The initial tone surrounding WEF 2018 was full of foreboding, with Davos leaders warning of a “fractured world”; a social contract between states and citizens that “continues to erode”; a “global commons [that] cannot protect or heal itself”. Delegates might have anticipated an Alpine retreat of soul-searching and introspection, but it only takes a whisper of economic optimism to change the mood. Instead, after an upbeat assessment from the IMF about global growth, delegates have been warned by Christine Lagarde not to get too carried away by good news – now, “complacency” is the danger she and her colleagues are warning sternly against.
This gives a taste of the volatility that will characterize the circus inevitably attending WEF 2018. At a more profound level, Davos organisers are right to identify the underlying challenge for attendees as how to find a way to demonstrate that economic growth is not an end in itself, but fuels a wider goal of social cohesion around the world.
Much of the anxiety at Davos focuses on short-term challenges, which tend to swirl around the American President: geopolitical instability, (with North Korea the particular focus), the rejection of the establishment which fueled Donald Trump’s course to the White House and a rise in protectionism championed openly in the slogan “America First.” Taking a longer-term view, Davos delegates will strive to assert the value of cooperation, trade and sustainability, but they will struggle to escape the Trump shadow.
Perhaps the most fertile territory for debate will be issues that have so often been categorised as for the “long-term”, but where abruptly and insistently populations are demanding action. Women’s empowerment is a core theme of Davos, and a yardstick against which delegates should expect that they and their businesses will be measured; the use of plastics is another – a practice that until recently seemed an acceptable part of our economies, but where people’s patience seems to have snapped. Leaders who advance these causes may reap a dual dividend – being seen as responsive to popular sentiment while at the same time demonstrating the ability to take a longer view.