Davos 2020: "Stakeholder Capitalism"

February 11, 2020
Imagination in Action at Davos 2020

Alex Pentland and John Werner

This year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, you could feel the ground shifting beneath the feet of big companies and governments. Inside the Tata Dome, more than 400 attendees talked with the creators of dozens of real-world, human-centered ventures, many already touching tens and even hundreds of millions of people. This gathering is appropriately named “Imagination In Action”, and was curated by Alex Pentland of MIT Connection Science, John Werner of Link Ventures, and Randall Lane, Chief Content Officer of Forbes (see imaginationinaction.xyz ).

People around the world are realizing that in order for capitalism to survive, it will require crafting a new sort of social contract that restores the balance between money and people by constructing institutions and laws that control rights, ownership, and use. To address this need, the new ventures and ideas that were discussed at Imagination In Action are providing radically new solutions for funding and managing new civic and government systems, for digital privacy and cybersecurity, and for providing more agile, inclusive, and transparent responses to societies’ problems.

At Davos the catch phrase for this new social contract is “stakeholder capitalism”, that is, capitalism that benefits everyone. At Imagination in Action, attendees explored the realization that the same technologies that are causing social unrest also permit creation of new types of civic systems where power is distributed among the stakeholders rather than concentrated in just a few hands.

From this discussion the path to true stakeholder capitalism and a new social contract became clear. Capitalism that benefits everyone does not measure itself by money only, but instead by the metrics developed to quantify the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Education, health, sustainability, and access to opportunity now have quantitative metrics agreed to by every nation on earth, and which can guide both enterprises and nation to a more sustainable and lower risk future.

This new stakeholder capitalism, where capital performance is measured by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is enabled by the fact that technologies like AI, blockchain, and IoT are making it cheaper, easier, and safer to do business with anyone ,anywhere anytime. Networks of regular people are using these technologies for superhuman collaboration, a sort of extended human intelligence that can easily leap across organizational, cultural, and national boundaries.

These technology-driven networks are lowering the cost of coordination to the point where traditional centralized, hierarchical organizations are no longer required even for large-scale projects or production. As a consequence, people are beginning to create substantial ventures that are more distributed and flexible, and which can operate adjacent to existing capital markets, labor pools and legal frameworks.


Imagination in Action is about doing, focusing on the work of optimistic builders who believe they can help create a better world. This year at Davos, we saw distributed platforms hosting large investment funds, new platforms for inclusive government and billion-dollar businesses driven by millions of individual investor/citizens/entrepreneurs but with little central management. Here is a personal overview of some of the highlights, organized into traditional categories within the social contract (capital, labor, land) and the newest category, which is data.

Capital: new ways spreading opportunity

They say that money makes the world go ‘round, but in reality there are a lot of wobbles. Can we make our financial systems more transparent and less winner-take-all? Perhaps the most striking answer was the Prosperity Collaborative, a commitment by organizations such as EY and New America to renovate developing nations tax and social payments systems by using free, open-source software, with training and deployment paid by organizations such as the World Bank. Another was an alliance of world-wide Law schools to create Computational Law, building “extended intelligence” legal tools that will help give common people the sort of access to justice that only the wealthy enjoy today. There were also examples of big businesses reaching out to protect the entire financial ecosystem, and not just their own interests. For instance, Mastercard announced ThreatScan, a system to protect small businesses around the world from cyberattack... for free...and ORS announced an open-source AI system to help small business and cities make tourism more sustainable and inclusive.

Global Citizen made a real splash at Imagination In action, bringing in senior leadership of nations ranging from Togo to Belgium, international aid organizations such as GAVI, and film star Priyanka Chopra. Well-known philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones led this segment which included announcement of a $350B / year initiative among several leading philanthropists. Core to this initiative is making philanthropy more effective: today only 2% of giving has impact plan and monitoring! Guiding philanthropy using quantitative impact assessment as measured by SDGs, will transform philanthropy from a feel-good cottage industry into a serious force for good.

Labor: new types of engagement

The robot overlords are coming! Everyone is worried about how AI will transform work and society. Key to avoiding dystopian futures is to stop working on AI that replaces people, to AI that enhances human intelligence, called “Extended Intelligence” (EI). At Imagination in Action we saw CEOs of a dozen “Forbes 100” companies...including TCS, BT, Mastercard, and more...commit to changing from AI to EI. Similarly, we heard from leading universities (e.g., MIT, Stanford), entire university systems (e.g., Australia), and governments (e.g., the UAE) that they are refocusing their educational program to support Extended Intelligence rather than AI.

There were also international initiatives aimed at replacing AI with Extended Intelligence. Most striking was the IEEE’s creation of Extended Intelligence standards (the IEEE is the world’s largest professional organization, and home to virtually every AI, Blockchain, and IoT researcher and professional), and the ELLIS network in the EU, a grassroots effort by AI researchers to replace old-style AI with human centered extended intelligence.

Finally, we heard from the leaders of many international companies such as Verizon, Addeco Group, Tata, Cisco, BT and others that they were helping this transformation by establishing apprenticeship programs, providing real-world experience and life-long learning for their communities. Perhaps just as interesting is development of a new science of learning that can determine what skills and training will make companies and cities not only resilient but bloom in this new AI-enabled world.

Data: enabling citizen power

If data is the “new oil”, then what about citizen rights over this new resource? People are worried about surveillance capitalism, and the concentration of data in the hands of just a few companies. The core problem is that data is now as important as property, money, or labor, but our social contract is silent on how data rights should flow within our society. Moreover, despite impassioned calls from advocates of every stripe, the most fair and healthy framework for data rights and data use is not yet clear, if only because the availability and use of data is changing so quickly.

This suggests that the answer for data is similar to the answers for labor, capital, and property: collective bargaining by citizens to reach a satisfactory trade with both government and companies. The idea of unionization of data, giving citizens and employees the data and AI tools to demand fair treatment from both government and companies, similar to how Labor unions of early 1900’s established rules for labor.

At Imagination in Action we heard from technologists developing the tools for data unions, and from Open Music ...a collective of digital artists coming together and using AI, blockchain, and IoT to bargain with the entertainment industry. There were also plans for similar platforms among international consumer unions and associations of labor unions.

Property: new infrastructure, more inclusive trade

The new distributed, technology-enabled organizations we saw at Imagination in Action are particularly attractive outside of the developed world, where existing institutions are weak, and in poorly-served neighborhoods inside of wealthy nations. For instance, we heard about crowdsourcing of an almost billion-dollar hydroelectric project in Pakistan, built with only minimal government participation.

These first examples of distributed infrastructure funding and control are mostly industrial trading networks built outside the reach of traditional players such as governments, banks, or clearinghouses. Success of these new types of ventures are causing many countries and companies to focus on the trade routes linking the EU, Africa, South Asia, and China.

The rise of these new distributed finance and management systems appear to be the beginning of a great experiment in creating widely distributed infrastructure, supported by broadly distributed funding that is largely independent of large nations, large banks and the wealthy western world. The trade between EU, Asia, Africa and India will determine the future of half of the world’s population, and will also make or break the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

So our challenge is this: what are YOU going to do to change the world? We are looking for optimistic builders who are changing our world’s fundamental systems in order to feature them at MIT on May 2d and at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2021. Join us!