© WEF, Photo: Monika Flueckiger

ISO International Standards are practical tools to help tackle many of the challenges discussed at the 40th meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), on 27-31 January 2010 at Davos, Switzerland, on the theme of “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”.

This was the conclusion reached by ISO Secretary-General Rob Steele who took the opportunity to participate and meet a number of the senior business and government leaders among the 2 500 people attending.

The WEF this year held over 200 sessions to discuss and develop solutions to respond to the 2008 financial meltdown and 2009 economic crisis. Discussions covered six main areas:

  • How to strengthen economic and social welfare
  • Restoring financial security
  • Building effective institutions
  • Creating a values framework
  • Ensuring sustainability
  • Mitigating global risk and addressing systemic failures.

"Perhaps one quote outlined what needs to be done," declared Rob Steele. "The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy said, 'What remains to be done is to bring into being a new growth model …. We must now invent the state, the company and the city of the 21st century'."

Rob Steele commented: "To do so, International Standards are at the core. They offer a basis for understanding and a clear description of how you do the 'what'. ISO has standards that assist business become more efficient and effective, not just from an economic, but also from environmental and societal viewpoints. It was clear from the discussions that issues such as social responsibility are not only important – they are integral to the solution to all of the areas outlined above.

"When I pointed out to people that I met during the week that ISO was developing a standard on social responsibility, the universal reaction was one of real interest and enthusiasm. The frequent comment from business and government leaders from all parts of the world was that this was needed and worthwhile.

"It was also clear that at least one key strategy to help address the triple issues of responding to climate change and the need for sustainability while stimulating economic growth was effective investment in creating green jobs and green technologies. ISO already has an extensive portfolio of standards in this area and is developing more, especially in the area of energy efficiency, one of the areas where there are immediate opportunities to reduce energy usage and, therefore, CO2 emissions.

"I also took the opportunity to talk with Young Global Leaders, a group established by the WEF to ensure younger generations are heard at the Forum. There are a number of initiatives they are taking with the active involvement and support of business that I believe ISO should also be participating in."

Rob Steele affirmed: "Given that  2010 is the International Year of Youth, I believe this could be a catalyst to ask young leaders what is needed to get involvement in standardization from X and Y generations and to test how the value of standards can be communicated. There is also the opportunity to explore new subject areas for standardization."

Sharing his perceptions of this year's WEF, the ISO Secretary-General said the fallout from the financial crisis is being felt in different ways and rates of recovery around the world. The term “LUV” was used to describe this, meaning European markets are the “L”; The United States may be the “U”; and Asian markets the “V”.

"This is perhaps a bit trite," commented Rob Steele, "but it is clear that the developing world is not following the developed world and there is a need for global understanding of what is required and for clear, transparent and consensus-based plans to be developed and implemented."

He said that it was also clear from comments that the current economic upturn reported in some economies is fragile, and that repayment of debt taken on as part of the significant stimulus packages and high rates of unemployment mean that recovery will be measured in years. Laurence H. Summers, Executive Director of the Office of the President of the United States of America talked about a “statistical economic recovery and a human recession”.  

Rob Steele noted an underlying theme of a need for global solutions based on mutual understanding – such as those offered by ISO standards – and saw that this was reinforced by speaker after speaker.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, called for coordination for global efficiency in the face of global complexity in reform of the financial sector.

Montek Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India spoke of the need for “global norms”.

Josef Ackermann, Co-Chair of the WEF 2010 and Chairman of the Management Board and Group Chief Executive of Deutsche Bank talked of a change in business model and “new norms”.

Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, President of Mongolia, spoke of the critical need for a global response on the use of water and called for a universal water code.

Doris Leuthard, President of Switzerland, spoke of the need for international standards to address the gap between rhetoric and reality, especially on the issue of eco-friendly products and services; and speaker after speaker raised the point that business needs to understand and meet the needs of stakeholders, not just shareholders.