‘Our times require great leaders and great thinkers’

Climate-wise, we are getting to a point where time is of the essence. Scientists, business leaders and policymakers agree on this, but how to turn the tides? In order to tackle the grand societal and environmental challenges our world is facing nowadays, action and responsibility have to be taken. In part, this will have to happen inside the world of business, and a grand task is reserved for the CEOs of today’s big international companies.

Long-term leadership seems to be required and the financial sector can play a role in fostering long-term management in the business sector. What can businesses, but also governments and scientists do to meet the climate goals? And in line with this: how can we enable as many people as possible to benefit from increasing prosperity?

On 29 and 30 November an extraordinary conference took place, a collaboration between Erasmus University Rotterdam and the World Economic Forum. On Thursday the 29th, CEOs from globally-operating companies came together at the Hilton, Rotterdam, in order to talk to each other and with an audience of around 200 invited guests from the world of business, academia, policy and NGOs. The name of the conference – ‘Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity’ – is in line with the Erasmus Initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity, which enables scientists from different faculties to work together to tackle the grand societal challenge of fostering inclusive prosperity: fairness and sustainability for all people across the globe.

Globalised world
The Rector of Erasmus University Rotterdam Rutger Engels opened the conference with a speech on the importance of collaboration, of aligning with other parties and companies and the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach. This globalised world requires new leaders and new thinkers: new skills for leadership are needed. Engels also noticed that the students of today are worrying about big environmental and societal changes in the world, and they are naturally willing to act.

Subsequently, Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, talked more specifically about our changing world. For example, we have to deal with a lot of technology-driven changes. At the same time, the split between short-term dilemmas and the long-term future is important to look at in this light. We might tackle climate change and poverty using technology, but only if this technology is used in the right way. Brende sees a profound opportunity, but also a responsibility in this matter, and taking responsibility turns out to be the unofficial main topic of the whole conference. 

‘We are going in the right direction, are we going fast enough?'

Lise Kingo, CEO of UN Global Compact

Our former Dutch prime minister and EUR-professor Jan Peter Balkenende moderated a panel discussion between Brende and five other reputable names, who, as became clear during the key note presentations, had never before discussed this topic with one other in this composition. Juliane Reinecke, Professor of International Management & Sustainability at King’s College London, gave a speech about the urgent state of the clothing industry which is responsible for about 25 percent of the CO2 increase. 

Lise Kingo, CEO and executive director of UN Global Compact, emphasized that the 2030 agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) can never be reached without aid from the business sector. She explained how UN Global Compact tries to unite companies and together make business a force for good, looking fairly well at the SDGs. While travelling for work she noticed that the business agenda in Asian countries is less stressful, and that the way of looking at the short-term – in quarters – is a merely Western concept.

Rethink your relevance
Frans van Houten, CEO and Chairman of Royal Philips, and also one of the early contributors to the Erasmus campaign Challenge Accepted, said: ‘Always remember: behind the business are people.’ Like many other companies, Philips also had to rethink its current relevance. Van Houten: ‘Ask yourself: where is your true North star?’ Now his company wants to improve the lives of millions of people by making healthcare affordable.

Christophe Lanne is CTO at Natixis, a big bank in France. During the conference, he explained why Natixis doesn’t want to invest in, for example, coal. He also expanded on in which ways the ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) is important in the world of investment. As a closer, Thorsten Beck, Professor of Banking and Finance at Cass Business School in London, gave a lecture about finance. ‘Finance can be useful and it can be good.’ Beck believes in rebalancing the financial system, and focusing - for example - on long-term investments and ‘long-term finance’. 

‘We are going in the right direction,’ to quote Lise Kingo, but: ‘Are we going fast enough? I’m not sure.’ Kingo believes this time we are facing the biggest transition ever, and therefore we are in urgent need of great leaders. Frans van Houten seemed to be more optimistic: we are still learning, he said, but we will get there. Though we must take our role seriously. ‘Take your leadership, take your ownership. And everyone, you and me, needs to step up.’ With these words, Børge Brende ended the keynote discussion. 

‘Take your leadership, take your ownership.’

Frans van Houten, CEO of Royal Philips

Following the key-notes, four different breakout sessions took place. During a session about measuring and communicating long-term leadership, one of the points made was that you have to know exactly what your business goals are before you can start measuring. The second breakout session was about asset owners and investment managers, and how companies with a lot of foreign shareholders sometimes suffer from the fact that foreign shareholders are a little less concerned about local effects of production for example. The third session discussed corporate governance for the long term: what does a company need in order to persevere long-term policies and ESG? Answer: things like stability, transparency, a vision, courage, and the willingness to change. In the fourth breakout session, titled Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights, a big part was reserved for discussing the influence, the benefits, but also the threats of artificial intelligence. Key words in all the breakout sessions were: trust, engagement, and (again) responsibility – a nice sequel to the keynote discussion.

Value and wealth
Xander den Uyl, member of the board of ABP, explained how his pension fund works with responsible investment and why that’s important. Don Gerritsen, Head of UNPRI Benelux, stated in his speech that the future lies in responsible investment.

Closing the second plenary part of the conference with a beautifully poetic speech was Martin de Jong, Scientific Director of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative from Erasmus University Rotterdam. Over time we have lost the bigger picture, he argued: what does value mean, and what does wealth truly mean? We forgot to include nature in the picture, although economics in its very beginnings was a distraction from ecology. However, economists have forgotten their past. Can money and capital save the world? Can we eat a Euro? One of the most important things is to bring different disciplines together – that is what the Erasmus initiative aims to do. Additionally, it hopes to bring people together, bring leaders and thinkers together – as was shown by the convergence of business leaders and academics over the course of the day. Evidencing that, on the chance that it one day turns out we were not on time, we have certainly tried.

Martin de Jong: ‘I therefore propose that the Erasmus Initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity (DoIP) adopt as its mission statement: to bring common sense concepts back in to academia from across a variety of disciplines to secure the social and environmental inclusiveness of prosperity creation and with these concepts and conceptual insights generate scientific and societal impact. 
To realise this, a network of and input from a range of organisations and people with long-term commitment to this objective is needed. To learn from each other and share with each other. We invite you to join us.’

More information

The Erasmus Initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity enables scientists from different faculties to work together to tackle the grand societal challenge of fostering inclusive prosperity: fairness and sustainability for all people across the globe. 

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