Problem Solving

Bill Clinton Opens His CGI Summit by Stressing the Urgency of His Mission

The former president convened his Clinton Global Initiative summit with a plea for fast action, writes David Freedlander.

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

Former President Bill Clinton welcomed a thousand journalists from around the world and even more visitors on Sunday for the seventh installment of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), his think tank turned nongovernmental organization (NGO) that is dedicated to no less a goal than solving the world’s problems.

The program began with a look back, as Clinton called recipients of previous CGI grants to the stage to give progress reports on their work, while the president looked on like a proud father.

The theme of this year’s session was “Designing for Impact,” and was dedicated to creating and tracking programs that alleviate hunger, disease, or violence and figuring out how to then replicate successful programs on a massive, global scale.

“Today we want to talk about how you can design your actions in advance to make it more likely they will succeed,” Mr. Clinton said.

The program will run through Tuesday, and the list of speakers is a testament to Clinton’s continued draw—and his Rolodex. Slated to attend are people from the political world, including President Barack Obama, members of his administration and his opponent, Governor Mitt Romney; the new leaders of Egypt and Libya; boldfaced names from the media world including Piers Morgan and Fareed Zakaria; the business world, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein; and the Clinton world, including his daughter, Chelsea, and his wife, secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I want to say my standard broken record,” Clinton said at the outset. “That cooperation works better than conflict. I say that not for the purpose of avoiding disagreement—there will be a lot of those here—but the point is to act.”

The opening session was a conversation between Linda Tischler, senior editor at Fast Company magazine, and Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm.

Brown told the audience that the key to good design was experimentation and learning from mistakes.

At the opening, Clinton was very much the maestro, a mixture of MC and talk show host. Dressed in a pinstripe suit and a gray tie, he was more somber than celebratory, setting a tone, perhaps, to fit the gravity of the world’s problems he hopes to solve. At the opening session, the former president sat on stage with Michael T. Duke, President and CEO of Walmart, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations and Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

Clinton pressed the assembled group on solving the world’s most pressing problems: “I am not getting any younger. I am impatient about this,” he said.The group talked about expanding education, access to technology, environmental sustainability, and economic development.“All over the world, we think we’re good at it, but we’re not very good at creating education and employment,” Clinton said.The former president was in his best Phil Donahue mode, listening to his co-panelists with his legs crossed, his head resting in his hand, his microphone cradled against his ear.

At one point Ban Ki-moon said that the event looked like a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, which is set to begin a few blocks away in New York this week as well.The former president barely smiled in agreement.