Martin Gilbert in Davos: world leaders miss out on the personal touch

In some ways Davos looks much the same as in previous years. The world’s great and good from politics, academia, business and the media have once again descended on Switzerland.

The combination of all of these companies and leaders from around the world in an otherwise quiet and rural backwater is as incongruous as ever. The logistical effort of turning a skiing village into a global conference centre is as impressive as ever.

The official agenda is as packed as ever. And some of the titles are slightly nebulous, as they tend to be.

But scratch beneath the surface and you can see how what’s happening in Davos is reflective of some of what’s happening in the world.

We can start with populism. The absence of some of the world’s top politicians this year is notable. Concerned about the ‘optics’ of attending Davos, Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron are not here as they attend to issues at home.

It is simply the only opportunity when you have so many people in one place and with the same purpose in mind.

A lack of world leaders flying in and out with helicopters and motorcades makes the business end easier to achieve. The point of Davos for me is to meet clients and company management. It is simply the only opportunity when you have so many people in one place and with the same purpose in mind.

Turning to the discussions, the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is top of the agenda, as it has been in the past. This is the idea that we are going through a revolution akin to those that went before it.

The first of these harnessed water and steam to mechanise production, then electricity to drive mass production, and finally the use of electronics and computers to automate production. We are now experiencing a digital revolution that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

In some ways, the revolution is nothing new. It has been going on since the middle of the last century and humans have been searching for ways of making human means produce more since the dawn of creation.

Some argue that it is different because of the pace and scope of change. After all, barely 10 years after the iPhone was launched billions of people carry a small box in their pocket that has more processing power than many computers, a camera that uses AI to take better picture and access to all of the information that the world has ever committed to the world wide web.

This prominence of tech in our lives is reflected at Davos. It used to be that the big banks were the big hitters in town. But the new kids on the block are the likes of Facebook and Microsoft which have the biggest presence.

Just as the banks once were, those tech companies are very much in the crosshairs of policymakers globally, some of whom worry about the impact that tech is having on our daily lives. Facebook didn’t even exist 15 years ago.

Technology has become a part of all our lives, and can help us achieve a lot. But that brings us back to the question: why are we all here in Davos? Sometimes there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting when you really need to make progress. Even if that means trekking to the top of a mountain.

This article first appeared in Financial News on 23 January.


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