Every year, I look forward to the special gathering in Davos, Switzerland that is the World Economic Forum. Participants come armed with ideas - ideas that can help improve the state of the world.
One of the events leading up to the annual meeting in Davos is the release of the Global Risks report. This year, the 700 experts who contributed to the study say that the chronic gap between the richest and poorest citizens is the risk that's most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade.
This polarizing risk is all about trust, or, perhaps more appropriately stated, the lack of it in our global society today. The chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots" has always been a profoundly disturbing one. But what perplexes many economists is that today, in the midst of the Information Age, society continues to forget an enormous number of people. That's why it's crucial that enterprises large and small focus on doing what they can to build trust in their communities. To be sure, we need governments to be onboard, but the private sector can also be extremely instrumental in ensuring that they build up trust.
If only the business community could emulate the boy in the film Pay it Forward. In the film, a 12-year-old schoolboy is given a class project to change the world through direct action. He creates the notion of "paying it forward", where by doing a good deed for three people, who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people, he can create a charitable pyramid scheme. If business could embrace this idea of a positive chain reaction, the world would no doubt be a different and a better place.
Consider what the chief economist of the World Economic Forum, Jennifer Blanke, says about how charting global risks is essentially like connecting the dots. Every major issue facing the world has the potential to have a massive effect on its own, she says. But what's so jarring is the interconnected nature of these global risks. Failure and lack of trust feed on each other to create, according to Blanke, problems of an augmented nature. "It is vitally important that stakeholders work together to address and adapt to the presence of global risks in our world today," she says.
It's important to consider what other issues my fellow participants at the WEF are thinking about as we gather in Davos. The world is waking up to the grim fact that extreme weather events are becoming more common. Which also has the potential to cause systemic shock to the planet is chronic unemployment and underemployment, climate change, and cyber-attacks.
Think about it: All of these issues represent a breakdown of some kind of grand system, whether technological, economic, environmental, or geopolitical. The good news here is that all of these grand systems can be improved and their courses altered by enterprises working towards building trust among the people with whom they do business. Whether it's a petrochemical company that makes sure it complies with the very latest and strictest environmental guidelines or a retailer that ensures its consumer information is safe from hackers, it's the responsibility of businesses to establish best practices and make their customers feel safe.
When the aspirations of local communities are met because companies succeed, create jobs, and stimulate the economy, it means that they're building trust. And when communities hold their institutions in higher regard, they're more likely to work towards common goals. The economic disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots" begins to break down.
The WEF's latest risk assessment frames global issues within a 10-year window. To work on finding a cure to any of these social ills, it's indeed helpful to look at the big picture. For example, the increased reliance on the Internet to do just about everything shouldn't be viewed as a risk to the planet - it should be seen as a blessing. Putting people in touch with each other to find solutions to common problems is something only the Web can facilitate. So if we as enterprises make sure that the Internet is a safe and trustworthy domain, innovations can continue to flourish and help everyone involved.
No doubt about it: We're in store for some serious conversations at Davos. But as the world's leading businesses build trust among each other and their consumers, they'll be laying the groundwork for a bright future.