained that he’d been following our work in SPUR:PROJECTS for years and had been inspired — and that it was an honour to meet me. In fact, he’d even started doing his own projects in his community.


We often say how moments like this are humbling and that seems to suffice. And, quite rightly, it’s hard to put into words how something like that makes you feel. The closest I can get to explaining it is a feeling that what we’ve been trying to do is — remarkably — achieving something quite human and quite real.

We spend a lot of time looking at social impact metrics, both for our own projects and for clients. Hearing this, from such a wonderful young man on the other side of the world is a jab in the heart quite unlike anything else. Thank you, Isaac.

P.s. — you can watch the panel here.

What’s in the amazing bag that people keep going on about?

This thing?

It’s actually pretty great. It carried all my stuff for that week and came with a copy of Professor Schwabs’ The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a pen, a notebook and a map. Also, it’s in my colour.

I’m actually still carrying this around to meetings — partially because it’s a great bag and partially because I still wish I was in Switzerland.

Did you get the sense that meaningful action comes out of Davos?

I’ve been asked this a lot. And, you know what?

Yeah, I do.

First, a few refresher points about me:

  • I wasn’t really aware of the World Economic Forum until recently, so I’m not exactly a long time follower.
  • I am not a corporate sort of fellow — I will avoid wearing a suit at all costs most of the time.
  • I work in social impact — but in a fairly unique way. I’m co-founder of both a non-profit organisation and profit-for-purpose company.

You might think hanging out with some millionaires, billionaires, presidents, prime ministers and captains of industry isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I don’t have all that much of an interest in someone’s wealth or status — in fact the only selfies I took all week were with non-famous people.

But it’s important to note that mingling amongst the crowd are also ‘change-makers’, non-profit leaders, philanthropists, activists and artists.

And that’s the point. Case in point — I attended a breakfast panel, arranged by organisation external to the Forum, about preparing youth for an uncertain and exponential future. After noticing the only person on the panel who classified as ‘youth’ wasn’t being given much of a chance to speak, I voiced my concerns and ended up getting into a rather interesting debate with a gentlemen on the panel.

I later found out he’s the head of a number of UK companies, has a knighthood and has hundreds of millions of pounds.

The reality is that a small percentage of the world has the power to influence the vast majority. This man is one example. Where else would I — or others in my position — have the chance to challenge his ideas so intimately?

A group shot after sitting down with Carolyn Tastad from P&G to discuss gender equality initiatives.

To me, the Annual Meeting in Davos is largely just an excuse to get influential people in a room together and get them talking and thinking about real problems. A great example is the virtual reality film Awavena by Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth. The film captures the story of the first female shaman in the Amazon, who had the mantle passed down to her from an elder male, and subsequently brought about gender parity in surrounding tribal leadership.

It’s a really compelling allegory for gender equality. It was on display all week at Davos.

In fact, this was by all remarks the most inclusive and diverse Davos yet — from gender to racial identity, it seemed this subjects weren’t just a token subject, but whole heartedly engaged in.

This is important. A range of perspectives make a better tapestry of insight. The more diverse the perspectives, the stronger the weave. We can’t save the world if we’re only listening to one kind of person.

But, if its more concrete stuff you’re after - take a look at the closing remarks from the Forum, which details some really interesting outcomes. Personally, I’d love to see a project to measure the impact of these initiatives and track the social return on investment from the Annual Meeting year-on-year, but that’s a topic for another time.

Some highlights (for me, at least) from 2018:

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, announced that Canada will double its commitment to the Global Partnership for Education Fund, providing an extra $180 million to the fund between 2018 and 2020.
In the same region, the Forum also formed a new community of businesspeople who have committed to advise and support Haider Al Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq, on the reconstruction of the country.
Safeguarding our oceans: A new multistakeholder initiative, the Friends of Ocean Action initiative, was launched with the aim of delivering an “Ocean Action Track” to protect and conserve oceans, seas and marine resources. The partnership was announced by Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden; and Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the Ocean. Marc Benioff, Founder and Chairman of, announced $4.5 million in funding through the Benioff Ocean Initiative to support the new initiative.
Making meat sustainable: A new Forum initiative, Meat: The Future will identify ways to transform the future of meat and protein production to deliver safe, affordable and sustainable protein in the face of rapidly growing global demand.
Empowering women entrepreneurs: The Mann Deshi Foundation, a rural Indian cooperative bank run by and for women established by the meeting’s Co-Chair Chetna Sinha, announced the launch of a Rs100 million fund to encourage more women at the bottom of the pyramid to become entrepreneurs.

How do I get most from the meetings at Davos?

The reality of Davos is that you’re likely standing next to two handfuls of interesting and influential people at any one time. Personally, I found the best approach in this setting — and in day to day life, I’d add — is to just talk to the person, not their title.

Get to know them and then let mutual value emerge if it will. Swap business cards, sure. But don’t go in with a pitch in mind and don’t ask for selfies, no matter who it is.

To paraphrase Barack Obama, you can’t look someone in the eye if you’re taking a selfie. Asking for a selfie means you’re a fan — not someone who can help steer their thinking in a way to better the world.

I imagine Davos as heads of state meetings and I still can’t understand where Global Shapers come in with valuable contributions. What advantages or positive change do you think Davos has from including Global Shapers?

As above, I think youth and Global Shapers not only strengthen the stew that is Davos — but are necessary to ensure the decisions that are made now best support those that live with these choices the longest.

One of the goals of the Global Shapers is to help youth have a seat at the table — there are few better cases where this can happen than at Davos.

Global Shaper and environmental powerhouse Risalat Khan joined a panel alongside Al Gore and absolutely enriched the conversation with insightful yet down-to-earth comments - and yes, environment pun intended.

Parvathi Santhosh-Kumar not only chaired our sit down with Bill Gates, but spoke on a number of panels about issues ranging from racial identity to political correctness.

Kwiri Yang presented on a number of panels and sessions ranging from mental health to immigration.

Shamiso Kumbirai led a session on opening up discussion of race — with particular comments around the increasing diversity and inclusion of the Annual Meeting (note: this year’s co-chairs were all female).

Juan José Pocaterra spoke at sessions including building more inclusive cities, using IoT to better out communities and diplomatic discussions around Venezuela.

There’s many more examples I could give and each Davos 50 representative added something in their own way or brought something away from the event.

What was the weirdest thing you did while at Davos?

Ate an Impossible Foods fake-beef burger with an executive from a large meat production corporation.

It looked like meat. It was not. I was really into it.

What was a major personal insight you had while at Davos?

No matter who you are, how much power or money you have, how much of an icon you may be — everyone can slip over on an icy sidewalk.

People are just people.

Did you come away from Davos feeling generally better or generally worse about the world?

If I’m completely honest, I fell into a general sense of despair for about a week after Davos.

It’s a funny thing working in the space that I work in. As co-founders of SPUR: Lee and I occasionally ruminate on how hopeless it can feel to be constantly thinking and talking about the Big Problems — climate change, inequality, poverty, famine and disease and so on.

I think one of the challenges for someone at Davos who is there wanting to make change is that it can all feel a little too much.

Yet, after a few days of moping about, that emotional miasma passed. We started working with a new client on a new social problem and just got on with it.

It helped to pat attention to the work of my fellow Davos 50 and the efforts they’re making to improve the world.

As a planet right now, we are — as my grandfather would say — in a bit of a right pickle.

But I do genuinely believe that we will get through it. And if in the end, when all is said and done and the metrics came out in the wash to say that the Annual Meeting in Davos helped get us there, to the promised land of a bright future… I wouldn’t be surprised, really.

Call me optimistic, if you must.

But if you are standing in the snow in the dark, with little to keep you warm and no idea when you’ll make it out of there — optimism can be really helpful.

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