Tensions in Davos may prove higher than the Alps

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert J Heath "Davos, Switzerland"

The expectations are grand for Davos and for the fourth industrial revolution.

At its core, the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos strives to “improve the world” by bringing international leaders together for an opportunity to collaborate and engage on key issues across industries, societies and regions. With an impressive attendee list — including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, and celebrity Leonardo Di Caprio — one might anticipate the development of a similarly awesome list of resolutions. That said, given the tenuous state of world affairs across climate, economy and security, we may want to temper our expectations. 

The greatest challenge of the Forum might be the one simmering just beneath the surface: suppressed geopolitical tensions. The WEF organizers endeavor to create a safe environment to avoid any massive controversies during the Forum, but in making the event so squeaky clean do they risk wiping away any possibilities for international breakthroughs?  

“The World Economic Forum is an intensely orchestrated event with nothing left to chance. Every topic for discussion is carefully considered and researched, every participant is thoroughly prescreened and every moment of every day is micromanaged. The Forum is programmed to tick like the best Swiss watch.”  

— Frank Vogl, co-founder of Transparency International, senior World Bank official

Perhaps the most notable incident of political airbrushing this year was when the WEF rescinded its invitation to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-Yong in light of North Korea’s recent nuclear test. Russian President Vladimir Putin will shun the Forum for the 5th year running and Britain must face the European Union even as it debates whether to remain a part of it. German Chancellor Angela Merkl and French President François Hollande will be noticeably absent.

So what can we reasonably expect to see as leaders descend upon Davos for the 46th Annual Forum January 20-23? This year’s overarching theme is “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, defines as the range of new technologies that “are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” Clearly, this era will have implications for the future of the built environment. Sessions can be roughly categorized into the following:

  • The Digital Age: Where rapid technological innovation is headed
  • Growing Inequality: How to reverse the trend of the growing wealth gap
  • State of Humanity: Finding solutions for refugee and migration crises, terrorist attacks, and global stability or lack thereof
  • Economic Outlook: Worldwide implications of plunging oil prices and a slowing Chinese economy

Despite a veritable mountain of obstacles, surely the cocktail of economic experts and industry leaders, mixed with a splash of Hollywood celebrities and a hearty dose of lush accommodations, must lead to at least a few epiphanies? The lesson here is not to expect sweeping world improvement, but rather to watch and learn as networking between the likes of JP Morgan President Jamie Dimon and musician Will.I.Am unfolds. The 2016 World Economic Forum may not yield decisions as momentous as the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution is indeed upon us, and this Forum will lay the groundwork for how it unfolds.

About Holly Wilson

Holly is a Business Development Representative at Gridium, based in San Francisco. Previously, Holly was a junior consultant at Meister Consultants Group in Boston, focusing on international and domestic solar polices, local clean energy solutions, and corporate sustainability. Holly holds a B.A. in International Relations with a Minor in German from Tufts University. A Bay Area native, Holly loves traveling and is always up to visit new countries.

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