At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum earlier this year, António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, pointed out the trend of weakening coordination within the global community in response to an increasingly inter-connected set of challenges.

Some see fragmentation in today’s world as result of growing public dissent toward deficiencies in economic globalization. Others see the overall transition toward a multipolar world – generally viewed as making cooperation more difficult compared to either a unipolar or bipolar order – as the reason behind this trend.

Despite growing calls for a reversal to unilateralism in many corners of the world, the very fact that the multilateral system has enabled much of the greatest progress mankind has achieved since the system's inception – from accelerating poverty eradication to making improvements in health to achieving global economic stability to preserving peace – should sustain our efforts to find ways to unlock new pathways for multilateralism.

In strengthening multilateral approaches to global challenges, adding a systems-view and a multistakeholder dimension are essential.

Building trust with a diversified set of contributors

With sovereign states as principle actors, building trust between states and overcoming a “zero-sum” mentality have always been difficult tasks to accomplish at the outset when advancing any type of multilateral cooperation. In dealing with issues that go beyond national borders, there will inevitably be gaps between domestic and international priorities and hence the question of delegating the authority needed to bridge this gap will often stall or even derail multilateral negotiations.

This problem can be eased by widening the view of the issue landscape and curating a much wider set of relevant stakeholders who are able to bring their contributions to the table. By untangling the complex set of trade-offs between and among different stakeholders, the coalition of actors can begin to build a shared agenda that can yield unexpected breakthroughs in achieving common objectives.

Moving forward with dialogue

PACE (Platform for Accelerating Circular Economy), launched during the 2018 World Economic Forum Annual meeting, is a good example that illustrates how collective efforts to drive public-private action and collaboration on the circular economy can reinforce existing multilateral efforts. As a coalition among governments and private-sector and civil-society actors, the platform houses multiple different projects that it catalyzes and helps to scale while capturing learnings and providing global leadership on the transition to the circular economy.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Utilizing such a platform model, while requiring initial efforts to identify opportunities and curate a community, can move at an accelerated pace once the right set of actors come together and begin to identify shared goals. Under legal instruments within the multilateral system (such as conventions or treaties), one must accept moving at the speed of the slowest, agreeing to the lowest common denominator. However, the gravity of challenges or the opportunities that can help overcome these challenges often necessitates collective action even when relevant protocol or regulations have not yet taken shape.

The Enabling E-commerce initiative is an informal collaboration spearheaded by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) and the World Economic Forum to drive public-private dialogue on e-commerce policies and practices that benefit small businesses. It aims to catalyse discussion among different actors in both public and private sectors, collect best practices and explore national regulatory enabling environments, and apply and scale these best practices. The initiative prioritizes action that can be taken even in the absence of formal treaties governing the e-commerce space but at the same time galvanizes debate around it so that there is more support from the political actors that will ultimately have to agree on the governing principles.

Multi-stakeholder ways to shape our future

The World Economic Forum and the United Nations recently signed a Strategic Partnership Framework for the 2030 Agenda that aims to boost collective action between the UN System and the World Economic Forum and in turn with the various platforms, communities and actors that have been jointly working towards the SDGs. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized in her address in Davos this year, “commitment to multilateralism is essential and a precondition for shaping tomorrow.”

To inspire collective thinking and action among governments, business and civil society organizations to further improve the current global cooperation architecture, the Forum recently published a white paper entitled, “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” suggesting general design parameters on how global cooperation architecture can be upgraded in the era of Globalization 4.0, together with other examples for agile, yet outcome-oriented and interoperable innovations.

With an active embrace of a platform approach, our multilateral system will be able to continue to provide the resources and momentum needed to tackle the most serious challenges facing mankind, and, as this task should no longer be left as only the responsibility of governments, it will open up space for more collective action by a wider set of actors.