J. P. Rangaswami of Salesforce makes the argument that it is best not to found partnerships on contracts, since contracts tend to focus on “recourse in the event of breach”. Simply put: “who pays when things go wrong”. He argues instead for an enabling principle of partnerships based on “covenant” since the intentionality in covenants is directed more at “how do we both still win even if things go wrong”.

I think he has a point.

There is a bigger idea though, capable in my view of encapsulating most of the discussions that took place at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin. That idea focuses on how a revamped philosophical notion of “public covenant” can trump that of the old political virtue of the social contract.

The social contract as a mechanism of providing legitimacy to power has over time reduced the enabling principle of how societies work together to a transactional arrangement, or, more accurately, to a series of transactions in which politicians and business leaders focus on short-term pay-offs that shift the true costs of decision-making to weaker counterparties such as unborn generations, non-organized interests and minorities.

Whether it is the ordinary mass of citizens hampered by rational ignorance in their ability to follow the excruciating details of healthcare policy, and contribute accordingly, or super investors short-changing small value investors by sacrificing the sustainability of a business value proposition for immediate stock market gratification, the social contract upon which our modern societies are based is degenerating into a cost-dodging scam to the advantage of better-organized cartels.

In Africa, where I live, the view is widespread that the current global architecture is designed to constantly disrupt the bargaining power of emerging and economically weaker states. An unreformed aid system has been thrust into our societies to reinforce the position of incumbents rather than stimulate the rise of innovators. Even the emergence of a new, exciting, South-South partnership between Africa and China has offered scant evidence of a fundamental shift in the status quo, since initial beneficiaries have tended to be members of the old guard rather than the entrepreneurial and social activist vanguard.

And yet the glimmers of optimism of a new era of global multistakeholder solidarity shone through even the darkest pall of exasperation. Recognition of missed opportunities was also attended by an exhilarating admixture of respect and surprise at how many opportunities have, in spite of everything else, actually come through.

The CEO of a multinational consumer goods company illustrated with incredible eloquence the depth of new corporate thinking about engaging small and medium enterprises (SMEs), smallholder farmers, local cultural brokers and sub-provincial authorities in the supply chain of raw materials. Clearly, to prevent a competition-induced race to the bottom among big supply chain actors, it is not just business models that need innovating but industry models as well.

A top African politician dispelled notions of a continent incapable of developing original solutions to such strategic challenges as the social exclusion of youth, women and the economically disempowered. The legislature in his East African country actually hosts more women than any other anywhere else on the globe. (View the session, Africa’s Future Economy)

A venture capitalist based in the United States regaled a break-out session with tales of start-ups in New Zealand hooking up with giant Chinese state-owned industries to convert gaseous pollutants into green power. Not on paper, but in actuality.

The chairman of an electronics company based in Beijing roused visiting Young Global Leaders with passionate speeches about the urgent need to reform the image of Chinese brands overseas. “You can’t help everybody,” he said soberly, referring to the multitudes of private Chinese companies eager to venture into lucrative western markets, “but we can help all the good ones”. So, what’s the plan? Create a joint brand experience akin to the more successful aspects of the marketing strategy of the International Olympic Committee. The “brand alliance” he has put together is anchored on a “bond of fealty” and is attracting interest from European royalty. (View the session, Demystifying Asia’s Entrepreneurs)

Everywhere you looked in Tianjin, you saw taking shape the intriguing possibilities of a public covenant; a new culture of partnerships based less on the fear of failure and more on the hope of success.

Author: Bright B. Simons is President of the MPedigree Network, a member of Global Agenda Council on Data-driven Development and a 2012 Young Global Leader. He is also the social entrepreneur behind the idea of using mobile phones to suppress counterfeit products.

Picture: REUTERS/Peter MacDiarmid.