The World Economic Forum (WEF) is the preeminent organization trying its hand at the impossible game of matching business with the greater global good. The WEF global agenda councils (GAC) are an ensemble of stakeholder groups that play an increasing role in identifying and defining issues to go on the agenda of the WEF’s annual main event in Davos, as well as regional events. As the annual GAC summit is hosted in the United Arab Emirates it is also the WEF’s only top-tier event associated with the Gulf region. Executive chatted with GAC chairperson Martina Gmür.
What issues will dominate the GAC summit this year?
We have a strong focus on the economy and on what is going to happen in Europe, but there will also be discussions on China and the other emerging markets. One of the big themes will be resource scarcity and related to that, water, food and energy. Lastly, a major issue that has been raised and is important to discuss is the digital and communications revolution.
What will be your hottest topics this year relating to the Middle East and the regional economy?
A clearly important one is youth unemployment and we will have a televised debate on this topic. The other one that we feel is very important is the whole geopolitical risk and security agenda. On this we will also have a TV debate. Those two are really important aspects.
On the larger front, [we will discuss] the role of the Middle East as it relates to Europe, and also the outcome of the elections in the United States and the implications for the region.
What does this wide spectrum of topics and current concerns demand of you as a person steering this event?
You do have to have a certain design or architecture to fit everything in. The summit is quite different from other events that we have and it is a lot more flexible and open. Not all the sessions are pre-determined. There are just the broad topics and then whatever the group decides becomes the focus. This can be influenced by recent events but also conversations with other people in the network.
How do you determine the membership in the different councils?
It is quite a lengthy process that we engage in each spring. We talk to our government constituents and [those people with whom we have]relationships — our chief executives and strategic partners — and we do our own research on who the new voices in the world are, on [a] regional and on [a] stakeholder basis. We collect all these nominations and then we do a pre-selection based on certain criteria of diversity and fit with the topic.
Is the final selection done by WEF or by a peer group?
The Forum has the ultimate decision but we will check back with the councils and the chairs. Each GAC has a chair per year and there is usually a vice-chair and 15 to 20 people in each group per year. Those people can rotate but usually 80 percent stay on for at least two or three years.
How much time would a council member have to commit to participate in a GAC over the course of two years?
It will be a minimum of one or two weeks over two years but most people actually engage more and many councils not only discuss ideas but also start implementing on their levels and that takes a lot more time.
There is no remuneration involved in council membership?
No, none at all.
The councils are one of several new structural elements in the Forum. Where do the councils fit in with the task of shaping the future of WEF?
The essential purpose for creating them was to help us shape the agenda in a more structured way. They are very much embedded in all our activities, they participate in our initiatives, they participate in programming for our regional events; the summit is the key brainstorming event for those and for agenda-setting for the program that happens in Davos. They integrate in all [the Forum’s] communities.
Do you have measuring tools and feedback mechanisms to show how effective the different councils are in fulfilling those roles?
Yes. We ask them to produce annual reports at the end of their terms to show what they have achieved; how much they have been contributing to our activities but also to activities around the world. We have feedback rounds within the groups themselves and also with our constituents. Our strategic partners for example constantly rate how much value the councils add or don’t add.
You have quite a number of councils. How many are there in total, how many are new, and do you have a personal favorite?
This year we have 88. Of these, 16 or so are new. I could not choose a favorite. They all have their own special things that make them really interesting. There are topics that no one has done much on such as new growth models on economic thinking or the Arctic, which is really a new effort for the Forum, but there are also the long-standing ones [such as] the ones on education or health.
The whole culture of conferences, endless debates, and global recommendations or rankings has proliferated greatly in the last 20 years. Do you think that it is still meaningful today to hold global events of this type?
From our perspective, one shouldn’t underestimate the power of dialogue and bringing people together. We are putting huge emphasis on virtual engagement as well. We are balancing the physical conference, going to a more virtual… culture, or reality. I certainly think virtual [interaction] will play a big role in what we are doing and how we interact and communicate and our products will also become more and more virtual. But as I said, the dialogue itself is critical and we have seen over and over again, how useful it is to bring people together who have never spoken [before] and break some barriers.
A recent WEF report focused on the gender gap. The report seemed to indicate that there are some improvements in gender balance but it is also known to be a persistent problem in corporations and countries. One also sees many more men than women on the GAC participant lists. What is the situation within the global councils as far as gender balance?
It is one of our priorities to improve the gender balance within the councils. We have today 25 percent women across the councils, which obviously can still be improved. We started from 15 [percent] four years ago and have improved it every year. Our aim is of course to get to 50 percent in the future but we have to be realistic. There is a certain reality that Fortune 500 and political leadership around the world is not 50-50.
Do you expect that a more balanced composition of the councils could create a loop where women participants have a greater chance to take larger roles in their organizations?
Yes, one of the big points that encourages people to be in the councils is not only the contributions they can make but also the recognition of their thought-leadership.
And that could perhaps help women advance in their organizations?
Is there a specific value-added that you expect from the new councils in 2012?
We emphasise greatly the economy and finance related councils in the hope that we generate new thinking on economic growth models this time around because many argue that the economy after the crisis will be different than before. We also have a number of new environmentally related councils, whether it is governance of sustainability or measuring sustainability. Then we have more innovative councils like the one on complex systems which we hope can help us to put a perspective on how our world is changing and what that means for different issues in our complex world.