A place where the exceptional meet to discuss the issues that affect us globally, and perhaps to be seen, Davos is done for another year. Here’s what happened.
It was a week of metaphors and symbolism for the snowy retreat that annually caters to the communication skills and networking needs of the world’s influencers, including prime ministers, business leaders, policy analysts, and philosophers. In the five intense days that hermetically seal this elite, energies connect and collide as four thousand A-types vie for first place in airplane boarding, coat checks, security lines, shuttle bus rides, and access to the rock stars of the event, from the IMF’s Christine Lagarde to Shakira, the Bank of England’s Governor Mark Carney, and favored couple George and Amal Clooney.
At a sensitive time for exponents of critical thinking and with a large segment of Davos participants unfamiliar with having to make their own bed every morning, there was, nevertheless, a significant number of attendees who often sleep on makeshift mattresses in refugee camps and under mosquito nets as workers of NGOs, researchers, scientists, and journalists. Pushing for salves to remedy the ills and injustices of the everyday, they are powered not by apps that help them cure their addiction to technology but by three quarters of a world that is desperate for what the West takes for granted materially and politically.
Looming over this year’s theme, “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” was the impending inauguration of the 45th U.S. President. So in true Davos style, legitimate concerns over the spread of fake news were discussed within the psychological context of what is bias. Our cravings for the reward mechanisms of social media, the search for solidarity of collective moral outrage, and preference for subjective fact-gathering that suits our preconceptions are helping to define our personal beliefs and in some cases replacing the sense of belonging to a broader community. That night, at an evening session analyzing the role of mainstream media, a Fox News reporter had never heard of the term “post-truth.”
Political dystopia enveloped most sessions with the uncertainty of an unstable president who is more likely to unleash black swans of chaos in the name of making America great again than allow innovation to tackle climate change with the input of a diverse, multi-ethnic America of global reach. Metaphors prevailed in the farewell speech given by Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden who would not have looked out of place in a floor-length robe, spiked crown, and handheld torch looking out towards the Atlantic. In mid flow, defending the shared values of the international order, he was plunged into gloom when the lighting system of an otherwise technically perfect conference hall suddenly failed. He resumed speaking from the shadows of a stage that looked like an abandoned theatre and provided Davos 2017 with the subtitle: “Filling America’s Void.”
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It was evident that the fissures along the sacred valley of the last 70 years of Western-led stability, opened up by the seismic populist movements of Donald Trump and Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, are causing deep disquiet. Central and Eastern European leaders appealed for European unity, leadership, and solidarity in the face of Russian aggression. Middle Eastern and North African leaders talked constructively of business opportunities that now need to lift their prospects from a dried-up river-bed.
And emerging from the penumbra in a clear, unblinking light was China’s President, Xi Jinping, bringing with him the rebuilding materials of bond and friendship through free trade and globalization, albeit tethered and conditional. Outlining the real enemies of globalization—hunger, poverty, superstition, and prejudice; and the consequences of tragic regional conflict: refugees, terrorism, and cybercrime—he compared the act of protectionist retrenchment to locking oneself in a darkened room that might well keep out the rain and wind, but also the light and air of progress. Poetic proverbs about sweet dates growing on thistles and thorns and analogies of having to swim in whirlpools and choppy waves lest we drown in fear drove home his message with the punch of 1.3 billion people.
In contrast, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech left some questioning her hard-to-read character and her quick in-out intervention at Davos, as if still unsure of her tenure or position now that digging for trade deals is forcing her too to pitch GB as a global brand.
Davos came to a close on the day of Trump’s inauguration, sobered by the vitriol of the new President’s bombastic assertions of superiority. It had been a difficult week to focus with the usual excitement on scientific breakthroughs; the hologram that can unlock the mysteries of the universe, the composite of an aluminium car light enough to be carried to work, “electroceutical” treatments that jam brains from developing Alzheimer’s, or indeed economic innovation that experiments with the notion of a basic global income. And yet, while Trump spoke those 35 words of assuming command as the earth’s most powerful political leader, no one in the hallowed halls of the World Economic Forum paid attention. Heads were bowed in conversation, writing up reports, checking emails, and sipping coffee.
The world goes on, despite indications to the contrary.