Every year for nearly half a century, the St. Gallen Symposium has gathered hundreds of participants – titans of industry, top politicians, entrepreneurs and scholars, students and activists – to discuss an important topic. In recent years, attendees have discussed disruption, growth, and the future of work.
When it was first proposed, this year’s theme seemed limited, even unimaginative: What could be more predictable than a conference on capital held in one of the richest countries on earth?
But as guests gathered in St. Gallen, it became clear that they were there not to celebrate the status quo, but to challenge it. Over the course of three days they questioned the very nature of the system that has organised our economies and preoccupied our politicians for centuries. From its first moments, the symposium’s debates concerned nothing less than the uncertain and precarious future of our world. In the face of profound, existential threats, they agreed, we must make profound changes.
‘YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NOT THE FUTURE’
In one of the last sessions of the symposium, Bobby Jones, a New York-based marketing guru who has worked extensively with today’s youth, challenged the very premise that “Leaders of Tomorrow” should wait their turn. “We tell young people, ‘you’re going to be great someday’,” Jones said. “But young people are ready to change the world, and they’re doing it – right now. This idea that young people are the future is a lie. Young people are not the future. They are our most powerful resource for cultural and systemic change.”
CAPITAL – AND QUESTIONS
The topic of the 49th St. Gallen Symposium was “Capital for Purpose.” But another theme emerged over the course of three days: developing uncertainty. As faith in capitalism across the world rapidly erodes, the present and future leaders gathered at the symposium asked each other some crucial questions: Are we living through the beginning of the end of capitalism? And if so, what other forces might fill the vacuum left behind?
Few people at the symposium were willing to completely abandon a system that has, successfully for the most part, fulfilled its purpose for centuries. But everyone acknowledged some difficult truths. If capitalism is to survive, it must be reshaped to alleviate crises like inequality and climate change. To do so, we must get businesses to redefine their purpose and change direction.
In their welcome address, symposium chairmen Dominic Barton, McKinsey & Company Global Managing Partner Emeritus, and Goldman Sachs Vice-Chairman Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach touched on these themes, setting the tone for discussions to come.
For Lord Griffiths, the key questions we need to ask ourselves couldn’t be more basic: “Why do I exist? And how do I integrate the purpose of my life into my business?”
Barton, on the other hand, delivered a full-throated defense of capitalism, a system he argued we need more than ever even as public confidence in it has slipped. “It is the source of solving issues [like] climate change,” he said. “But ... trust and confidence in capitalism has dropped.”
With such complex questions about the future at its heart, it was fitting that the symposium started with a speaker who tried to draw lessons from the past. Niall Ferguson, Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said many young people are only superficially aware of the history of capitalism and socialism – and often confuse socialism with social democracy.
From Ferguson’s long-term perspective, capitalism carries an inevitable cost with it. “The choice is clear: one has to decide whether one wants to go for growth and innovation and accept a greater level of inequality, or whether one wants to have a more egalitarian society,” he said. “That’s the central trade off, and democracy is the way we make that decision.”
"One has to decide whether one wants to go for growth and innovation and accept a greater level of inequality, or whether one wants a more egalitarian society."
— Niall Ferguson
Evolution or Revolution
As participants launched into two days of intense debate and exchange, that assertion was questioned over and over again. Participants suggested capitalism must adapt to survive, incorporating more social responsibility. Decision makers clashed over the best way to ensure capitalism remains the correct model for addressing society’s evolving needs. During the ‘Bridging capital and purpose: the way forward’ discussion, top executives laid out competing visions of capitalism.
Tracy Blackwell, Chief Executive Officer of the UK-based Pension Insurance Corporation, cautioned the symposium against radical action in the quest to realign capitalism’s social compass. “We all talk about what doesn’t work,” she said. “We spend very little time talking about what does. Billions of people have been lifted out of poverty because of the allocation of capital.”
This more cautious stance was echoed by Credit Suisse’s International Wealth Management division CEO, Iqbal Khan. “We need to keep in mind that if you want to have capital and purpose align and combine, it has to be sustainable – it has to have a rate of return that is acceptable to the investors,” Khan said.
In contrast, some envisioned a more radical path. Tom Kibasi, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), advocated harnessing capitalism’s power to tackle major social and environmental issues. “Capitalism and democracy exist to serve society, not the other way around,” Kibasi reminded the audience.
The existential threats of climate change and environmental destruction, recurring themes throughout the symposium, merited immediate utilisation of capital. Kibasi said: “We need to put the global economy on a war footing to tackle this challenge.”
The action at the symposium was often offstage: Dozens of small group sessions fostered intense exchange. Such intergenerational conversations, which Credit Suisse Global Marketing and Brand Communications head Steven Althaus called “healthy friction,” set the symposium apart from other forums. It wasn’t just top leaders who had lessons to teach. The Leaders of Tomorrow had a message too. “Making money is not how we envision purpose,” said Anand Ankit, an Indian filmmaker based in Zurich. “We want to see an impact in society.” Two days of debate forced everyone to think more deeply. One thing was quite clear: Over the course of three days, people formed new bonds, expanded their networks, and began a conversation that will keep the spirit of the symposium alive long after the last guests leave.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Two Leaders of Tomorrow, Rafaela Requesens from Venezuela and Majd Almashharawi from Palestine were unable to attend the symposium due to unrest in their countries — a reminder that many regions in the world continue to be volatile and unsafe.
A large installation of a whale made with plastic bottles placed in the middle of the piazza brought the issue of pollution and waste into sharp relief.
“I wish for my country that we concentrate more of our political energy on what we could bring to the world, rather than how we can effectively close our borders.”
— Peter Wuffli, elea Foundation for Ethics in Globalisation
“I want to get more involved in start-ups. You have to be brain-dead to sit in a room with all these young Leaders of Tomorrow and not get fired up.”
— Dominic Barton, McKinsey & Company