One of the last major elite gatherings to take place this year before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to everything was the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in January. And despite concerns that even global elites will give the shindig a miss, it plans to forge ahead in 2021, and is now open to virtually anyone. The theme for next year’s event will be “the Great Reset.”
The annual meeting sees tens of thousands of politicians, business executives, journalists, and activists descending on the Swiss alpine resort, where they jostle for hotel rooms, restaurant reservations, and invitations to wild after parties with everybody ranked according to a hierarchy of importance. Next year’s event, according to the head of the WEF, will operate in the form of “twin summits” that take place both at Davos and online.
In a statement, WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab said that thousands of young people around the world will be given the opportunity to join a “powerful virtual hub network” to interact with Davos leaders in 2021. The more than 400 “hubs,” located all over the world, will be “open to everyone.” Even journalists, who themselves have to go through a lengthy accreditation process to go to the physical event, will be able to “share their input.”
Schwab said the event, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, will recognize the need for a “new social contract” that calls for more inclusive and sustainable economies. Climate change is once again at the top of the agenda for WEF in 2021, but the pandemic, said Schwab, has further “laid bare the unsustainability of our old system.” The new social contract, he said, will also confront the “evils of racism and discrimination.”
Almost every year as Davos rolls around, there is a guaranteed stream of hot takes on how an event so exclusive, so detached, and so male can claim to be effective and representative as a forum for solving the world’s problems. Those criticisms only became more acute in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as many people, disillusioned with capitalism, pointed fingers squarely at banks and other financial institutions whose executives are mainstays at Davos.
The event went some way to address those criticisms this year by, for example, inviting Greta Thunberg and other young climate change activists. Many of the interested attendees who watched Thunberg’s impassioned speech no doubt later returned home on private jets. In its own defense, the WEF has always maintained that it believes the multilateral opportunities for discussion offered at Davos are better ways of solving global problems than countries or people going it alone.
As if climate change and the crisis in capitalism weren’t enough for the WEF to grapple with, the world is now in a greater state of flux than at any time in recent memory thanks to the coronavirus which is, among many other things, realigning global geopolitics, fueling China’s ambitions, and plunging the world into a deep recession. On top of that, nobody knows how the current protests in the US will play out, with a change in the presidency a real possibility just months away from now.
In an interview with the Financial Times (paywall), Schwab said that, having assessed the health risks, he decided also to press ahead with holding the event in 2021 because it signals going back to a “new normality.” In the drastically changed post-pandemic world, it’s clear that there’s still a gaping chasm between what the “new normal” means to Davos regulars and to the rest of the world.