As business leaders and policymakers gather in Davos this week, billions of people on the outside continue innovating, working, hustling and investing in a better future for themselves and their families. To what extent are businesses and governments able to identify and respond to their initiative and come up with policies, products and services that improve lives and bottom lines for billions, not just for the wealthy? It’s an underlying question posed to the crowd convening for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting this year, with the overall theme of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership.”
Some coming to Davos are already spending most or much of their time listening and responding to those billions. Like Nidan, a social enterprise in India that works with informal workers and street vendors.
For most people in most cities in the world, especially most big cities, street vendors are a ubiquitous feature of daily life. Despite their prevalence, or perhaps because of it, street vendors are easy targets for harassment or extortion of bribes by police officers, since they don’t usually have documented rights to operate where they operate or sell what they sell. Many street vendors may not be aware of laws regulating their presence or even of laws protecting them.
Nidan helps organize street vendors under the banner of the National Association of Street Vendors of India, or NASVI, which it coordinates. Five members of Nidan’s executive committee, including its president, are informal sector entrepreneurs, all of them women. Nidan will be at Davos to tell the story of enrolling two million street vendors in digital payment systems over the span of only two months.
Or there’s the City Government of Seattle, which will participate via video chat in a Davos session on the role of cities as innovation hubs.
With an estimated population of 652,400, Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. The city anticipates welcoming another 120,000 residents and 115,000 more jobs over the next 20 years. In 2015, the city embarked on a journey down “an inclusive, scalable and adaptive path for growth through more effective public engagement.” The goal? Broaden the conversation to create a comprehensive growth plan to deal with all those new residents and jobs.
“It’s important to get this right early, because we’ve been experiencing huge growth in immigrant refugees and communities of color,” said Cuc Vu, director of Seattle’s office of immigrant affairs, in a video describing the challenge. Immigrants and refugees already make up a fifth of the city’s population. In zip code 98118, residents speak 120 native languages, Vu noted.
The city is combining new tools, such as telephone town halls and social media, including Reddit, as official places to host conversations with policymakers and residents. One of those policymakers is an immigrant and refugee himself—Sam Assefa, director of the city’s Office of Community and Economic Development, who fled from Ethiopia as a teenager after his father’s assassination.
Or look to Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, who made headlines last year for announcing that his employees would receive a ten percent stake in the privately held yogurt company, ahead of a future IPO. A rising trend in employee ownership of companies is partly a response to the demand for broader wealth building strategies. Ulukaya is slated to speak at Davos, for a session about “creating profits through purpose.”
Given the stark inequality in the global distribution of wealth, no single company is going to make a difference in changing it, but employee ownership is a relatively straightforward way for companies to add some purpose to their profits. In some cases, there are already company incentives in place for employee ownership—U.S. tax policy has long stipulated that the share of ownership held by an employee-ownership plan is not subject to corporate income tax at the federal level, and usually the state level too. The National Employee Ownership Center estimates that 14.1 million U.S. workers are already part of an employee-ownership arrangement.
There’s also Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, coming to Davos to speak about achieving the sustainable development goals. Ibrahim is a member of the Peule Mbororo people, a group of an estimated 250,000 nomads engaged in subsistence farming in the Sahel region, in Chad. She is currently coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, or AFPAT after its French acronym. Ibrahim may be a familiar face to many at Davos, as she spoke on behalf of civil society at the signing of the COP21 agreements in Paris.
In places like the Sahel, bordering the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, climate change is an inclusive growth issue. Desertification threatens to take away farm land and therefore livelihoods of those in the region. But like many of the billions outside of Davos, farmers in the Sahel aren’t lacking for ideas. In Niger, Chad’s neighbor to the west, farmers used low-tech methods passed down by oral history to restore 19,000 square miles of farmland-turned-desert—as once reported in National Geographic.
African farmers are increasingly turning to high-tech tools too. At the Mastercard Lab for Financial Inclusion in Nairobi, Kenya, farmers have been involved throughout the process to design 2KUZE, a new digital platform that connects them to a network of agents, buyers and financial institutions via a feature phone. From the initial intensive one-week design sprint, to focus groups, to market testing, farmers have helped shape a solution that will lead to more efficient markets, increased price transparency and faster payments. Mastercard Chief Innovation Officer Garry Lyons will highlight the platform at Davos during a Wednesday morning breakfast focused on “Feeding the Future,” with representatives from the Gates Foundation, World Food Programme and Grow Africa in attendance.
Surely there are others coming to Davos with stories like these, stories where ideas, innovations and policies relating to inclusive economies have come from the bottom up. That’s always worth celebrating.
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