I have spent the last week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. I was invited by the European Research Council (as a current grantee), to present some of my work on climate change and tropical forest conservation and tipping points. My initial reaction to the invitation was some trepidation - media coverage and reference to “the self-congratulating elites of Davos” governing the world detached from the concerns of the wider world had pre-shaped my perceptions. But I was also very curious, and excited to have the chance to peer into the dynamics of this extraordinary invitation-only gathering of a few thousand people in this lovely Alpine valley, and see what role there was for science and environmentalism in its deliberations.
The hotels for Davos are booked up well in advance, and so I stayed in a wonderful AirBnB chalet perched high up on a slope of the valley, together with my fellow invitee Maja Schleuter from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. When it was first booked we had not quite appreciated that getting there involved a 40 minute hike up a mountain in pitch darkness through deep snow and forest. But being perched in silence on the edge of the valley gave a valuable moment for reflection at the start and end of each day, and I really looked forward to this crunchy snowy hike at the end of a full day of conversations and ideas. Every morning from my snowy mountain perch I could nurse a coffee and gaze down on what is probably one of the greatest concentrations of power and influence (political, financial, commercial) in human history. The valley held not only on the powerful and the wealthy, but also on a host of campaigners, researchers and thinkers trying to understand and shape a better world. As the week progressed more helicopters buzzed in and out (particularly after Thursday when Donald Trump and his vast entourage arrived), soldiers patrolled the slopes and armed guards and X-ray security were found at every hotel entrance.
I wanted to peek into the workings of this week in this secluded Alpine valley, to get some understanding of how this concentration of power and influence worked, of what reactions were catalysed by this concentration. Did and could this concentration lead to new ways of shaping the world and humanity’s place in it in positive ways? In a few days I could not hope to answer my questions in any depth, but I would hope to come away with some insight. I discovered immediately that Davos is vast and multi-layered, and one week probably left me with only the most cursory of first impressions, but I’ll try and put my thoughts down here.
Davos is concentric rings of access. I was a white badge holder (thanks to the ERC), which enabled me to attend all events in the magnificent main conference centre (an elegant building with many wonderful spaces – probably amongst the finest meeting spaces I have every encountered), but not to access private lounges for the paid members. Associated companies pay at least 70,000 euros for the right to be affiliated to the WEF and attend Davos, but about a third of invitees (mainly from academia or civil society) attend for free. The Conference Centre is where the main plenary keynotes (e.g. speeches by world leaders) took place, but also there were a host of meeting rooms, many very innovative in design such as the Ideas Lab (build around small table discussions), the Science Hub (a goldfish bowl where I could make presentations to around 30 people while the main conference talked and met just outside) and the Global Situation Space and Situation Area, which featured massive map and stunning screens which could be manipulated by the presenter, and which could not be ignored by any passing delegate. There was an endless supply of free coffee and smoothies, and coffee areas packed with delegates staring and swiping through their smartphones as obsessed as teenagers at the school gate. Special Virtual Reality Artworks in the hallways offered transport into the world of an Amazonian shaman, a Holocaust survivor or a new pandemic outbreak.
The Global Situation Space was one of the wonderful spaces to explore and understanding mapping data. This image shows areas of income decline in recent years in the USA - a factor that was to lead to recent political earthquakes. It was located in the main meeting area, and almost impossible for any attendee to ignore
Outside the conference centre there was a greater Davos amongst the array of large hotels and rented-out shops stretched out along the Promenade. In addition to some core conference events, these hosted a large range of side events, network events, café meeting spaces and evening receptions that were open to a much wider range of participants (though all seemed need some level of pass and security check). This was also where to find many attendees who did not have the much-envied white passes needed for the Congress Hall.
I was impressed and how many of the events did try to deal with sustainability and equity issues. On a flick through the programme I would estimate 25-35% were on such issues, another third where on assessments of the economics and prospects for particular regions, and others were more futurist, examining the potential and influence of emerging or future technologies, the prospects and threats of artificial intelligence, biotech or blockchain. This was much more of a thinkfest, an exploration of ideas, than I had anticipated, and I got to see or interact with some of my favourite authors or thinkers like Steven Pinker ("Better Angels of our Nature", etc) and Yuval Harari ("Sapiens", "Homo Deus"). It felt like a Hay Book Festival and UN General Assembly thrown together.
In parallel to this thinkfest, there was the corporate or political networking, in hallways or meeting spaces with the Conference Centre, and even more so in the hotels and bars along the Promenade. These areas witnessed a frenzied exchange of contact information, of searching for new business opportunities.
On top of all these events sat the big plenary showcases, the speeches by major world leaders. This year was kicked off by Narendra Modi (very much sending the message that “India has arrived”), various moments filled by Justin Trudeau, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Michel Temer, Theresa May and others, and rounded off by Donald Trump, who the delegates lined up to see with morbid fascination and disdain. I kept my antenna open for mention of climate change, and was impressed how much it featured in India’s message (Macron was the other main leader who made a major mention of it). These showcase events were fascinating, but their scale and anonymity meant there was little value gained over watching the same speeches on livestream. My interest and social curiosity was driven much more by the myriad of smaller events.
A key question for me was how many opportunities were there for intersection and connection between these parallel groups? Or did the academics and NGOs mainly end up talking among themselves while the CEOs and politicians talked elsewhere. I found out that there were a surprising number of points of interaction. Many meetings and talks were set up in formats that made it fairly easy interact in small groups around tables. At one of my presentations, the Ideas Hub, the talk and Q&A were followed by the speakers joining small group tables for follow-up conversation. Another very fruitful format was evening dinners with structured conversations, which allowed for more in-depth explorations and conversations than brief conversations in wine receptions.
The ERC looked after us well, and was keen to showcase the importance of Pan-European Science, in the context of the next long-term funding plans being drawn up and the uncertainty that Brexit throws up for British involvement in European science. I found myself drawn into several strategic conversations on this. The WEF staff also looked after us well, ensuring that as academics that we felt involved and welcome in this complex and somewhat daunting space.
I ended my week in Davos with a mainly favourable impression of what the World Economic Forum was trying to do. I saw a real effort to inject new conversations and perspectives about equity and sustainability into the proceedings of the event, and a genuine attempt to give opportunities of showcasing and exchange of ideas. Whether these efforts deliver in the medium term is hard to tell. But, as one example, every day I bumped into my colleague Kate Raworth moving tirelessly from event to event, presenting and promoting her ideas on doughnut economics to rethink the basis and fundamentals of the global economy. Her ability to use this forum to stimulate and harangue everyone from political leaders to social innovators to Nobel Laureates in Economics was one of the examples of what made Davos special, and how it is possible to really engage and use the opportunity to reach an audience that at most other times is out of reach.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University