January 23, 2017 | permalink
(Originally published by Fast Company on January 19, 2017.)
It’s a tough time to be a Davos Man. Even during globalization’s heyday, the World Economic Forum’s annual summit was mocked for being out of touch, and this year is no different, with the spectacle of billionaires debating how to fix the middle class, and using Pokestops to remind attendees about global sustainability goals. The conventional wisdom is that the WEF’s vision of free markets, falling borders, and globe-trotting do-gooders “is at best broken and at worst dead.” The good news? As last year’s summit proved, the “Davos Consensus” is invariably wrong.
Davos will survive, if only as a place to do deals. But this doesn’t sit well with the World Economic Forum’s paternalistic founder Klaus Schwab, who signed off several years ago on a plan to reinvent the organization from within. The Forum of Young Global Leaders, created in 2004, is the 800-strong group of thirty- and fortysomethings who are being groomed to save the world—or at least run it one day. Their ranks include Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and Noma chef René Redzepi. But as of a few years ago, these youngsters, like their elders, were in it mostly for themselves, the WEF feared. The group’s mission of “improving the state of the world” had plateaued, partly because Schwab was telling them what they should think.
“We’d had some successful projects, but most members were either completely disengaged or only superficially involved to earn kudos,” says the World Economic Forum’s John Dutton, who took over the program in 2013.
Here, in a nutshell, was the paradox of Davos: What’s the point of having a global conspiracy of overachievers if you don’t use it?
So the World Economic Forum turned to a team of artists, designers, and data scientists to reinvent the program. The goal was to transform a clubhouse in the Alps into an incubator for social enterprise. And that’s how Shaffi met Eli.
Shaffi Mather, founder of India’s Ziqitza Health Care, claims to operate the largest ambulance company in the Global South. But that wasn’t enough, so a few years ago, “I started thinking about emergency response in the other 90% of the world,” where his network would never reach. Then at the 2013 Young Global Leader Summit in Myanmar, Mather found himself paired with Eli Beer, founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, which fields a free, motorcycle-riding fleet of more than 3,000 volunteer medics. They were part of a conversation circle including public health experts and VCs charged with creating what Mather had envisioned.
What they came up with is MUrgency, a global medical response network employing any means necessary to get doctors where they are needed the most. “It could be a nurse coming by bicycle, or a doctor arriving by Uber,” Mather says. Three years later, MUrgency’s medics have answered more than 300,000 emergency calls. Indian industrialist Ratan Tata personally invested in the service last spring, and Mather hints at an impending partnership with a “large emergency response organization” with 160,000 branches worldwide.
“I’ve been able to move ten times faster than if I didn’t have this as a platform,” says Mather, referring to his fellow Young Global Leaders.
This wasn’t by accident. Mather and Beer weren’t matched by chance. MUrgency’s cast of characters were selected by software and then stage-managed by a team from The Value Web, a nonprofit network of facilitators who have worked with a who’s who of nonprofits, ranging from UNICEF and the International Red Cross to the Indian government. With the World Economic Forum’s blessing, they embarked on a three-year experiment to rewire the Young Global Leaders from a loose confederation of thought leaders into a tightly wound ideas factory—without the participants barely noticing.
Their secret weapon was the software created in conjunction with one of their teammates, Brandon Klein. Dubbed “People Science,” his tool melds social network analysis and machine learning techniques to probe for hidden interests and connections between people, and then uses that information to generate new teams. That’s how they knew to match Shaffi with Eli.
Crucially, Klein and his colleagues didn’t limit themselves to LinkedIn profiles. Starting in 2013, at the Myanmar summit where the pair met, The Value Web’s team began collecting granular data about the Young Leaders—not just who and what they knew, but how and why. They didn’t limit themselves to careers or hobbies, either—they asked for the intimate details of their friendships, families, faith, and health.
All of this was then parsed by the software, which started connecting the not-always-obvious dots. The obvious thing would have been to create a members-only social network, or at the very least an app. No way, said Dutton. “They have enough apps. I’d rather they’d be present than distracted on their phones.”
So the machine passed along these suggestions to The Value Web instead. Duly armed with this inside information, they began assembling teams with potential collaborations in mind. At conferences, they replaced the panel sessions that their Young Leaders would be tempted to skip (as their elders do habitually in Davos) with ad hoc exercises that fostered bonding. Afterwards, granular surveys asked participants for the names and context of everything they learned and everyone they met, to be fed back into the software once again.
Together, they created a high-tech-meets-high-touch formula for collaboration. Most remarkably, it didn’t feel coercive or manipulative—members were given the space to discover what they had in common.
You can see the results for yourself. A network map at the onset of the program depicts a loosely coupled network surrounded by a sea of disconnected dots. (Interestingly, the best-connected members are objects of suspicion—it implies they’re inveterate schmoozers.) Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find a tightly knit lattice ready to get to work.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.
He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.
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