The story of five decades of the World Economic Forum, as seen through the eyes of its members, leaders and the outside world.
The Forum is best known for its Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters. Through the years, numerous business, government and civil society leaders have made their way to the high Alps to consider the major global issues of the day and to brainstorm on solutions to address these challenges.
While many global institutions are notable for the breadth of nations or the powerful political leaders attending their gatherings, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting and indeed all the activities and initiatives of the Forum around the world are distinguished by the active participation of government, business and civil society figures. The Forum engages the most experienced and the most promising, all working together in the collaborative and collegial ‘Spirit of Davos’.
Professor Klaus Schwab founded what was originally called the European Management Forum, as a non-profit foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It drew business leaders from Europe, and beyond, to Davos for an Annual Meeting each January.
Initially, Professor Schwab focused the meetings on how European firms could catch up with US management practices. He also developed and promoted the ‘stakeholder’ management approach, which based corporate success on managers taking account of all interests: not merely shareholders, clients and customers, but employees and the communities within which they operate, including government.
Professor Schwab’s vision for what would become the World Economic Forum grew steadilly as a result of achieving ‘milestones’. Events in 1973, namely the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate mechanism and the Arab-Israeli War, saw the Annual Meeting expand its focus from management to economic and social issues. Political leaders were invited for the first time to Davos in January 1974.
Two years later, the organization introduced a system of membership for ‘the 1,000 leading companies of the world’. The European Management Forum was the first non-governmental institution to initiate a partnership with China’s economic development commissions, spurring economic reform policies in China. Regional meetings around the globe were also added to the year’s activities, while the publication of the Global Competitiveness Report in 1979 saw the organization expand to become a knowledge hub as well.
In 1987, the European Management Forum became the World Economic Forum and sought to broaden its vision to include providing a platform for dialogue. World Economic Forum Annual Meeting milestones during this time include the Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which saw them turn back from the brink of war, while in 1989, North and South Korea held their first ministerial-level meetings in Davos. At the same Meeting, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met to discuss German reunification. In 1992, South African President de Klerk met Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the Annual Meeting, their first joint appearance outside South Africa and a milestone in the country’s political transition.
In 2015, the Forum was formally recognised as an international organization. It is now on the next phase of its journey as the global platform for public-private cooperation.