Davos, Switzerland. Outside, the air is crisp, minus two degrees, with six feet of snow piled head-high along the pine-dotted roads — the heaviest snowfall in Switzerland in two decades. Plump snowflakes tumble down, cutting off the railway line leading to the Davos ski resort, bringing traffic to a halt and closing the helipad that many world leaders planned to use to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2018 Annual Meeting.
On my journey from the airport, hopping from bus to train to taxi, hearing reports of possible evacuations because of the threat of avalanches, I can’t help wondering why you would try to gather heads of state, politicians, and hundreds of global leaders in the dead of winter in a small Swiss mountain valley. Saint Lucia in the Caribbean would be nice. The snow, however, is a refreshing equaliser. It’s not everyday that Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt have to tug off their boots next to you and wait in line to share the same coat check.
With its reputation as a yearly pilgrimage for the world’s most privileged individuals, it’s natural to question what a group of elites with the stated vague aim of “improving the world” can really achieve in five days. It turns out a lot of business and geopolitical deals get forged up the mountain. I encourage you, if you can, to go. Outside of the speeches and panels, it’s a golden learning and networking opportunity.
The official theme this year is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”. However, what becomes clear during the five days of the forum, is how fast the world can swing on topics such as sexual harassment, the health of the economy — and even sentimentality towards Silicon Valley.
Big Tech backlash
Fake news, manipulative bots “weaponising” information and the realisation that tech titans will soon face a serious regulatory reckoning is a recurring theme of the week. George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, labels Facebook and Google “obstacles to innovation” and a “menace” to society whose “days are numbered.” He compares the tech companies to mining companies, saying that both “earn their profits by exploiting their environment . . . Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social-media companies exploit the social environment.” He warns of a 1984 future of a “web of totalitarian control” that not even Huxley or Orwell could have imagined.
Governments are now competing to be the most business friendly, with lower taxes, reduced regulation, and increased infrastructure spending.
- Brian Hartzer, CEO Westpac and Davos 2018 attendee
British Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech echoing similar sentiments, calling for the social media giants to step up to their responsibilities for dealing with the “harmful and illegal” content on their platforms.
“Companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist or extremist content,” she says.
On the panel I am fortunate to join — Technology We Trust? — Marc Benioff, the larger-than-life Salesforce CEO, doesn’t mince his words, saying tech companies should be regulated and taxed like tobacco companies. “Cigarettes are addictive, they’re not good for you. Technology has addictive qualities we have to address.”
What economic crisis?
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) raised its global growth forecasts for 2018–19 to 3.9 per cent, 0.2 per cent higher than previous projections. About half of the revisions were tied to the impact of recent US tax reforms, which are expected to have a buoyant knock-on effect on global trade and investment. While the economic mood is generally upbeat, charity leaders such as Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima duly remind delegates how income inequality is getting far worse. According to a recent Oxfam report, 82 per cent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one per cent of the global population. Billionaire wealth has risen by annual average of 13 per cent since 2010 — an increase that could have ended extreme global poverty seven times over.
Gender is consistently a hot topic at Davos, but past discussions have largely revolved around power dynamics and equality. This year, however, as details of the sordid behaviour at the men-only Britain’s Presidents Club charity dinner echoed around the resort, the dominant issue was sexual harassment. Microsoft executive vice-president of business development Peggy Johnson talks about the amount of time women waste avoiding sexual confrontations with male colleagues and seniors. “When #MeToo came out, my friends said it should be called #WhoHasn’t?” Johnson says.
Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai tells the WEF audience that women must “raise up their voices” to end harassment. The “Girls Lounge,” a woman-centred space at the event, is renamed the “Equality Lounge.” IMF managing director Christine Lagarde chairs the forum’s first ever all-female panel in its 48 years of existence. “Even without testosterone, we can produce positive, constructive energy,” she says. Yet, despite the positive conversation, leaders are still grappling with where to go from here with #MeToo.
Reimagining skills in an AI-driven world
According to a WEF report, two thirds of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. But as Lego Foundation chief, John Goodwin warns, too many countries are still using education practices “established at the time of our grandparents.” According to the McKinsey Global Institute, AI could replace 800 million old economy jobs by 2030. “Reskilling” is a word used across the board, to address the prospect of doomed professions and skills shortages in the age of AI and robotics. Alibaba founder and executive chair Jack Ma delivers a steady stream of comments on the challenges of AI and automation to humans.
“Technology should always do something that enables people, not disables people,” Ma says. “If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now, we’re going to be in trouble.” Despite the grave concerns about the risks of AI, most leaders agree the potential benefits can’t be ignored. The mistrust seems to be lie in our fears that we humans can’t adapt as fast as technology is moving. “Regulation” is the only solution continually voiced to slow down the pace of change — without a clear idea of the form that such “regulation” might actually take.
Macron, Merkel, May and Modi
“France is back”, declares President Emmanuel Macron during an electric speech that captivates attendees. Throughout the week, French business leaders speak about the “Macron effect” — how top talent and investment is flooding into their companies. Prime Minster Turnbull and Australian business leaders are absent. (Brand Australia is seriously missing on the international stage with only one rather poorly attended panel — The Lucky Country — on the program.)
Macron is quick to emphasise there will never be “any French success without European success.” British Prime Minister May stresses the need for collaboration, focusing on what it will take to make global trade work for everyone. German Chancellor Merkel echoes her European counterparts, emphasising the need for international cooperation — “Shutting ourselves off, isolating ourselves, will not lead us into a good future. Protectionism is not the answer.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is quick to point out that India remains the fastest-growing economy in 2018, with a projected growth rate of 7.4 per cent. However, his address focuses on calling out the backlash against globalisation as one of the three most significant challenges to civilisation.
“Many societies and countries are becoming more and more focused on themselves,” he says. “Everyone is talking about an interconnected world, but will have to accept the fact that globalisation is slowly losing its lustre.”
On the closing day, US President Donald Trump delivers a 16-minute speech in a rather toned-down (for Trump) manner. In anticipation of his remarks, some attendees vow to turn their backs or kneel in protest. This doesn’t happen. The main Congress hall is overflowing with people nervously anticipating a self-congratulatory “America First” manifesto. “When the United States grows, so does the world,” Trump says. “I will always put America first. Just like the leaders of other countries should put their countries first.”
I can’t quite swallow the idea that the world will be a little less divisive if Trump says the right thing. Which he has — sort of. So I go skiing. The slopes of Davos are blissfully empty.