At last year’s annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a palpable sense of shock and disbelief at recent events in the UK (Brexit) and the U.S. (Donald Trump’s election as President).  A discomforting wave of disruption greeted every Davos man/woman, which few had seen coming.  

At this year’s conference, the ramifications of these two seminal earthquakes will continue to reverberate through the hills and valleys (and meeting rooms) of the Graubünden. The themes and agenda of the 48th WEF Annual Meeting reflect the ongoing process of understanding and adapting to the new (anti) trade winds.

  • Continuing debate about the pros and cons of globalization. In 2017, President Xi Jinping of China presented a strong defense of the benefits of global trade, which many commentators took as a rebuke to the nationalist sentiments that had roiled through the U.S. presidential campaign. This year, President Trump is expected to attend, and while (at the time of this writing) it hasn’t been confirmed as to whether he’s formally speaking, it’s unlikely he’s coming to town just for the skiing. His comments – and the reception he receives – will make headlines around the world.
  • Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” The title of this year’s event is both a rallying cry and a plea; a rallying cry in that this is what leaders must do: create opportunity of a utilitarian nature (aka, the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people) rather than allow all the rewards to flow upwards; and also a plea, in that failing in this task will not end well for anyone. Correlations between historical periods of great income inequality and armed conflict are hard to overlook. The subtext of the WEF’s Fourth Industrial Revolution argument is that we need to minimize the human collateral of the “revolution” by taking intentional measures to staunch the wounds and make the opportunities clear and accessible. In other words, help people migrate through this daunting shift, ushering in the world’s First Industrial Evolution
  • Retraining for the jobs of the future. The key to these utilitarian goals is the possession of skills relevant to, and monetizable in, this brave new world. To this end, the WEF is unveiling a new skills and retraining portal that will allow anyone and everyone to take training courses (at no cost) to equip themselves with a range of technical and nontechnical skills that are increasingly in demand with employers around the world. Many partners of the WEF, including us, have contributed valuable intellectual property to this initiative. We at the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work have also produced a “21 Jobs of The Future” report that provides direction on the work that is emerging to replace the work that is being automated away by increasingly smart software and hardware.  It’s a theme we will share with WEF attendees at a luncheon at the Hub Culture Pavilion in Davos on Tuesday, 23 January.
  • Growing anti-tech sentiment. The second half of 2017 saw a noticeable increase in momentum of a growing anti-tech bandwagon. “Big tech” has increasingly been in the spotlight on Capitol Hill and the media amid the ongoing dissection of the reasons for, and means of, President Trump’s victory, and as the full extent of “fake news” and “filter bubbles” has come to be appreciated. This new zeitgeist that sees “the Four” as baddies, not goodies, will likely be a hot topic in Davos. Growing calls for tackling phone addiction will also hit a nerve with every attendee FaceTiming their families back home during coffee breaks. Perhaps some of us will see the irony in this.
  • Winning the seemingly unwinnable war. Cybersecurity is set this year to be an even hotter topic than ever before, and for one simple reason: All the promise and potential benefit of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including the jobs that will spread opportunity and tamp down societal disquiet, rest on the ability to secure the new online environments in which we increasingly live and work. One would have to be very brave and/or pollyannaish at this year’s meeting to suggest that the online world is secure and that victory is within reach. Previously a semi-acknowledged (and certainly inconvenient) truth, the battle for cybersecurity is now an existential issue for every board and CEO of every company worldwide. This year’s event will see session after session focus on strategies and tactics to create sustainable solutions to this most intractable of problems. (NB, many of these sessions will take place in Internet “air-locked” rooms. The irony of this will not be lost on anyone.)
  • The great story of our time: artificial intelligence. January 2017 saw a noteworthy confluence of thinkers from academic, business and political backgrounds align around the reality that artificial intelligence is central to the next chapter of the story about the future of work. When we came to Davos last year amid the launch of our book What To Do When Machines Do Everything, we were not alone in telling anyone who would listen that something very big was going on. This story has continued to resonate over the last 12 months as the underlying technology and application of these technologies have matured along exponential lines. January 2018 will likely see more and more Davos attendees grappling with the implications of what, in due course, will come to be seen as an historical time. Machine intelligence is both the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity that anyone strolling the Talstrasse has ever seen in their life. No wonder our book was the second best-selling business book of 2017 (according to 800-CEO-READpardon the humble brag). AI recently cracked the Enigma code in 12 minutes. Davos 2018 will be the venue for a lot of thinking about machines that think. 

This year’s WEF event comes at a time when many of the underlying assumptions of the last 40 years have been challenged and remain under attack from voices never before heard on Davos stages. The mood and messaging that emerges during the conference will, as ever, play a significant role in shaping the direction of the global economy in the year(s) ahead. Terra incognito lies ahead. Attendees will be looking for maps. 

For more on Davos, see my blog posts “WEF 2018: Davos, Data, Palantir and the Future of the Internet” and “WEF 2018 in Review: Splints on a Fractured World.” 

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more