Plenty of headlines to liven up Davos forum

An armoured military police vehicle moving past the Davos Dorf railway station on Monday as Switzerland prepares to host leaders from around the world at the World Economic Forum.
An armoured military police vehicle moving past the Davos Dorf railway station on Monday as Switzerland prepares to host leaders from around the world at the World Economic Forum.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Barely weeks into the new year and the events around the world have left many reeling, and wondering just what the rest of 2016 might hold.

Stock markets across the globe are taking a battering. Oil prices have plunged. China's economy seems more precarious by the day. Taiwan has elected a new pro-independence leader. North Korea's maverick leader is acting up again. The lifting of sanctions on Iran has revived age-old rivalries between Sunni and Shia Muslim nations.

Islamist extremists pull off deadly plots, from Jakarta in Indonesia to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

That's enough news to make the headlines for months, let alone just the first fortnight of the year.

So, there is much for world leaders to discuss at the annual conference of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, which kicks off today.

The forum's high-minded slogan - "Committed to improving the state of the world" - is everywhere, on walls and posters to notebooks and briefcases for delegates, and right now, the state of the world could do with some improving.

Some 2,500 political, business and community leaders are gathering in this Swiss Alpine resort for a week of intense but intimate discussions on just what lies ahead, and what might be done about it.

Among them are 40 prime ministers and presidents, from Mongolia to Mexico. The United States has sent a high-powered delegation of several Cabinet ministers, led by Vice-President Joe Biden and including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.

To add some stardust to the stellar line-up, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and musician will.i.am have also been invited, to be conferred the WEF's Crystal awards for their work on tackling the climate crisis and education for the underserved respectively. Pop icon Bono will be on hand to mark the 10th anniversary of the (RED) campaign to fight Aids while actor Kevin Spacey, who plays a president in the hit TV series House Of Cards, will speak on "the theatricality of American politics in this election year", as the conference agenda promises.

In addition to the recurring themes of curbing climate change, checking global inequality and boosting international development, WEF organisers have sought to frame this year's agenda around the long-term challenges facing industries and societies spawned by the massive disruption from rapid technological change.

Panel discussions have been lined up on topics such as the Digital Transformation of Industries; the State of Artificial Intelligence; Meet the Robot; and even one session intriguingly titled "What if you are still alive in 2100?"

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is attending the forum, will join a discussion tomorrow on the Future of Jobs.

Taking up the theme in a new book, launched recently in conjunction with this year's event, WEF founder Klaus Schwab notes the world is undergoing a new technological revolution that entails "nothing less than a transformation of humankind".

"We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this new revolution," he argues, pointing to the "confluence of emerging technology breakthroughs, covering wide- ranging fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, material science, energy storage and quantum computing, to name a few."

This wave of new technologies, in what the WEF dubs the fourth industrial revolution, will "cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets over the next five years", said a WEF study on the Future of Jobs, released ahead of the forum this week. As many as five million jobs in 15 major economies could be wiped out over the next five years as a result, it estimates.

Disruption of this sort, to business, industries and societies, will give participants much to ponder in the week ahead, during formal plenary sessions as well as at informal lunch and dinner discussions on the sidelines.

But, as with past forums, the more pressing day-to-day concerns arising from events unfolding a world away from the scenic ski slopes of Davos will no doubt crowd their way onto the busy agenda.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Plenty of headlines to liven up Davos forum'. Print Edition | Subscribe