World Economic Forum
Annual meeting of the Young Global Leaders 2019
From the moment I arrived in Dalian, China, the excitement started. I first met a scientist studying dark energy and dark matter. Then on the way from the airport to the hotel I met a scientist who tests satellites for their resilience to radiation before sending them to orbit. The journey to Dalian was 30 hours door to door, so I crashed at the hotel upon arriving a little before midnight, to rest up for the first day.
The first day had us meeting our fellow Young Global Leaders classmates before going through some leadership sessions. What struck me is how everyone I met had a real sense of purpose behind what they do, whether it was in business, nonprofit, academia, culture, etc. Daria from Ukraine fights corruption around the world by advocating for and enabling independent press. Katie from Georgia is literally building a city with a deep sea port that will open up her country to tremendous economic opportunity. Both had interesting conversations about Russia from both a historical perspective growing up in the USSR, and more recent events.
After meeting dozens of new people from almost as many countries, we went through some sessions to prepare us for the conference and to break out into interest groups. The group I met with focused on education and workforce development. One idea that came out of that conversation is the need to foster entrepreneurship through training and placement in our workforce programs. Afterwards, we were hosted at a dinner at what I could only describe as a castle. My new friend Bogolo, the Minister of Investment for Botswana, was kind enough to let me join her motorcade. It was a great night but I was exhausted from the 13-hour time difference and the 30 hours travel time, so I was ready for bed.
Day 2 started with fellow YGL classmate Mamuka Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia, hearing about his dedication to education in his country. He is allocating up to 25% of the federal budget to education, about 6% of their GDP. There is a strong emphasis on apprenticeships as part of his plan. After that was speeches from two other classmates where the theme was the psychology of personal mental health and resilience. One of the speakers is a screenwriter and focused on the Hero’s Journey in storytelling as a way to view your purpose and overcome adversity. Really interesting and interactive.
This year the YGL annual summit overlapped with WEF’s “summer Davos,” which is their big mid-year meeting. The official name is the Annual Meeting of New Champions, or AMNC. AMNC was truly awe-inspiring. I’ve never seen anything like it. I walked over to the conference center where AMNC was taking place, and it was like the bar scene in Star Wars — the sights and sounds of people representing nearly every culture on earth, people interacting and sharing their ideas, the sheer visual of the conference set up — all of it was a lot to take in. Entering the main area you walk by several open layout side rooms with various talks being simultaneously translated into four languages; on the other side is a giant fishbowl room with a wraparound interactive screen; down a few more steps is a media room with cameras and sound equipment; and at the end there’s a café setup with meeting clusters all designed to bring people together.
At any given moment there are 6 to 9 speeches going on, so you just have to pick one that you’re most interested in and drop by. Topics range from education technology, data and decision making for urbanization, self-driving cars, energy transition, future of work, industrial policy, blockchain, neutrinos, and the list goes on. The talks I dropped in on that afternoon were the future of work in energy, technology’s impact on policy and privacy, getting taxation right, energy frontier technologies, creating sustainable mobility in cities, and human microbiome. If I had to pick one theme that emerged from a couple talks and conversations with various people there it would be the role of natural gas as a bridge fuel to provide a cleaner, abundant, and ready energy source to bring about a quarter of the world’s population into a thriving middle class. I spoke with leaders in industry and environment from Japan, Bangladesh, China, and India, and all indicated a significant desire to grow liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports as a way to address both environmental, growth, and quality of life objectives. The panel on technology included a YGL who created Africa’s first “unicorn” (billion dollar company), and one idea that emerged is the dichotomy around how monopoly in technology benefits the users but creates privacy issues that we’re still grappling with.
That night the city of Dalian puts on this “cultural soiree” where they have entertainment and food representing all regions of China. It was a huge festival on par with anything I’ve ever experienced. I spent time with a Paraguayan minister, paralympic gold medalist, and Egyptian healthcare entrepreneur eating our way through China. We petered out at the noodles made out of fruit, which is apparently a thing.
On day 3 I attended talks on talent-transforming technology, urban fragility, reputation and risk in business, and an extended session with YGLers who share common interests in workforce development. The purpose of the YGL session was to cement ideas from previous days and hone in on actionable plans we can take back home. Fostering entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships were probably the biggest takeaways in that YGL session. Already in Oklahoma we’re working on reforming licensing and incorporating the private sector in retraining efforts. Another YGL group came up with the idea to use blockchain as a sort of ledger to hold governments accountable and create transparency. I also had an interesting meeting with Japanese executives who indicated their priority to increase LNG imports and use natural gas as a cornerstone in their goal to grow their middle class and reduce emissions.
That evening was a reception and dinner for all YGLs including alumni. I met a fascinating entrepreneur from Nigeria who is creating a technology incubator with heavy hitters in the technology world. The model he has created could have great potential to foster truly innovative technologies. At dinner I met a retail entrepreneur from Myanmar — she has grown her business to include distribution and real estate. While many people I met come from parts of the world I’ve never had the privilege to visit, it’s interesting how much we share in common around challenges and the everyday grind in trying to pursue your ideas.
The last day was pretty short since I had to catch my flight back to the US. I did catch a talk called “Neutrinos for Peace.” My love for science and the intriguing title motivated me to attend this talk even though I risked missing my flight. I packed my bags, checked out of the hotel, and made transportation arrangements in advance so I could make it. Neutrinos are one of the fundamental particles of the universe. Millions pass through us and earth every second, undetected. Neutrinos could even pass largely uninhibited through a light-year thick wall of lead. The speaker is building a $300 million facility to measure neutrinos to help unlock their secrets. We don’t know yet what the application will be. But when Heinrich Hertz discovered radio waves he was convinced for his entire life that they had absolutely no practical use. The speaker’s title related to the fact that we now know that neutrinos could be used to detect if a nuclear facility was being used for power generation or if it is being converted for weapons. We don’t know what other applications there could be, but the idea that somebody out there is trying to find out is fascinating.
I then caught the first of three flights back home, by way of Tokyo and Denver. This time it was only 22 hours door to door.
Naturally the first word that comes to mind is “inspired.” I was inspired by the people and ideas that I encountered. I was inspired by the international focus on the most important issues we face. I was inspired to learn about the unique successes people have had impacting their communities. For example, I met somebody who left their investment banking career to start a nonprofit working with women in India to become entrepreneurs, providing needed tools like training, infrastructure, and financial resources, hence breaking a stigma not through asking people to think differently, but by creating a new de facto normal. I could also use the word “impressed” to describe my takeaway. Or I could talk about all the specific ideas that I can take back home for implementation, of which there are plenty. Certainly I picked up on some macro-trends that are just now barely making the news, like how several counties from different regions are building deep sea ports which portends a global, more connected market place. Or how there are 1–2 billion people who are only now entering a thriving middle class lifestyle, and what that means for challenges and opportunities. Or how we’re having to rethink how we legislate monopolies in technology.
But now that the dust has settled and I’ve had a few days to reflect on my experience, the best word that comes to mind is “agitated.” Not in the annoyed sense of the word, but in the sense that I’m moved to do something, but not knowing what that something is. My mind was opened to all the ways that people make an impact in their community, their society, and in their sector. This was just my first YGL/WEF event, and I have 5 years to immerse myself with this group. I can only imagine who else I’ll meet or what ideas I’ll be exposed to, but I know I’m thankful to be included and feel a sense of responsibility to bring my experience back home.
Originally published at https://nathanielharding.net on July 12, 2019.