Human-focused software helped the World Economic Forum bring one of its core programs back to life. Could it work for your office too?
It’s a tough time to be a Davos Man. Even during globalization’s heyday, the World Economic Forum’s annual summit was mocked for being out of touch, and this year is no different, with the spectacle of billionaires debating how to fix the middle class, and using Pokestops to remind attendees about global sustainability goals. The conventional wisdom is that the WEF’s vision of free markets, falling borders, and globe-trotting do-gooders “is at best broken and at worst dead.” The good news? As last year’s summit proved, the “Davos Consensus” is invariably wrong.
Davos will survive, if only as a place to do deals. But this doesn’t sit well with the World Economic Forum’s paternalistic founder Klaus Schwab, who signed off several years ago on a plan to reinvent the organization from within. The Forum of Young Global Leaders, created in 2004, is the 800-strong group of thirty- and fortysomethings who are being groomed to save the world—or at least run it one day. Their ranks include Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and Noma chef René Redzepi. But as of a few years ago, these youngsters, like their elders, were in it mostly for themselves, the WEF feared. The group’s mission of “improving the state of the world” had plateaued, partly because Schwab was telling them what they should think.
“We’d had some successful projects, but most members were either completely disengaged or only superficially involved to earn kudos,” says the World Economic Forum’s John Dutton, who took over the program in 2013.
Here, in a nutshell, was the paradox of Davos: What’s the point of having a global conspiracy of overachievers if you don’t use it?
So the World Economic Forum turned to a team of artists, designers, and data scientists to reinvent the program. The goal was to transform a clubhouse in the Alps into an incubator for social enterprise. And that’s how Shaffi met Eli.
Shaffi Mather, founder of India’s Ziqitza Health Care, claims to operate the largest ambulance company in the Global South. But that wasn’t enough, so a few years ago, “I started thinking about emergency response in the other 90% of the world,” where his network would never reach. Then at the 2013 Young Global Leader Summit in Myanmar, Mather found himself paired with Eli Beer, founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, which fields a free, motorcycle-riding fleet of more than 3,000 volunteer medics. They were part of a conversation circle including public health experts and VCs charged with creating what Mather had envisioned.
What they came up with is MUrgency, a global medical response network employing any means necessary to get doctors where they are needed the most. “It could be a nurse coming by bicycle, or a doctor arriving by Uber,” Mather says. Three years later, MUrgency’s medics have answered more than 300,000 emergency calls. Indian industrialist Ratan Tata personally invested in the service last spring, and Mather hints at an impending partnership with a “large emergency response organization” with 160,000 branches worldwide.
“I’ve been able to move ten times faster than if I didn’t have this as a platform,” says Mather, referring to his fellow Young Global Leaders.
This wasn’t by accident. Mather and Beer weren’t matched by chance. MUrgency’s cast of characters were selected by software and then stage-managed by a team from The Value Web, a nonprofit network of facilitators who have worked with a who’s who of nonprofits, ranging from UNICEF and the International Red Cross to the Indian government. With the World Economic Forum’s blessing, they embarked on a three-year experiment to rewire the Young Global Leaders from a loose confederation of thought leaders into a tightly wound ideas factory—without the participants barely noticing.
Their secret weapon was the software created in conjunction with one of their teammates, Brandon Klein. Dubbed “People Science,” his tool melds social network analysis and machine learning techniques to probe for hidden interests and connections between people, and then uses that information to generate new teams. That’s how they knew to match Shaffi with Eli.
Crucially, Klein and his colleagues didn’t limit themselves to LinkedIn profiles. Starting in 2013, at the Myanmar summit where the pair met, The Value Web’s team began collecting granular data about the Young Leaders—not just who and what they knew, but how and why. They didn’t limit themselves to careers or hobbies, either—they asked for the intimate details of their friendships, families, faith, and health.
All of this was then parsed by the software, which started connecting the not-always-obvious dots. The obvious thing would have been to create a members-only social network, or at the very least an app. No way, said Dutton. “They have enough apps. I’d rather they’d be present than distracted on their phones.”
So the machine passed along these suggestions to The Value Web instead. Duly armed with this inside information, they began assembling teams with potential collaborations in mind. At conferences, they replaced the panel sessions that their Young Leaders would be tempted to skip (as their elders do habitually in Davos) with ad hoc exercises that fostered bonding. Afterwards, granular surveys asked participants for the names and context of everything they learned and everyone they met, to be fed back into the software once again.
Together, they created a high-tech-meets-high-touch formula for collaboration. Most remarkably, it didn’t feel coercive or manipulative—members were given the space to discover what they had in common.
You can see the results for yourself. A network map at the onset of the program depicts a loosely coupled network surrounded by a sea of disconnected dots. (Interestingly, the best-connected members are objects of suspicion—it implies they’re inveterate schmoozers.) Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find a tightly knit lattice ready to get to work.
More than 60 Young Global Leaders initiatives have been launched since 2015, compared to just two in the first decade of the program. While most wilted quickly, others persist—there’s one group battling corruption in Sri Lanka (Apolitical), another planting urban farms in Newark (AeroFarms), and a third awarding prizes to startups tackling lower carbon emissions (Decarbonathon). Yet another offshoot, the philanthropic Maverick Collective, has mobilized $30 million to improve the health of 300,000 girls worldwide. As of last fall, 70% of the Young Global Leaders were collaborating on their own projects.
Klein would be the first to tell you this level of synergistic success is unheard of in corporate America, and he would know, having served until recently as the chief collaboration officer of UnitedHealth Group. There, he was charged with making more than 100,000 employees play well with others—a thankless task that prompted Klein to join The Value Web and launch Collaboration.AI, the company that runs People Science.
As he saw it, the World Economic Forum and its budding Davos Men and Women were the world’s most self-actualized lab rats. The combination of their genuine desire to save the world and their proclivity to talk endlessly to each other and about themselves presented him with an array of potential experiments. His favorite was from Davos two years ago, run in conjunction with Wharton professor and Give and Take author Adam Grant.
One hundred of the Young Global Leaders were tasked with making asks and offers in a makeshift flea market for human capital. After distilling their responses on three separate passes of the machine, The Value Web’s team in Davos herded them into smaller and smaller groups until the average size was four. This was profound, he said, for any number of reasons. For one thing, it meant that 96% of people in the room—or in your office, or at a conference—can’t help you do much of anything. But they had created a machine, and a process, that could find the 4% who could help, and do it over and over again.
“Listen, only one in 25 people can help you, and how many people will meet today? Twenty-five at best,” Klein said as I slurped miso soup for breakfast atop a skyscraper in Tokyo. Having only just arrived for the last day of the 2016 Young Global Leaders summit in late October, I asked him to fill me in on what I’d missed. The goal was to see People Science in action, but I quickly learned that it was like trying to observe a black hole—you could only spot the light escaping at its edges.
Upon arrival, for example, 600 or so of the Leaders, already sorted by his algorithm, had been subjected to a series of frivolous but rigorous icebreakers designed to separate them. “Because everyone wants to sit with their friends,” he said, “and we have to break those cliques.” Once malleable, they were reassigned to play Davos-themed rounds of Cards Against Humanity. (“Governments around the world were focused on [tiny hands], but [the first machine on machine conflict] caught them by surprise.”) And if that didn’t sufficiently boost their esprit de corps, the previous evening had ended with each team receiving a bus pass and metro map for a madcap dash across the city for dinner.
If these misadventures gave the conference the feel of the world’s most rarified summer camp, well, that was intentional, too. “We’re trying to create a storyline,” explained Aaron Williamson, a board member of The Value Web and its leader on the ground in Tokyo. “A lot of our preparation focuses on ‘what is the story?’ Because events don’t really become a part of us without that drama.” In other words, you can use data to forge all the weak ties you want, but it’s shared experiences that temper and strengthen them.
“How does a group of disparate people with different backgrounds from different countries come together to make a difference in the world?” he asked. “What decisions led to their impact?” If you can crack that code, maybe you could replicate it.
That was the deeper game, as Williamson described it. Sure, Bill Gates or Arianna Huffington attend Davos after they’ve ascended to the elite of the elites. But what if you could have followed their rise from mid-career, guiding and helping them help each other while identifying the patterns and relationships that made them successful? And once you had that, could you reverse-engineer the process?
The tone of Davos is an intoxicating mix of humble-bragging and overweening earnestnesses, and Tokyo was no different. At my prompting, conversations with Young Global Leaders quickly turned self-referential—they knew who was pulling the strings, and didn’t mind so long as it worked.
As someone experienced in finding signals buried in the noise, Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño, who runs the World Bank’s Big Data projects, understood why the WEF would want to foreground these connections. “How to quantify the value of the YGLs is something the Forum has struggled with,” he said, “but to me, it’s the indirect value that’s huge. The compounding effect of connecting the right people could define the future of this enterprise. It could change your mind; it could change your life!”
A recurring theme in nearly every conversation was the overwhelming importance of “trust.” By this, they meant two things. One is that everyone here was equal in their self-regard; there was no wasting time establishing they were, in fact, peers. The other was rooted in the storytelling Williamson had described. “The algorithm can’t say: ‘You people should talk—go!” insisted Valerie Keller, executive director of global markets at Ernst & Young. Each fervently believed Klein’s software was necessary, but insufficient—that there was an irreducible human element it couldn’t account for.
A particularly resonant example of this belief belonged to Geoff Davis, a veteran micro-financier who’s worked closely with the movement’s founder, Muhammad Yunus. His nomination as a Young Global Leader in 2007 coincided with an illness that nearly killed him. “I was weeks away from dying; my organs and systems had started shutting down,” says Davis. After a year of secluded convalescence, the annual summit served as his reemergence. “I’d told a few people privately of what I’d endured and what I learned, and they insisted I tell the group,” he recalled. “So, I stood and started tearfully describing it…”
Multiple Young Leaders I spoke to recalled it. Surely such raw emotions can’t be crunched by an algorithm, much less reverse-engineered, right?
Wrong. The next morning on the Narita Express, Klein showed me the Matrix. “The health question is always my favorite,” he said, as we took a tour of the database during the ride to the airport. There it was, one field among dozens nestled in the records for literally hundreds of the Young Global Leaders: “Have you or your family suffered a serious illness?” Bonding over brushes with death is one of Klein’s strongest predictors of personal trust—and one of the best levers at his disposal. Even when he and his colleagues tried to generate teams with nothing obviously in common—as was the case on their sprint through Tokyo—the machine had silently matched them along such lines all the same.
Unleashing artificial intelligence on human relationships is one of the hallmarks of what the World Economic Forum calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which was the subject of a talk in Tokyo by Schwab. “When everything is predicted and prescribed, what is the role of humanity?” he had asked plaintively.
I think the pairing of People Science with the hands-on techniques of The Value Web offers one answer. When that the digitally networked and biohacked revolution is realized, the value will lie in helping people make their own discoveries, face-to-face, and to do it smarter and faster.
“It’s crazy how little time, energy, and money goes into convening people physically versus doing it online,” said Lucian Tarnowski, yet another of the YGLs and the CEO of BraveNew, a corporate learning and sharing platform. “VCs might categorize the market Brandon or I are in as ‘human resources,’ or tell me the knowledge management market is worth so many billion dollars per year. But this is a totally new market—call it the ‘potential gap’ market—and it’s so new it doesn’t have a value yet.”
The World Economic Forum, at least, is sold on the idea. Dutton’s team is busy internalizing and refining The Value Web’s methods at their behest (although it’s probably too much to hope they’ll use it at Davos 2018). For his part, Klein has taken Aaron Williamson’s long-term view to heart, and is currently testing People Science at a high school in Minneapolis that his children might one day attend.
Working with teachers and the school’s principal, they recruited students who self-identified as open-minded and diverse, as well as interested in designing their own curriculum. The only requirement is that they had to pick another student to join them in the class—one they didn’t know, and who differed from them in age, race, or interests. For three months, they ran a sort of mini-Youth Global Leader summit, with rotating groups overhauling science and English and history classes, with one team visiting local authors and booksellers and even writing a book.
“We have to apply these principles to our own communities,” said Klein. “Otherwise we’re all going to keep going in the direction that we’re going.”
This article was written by Greg Lindsay from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.