The World Economic Forum Annual Davos meeting is one of a kind global gathering - a mixture of unalloyed commerce, high-minded do-gooderism, and brass-tacks policy discussions. It brought together over 3,000 participants from more than 110 countries, including 70 heads of state and government, 45 heads of international organizations, over 1,900 business leaders from all industries, 230 media representatives and more. There were over 400 sessions and workshops in the official program alone, with probably twice as many private events, briefings, panels and gatherings outside the Congress Center.

To me, each Davos presents a fascinating learning and comparative perspective: on evolving global policy issues and business initiatives, disruptive technologies, innovators, but most importantly puts in perspective all of these trends and their implications on our society at large.

There was a stark difference between the post-Brexit, post-Trump elections overall mood in Davos last year and this year. In January 2017, many of the discussions focused on whether we reached the end of the liberal order. Leaders contemplated on the possibilities of the actual US-China war, brought by trade tensions and US new administration’s miscalculation of China’s red lines, damning business implications from Trump’s twitter handle, EU disintegration and much more. This year’s, the mood was positively exuberant and optimistic. Fortune’s Alan Murray summed up the reasons: from unusual synchronicity of the global economy, seeing growth & expansion in almost every region to low unemployment and dormant inflation to the rapid advance of technology and the promise machine learning and automation carry for increased business productivity. A big part of it was also the collective ‘exhale’ from President Trump’s relatively moderate and tempered “America First, but America is not Alone” speech at the end of the Davos week – which was feared and anticipated by those who never imagined him coming to the epicenter of globalization on the ‘magic mountain.’

Technology and Disruption

The focus on disruptive technologies and their impact on business, politics and society has certainly picked up since WEF first launched the Fourth Industrial Revolution umbrella theme back in 2016:

Blockchain fascination

There were more sessions dedicated to blockchain in the official WEF program that there were sessions focused on the United States and the EU combined. Many lauded blockchain as the most transformative technology since the Internet – capable of transforming commerce, communications, financial and legal services, intellectual property and our digital identities. Global Blockchain Business Coalition convened one of the most oversubscribed private dinners in Davos, illustrating through the speakers it brought together the broad range of disciplines touched by blockchain: from empowering women (Elizabeth Rossielo, CEO of BitPesa) to restoring democracy & law (Laurent Lamothe, former PM of Haiti) to rule-making and regulations (Peter Zilgalvis (head of start-ups & innovation at EU Commission) and many more.

Artificial Intelligence and humanism

Almost every session touched on big data and implications of AI. At UPS/HPE private breakfast, Jim Barber, president UPS international talked about how we generate over 2.5 quintillion bites of data a day, most still unused. Later the same day, Julie Sweet, Accenture* North America CEO underscored the same point: that over 70% of today’s data is still unused, with many CEOs coming to Accenture to develop their AI strategy, while not having a data strategy in place for their organizations. She shared a panel with CEOs of eBay and Schneider Electric and all of them had to address a question on what should be the focus of public policy for AI. There was a consensus that next generation education and skill building / reskilling ought to be a priority for public and private sector leaders, given that before eliminating some jobs, AI will radically change others. Accenture’s Davos lounge tagline was particularly telling: “Machine Learning Needs Human Training”.

Most poignant insights on the future of AI, jobs and human priorities came from Kai Fu Lee, former Google, Apple and Microsoft executive and founder of Sinovation Ventures in China. According to Lee, there are 4 types of jobs characteristics that won’t be replaced by #AI: creativity (research), complexity (strategy), dexterity (aero engineers, but also plumbers), empathy & compassion. He talked about how people have been brainwashed by the industrial revolution to accept and glorify routine jobs and work around the clock. He sees immense promise in AI to help replace these mundane tasks and allow us to focus on what matters: love, creativity, family. This was somewhat corroborated by Jack Ma, who said that "to gain success a person will need high EQ; if you don't want to lose quickly you will need a high IQ, and if you want to be respected you need high LQ - the IQ of love."

Data and privacy

Yuval Harari, historian and best-selling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus spoke at several sessions focused on the future of humankind. He firmly asserted that those that own the data today (particularly biometric data), control the future of humanity and life itself - data replaced land and machinery that were the tools of control during the agrarian and industrial revolutions. He also spoke about how few people, policy-makers included, truly understand the implication of this today, except for the tech giants like Google, Facebook*, Amazon and Microsoft. Soon, privacy will no longer be a choice, as access to better healthcare will be dependent on giving away personal data. He claimed that we were the last generations of homo sapiens, and in the coming generation, we will learn how to engineer bodies and minds. In terms of future skillsets, Harari stressed that universities may need to recategorize learning: computer scientist will need to be also a philosopher and anthropologist in the near future.  

Glocalization

One particularly interesting trend was the change in the global leaders’ rhetoric this year. Davos has always been the venue celebrating and embracing globalization. It has been the underlying premise of the World Economic Forum, that works to “advance multi-stakeholder partnerships to improve the state of the world”. This premise was the backdrop for China’s President Xi historic opening speech last year, asking everyone to commit to a growing, open economy. This year, leaders from Angela Merkel to Emmanuel Macron focused on promoting their countries and their competitiveness. Some, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, paid lip service to globalization: “the solution to this worrisome situation against globalization is not isolation. The solution is in understanding and accepting change.” But at the same time saying that “we will have to accept the fact that globalization is slowly losing its luster.” He proceeded to promote India’s ambitious reforms, “rolling out the red carpet to international trade and investment”. Macron was quite direct in his efforts to attract investors to France and promised to “realign France to Germany and Northern Europe” in terms of productivity and competitiveness. France should become “a model in the fight against climate change,” he said, announcing, to great applause, that “we will close all our coal-fired power stations by 2021.” President Trump opened his speech almost reinforcing this trend saying that “he expected other leaders similarly to put their own countries first”, then proceeding to tout US tax reforms, regulations roll back and economic strength to attract foreign and home investors back to America. There were still defenders of multilateralism like Prime Minister Trudeau who opened his speech announcing that Canada and the ten other remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership concluded discussions in Tokyo, on a new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). But, overall there was a growing sense that domestic agendas were taking precedence over multilateral ones.

New ways companies show up in Davos

In the twelve years I have been coming to Davos, I have seen a complete transformation of the annual WEF experience. If a decade ago, most of the sessions were confined to the Congress Center, with a sprinkle of a few social events and receptions in the evening, over the past couple of years, brands took over local storefronts, creating their own distinct “Davos experiences” on the main Promenade leading to the Congress Center. Women Equality lounge (powered by JPMorgan Chase, UBS, PepsiCo*, Twitter and others), Crypto currencies HQ, Johnson & Johnson* coLaboratory for the Future, Google’s Cloud Lounge and Facebook’s interactive exhibit – are just few of the examples of the new ways brands show up in Davos, inviting their key stakeholder audiences for unique interactive experience, private sessions and meetings in their own lounges.

*APCO Client

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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