World Economic Forum’s 46th Annual Meeting in Davos was particularly stimulating and thought provoking this year. Over 2,500 participants representing Fortune 100 corporations, heads of state, media, heads of NGOs and international organizations and many more, convened in over 250 official sessions and countless side events to discuss the mastering of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications on the state of the world.

davos 2016

One can write about the Davos experience and discussions on the ground from multiple points of view: depending on your background, professional interests, the hat you wore in Davos and how active/resilient you were in the face of sub-zero temperatures and at least half a dozen parallel events that took place at every hour of the day.

Apart from learning a few new buzz words (after all, Davos is where a lot of these are coined) like #centennials (watch out #millennials), #execelebs (trying to capture the status of executives like Sheryl Sandberg or Richard Branson whose influence extends far beyond the companies they represent) or the toddler wage gap (a poignant term raised on the gender parity panel to illustrate how deep the gender stereotypes can run), I tried to capture a few of the newer/converging themes, most of which raised more questions than answers:

1. Technology and disruption/#4IR

The technological disruption/Fourth Industrial Revolution/Second Age of the Machine - an era, as Professor Schwab points out, characterized by: “much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper and by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning” has been one of the most prevalent #Davos topics this year. It was either the main focus of the sessions (nearly half on the main Congress Center four day program) or the topic of discussions and follow up conversations. Leading multinationals from Boston Consulting Group to Accenture, CA and Salesforce focused their private sideline events on tackling the “Man vs. Machine” and “Digital Transformation” questions. Hubo – the first official #Davos robot participant officially eclipsed the “Davos man.” 

However, these topics also raised more paradoxes and questions than answers: Joe Biden spoke about how the new industrial revolution could erode the already shrinking middle class; Nouriel Roubini pointed out that given the capital-intensive, skills-biased and labor-saving nature of tech innovation, it is bound to increase income and wealth inequality. WEF’s own report on the future of jobs discusses the widening gender gap in the future: by 2020, 2.45 million jobs will be lost by women and 2.65 million will be lost by men (as women make up a smaller percentage of the workforce the real term losses for women will be greater). 

2. Education for 21st century and the future of professions

McKinsey estimated that 45% of the activities people are paid to perform today can be automated (translating to $2 trillion in annual wages). A commonly quoted statistic  shows that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately work in new job types that don’t yet exist.  There was a broad consensus in a number of discussions that no sector will be immune from digitization. These developments raise profound implications on the education sector and put pressure on parents (myself included) to reconsider the key skills the next generation ought to develop in order to succeed and be competitive in the rapidly changing world. MIT’s Andy McAffee made a sobering assessment that “we are doing a great job today with education - training the workforce for 50 years ago."

3. Refugee Crisis

There was a stark contrast between the discussion on the future trends and the impact of innovation and technology on our daily lives, and the biggest humanitarian #refugeecrisis plaguing Europe since World War II. The divergence of policy stands in EU was particularly evident on the “Migration to Integration” session that featured Chobani’s founder Hamdi Ulukaya (who made a compelling pledge to contribute half of his wealth to help refugee crisis), Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (that represented Germany in Angela Merkel’s absence) and Serbia’s Prime Minister Vucic. While Vucic and Ulukaya called for refugee integration and opportunity to fuel Europe’s economic growth, Sigmar said that “these people are illiterate, don’t have or want training and that we all ought to recognize the problems they are bringing with them”.

One of my personal #Davos2016 highlights was the “Day in the Life of a Refugee” simulation, organized by the Crossroads Foundation with support from Facebook, UPS, LinklatersNestle and MasterCard. Despite the organizers’ claims that it only captures about 14% of a typical (if there is such a thing) refugee experience, it was chillingly real, shocking and eye opening.   

4. Elections

The U.S. elections was certainly a hot topic in a number of private discussions. David Gergen drew surprising parallels between Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, describing an apparent indictment of the ruling elites in the United States. There was talk of the US becoming a “majority minority country” and the broader implications on the elections and governance. At a private dinner discussion APCO’s team hosted in Davos, participants drew parallels between the rise of populistic campaigns in the US and the rise of similar parties across Europe – from the National Front in France to Kaczynski’s victory in Poland to Syriza Party in Greece given the increasing polarization of societies. One executive poignantly stated that it seemed that only Pope Francis was a leader that understood (and resonated) with the majority of the society today.

5. Women leadership, gender parity 

davos 2016 group
Compared to earlier Davos years, there was progress - not only with the 18 percent of women representation (which is still a mirror of the % of women in C-suite/public sector leadership positions), but with the way the topic became more mainstream – in the program and the numerous side events. Participants from Canada’s Trudeau to Coca-Cola’ Muhtar Kent to some of the “usual suspects” like Sheryl Sandberg, Christine Lagarde and Melinda Gates called for increased women inclusion and economic participation (McKinsey’s recent research estimates that women economic participation is worth USD 23 trillion – as US and China’s GDPs combined). Interestingly, at the opening session on the Transformation of Tomorrow, between Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Microsoft’s Nadella, Anand Mahindra, Open Gov’s Schary Bookman, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – the only female participant still got most of the questions.

6. Insights for communicators

Finally, wearing my own strategic partnerships/communicator hat, I came away with a number of creative ideas on effective communication tools and initiatives in #Davos:

Proliferation (and mainstreaming) of multi-stakeholder partnerships:

From a decade long partnership between P&G and UNICEF on immunizations to Forum’s own work on best practices for public-private sector collaboration.

Power of personal stories:

UN Foundation brought together actors from WaterAid to Gates Foundation to UNICEF and SWA to talk about the complex issue of sanitation and its impact on livelihoods and health in the developing world. What resonated most in that discussion was a personal story from a Dell executive that talked about witnessing the sanitation issue in India firsthand and the way it then impacted her corporate work.

Demonstration effect

This year, I saw a particular proliferation of creative space use during the Davos week – as local lingerie boutiques, pet shops and hairdressers salons transformed themselves to corporate lounges to host clients, receptions, country promotion events and various new initiatives and reports’ launches. Some of the companies took things even further to create an interactive and educational experience for the Davos visitors: Facebook built an exhibition that showcased its business focus areas for the next century from artificial intelligence to virtual reality. Accenture featured a demo of drones, robots and augmented reality glasses as tools integrated into their business, while KPMG created a special Davos platform to capture the digital discussions and their impact.

Anna Tunkel

Anna Tunkel is SVP and senior director for strategic initiatives at APCO. She leads numerous global initiatives and external partnerships with leading global organizations including the World Bank, United Nations, World Economic Forum and others. Read More