Big issues from the World Economic Forum’s intellectual heart
I am writing this from deep within the beating intellectual heart of the World Economic Forum — the hub of the Global Future Councils (GFC) in Dubai.
The GFC — labeled the “biggest brainstorm in the world” — takes place each autumn in the UAE as an agenda-setting exercise for the WEF’s big annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This year, nearly 700 thought leaders — business people, economists, scientists and policymakers of all ages — are gathering to slug out the raw cerebral content that will be discussed in greater depth at Davos.
Not many plain old hacks get to see the inside workings of this event. I had to seek the WEF’s permission to attend some of the think-ins, promise that my attendance would be on a Chatham House basis — that I would not attribute any information gleaned from my presence in such a rarified intellectual gathering.
I also had to overcome some reservations from the actual participants at the councils, concerned that their gems of wisdom would be revealed to the world in less-than-perfect condition. In the end, they all agreed.
Much thought has gone into the preparation for such an event, and a huge room in the Madinat Jumeirah complex was carefully laid out to facilitate good thinking. The massive space has been divided into 38 pods emanating from central hubs, each pod given given over to one particular subject.
It is an eclectic ensemble, ranging from virtual reality through biodiversity to cybersecurity. In each pod, roughly a dozen WEF futurists argued the pros and cons of their areas of expertise. It is all very civilized, as you’d expect from such a refined gathering, but the intellectual sparks fly.
I sat in on two of the sessions. The first, on the “new economy,” echoed one of the WEF’s main preoccupations: How to develop economic policies appropriate for the age of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR), the new era WEF believes we have just begun, thanks to the confluence of advances in technology, communications and the bio-sciences.
The thinkers were roughly split 50-50 between men and women — a rather fairer proportion than the Davos event itself — and was a multi-cultural bunch: African entrepreneurs, Ivy League academics and Asian technologists.
World Economic Forum is an eclectic ensemble, ranging from virtual reality through biodiversity to cybersecurity.
For an hour I listened to these experts getting to grips with some of the most complex issues in global economics: How will automation change employment patterns? Will the decline in traditional manufacturing affect emerging markets more than the developed economies? Can economists come up with a metric that better measures wellbeing that gross domestic product?
It was a fascinating insight into how some of the best minds in modern economics see the contemporary world. I think there were two key take-aways.
First, a lot of work in the future will not be in the form of traditional “jobs” at all, in the sense of salaried nine-to-five office or manufacturing work. Rather, it will be in the form of “micro-entrepreneurial activity” in which individuals use the Internet to add monetary value to their lives.
Second, and rather perversely given the topic under discussion, there is no clear evidence yet that automation is destroying jobs on any massive scale. The same argument has been heard ever since the first Industrial Revolution, and so far all dire forecasts of mass global unemployment via technology have proved inaccurate.
Later, I slipped into the pod on geopolitics, which was debating a range of issues in international affairs, like how to enforce peace-keeping solutions to conflict, and how far the “responsibility to protect” citizens from government violence extended to other states.
The group was slightly smaller than the new economy gathering, but again was pretty close to an equal gender split. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a more American feel to the discussion, but the participants ranged from US academics, through former diplomats to technology executives.
Again, it was illuminating. The two key thoughts that stuck with me were, first, that intervention in another country’s internal affairs is never clear cut, whatever the motives. Was it better to be a Libyan, where Western powers intervened only to see a prolonged civil war engulf the country? Or a Rohingya in Myanmar, where non-intervention enabled what the UN has described as a genocide?
Second, Western companies, especially the youth-dominated tech giants, are increasingly wary of business dealings with their Chinese counterparts, whom they regard as in thrall to an authoritarian government. Might Big Tech power persuade Beijing to change course on privacy, intellectual property and, ultimately, global trade-rules adherence?
I came away from the afternoon buzzing with ideas, but later wondered whether all that intellectual jousting would actually achieve anything. To answer that, you’d have to get into the metaphysical debate about whether ideas really change anything in the material world. But that issue is surely worthy of a GFC all to itself.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai