The World Economic Forum’s annual event is over for another year. Once again, Davos was a fascinating and frustrating few days, providing a snapshot of what the global elite hive mind is currently thinking.

Beyond the obvious highlights – that POTUS and Greta are probably not on each other’s Christmas card lists, that “big tech” is officially in the doghouse and that “belonging” now belongs on the agenda – a less obvious message began to emerge, at least to my over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived brain: that the WEF sits atop a fault line of tensions and contradictions likely impossible to reconcile but that will form the framework for everybody’s work for the foreseeable future.

Cognitive Dissonance at Davos

  • The developed vs. developing world. Billions of people in developing countries want what people in developed countries already have, take for granted and now are beginning to loathe: steak, air conditioning, cars, holidays, vaccines, McMansions, kids. While the populations of Italy and Greece and Japan (among others) are shrinking, China and Nigeria and Brazil (among others) are continuing to explode. Demographics is destiny, it is said. By the time the WEF celebrates its 100th birthday (and probably much sooner), the global distribution of people and power will be unrecognizable from today. Yet the developed-world elite will still want to be in charge.
  • Traveling vs. zooming. The irony was not lost on newspaper columnists and cartoonists that Davos (wo)man omitted tons of CO2 while en route to earnestly discuss climate change. (The hot air emitted by talking heads up and down the Promenade didn’t help, either.) With online conferencing technology now more technically stable and widely dispersed, the gestalt is set to flip from business travel being a positive/high-status thing to it being negative/low-status. Davos 60 will be held in virtual reality, it was suggested. As the planet warms, traveling is getting less cool. Yet, billions would love to turn left on the plane, and millions won’t give up that perk without a fight.
  • Merit vs. inclusion. Panel after panel agreed on the need to spread opportunity to the underserved and underprivileged. Yet the very power of those with power at Davos (and the other 51 weeks of the year) stems from merit-based exclusion. “I run the world because I went to Eton/Groton/Oxford/Yale and you didn’t.” “I’m behind this velvet rope because I got a first/I’m magna cum laude and you didn’t/aren’t.” “I’m staying at the Hotel Belvedere because I work 80 hours a week and you don’t.” “I’m staying in Davos for a weekend of skiing after the conference in my (owned, not rented) ski-in/ski-out chalet (while you schlep home in coach) because I am responsible for $5 billion of revenues and 50,000 people report to me – and not to you.” We want to include people in our gilded world, but only if they “merit” it, aka, they are “brilliant” and can make us a lot of money.
  • Openness vs. culture. Davos (wo)man axiomatically believes in “openness” – the openness of free trade, the free movement of capital and people, and of overseas holidays and foreign adventures. And yet when welcoming her company’s new intake of graduate trainees, the CHRO is likely to say, “Our culture is our unique secret source,” which is code for saying that culture in prestige banks and legal firms and strategy shops and tier one tech companies is carefully cultivated through recruiting the “right” impressionable young people from the “right” schools and “right backgrounds” and excluding the “wrong” ones.  “You’re now part of our family. You’re one of us,” she goes on to say. “But I have a request of you. In this era of disruption, we want you all to challenge the status quo. To be bold and brave. To think differently.” Huh? How likely is that when we are all such peas in a pod, a young Ivy newbie silently ponders. I thought we all learned that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Should I follow the strategy or fit into the culture, the trainee wonders …
  • Growth vs. the planet. Can 10 billion people in the near future live as people do today in London, New York and Tokyo without doing irreparable environmental harm to our world? Can we “de-grow” in a way that doesn’t feel existentially miserable? Is it even theoretically feasible to “de-grow?” What would that actually look like? What if we “de-grow” and nobody else does? Can we create enough technologies, quickly enough, to get off our reliance on plastic, coal, gasoline, fusion? Can we transition our economies (with all their existing vested interests) to new economies based on solar, wind, wave, quantum, circularity? Can we continue to grow without killing ourselves (or, more accurately, others far away in distance and time)? Davos (wo)man wants “positive” growth without “negative” externalities. Discuss.
  • Creativity vs. destruction. It was somehow fitting (although, of course, sad) that the news of Clayton Christensen’s passing broke as Davos 50 attendees were wending their weary ways home. In the modern era, no one was more associated with the notions of tech-based disruption that are the hallmark of Davos than the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. Indeed, it was arguably Christensen’s work that legitimized the very idea of disruption to a global elite who, in a previous generation, would have seen upsetting the apple cart as the work of a bounder. As of 2020 though, faith in the positive power of innovation has weakened with the realization that so many disruptive new ideas of the last few years have, in fact, been the work of bounders. And that tech-based disruption has been a contributing factor to the rise of anti-elite (i.e., anti-Davos) populism. Davos (wo)man will have to make the case for disruption and for the First Industrial Evolution without one of its high priests, and when more and more elites and proles alike are saying we need to disrupt disruption.
  • Personalization and convenience vs. privacy. The phenomenal success of the FAANG vendors in recent years suggests a lot of people love them. Now Davos (wo)man is beginning to get a little worried, though. Some in the audience (I’m looking at you Shoshana) are starting to figure out how the trick is done. Gulp. “Of course we want regulation,” the FAANGers say. “Of course we believe in privacy.” But in reality, nobody in Davos (or anywhere else in the world) knows how to square this circle. The “code rush” has been unprecedented in human history (amount of money created in the shortest amount of time) and the data mines show no sign of running out of ones and zeros and money anytime soon. GDPR walks the halls of the Davos Congress Center, but isn’t invited to the late-night parties with Sting and Will. I. Am, high up on the slopes.
  • Social media is sick vs. social media is really sick. Lots of people at Davos 2020 had very interesting discussions about the evils of social media. I know because many tweeted about it.
  • The end of the world vs. the end of the month. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is as intellectually stimulating a week as one can have this side of 2018VG18. Interacting with some of the brightest minds on our planet, talking about the most important issues of the day, one comes down the mountain in equal parts energized and drained. This year’s event was heavy on climate change, and tech regulation, and restructuring capitalism, and dealing with disinformation, and harnessing AI and quantum computing, and creating the singularity, and managing the rise of China. If you like heavy, if you like deep, then Davos is for you.

    What Davos doesn’t really get into, though, is what the residents from Middletown, Ohio, the chavs of Middlesbrough and the gilet jaunes from Seine-et-Marne should do, or can do, to make their day-to-day lives better. Davos doesn’t seem to understand that rarified theories shared amid rarified air are as much use to a 19-year-old shop assistant as an accordion player is to a deer hunter on a deer hunt. Perhaps it’s too much to expect Davos to be anything more than a place that the great and (occasionally) good come to jaw-jaw and look pretty for their close-up. Maybe Davos is nothing more than a high-end Kabuki theater for people who for the rest of the year toil away in relative well-paid obscurity. Maybe it’s nothing more than an indulgence for the indulgent who roam from glitzy watering hole to chintzy private member’s club – no more significant than the transition from Roland Garros to Wimbledon is for the traveling circus that is the global tennis circuit. Whatever Davos is, it is both simultaneously profoundly important and entirely trivial. Whatever Davos is, it is nothing more than the most important and, perhaps, the most useless week of the year.

Back in the Real World

These and other contradictions are the backdrop for the life in which we live – a world of unimaginable beauty and luxury and unfathomable pain and heartache. While I was in Davos, a neighbor’s kid died of an overdose, a friend’s parent had a bypass surgery that has given them a new lease on life, a basketball star (and his beautiful, innocent 13-year-old daughter) died in a helicopter crash, and a has-been rock-and-roll star won a Grammy.

Davos is a marker in our journey through the weird business of living, of working, of being human. It is full of contradictions, just as we are. It is full of good and bad, promise and peril, just as we are. It is an oasis of hope in a world of despair, a heart of darkness in a world of love and joy. In short, Davos takes us out of our day-to-day and plunks us into a world of aspiration and anxiety in a way that nowhere or nothing else can, revealing the tensions and contradictions central to the very business of being a Homo sapien (look up the Latin)  in the third decade of the 21st century.

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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

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