The refugee crisis, the advance of technology, rising inequality and climate change: as the World Economic Forum convened its Annual Meeting in Davos, how far did world leaders get in finding solutions to these challenges? Here are some of their answers.
1. Refugee crisis
As the influx of refugees from wartorn countries in Europe and elsewhere continues, political leaders resolved to tackle the cause of the crisis, and are thinking about ways to integrate the newcomers in their new societies. Can businesses contribute?
Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of American yoghurt maker Chobani, believes it can. In Davos, Ulukaya called on other CEOs to join a “campaign to channel corporate money, lobbying initiatives, services and jobs to refugees.” Five companies have already signed up – Ikea, MasterCard, Airbnb, LinkedIn and UPS – with more poised to join.
There is a business case for helping refugees, said Gillian Tett of the Financial Times. Once refugees are integrated, they start contributing to economic growth. "If a refugee has a job, they are no longer a refugee,” Ulukaya said.
Adecco CEO Alain Dehaze made another appeal for businesses to help refugees. As the CEO of the world’s largest temporary services company, he is an expert in helping people find jobs.
However, he told Belgian newspaper De Tijd, “laws are an obstacle to jobs for refugees”. For that reason, he is having discussions with politicians in several countries about how to change local labour laws, so it becomes easier for businesses to hire refugees.
2. Robots / Artificial Intelligence
If there was one thing that became clear at Davos, it was that the future of the economy will be digital. This is the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, said the Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab.
Looking at the economy through this lens reveals both threats and opportunities. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, said that the revolution is a “breath-taking possibility”, as long as it “serves the cause of human progress”, and not as a “substitute for it, or as a distraction from its absence”.
But a real threat of this new era is that it will destroy jobs: 5 million of them by 2020 in just 17 industrialized nations.
But job losses are not a given; we are masters of our own destiny, said Justin Trudeau. “Technology itself will not determine the future we get. Our choices will. Leadership will,” he said. As for his own leadership, he said it will be focused on creating “real opportunity for the billions who weren’t able to join here this week”.
There are positive elements, too: jobs will "no longer be confined to traditional working hours or places, with employees taking total control over their schedules and environments," wrote Alain Dehaze on CNBC. "Mobility no longer means just traditional expatriate placements, but moving jobs to where talented people are located."
In addition, the Korean makers of Hubo the Robot, one of the star participants at Davos, told the Wall Street Journal that robots in the future could do “dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs”.
3. Rising inequality
Another major threat facing the world is growing inequality. Ahead of the meeting at Davos, Oxfam International revealed that the world’s 62 richest people now own as much wealth as the poorer half of the global population. The news prompted a call to action from US Vice President Joe Biden, who said: "I say to all of you tonight that the digital revolution has the potential to exacerbate this breakdown, and not just in America but around the world."
"It's true that all of us in this room are probably going to be fine. But while we'll be fine, we need an environment in the wake of this revolution that gives a chance to be part of the mix. And it's not so self-evident how to do that," Biden said.
Despite these words and the technological changes afoot, the vice president expressed an optimism regarding the future. "Never before we have had so much power in our hands to do better. It's not going to be easy. But it's possible."
Some business leaders responded immediately. As Newsweek reported, “Paul Polman, the powerful chief of Unilever, spoke about how to inspire CEOs. “My vision is that every business would run their business plans in line with the Global Goals [including the fight against inequality]," he said.
The Economic Times from India also picked up on his efforts in Davos: "There is no business case for enduring poverty. We have an opportunity to unlock trillions of dollars through new markets, investments and innovation. But to do so, we must challenge our current practices and address poverty, inequality and environmental challenges," Polman said.
4. Climate change
After the COP21 Paris Agreement, the world’s attention on climate is turning to action, rather than talk.
One of the fiercest contributors at Davos was actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who urged participants to put an end to "corporate greed" in the oil industry and instead focus on making the planet better, pointing to the elimination of fossil fuels as the next big challenge.
“Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong,” DiCaprio said. “Twenty years ago, we described this problem as an addiction. Today, we possess the means to end this reliance."
To finance this, General Electric, one of the participants, proposed the introduction of so-called “green bonds” ahead of the Annual Meeting. They did so in an article placed in The Economist.
That idea surfaced in a session at the Meeting, and was seen as a promising solution. There is now “a business and moral imperative” to invest in clean and renewable energy sources, and green bonds may pave the way for such investments, according to the IB Times.