What is the purpose of Davos? The question lingers, as the latest edition of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ended just over a week ago. Has the annual meeting become a pilgrimage of self-assured economic leaders who are confident, yet disconnected from the outside world?
Has the Forum become the archetype of enormous, increasingly unpopular international meetings, which are terribly expensive, have catastrophic carbon footprints, and exude hypocrisy in terms of diversity? Does this no longer surprise anyone? Today, opponents of Davos do not even need to host ‘counter-summits’ as they did in the 1990s and 2000s when it was considered fashionable to appear at the world Social Forum in Porto Alegre. The WEF’s naysayers are no longer limited to the extreme left and anarchists. Just open Twitter or see the face of the young, Swedish Greta Thunberg who came to tell the global political and business elite that they’ve ‘failed’ regarding the climate.
But that is not all. This year in Davos issues were raised, ranging from the collapse of multilateralism and the disappearance of the post-war world order, to the rivalry between China and the US, slowing Chinese growth, worries about data sharing, and so on. However, these observations – made by recognised or self-proclaimed experts – already seem dated, making it clear that Davos is behind the times.
Make Davos a laboratory of collective intelligence
Should we just get rid of the WEF then? On the contrary. By broadening the thinking of participants and diversifying its ecosystem, it’s possible to make Davos a truly innovative event. There is not only one approach to economics and geopolitics, and it would be in the ‘leaders’’ interest to take into account long-term scenarios. The level of public support for political and economic policies has never been lower than today; obviously this has serious consequences. New methods of money exchange, as well as ideas and knowledge, are being organised via crypto-currencies and blockchain, which bypass not only states, but also existing economic and financial systems.
The global pushback against elites, the nationalist populism that has emerged from the margins to take power in a number of countries (Brazil’s Bolsonaro opened the 2019 Forum with a short speech, albeit brief), and the weight of public resentment, all require decision-makers to mobilise in favour of collective intelligence. This would be a true innovation.
In the absence of most Western heads of state (Macron, May, Trump, etc.), Davos can still pride itself on leaving room for the expertise of civil society – the ‘stakeholders’ and the only guarantors of prosperity and growth. But this is not enough. Confining such discussions to an inside circle of politicians no longer works; the WEF urgently needs to encourage broader participation, to call upon knowledge gleaned from practice as much as theory.
The Forum must also consider ethics. Why? Because it is a social demand and ignoring it will lead to chaos. Because it is an investment and to deprive the world of ethical approaches to economics and politics would be a waste. To anticipate the needs in terms of skills and training or recruiting the best talents, we must rely on customers, employees, shareholders, researchers, associations, citizens, young people. We must recover the spirit in which Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum almost 50 years ago.
Ahead of the world
In order to understand a world that is increasingly beyond their control, economic leaders can no longer ignore the complexity and wealth of knowledge that the world now holds. This will place them ahead of the curve rather than lagging behind, trying to limit damage after the fact.
It is the responsibility of leaders – and it’s in their interest as well – to defend freedom of information; to learn, to act, and to share collaborative research. The revolution of tomorrow is that of learning. The 2018 Villani Report, ‘Giving meaning to artificial intelligence. For a national and European strategy’, explains that the essential skill in a world perpetually evolving will be human creativity. Why should Davos ignore such an important area of expertise?
Fears, inward-looking attitudes, and a lack of audacity have never created a climate of trust and stability that is conducive to business. By relying instead on openness, cooperation, and shared knowledge, the WEF would become the site of tremendous innovation and responsibility. For those invested in the Forum, cohesion is essential. Thanks to its international and collaborative dimension, the World Economic Forum could again become a unique benchmark of the trends of the time.