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Insights from Davos

By Naomi Kerbel
26 January 2024
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
world economic forum

It is commonplace at the World Economic Forum held up the "magic mountain" in the Swiss Alps to see blacked-out limos in back-to-back traffic and global corporations giving out free swag from cutesy wooden huts.

What is not so commonplace is to see any kind of religion on display. So last week as I weaved my through the snow hats and furry boots of the "busin-erati", I was immediately struck by the incongruent sight of a bookseller giving out copies of a weighty tome by the Seventh-day Adventists.

For five days (usually mid-January) every year, churches, supermarkets, boutiques and restaurants are converted into venues and the Promenade, the main thoroughfare running through Davos, offers a taste of where power lies in the global economy.

This year it was India (trying to lure investment from the US), the Middle East (looking to attract tourism and multinational talent) and AI (tech bosses extolling the tangible benefits of deploying large-language models).

There seems to be a perpetual dichotomy at play though: the need to fix the world and the desire to keep the world as it is.

Rather like COP, the modes of transport can feel at odds with the messaging. Take the traffic down the Promenade. By road there is one way in and out of Davos and because you have the world's elite and their security entourages in tow, the clear Swiss air becomes clogged with silky smog. I'm told it's ever thus and there doesn't seem to be much interest in changing it.

Then you have those committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion yet just 28% of the 2,800 participants registered for WEF were women (and that was a record). Their presence was especially lacking on the plenary stage - the Swiss president and European Commissioner being the only two giving speeches (out of 10).

Back on the Promenade, the Female Quotient hosted the Equality Lounge which is probably where all the women were as it was perpetually packed, and this is where the interesting conversations were happening. As at COP there was a lot of discussion around the need for data that reflects the diversity of the world, particularly if we are going to have any chance of removing bias and getting credible answers using AI.

And there was little to no socio-economic diversity on display because it’s no secret that the cost of a room is north of €500 a night minimum (and that’ll get you a bunk bed in a dorm room if you’re lucky) and that's before hotel passes, flights and transport to and from the resort.

Perhaps the Seventh Day Adventist bookseller was trying to embrace the WEF’s key theme for the year of “rebuilding trust”, and bobble hats off to him because it certainly didn’t feel like anyone else was trying to raise the topic. Instead as delegates queued at security checkpoints outside the conference centre and large hotels the main chatter was around more immediate issues: conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine (another Houthi attack on ships in Red Sea had just happened); elections (Trump had a resounding victory in Iowa on the first day of the Forum) and artificial intelligence (Sam Altman of OpenAI was the star turn on many news networks and on event stages).

Even though we were just seven weeks out from COP28 and despite another record hot year predicted, there was a distinct lack of discussion (or awareness) of the term ESG even though climate change is perhaps the only plan that all countries have committed to. Yet geopolitical unrest cast doubt over whether leaders will remain as committed to reducing emissions and continue growing the investment in clean energy.

So, amidst an array of global challenges there may have been an ambition to rebuild trust amongst delegates, statesman and business people but in terms of the "how", and the "if" that remains to be seen.

Maybe it’ll take a little (or a lot of) prayer.