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"I wish that more people could experience the World Economic Forum meetings": Q&A with Jon Hutton

14 Feb 2014
Davos in the snow (credit: Robert Scoble)

At the end of January 2014 Dr Jon Hutton gave a presentation, on behalf of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. Here Dr Hutton, the Director of the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, reflects on his impressions of the meeting, and on how the Cambridge conservation community might engage with the World Economic Forum in the future.

What were your general impressions of the World Economic Forum meeting?

I thought it was outstanding; it lived up to the all hyperbole and the hype. I was really quite astonished to see the levels of engagement, particularly between strangers. There’s a huge emphasis on talking to other people at the meeting, and this inclusive culture even extends to the conference transport; as soon as you get into the shuttle you can be sure that everyone on there will ask who you are and what you do. That’s a great introduction to the meeting, and you soon become imbued with that culture.

What was the nature of your session at the World Economic Forum meeting, and what did you talk about?

My presentation was part of an IdeasLab entitled ‘What technological and policy innovations will help humanity adapt to a climate-changed world?. IdeaLabs are short, fast-paced sessions in which speakers make brief presentations with slides, in a format known as pecha kucha. As it happens, the person who claims to have invented pecha kucha was also at the meeting – I’m not sure whether or not he felt we did justice to his invention...

Our session was introduced by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. My fellow presenters were Professor Julian Dowdeswell, from the Scott Polar Research Institute, and Lord Rees. I have to say that I found the presentations given by Cambridge colleagues among the most interesting of the whole meeting!

The topic of my talk, ‘Working with nature to manage risk’ turned out to be timely, given the extreme weather events occuring in the UK that week. During my presentation I focused on ecosystem-based adaptation and the role of natural/semi-natural ecosystems in coping with increasingly erratic and extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Coincidentally, the BBC ran a piece about the need to consider rewilding of the uplands as part of a flood-mitigation strategy on the morning of our IdeasLab.

Members of the insurance industry attended our session, as they are very interested in ecosystem-based adaptation. There is a feeling the industry can no longer take a purely actuarial approach to insurance, but needs to be modelling weather and ecosystem-related factors as well.  

After the presentations the speakers engaged with the audience in smaller groups around key questions relating to their presentations. My discussion session turned out to be lively, with a focus on how we might help the insurance industry get to grips with the potential of ecosystems as an adjunct to engineering solutions to the sorts of problems we are facing, and will face more of in the future.   

In term of follow-up, there’s been a lot of email correspondence since the meeting. I know that ecosystem-based adaptation will be an important item on the agenda of the UNEP Finance Initiative when it meets with the insurance industry later this year, so I think there’s going to be significant movement on this front.

From your personal perspective, what do you think came out of your session?

I found attending the meeting very satisfying; it was a great development experience. I wish that more people could experience the World Economic Forum meetings; if you have something to say it’s a massive opportunity to get access to the people who need to hear it. I do think that in the future CCI, and Cambridge more generally, need a strategy to make sure they are well represented at WEF meetings.

How do you think the conservation community globally can best engage with the World Economic Forum?

First of all, it has to be sure it has something to say. Sometimes the conservation community can appear quite inward-looking – there’s a feeling in some cases that the decision makers attending the WEF just need to listen to the scientists and the world will be fine. The reality at the meeting is very different. Perhaps enabling conservation practitioners to attend the meeting, to get a look at how the cogs really turn, might focus minds a bit and help us find a way to make our work and our passion more immediately relevant.

What do you see as the role of the World Economic Forum meeting in addressing CCI’s strategic objectives?

One of CCI’s strategic objectives is to bridge the science/policy interface, and part of this involves making sure the many values of biodiversity are recognised and built into economic decisions such as national planning and financial mechanisms. It seems to me the World Economic Forum is an extremely important outlet for the many ideas that are emerging, and will continue to emerge, from CCI.        

The title of your ideasLab presentation was ‘Working with nature to manage risk’ – do you feel that that Cambridge is particularly well placed to do this, and why?

The one advantage we have in Cambridge over other global centres of conservation thinking is that we genuinely have a critical mass of smart people working on the issues. If we want a place at the table it’s vital that we have to have something to say, and if we’re going to have something to say we need to capitalise on and mobilise the expertise from around Cambridge and beyond. A key means of doing so is to utilise the convening power of CCI.