Davos/WEF 2020 preview: conflict, instability, and ‘stakeholder capitalism’ | Emerging tech & innovation


‘Stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world’ is the stated theme of the World Economic Forum (WEF) for 2020, which is being held in Davos, Switzerland this week.

The annual meeting of business leaders, politicians, bankers, and academics will focus on the fact that the planet is in a state of fractious turmoil, and panel discussions will, no doubt, dance around the need for a collaborative approach to resolve all of the underlying tensions at play.

Getty Images/montipora
Getty Images/montipora

Indeed, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was candid about these dangers during the IMF World Economic Outlook Update today, the preliminary talk before WEF begins in earnest tomorrow, on 21 January.

Drawing comparisons between the 2020s and the 1920s – rife inequality, the rapid spread of technology, huge risk and rewards in finance – Georgieva alluded towards the conditions that led to the onset of world war in the 20th century, urging countries to pull together for her analogy to stop where it did.

She also recommended that central banks continue to pursue policies that “work”, referencing the rate cuts throughout 2019 that helped somewhat stabilise the world economy and, she said, avoid recession.

Chief economist at the IMF, Gita Gopinath, added that the diminishing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit as well as ‘phase one’ of the US-China trade deal created a “tentative” suggestion that global growth may be stabilising. A decline in manufacturing and trade may also be bottoming out, while the automotive sector is showing signs of recovery as disruptions from emissions standards have begun to fade.

But, Gopinath warned, US-China tensions could return, and there are risks that the US and the European Union could butt heads on trade too. Meanwhile there is worldwide intensifying social unrest and further geopolitical strain in the Middle East.

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As a result, the agenda for Davos 2020 has shifted significantly away from the cautious optimism of last year’s ‘Industry 4.0’ theme, and there is a visible focus on conflict resolution, geographic and economic displacement, and technologically advanced warfare.

Just looking at the first day of the programme, speakers will discuss the global impact of a “tech cold war”.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, meanwhile, will speak on a panel titled: “A future shaped by a technology arms race”, and US president Donald Trump will address WEF again this year following his 2018 address, having snubbed the event in 2019. China’s president Xi Jinping will not speak in 2020, but there will be an address by vice premier Han Zheng.

On the technologist front, Davos regulars Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella will both address the event on Wednesday 23 January. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff will speak on a reskilling panel, along with Ivanka Trump, on the same day. Bill Gates will comment on how technology can help people.

Panellists will also discuss emerging technologies like 5G networks, developments in quantum computing, the problem of deep-fakes and other cyber security issues, data flows, taxing the digital economy, human-robot interaction, and the weaponisation of the internet.

Other panels will centre on social mobility and the future of work (“reskilling the next billion”), as well as climate science and other pressing sustainability issues around industry, although observers might be forgiven for erring towards cynicism about the potency of such talk from these capitalists speaking on behalf of their stakeholders while Australia is on fire.

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