The past year has been framed around one thing: the COVID-19 pandemic. It has shaped and reshaped virtually everything we’ve done as a society, and rightly so. This disruption was certainly felt at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF).
I’ve had the opportunity to participate in this global event in the past. My time there has certainly offered lessons and insights through meetings, talks and participating in panel events. This year, as you can imagine, it was all virtual. While the same energy of the event was lost due to the virtual nature of the event, the insights from where governments, global industry leaders and researchers see our society heading in a post-COVID world will have significant effects on our University, the higher education sector and Canada.
The future of work
Unsurprisingly, the ongoing pandemic was a common thread throughout the discussions, but it wasn’t strictly about COVID-19’s impacts on our way of life. The sense amongst those in attendance was that this was a moment that, yes is filled with challenges but also holds opportunities for positive change as well.
For example, the future of work was an important topic. Work from home and remote work in general were trends before 2020. The question moving forward post-COVID is how much will organizations move back to a primary office setting?
While each organization and employee are different, the overarching belief is that a majority of both will start to make their way back to the office when it is safe to do so. There will likely be more flexibility around a work from home policy at those organizations, but leaders stressed that while productivity still remained high for most teams, company culture and the mental health of many employees have suffered in the shift to remote settings.
Education has gone through a significant shift over the past year. Even at the highest levels of government and business, this was a priority topic of discussion. It was stressed, and I agree, that now is a time to reimagine what education looks like in a post-COVID world. We’ve made the shift to primarily remote learning for the majority of students across Canada and in most nations. We did this out of necessity. We’ve been able to do this through the sheer ingenuity and strength of our talented instructors, support staff and our resilient students.
What was talked about at the WEF was not whether we would revert back to pre-COVID instruction, but how can we take some of the positive aspects of our remote learning experience and apply them to our education model moving forward. There was agreement that there is no replacing in-person learning. The question is, how can our learnings from delivering a quality education amidst a pandemic be used to enhance education for all?
A reskilling revolution
In addition to changes to how we educate, business leaders stressed an ever-increasing need for a fundamental strategy at creating a reskilling revolution. What was most noteworthy in the discussions was the reoccurring theme of a skills gap crisis, not simply from those new to the talent pool, but more importantly, seasoned employees.
Digital literacy was the most prominent gap discussed. Not simply specialists within the digital field, such as computer science, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, but an understanding of digital principles and skills that can be applied to existing disciplinary depth. For example, Canada has exceptional construction, finance and health care skills, how can people who have depth in these fields learn and adapt digital strengths to their existing work? This is the crux of the challenge and a significant opportunity for higher ed to work with industry to meet this developing need.
The consensus was that in regard to the future of work, reimagining education and reskilling, COVID-19 was not a fundamental driver of change. These disruptive trends have been formulating for more than a decade. The pandemic simply accelerated these challenges.
The economy and the green recovery
These were significant areas of focus throughout the WEF given their impact on long-term economic prosperity. At the same time, the economy itself was of particular focus. The global economy is still recovering from a prolonged shock, creating financial disparities for many in our society on the way back to pre-COVID prosperity. Many issues still remain. How can we make this recovery a recovery for all? How can we leverage technology? And, how do we make this a green recovery?
Last year’s WEF was centrally focused on combating climate change and this year’s, while naturally shifted to economic recovery and health care issues, it was made very clear that climate change remains top of mind. There is often a dichotomy pitting climate change and economic recovery against one another. The two, however, are not mutually exclusive. We have a chance at an economic recovery, driven not by getting back to the way things were, instead by how they should be.
This means governments – and businesses – have the chance to move forward as a green economy through an energy revolution towards renewables, new carbon capture technologies and the development of policies that set new standards for generations. This will take more than just following ESG principles.
For example, more businesses and organizations are announcing carbon neutral initiatives – Waterloo too – than ever before. Doing more means making fundamental changes to operations and habits so you don’t simply spend money on carbon offsets to declare your organization as “carbon neutral”. Carbon offsets do have a role to play but they cease to make sense when 60 percent of your carbon neutrality is made up of offsets. It was agreed that you cannot throw money at the problem and expect it to go away.
I also saw a significant shift in how corporations see their core stakeholders. There was a great deal of talk about incorporating new stakeholders into the way they do business, namely, the environment and sustainability. More businesses are now viewing the environment as a core stakeholder and they are looking through the lenses of those stakeholders to make key decisions. It is a notable shift away from strictly viewing stakeholders as merely stockholders of a company and seeing a more holistic, environmentally sustainable approach to doing business.
Equity, inclusivity and collaboration
There were a number of encouraging themes but one that stood out was the bigger, unambiguous commitment to equity, inclusivity and anti-racism from business and government leaders. There were targets, metrics and key initiatives mentioned that made this feel more than empty words and that’s what we need. We need more and different ideas, and that takes more people at the table empowered to lead.
This year’s WEF was also naturally a different experience. The virtual nature of the event lost some of the energy and opportunity to collaborate with others. No matter what, however, people talked. People who have never met spoke to one another. Relationships were developed.
This sentiment was felt from many nations, particularly China, which showed a renewed and solidified presence on the world stage at this year’s WEF. After years of world powers contracting their activities at international cooperation, we hopefully are seeing a new trend at openness amongst nations.
More than 1700 people came together for one week to talk about how things are and how they could be better. For all the flaws and issues the WEF has faced over the decades the essence of cooperation and collaboration remain strong.
I left the week of activities hopeful even during this time of uncertainty. Waterloo is well-positioned to take advantage of many of the trends and themes explored at the WEF and in countless ways we are already driving the positive changes our society needs.