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FEB 1, 2018

Voices from a mountaintop: This is how Davos sees 2018 playing out.

By Yoshito Hori

What a lot of difference a year can make!

When I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, the mood was profoundly gloomy. The leavers had won the Brexit vote and the anti-globalist Donald Trump was about to be sworn in as president. The two countries most responsible for building the postwar world order seemed to be turning their backs on it.

Was it scrapheap time for Davos? Apparently not. Fast forward one year and the forum again made plenty of news. Here are my 5 big takeaways from Davos 2018.

1)    No major problems with the world economy

Brexit is already factored into the markets, while Donald Trump actually came in person to Davos to talk up American corporate tax cuts and booming stock prices. Indeed, such is the health of the world economy that the IMF is predicting global growth of 3.9 percent for both this and next year. The mood at Davos 2018 was the complete opposite of one year ago. “Our biggest problem is a lack of problems to discuss,” one of the Global Economic Outlook panelists quipped brightly.

French President Emmanuel Macron.

2)    Women on the main stage

“Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World” was the theme of the conference this year. The issues embodied by the #MeToo movement—gender inequality and sexual harassment—are definitely one of the “fractures” that is very much center stage right now. Here the WEF is doing a good job in leading by example: All seven of the forum’s co-chairs were women; many of the panelists were women; many of the issues discussed were women’s issues; and many prominent women leaders—from Christine Lagarde of the IMF to Ginni Rometty of IBM—spoke on the main stage.

Me on the “Innovation for Inclusion” side panel.

3)    Watch out for the new “Seven Sisters”

Another major pivot this year was in perceptions of Big Tech. With the rise of fake news and the surge in the importance of data, the big internet firms have suddenly gone from being objects of admiration to objects of skepticism and mistrust. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the world’s largest advertising group, even referred to the seven biggest Internet companies (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba and Tencent) as the “Seven Sisters,” reviving the disparaging nickname for the seven firms that controlled the world’s oil supply until the 1973 oil crisis.

WEF panel on “In Tech We Trust?”

Like their Big Oil predecessors, the modern Seven Sisters combine enormous financial muscle (all seven have market caps of over half a trillion dollars) with a perceived lack of moral compass (expressed in their indifference to privacy, eagerness to exploit data and reluctance to control fake news). Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, argued that once companies get that big and that powerful, they need to be regulated, just as in any other industry. Big Tech firms cannot realistically expect to take all the benefits of monopoly while refusing to take any of the responsibilities. Once upon a time, there was Big Oil, now there’s Big Tech—and a big regulatory pushback may be coming.

4)    “Societal polarization” and lack of trust

From the heights of Silicon Valley to the rest of the world. What about the so-called forgotten men and women? Communications expert Richard Edelman spoke of “societal polarization” in his speech. The media has become the “least-trusted” global institutions for the first time. Not trusting the mainstream media, people instead rely on social media, which tends to be unbalanced, biased and subject to fake news.  In the digital echo chamber, any sense of grievance is quickly amplified.

Many panelists could point to the various problems faced by the people left behind by globalization, but few of them seemed to have any viable real-world solutions. It’s easy enough to repeat mantras about “sustainable growth driven by inclusivity” and “lifelong learning,” but how does that translate into practice? If there is no trust in the media and government, there will be less of the mutual communication or understanding that have to be the foundation for any eventual solutions. Edelman’s answer? “Every institution has to engage in public debates directly with end users, so that facts can triumph over fear,” he said.

Catching up with my good friend Richard Edelman.

5) If you want to create the shared future, it’s best to turn up

President Trump’s speech fell short of expectations. He just read off the teleprompter. There was little booing or applause. It wasn’t bad for anybody, just a bit boring. He didn’t mention his anti-globalization or anti-climate change narratives, so overall I would give the speech positive marks.

This year, all the G7 leaders—Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron etc.—came to Davos. All except for one that is. As a Japanese, I am sorry to report that the one absentee was Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan!

The fact that Trump, who was originally so critical of Davos, showed up to beat the drum for the US proves that Davos is the ideal platform for promoting your country not just to other politicians, but to leaders in industry, finance, academia, the media and the non-profit sector.

It is important for a leader like Shinzo Abe to be at Davos to play his part in creating a shared future in a fractured world.  

Davos 2018 started with heavy snow and ended with bright sunshine. I hope that 2018 will continue to be as bright and sunny as Davos was.