The vision of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is to engage with political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas to make positive change and improve the state of the world. It’s a lofty goal and an inspirational one. As one of the World Economic Forum Young Scientists selected for the class of 2019, I was at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China. It’s often called ‘Summer Davos’ and it brings together an incredibly diverse group of experts, entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders from across the world for three days to grapple with some of the biggest challenges we’re facing at the global scale such as climate change, ageing, food security, cyber security, creativity and innovation. The distinctive thing about WEF is that it genuinely does bring people together from a huge range of sectors, those that are leaders in their fields, start up CEOs, future leaders that have been identified from across the globe…and scientists.
It has been an incredible week, engaging with and having conversations with such a distinctively broad community. Within the Young Scientist community it’s been brilliant meeting fellow scientists, all doing such diverse research, and all with real passion for changing the world. They are from all over the globe (journey times to Dalian varied from 1 hour to 30 hours!), at different stages, with different perspectives. Bringing such a range of scientists together within the context of the wider WEF community has been the best worked out example that I have experienced to date of what diversity and an environment for dialogue can create.
It’s going to take a while to fully digest and reflect, but for now here are my top five takeaways from the meeting:
1. Space for creativity is the start of interdisciplinarity
Working in an interdisciplinary field, ‘interdisciplinary’ can be a term that is much used but is rarely tangible. Creating space for creativity, outside of your normal areas of focus is one of the keys to achieving it. When you’re exposed to a different set of challenges, with different viewpoints being articulated, something special happens. You can really be free to think, and when you can think, it’s possible to ask questions, By asking questions you can collectively get a better handle on the critical challenge being addressed by articulating it more precisely than before, or seeing a new dimension to the challenge that could be a way through. And through that process there is a genuine merging and blending of concepts, principles, approaches and methods. There is a reason interdisciplinary challenges are so difficult to solve – they sit at the boundaries of fields for a reason. Creating space for creativity is the way to re-visualise, rethink, re-evaluate…but it’s almost always a joint enterprise.
2. Openness is the beginning of great things
In a genuinely outward looking group, unforeseen opportunities are created. Where there are no ‘stupid questions’ it is possible to be curious and to reach out and make connections. Failure and epiphany have been said to be inexplicably linked – openness can be a fast track to mini failures of ideas and that means speeding up the process of figuring out new possibilities.
3. Advocacy and activism are powerful in the right channels
You may have heard it said that a weed is a flower just in the wrong place. Advocacy for a cause can be a discouraging journey in many ways. But sometimes it’s just a case of finding the right place, the right person, the right channel, the right time. The only way you’ll know when that is though is when things begin to happen, so actively pursuing a cause and continuing to do so through the good the bad and the ugly, can be an active waiting game. There’s no road map which means there will be demoralising moments (if you don’t know the answer to ‘are we nearly there yet’ you’re likely to be far more restless than if you do). But, actively pursuing that cause step by step is the way to reaching that place, person, channel and time.
4. Expertise is diverse
Expertise is usually thought of as being brilliant and accomplished at something. It’s usually something pretty specific and focussed, and usually takes many years to achieve (concert pianists can’t just read the ‘piano for dummies’ book to be able to perform a concerto). You absolutely need these kinds of experts in the room when you’re thinking about big complex challenges, how else can you really articulate the problem that needs to be solved at the level of detail that is needed? But you also need the expert generalist. You need people who see the gaps and the synergies, who see the different strands of expertise around the table, and can figure out how to bridge the gaps to move things forward to achieving the ultimate goal. As with so many things, diversity is key – we can’t deal with complex challenges without it.
5. Look up and out
It can be easy to get stuck, to be developing a project or an idea and then out of nowhere you realise that you’ve run straight into a brick wall (sometimes at speed). The rules of engagement change at this point – what you thought you knew and the pathways you thought would get you through disappear, and it can be disheartening and we can start looking down at our boots, at where we are stuck. I’m not suggesting that we don’t dwell a little while at the foot of the ‘brick wall of impasse’, it’s important to reflect. But the world is often bigger than that situation (especially when it doesn’t feel like it is). An impasse in one place and time doesn’t always mean it’s a permanent feature, it could be the most incredible opportunity. We need to be seeking out places and people that help us look up, the global stage is large and sometimes a little bit of reframing can help us through, over, under or around that wall.
For more on the Young Scientist community: https://www.weforum.org/communities/young-scientists
Meet the class of 2019: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Young%20Scientist_Community_Brochure_2019.pdf