Can the World Economic Forum predict everything? Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, Davos veteran and canny global observer, doesn’t think so. He has a few critical words for the Forum’s Nostradamus-like powers:
In January the world’s political and business leaders, with the media circus in tow, will make their annual pilgrimage to Davos for the World Economic Forum.
Davos is often described as a bellwether of the major geopolitical issues for the year ahead, but anyone looking to the forum’s constellation of stars for a glimpse of the future is likely to be disappointed.
The past 12 months have seen, for example, the rise of ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], the Ebola epidemic, the eruption of the crisis in Ukraine and the stand-off in Hong Kong – hugely significant events with global repercussions, none of which were predicted at Davos 2014.
True, Davos represents only a narrow segment of the ongoing work of the World Economic Forum. And it would be easy to say that the Forum is not in the crystal ball business. But Sir Martin raises an important point. With nearly three hundred sessions, and countless other meetings, what filter should be applied? Because, whilst we do not make predictions, the Forum has featured all the points that Sir Martin raises.
On Syria, for example, and the brutal new terrorism it was spawning in the form of ISIL, there was the televised session in which Iran’s Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned of the wider consequences of the continuation of Syria’s civil war.
Many of the extremists who are fighting in Syria come from all over the world, they come from Europe, they come from the Middle East, they come from elsewhere. And once they go back to their homes, this will be a disaster for all of us.
Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu and the President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani were also on the panel, and all three met independently on the sidelines. Both Turkey and Iraq attacked ISIL forces immediately after Davos.
Ukraine’s government was collapsing under protest even as the meeting went on. The man who is today its President, Petro Poroshenko, was in Davos to warn of the dangers his country faced.
Forum warnings on income inequality had been coming for four years, but reached a crescendo in Davos. We may not have predicted what happened in Hong Kong, but our message certainly struck a chord in regional media:
Rising income inequality is one of the major themes lined up at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. Hong Kong, as one of the busiest business hubs in Asia, is also facing the threat of growing wealth disparity … The Forum further warned of a lost generation of young people who don’t have jobs.
Did we ignore pandemics? Ebola had yet to wreak havoc across central Africa, but our Global Risks Report, which looks at threats over a 5-10 year time horizon, had raised pandemics and infectious disease in the developing world as major risks in its 2007 and 2008 editions.
The problems the World Economic Forum addresses are those that build over years to threaten all of us, globally and collectively. The solutions sought are not clickbait responses to news cycle crises, but deliberative and sometimes slow. Sometimes painfully slow.
In a meeting that spans so many global issues even veteran participants may struggle to navigate the agenda and pick out priorities. If business leaders as sophisticated as Sir Martin are missing some of the key pieces, there is an important lesson for us here at the Forum.
We need to get better at helping our members and constituents year round. They need to be able to navigate global issues, not just have them identified.
That is why the Forum is mapping key transformations in global issues to improve the way we understand the forces shaping the world for better and for worse. It is part of our commitment to improving how we live up to our mission: to improve the state of the world.
Disclosure: WPP Group is a Strategic Partner of the World Economic Forum.
Author: Adrian Monck is Managing Director, Head of Public Engagement at the World Economic Forum.
Image: A crystal ball in the snow, from Flickr user Mo.