Reflections of a milestone year at the WEF meeting
The 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is a landmark event for many reasons. The Davos annual summit has been witness to many mega global trends and events—the rise of China, the emergence of India, the 2008 global financial crisis and the recovery, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, among others. This year’s summit comes against the backdrop of a global economy that is becoming increasingly inward looking and regional, a potential environment and climate crisis, the emergence of data as a new currency (and a weapon) and, importantly, polarized views on each of these themes. Which is why the 2020 summit theme, ‘Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World’, could not have been more relevant.
While the discussions at Davos could have been a clarion call for global polity, society and corporations, in particular, to act in unison, we saw a lot of views at extreme ends of the spectrum. US President Donald Trump utilized the platform to talk about the strengths of American capitalism, snubbing the “prophets of doom” of climate change and focused on domestic issues. On the other hand, Greta Thunberg maintained that planting trees and a ‘low-carbon economy’ was not the solution, and the only answer was zero emissions.
In many ways, the above dichotomy represents both the Davos dilemma and the potential. While on the one hand it brings together differing stakeholders under one umbrella, its effectiveness is often undermined by a “mean or median” middle path being chalked out. The strength and potential of the group gathered here should reflect different stakeholder needs and address them.
The Davos discussions are also about the diversity of themes. Even though there were seven subthemes under which the various sessions of the conference have been organized, a couple of them stood out for their importance, audience interest and lessons thereon.
A particularly interesting session was about “digital détente”, which brought the spotlight on cybersecurity, and it was revealed that one quarter of all the cyberattacks that happened last year were done by nation-states and not individual actors. The prime minister of Estonia, Jüri Ratas, advocated creating a global culture against cyberattacks and also sensitizing C-suite members in corporations towards this menace.
China’s role in WEF 2020 continued, though without the hyper-attention of the past. Of special significance was the message of Carrie Lam, chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, that come what may, “one country, two systems was important to the stability of the city-state” as long as the protests were not violent.
Another exciting session was the one on ‘Social Mobility: Reskilling the Next Billion’. According to the WEF Social Mobility Index, most economies are failing to provide the conditions in which their citizens can thrive and earn a decent livelihood. In this context, it was estimated that a billion people will need to be reskilled by 2030. For countries such as India, Denmark’s example is worth emulating. Denmark’s minister for employment, Peter Hummelgaard, emphasized that the responsibility for upskilling is tripartite, between workers, employers and the government.
India, too, had its share of the spotlight with Union minister of commerce and industry Piyush Goyal leading around a 100-member government and industry delegation. Speaking at a strategic outlook session on the Indian Ocean Rim, Goyal said that New Delhi envisions a more equitable and fairer terms in trade relationships with various countries. He called for greater cooperation among the Indian Ocean Rim nations in tackling climate change. He also spent time with many large investors, in very open and constructive discussions on the potential of the economy, the investment climate, besides their major concerns.
Industry leaders I spoke to were pretty unanimous on their concerns about the decreasing openness of global trade and commerce, and felt a lot of the progress made over the last 30 years may turn backwards. The need to increase social and economic equity also came across as a strong theme for all stakeholders to take this on as a priority, in addition to acting on the impending environmental crisis.
Davos 2020, in short, was not just about the present global crises and a look back at the last 50 years, but also what the next 50 years will hold for global society, corporations and the planet.
Gopal Sarma is a partner at Bain and Co., and leads the Asia-Pacific realty, infrastructure, construction and building products practice.