The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) arrived in early fall in the midst of local and world tumult. It was the week of the UN General Assembly, and the week the Pope came to town. Diplomats were entering the final preparatory stages for the urgent Paris Climate Change conference in early December. Political pressure was rising in the US with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders soon to embark on their first debate.
In the midst of all this, CGI created the context for a wide variety of world leaders to make big commitments about improving the world. Over the last decade CGI has become a sort of Davos-on-US-soil, distinguishing itself with a focus on action and innovation, both in international and local development. There’s a heavy emphasis on peace processes and democracy, as well as attention to infrastructures of healthcare, education, energy and aid for those in need.
The event is a wildly elaborate production, yet it conveys a sense of intimacy and care thanks to the presence of former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea. I attended as new member of LEAD, a mentor-mentee program that will support CGI University, which in April convenes a thousand future ‘change-preneurs’ at UC Berkeley. Somehow the Clintons convey a sense of both duty and empathy. Remarkably, there was no mention to Hillary’s campaign except indirectly, in a sharp few words from President Clinton about about Donald Trump. “One shouldn’t be able to insult or resent your way into the White House,” he said on stage.
The themes of the conference fall into four rough categories:
-Democracy and human rights
-The realities of climate change and the need to support biodiversity
-Health issues, including Ebola and other epidemics as well as non-communicable diseases, including depression and PTSD
-New technologies and Silicon Valley’s potential for social impact
There was a clever mix of the present and future., Tough topical questions got attention, like the Greek financial situation and the risk of so-called Grexit from the European Union, the Ukrainian challenges posed by Putin, and the tragic Syrian refugee crisis and its geopolitical ripples. But there were also sessions on things like Sylvia Earle’s efforts for ocean conservation, and Richard Branson on space exploration, the ultimate luxury tourism. But he believes it benefits humanity.
One vibrant moment was a discussion about southern Europe’s pressing challenges moderated by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, which included Bill Clinton with former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, current Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the inimitably opinionated George Soros. Renzi seemed to be boxing his way into the league of great politicians– some describe him as the Bill Clinton of Italy. He made it clear he didn’t like one implicit assumption during the panel–that Italy might become the next Greece. This followed a discussion in which Greek businesswoman Gianna Angelopoulous defended the deal Greece negotiated to reboot its economy, while a very skeptical Joseph Stiglitz argued that the debt burden would still prevent sufficient growth to allow the country to recover.
There were a number of awards and initiatives. One prize went to a way to address education in the most remote places via mobile telephony. Then there were the Clinton Citizen Awards.
Bill Gates impressively lectured this group of experts on the future of global health and how we could make significant impact. The Gates Foundation has become the world’s second largest funder of health and development innovation after the U.S. government.
Jessica Biel and Charlize Theron brought a bit of glitter to the production but also moved many in the audience with their seemingly genuine passion for their projects–WomanCare in the case of Biel, and the Africa Outreach Project for Theron. It underscored a main tenet of this event: that celebrity can be used for good.
Technology was everywhere. Even less techno-literate leaders seemed to marvel at how technologies can help entire nations leapfrog and become more competitive. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson kicked off one session by speaking with Pepper the Social Humanoid Robot. He even hugged and fist-pumped the machine.
Meanwhile the general public still has big doubts about AI and the possibility of massive job losses, as robots rise as alternatives to human labor. The stage appearance of the robot, a kind of “polemical product,” was perhaps intended as a wake-up call so those in charge can become more aware of the need to be smart and ready for what automation may soon bring us.
The conference also showcased Virtual Reality (VR) as a kind of tool for empathy. The idea is that it may open possibilities for new storytelling to help bring those in developed countries closer to the reality of life in the developing ones. CGI showed a VR mini-documentary called “Inside Impact” that took conference-goers inside modern Kenya, including its notorious Kibera slum, the largest in Africa.
After several days of looking at the world with clear-eyed optimism and watching performances including those by Tony Bennett and Ben Harper, a certain nostalgia set in. It was palpable when President Bill Clinton closed the conference with Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Jack Ma of Alibaba. (This was before Holmes was hammered by a devastating investigative report in the Wall Street Journal.) Both Holmes and Ma spoke of the need for business to scale needed solutions that the public sector cannot.
President Bill Clinton’s last sentences could have come from the Dalai Lama himself. He said combining action with wisdom is the key ingredient to create a more balanced world.
Architect and futurist Thomas Ermacora is Director of Clear-Village.Org & MachinesRoom.Org. He co-authored Recoded City: Co-Creating Urban Futures, to be published in December.