Will Trump in Davos be the elephant in the china shop?

Navigate this.
Navigate this.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The World Economic Forum in Davos started today, and US president Donald Trump is attending. He is no doubt happy to be invited. Last year I described him as “the elephant not in the room.” This year he’s more likely to be the elephant in the china shop.

The theme of the meeting is Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. Discussions will focus on finding ways to reaffirm international cooperation on crucial shared interests, such as international security, the environment and the global economy.

“We need collaborative efforts,” Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab said earlier this week. He warns that “There is today a real danger of a collapse of our global systems… It is in our hands to change the state of the world.”

Davos is an odd venue for Trump because the mission of the forum is to facilitate global dialogue and rise above national interests to solve global problems. Nevertheless, it will enable Trump to speak to his base, repeating his ”America First” theme.

Joining Trump will be hundreds or CEOs, global leaders including 70 heads of state or government and 38 heads of major international organizations. The opening address will be delivered by Narendra Modi, prime minister of India. This year a record number of leaders from G7 economies will participate, including Paolo Gentiloni, prime minister of Italy; Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission; Emmanuel Macron, president of France; Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom; and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

The forum is often accused of being a gabfest for the rich and powerful, and to be sure there will be plenty of both categories there. However, the organizers have made a concerted effort to be more inclusive. There will be many representatives from international organizationscivil society, cultural and spiritual leaders, academia, labor, and the media.

The annual meeting is also the foremost global summit representing younger generations, with 50 members of the Forum’s Global Shaper community, aged between 20 and 30, and 80 Young Global Leaders under the age of 40, participating. There will also be the largest proportion of women leaders ever. The forum works throughout the year to highlight the gender gap and develop strategies to help women achieve positions of senior leadership.

And let’s face it, nation states and their institutions like the G8 or the UN, are proving woefully inadequate in solving today’s pernicious global problems. In the 20th century, countries built global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems. But given the failure to come to agreements on everything from how to stop warlords or govern the global financial system, we need new tools and power structures.

The forum is probably the most important organization working on multi-stakeholder approaches to solving these problems. And the Davos Annual Meeting is one of hundreds of activities it organizes throughout the year.

This year’s Monday-to-Friday event will feature more than 400 sessions. Trump is scheduled to speak on Friday. Nearly half of the proceedings, including Trump’s speech, will be webcast. So you don’t have to go to Davos to see and hear what is going on there.

I have long believed that technologies such as the internet would be the great leveler in our society. Everyone could contribute to the discussion. We would tackle problems collectively.

But notwithstanding how the streaming of Davos helps open it up, overall I’ve been proved wrong so far. Fragmentation of public discourse enabled be digital technologies is at the heart of fragmentation.

I wasn’t alone in thinking the Internet is cause for optimism. The 2008 and 2012 American presidential elections saw the Obama campaign deftly use digital technologies. Obama supporters could go online and meet other supporters who lived nearby. They were encouraged to get together and coordinate their activities. The Internet was used to animate and focus pro-democracy energies. All was good.

But around the world, especially in the United States today, public faith in the electoral process is at an all-time low. Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote. As well, American intelligence agencies have concluded the Russian government interfered with the electoral process using Internet-based tools, and that Russia’s goal was to have Donald Trump elected. Many voters appear to have been swayed by a vast amount of false information and assertions made via Internet-based social media.

This is just one example of the many challenges for a modern technology-driven society. How do we survive information overload? How do we sort through all the misinformation spewed when a billion people essentially have printing presses at their fingertips? How do we ensure quality news, investigative reporting and good journalism? How do we avoid a balkanization of news where we each simply follow our own point of view, placing each of us in a self-reinforcing echo chamber where the purpose of information is not to inform but to give comfort?

Two years ago, Klaus Schwab wrote a book called The Fourth Industrial Revolution. He believes we are in the early stages of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. Neuro-technological brain enhancements. Genetic editing. These changes are happening at exponential speed.

This month he released a follow-up book with Forum executive Nicholas Davis: Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Schwab discusses how we cannot let the many new technologies simply emerge. All of us need to help shape the future we want to live in. But what do we need to know and do to achieve this?

Two new digital technologies will be at the forefront of Davos discussion: Artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. Evidence is mounting that we’ll need a new social contract to deal with the disruption of these massive innovations.

But honestly, it’s tough to imaging Trump having anything constructive to say to this debate. More likely he’ll just be breaking a lot of china.