Three questions with Johanna Mair about the World Economic Forum

The Professor of Organisation, Strategy and Leadership will attend the annual meeting in Davos as a delegate.

From 16 to 20 January, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is holding its annual meeting in Davos. The international NGO’s mission is to “engage the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”. Hertie School Professor of Organisation, Strategy and Leadership Johanna Mair is taking part in this year’s meeting as a delegate for the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the WEF’s sister organisation. She tells us about her work at the foundation and what she expects from the 2023 forum.

We are facing pandemics, war, energy crises and threats to democracy – can the WEF help to solve any of these problems?

I do not consider the official Davos meeting a problem-solving event. The WEF is a private organisation with a focus on public interest. Also, it does not have a formal mandate such as the UN or the G20/G7. However, what the WEF and the meeting in Davos can do is facilitate solving and potentially prevent problems of public interest. The WEF hosts a global dialogue that takes place across sectors and convenes actors that usually do not meet, providing an opportunity to make progress on societal, political and economic challenges. The meeting serves as a platform for various stakeholders to agree on what the most pressing problems are and to commit to taking a concerted action to solve them. In the best case, this commitment is coupled with concrete measures and clear expression of accountability. For example, the WEF facilitated the creation of the international vaccine alliance GAVI in 2000.

What are the big issues at the World Economic Forum this year?

The forum hosts a range of issues that will be discussed from scientific, political and economic perspectives. This year, beyond current geopolitical issues, the shared concern about climate change, the danger of pandemics and the awareness that democracy needs protection, the following three topics will take centre stage:

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Here sessions include “generative AI” (AI which can create text and new content), applications of “AI to mental health”, “AI and fighting the climate crisis”, and “how to invest in AI with care”. My guess is that the CEO with the most meeting requests this year is Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company that launched the AI chatbot ChatGPT and whose mission is to ensure that artificial intelligence benefits all.
  2. Regenerative agriculture: Conservation and rehabilitation approaches to food and farming systems are the newest and probably most visible topic as they relate to both climate and alternative forms of economic organisation. Large multinational organisations such as Nestlé will have a keen interest in discussing to what extent regenerative agriculture represents an opportunity or threat to their current way of operating.
  3. The economy: Here topics will focus on the tokenised economy and making capitalism more stakeholder-oriented. The social and solidarity economy will receive special attention.

You are a board member at the Schwab Foundation. Tell us about your work there and how it has affected the WEF.

Hilde and Klaus Schwab, the founders of the WEF, made social innovation central to the work of the Schwab Foundation, which they established more than two decades ago. As a pioneer in this area on the research and educational front, I collaborated with them from the beginning in the form of a learning partnership that allowed me to develop research and teaching case studies. Six years ago I joined the foundation’s board. Since then, we have expanded the notion of social innovation. In addition to supporting social entrepreneurs, we honour social innovation in the public sector, social innovation within corporations and, more recently, also social innovation that explicitly focuses on mobilising and orchestrating collective action across sectors.  

What is striking is how much more prominently social innovation and social innovators are now featured in the Davos programme than they used to be. Social innovators are on panels discussing the future of healthcare and are co-designing sessions on unlocking the social economy with the International Labor Organization and the software firm SAP. Social innovation has become integral to the WEF, and the aim is indeed to harness the potential of social innovation for positive social change at and through the forum.


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More about our expert

  • Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership