As the world’s elite gather in Davos, Switzerland for the 49th World Economic Forum annual meeting, perhaps the most notable aspect of the event so far is the absence of 50% of the world’s economy. With key world leaders such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi, collectively representing 50% of the global economy and 42% of the world’s population, opting to fend off domestic matters, it would seem the theme of Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is partly driven by a return of economic nationalism and the stark relief of domestic pressures putting nations first and the world second.
In the U.S., the political dysfunction of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is sufficient to divert not only the president, but the entire U.S. delegation, which arrived to last year’s WEF conference with much fanfare. The stubborn persistence and escalation of the gilets jaunes movement, meanwhile, is clearly leveling sufficient domestic pressure on the decidedly anti-populist president of France, Emmanuel Macron, who is as at home in the snow-capped Alps, as he is in the Élysée Palace. However, months of rolling street protests are as much a backdrop for what WEF summiteers will discuss, global risks, national retrenchment and the threat of recession, which is being pulled forward from 2020 due to the confluence of complex events.
In China’s case, amid a grinding trade war with the U.S., even the mighty Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company, is signaling how in a world of deep economic interconnections and global interdependencies, such as supply chains and market access, you cannot decouple the fortunes of companies from countries. Apple’s rare advanced profit warning on the grounds of Chinese economic deceleration is likely to be echoed by other public company CEOs, many of whom are ensconced in Davos for the next few days. Brexit meanwhile, merely a few months away, seems set to be a disorderly affair on both sides of the English Channel as Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister, fends off a no confidence vote and other insurrections.
Amid so much upheaval and tumultuous prognostications about the direction of global economy, perhaps the theme of this year’s WEF annual meetings should outline pathways to safety and shelter, which the world will find increasingly scarce. If last year’s summit was dominated by emerging technologies, such as blockchain, which is being touted as the panacea for a low-trust, high-friction world, will technology feature as prominently this time around? Especially as companies and investors are feeling the burn of major market corrections in cryptocurrency and blockchain projects and high volatility in traditional markets? A critical theme throughout the week and certainly a global agenda item that should ring true throughout 2019, is the issue of job creation, economic mobility and the future-proofing of the global workforce, which is finding itself to be a replaceable spare part in the global economy, rather than an essential piece of the engine of economic development and progress.
Indeed, part of what explains the absence of key world leaders in Davos, is the reality that economic outputs, which historically relied on human productivity as inputs, are now divergent. Industrial automation, wage stagnation and a general shift from the industrial age, to the technological and, invariably digital ones, is no longer an abstraction to be discussed at lofty global conferences, it is now a manifest challenge at ballot boxes and in street protests. It should be no surprise then, that in a world where the top 26 billionaires command more wealth than 3.8 billion people, coping with globalization 4.0 (whatever that is), will have to include steps to recalibrate the global economy and to fundamentally make it more participatory. By this measure, the world has a long way to go and an exclusive gathering of the global elite in the Swiss alps may not be the best way to get there, even though it is a great way to develop common cause.