Dispatch from Davos

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20 January 2017

By Zachery Bishop and Andrea Tognoni

There was a strange mood in Davos this year. A Brexit and Trump 2016 hangover seemed to be lingering in the air. The annual gathering of the world’s most influential leaders had a distinct tinge to it this time, with a bit less enthusiastic tones and some more realism and reflection – though slightly short of humility

From the panel debates to conversations in the WEF minivans, it seems that the message of 2016 is deeply ingrained in everyone’s minds – globalism hasn’t worked for everyone. Globalism, its possibilities and its failures, was at the basis of three key trends that Cambre spotted:

A multipolar world.

For many the opening speech of the forum represented a shakeup on the world stage. In his speech, Xi Jinping, the first President of the People’s Republic of China to ever join the WEF, made a passionate plea for a more fair and balanced globalisation, able to safeguard trade openness, development and other liberal tenets. Many joked that his speech could have been given by any US president over the last several decades. What does that mean for the world order?

Trump spells uncertainty. From late night tweets to shifting opinions – or lack thereof, his administration will be unpredictable. Combine that with his protectionist trade views, and it spells disaster for the Davos crowd of cosmopolitan elites, but also the need for other countries to fill the gap that the US may leave.

President Xi Jinping and the Chinese delegation set themselves up as a key counterbalance to those forces – working to put their openness to the world and stable nature on full display. As Trump is sworn in today, watch for a 2017 where China’s role as a stable partner in world politics surges. Hopefully, as the new UN Secretary General António Guterres called for, this will be paralleled by reform and revamp of international institutions, as well as an overdue more committed and socially responsible role of business in maintaining the global liberal order that everybody benefits from.

Technology has a new role to play.

In one panel we heard a great quote: “If in the past we had the theology of liberation, now we have the technology of liberation”. Tech is the ultimate empowering tool, despite the fact that we give increasing interconnectivity and communication for granted.

In Davos it was clear – tech is continuing to quickly evolve in two important ways. Technology is on one hand having a horizontal function, continuing to digitise sectors from finance to healthcare, and on the other having a democratising function, offering increased services and information at reduced prices for all.

Whether for healthcare or finance, in developing and using technology, we need to put equality (of access and within networks), freedoms (like privacy) and human dignity (not unfettered liberty) at the centre of developments.

We have a new role to play.

Davos is heavy on the tech sector attendance, so it is no surprise that Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation were constant topics of conversations. That would have been the case had we not gone through Brexit and the Trump election this year, two events that solidified Western blue-collar workers’ fears about job loss – and passed it on to part of the middle-class.

In one panel with big name tech giants like IBM and Microsoft, the group reached the consensus that we need to think about AI, and technology in general, as an empathetic partnership between machines and humans - an on-going conversation. What does that mean?

As more human tasks are automated, we have to have a more clearly defined role in the coding, and feedback look, of the automation process. We will need to dig deep and bring out the best in ourselves to create the best in machines. Only by having the most diverse, inclusive and empathetic coding and learning processes can we make sure that the AI we create is really able to change the world for the better.

What’s next?

Everyone is headed home, that’s what’s next. But when they get home, many are facing important elections or negotiations, others facing more scrutiny about the social impact of their companies. It seemed to us that the messages of 2016 stuck, and that – be it to face off populist waves or make computers more social and able to learn how to learn – the importance of human emotion, vision and responsibility sank in as the week’s thread. We will have to wait and see if global leaders are actually ready to change their behaviours.

 

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