The World Economic Forum’s theme “Creating a shared future in a fractured world” drew delegates’ attention to today’s reality: That the prospects for one nation’s security move in direct correlation to the stability of another, that the anger at the growing income inequality is not necessarily the same as polarization through technology, and that migration is not a problem to be resolved, but something that will never change.
Data was the word of the week: The world’s biggest asset, and the biggest threat to stability. Big, commercialized, weaponized, unstructured, non-transparent, and measured in zeta-bytes, data lives side by side with populations whose efforts at digital protection — passwords and not clicking on dodgy links — were long ago relegated to “not doing stupid things” by the digital community.
Most business leaders understand little about how data works today. Yet what will out-confound all is the emerging world of biometrics that will know each individual better than they know themselves. As “Sapiens” author Yuval Noah Harari warned, the coming synthesis of artificial intelligence and biology will give rise to biochemical algorithms that will track eye movements, blood pressure and one’s heartbeat and know what we feel, want and think before we do. Digital dictatorships, anyone?
This year’s all-women co-chairs of the annual meeting, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urged political and business leaders to consider what they are doing for gender equality. The WEF reported its highest level of female participants at just 21 percent of the conference total. At one of the dinners on the evening after Trudeau’s speech there were 17 men and two women, and one WEF official commented: “It’s hard.” The stubborn truth is that the top echelons of business and politics remain principally populated by men.
China’s move to occupy the vacuum of American isolationism has created political opportunity for others. Selling themselves as islands of stability in an archipelago of conflict, climate change, and digital disruption, Canada’s Trudeau, France’s Macron, Germany’s Merkel, India’s Modi, Italy’s Gentiloni, Israel’s Netanyahu, Argentina’s Macri, Britain’s May, and the kings of Spain and Jordan, among others, made speeches of varying degrees of inspiration to various audience sizes.
When Donald Trump arrived on the penultimate day, his retinue of administration officials, secret service agents and helicopters cast an ominous expectancy over Davos.
Trisha de Borchgrave
Above all, they declared their countries open for business, albeit with their own domestic social contracts, so as to avoid the primal screams of Brexit and Trump. This left Britain’s Theresa May with little option but to give a speech of self-promotion by stealth. Shackled to a no-man’s-land of zero trade deal options for the foreseeable future, hers was a classroom lesson on how British pragmatism and good schools define a good place to invest.
When Donald Trump arrived on the penultimate day, his retinue of administration officials, secret service agents and helicopters cast an ominous expectancy over Davos. Even the friendly Swiss security personnel turned tetchy, while sanguine sophisticates pushed and shoved to hear his speech, eyes firmly avoiding each other, as if ashamed of their desire to rubber neck at the political car crash of America’s last year.
In the end, a quieter US president hinted at a possible return to the Trans Pacific Partnership of trade cooperation, while sounding at times like Brazil’s premier, keen to reform the failures of his predecessors, with their reams of red tape and bad economic governance.
When Trump qualified his original motto “America First,” with the proviso that it “is not alone,” the audience was silent. A brief Q&A with WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab was a reminder that demagogues without the opportunity to incite are dull.
China’s keynote speaker Liu He, a member of China’s ruling Politburo, may be little known but still he packed the hall, a sign that China’s dream of opportunity — including its Belt and Road Initiative that will span Eurasia by way of hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure — continues to challenge America’s. So it was hard to believe the assurance by US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, given on another a panel, that it will take China 50 years to catch up with America.
Sessions on humanitarian issues tried to prick the moral conscience of the business and political community to stop focusing on the bottom line. This is at a time when a food package or vaccine is still not delivered to a remote region of a developing country with the effectiveness of a Coke bottle, when the budget for peacekeeping efforts is half that of national military spending, with social movements demanding fairness and opportunity across the Middle East and yet we are witnessing the “highest level of human suffering since World War II,” according to UN Secretary General António Guterres.
The jury is out on whether this year’s WEF managed to shift the dial on these issues. With everyone pursuing today’s “sweet spot” of economic growth and sustainable investment, why does the world not approximate the vision of Davos: Educated, healthy, stable and employed?
It also remains to be seen if in the next 12 months the drivers of economic growth can become less Darwinian, and avoid being hijacked by populism or marxist utopias of equality that are never equal. With Macron warning about today’s crisis of capitalism, perhaps one of the sub-themes at next year’s meeting in Davos will be political entrepreneurship.
* Trisha de Borchgrave is a writer and artist in London. Website: www.trishadeborchgrave.com. Twitter: @TrishdeB