The World Economic Forum at 50: A timeline of highlights from Davos and beyond

Davos Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 20, 2019. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Mattias Nutt
Bright spots in a 50-year Davos history include a handshake that sealed the end of apartheid
Image: World Economic Forum / Mattias Nutt

What is Davos? What is the World Economic Forum? When did it all begin and why do thousands of leaders continue to congregate in a slippery Alpine town every January? As the World Economic Forum turns 50, find out in our historical guide to its Annual Meeting in Davos, and the organization itself.

In the early 1970s, the Cold War split the world while the Vietnam war split America, an oil crisis was looming, and a German economics professor had a bright idea.

The idea was unconventional at the time, but it has since taken hold. It was Professor Klaus Schwab’s “stakeholder theory”, meaning a company should serve all its stakeholders, not just its shareholders: employees, suppliers, and the community it is part of. The vision for this socially responsible “stakeholder capitalism” became the guiding principle of the World Economic Forum.

Prof. Schwab, an engineer and economist, founded the Forum in 1971. He chose Davos as the home for the annual meeting for the escape from the everyday that the mountains represent in Swiss and German culture, most famously captured in the novel The Magic Mountain. ‘The spirit of Davos’ is an attitude of openness and cooperation that sets the tone for the annual meeting to this day.

Over the last fifty years, Davos has reflected the key events of world history, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the rise of economic globalization and runaway climate change. It has helped avert a war between Greece and Turkey, built economic bridges around the world, hosted a handshake that sealed the end of apartheid, launched an alliance that has vaccinated 700 million children, and given a platform to leading environmentalists.

While working towards the Forum’s mission statement of improving the state of the world, Davos has also weathered criticism along the way: as a gathering of distant elites, or a futile talking shop. But its aim is to gather all those who have a stake in our common future: the leaders of global corporations are invited, but so too are academics, activists, youth and civil society leaders. And to dismiss “talk” is, in Professor Schwab’s words, to discount the lifeblood of democracy.

World Economic Forum Davos Klaus Schwab

As we prepare for the 50th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2020, here’s a look back at some of the highlights.

1971 – The first Davos

In 1970, Schwab left the Swiss industrial group Escher Wyss to organize a two-week conference in the Swiss Alps. The first “European Management Forum” was held in Davos, Switzerland in February 1971. Some 450 participants from 31 countries – managers from various companies in Europe, as well as members of the European Commission, and leading academics from U.S. universities – gathered in the Alpine valley to discuss better management techniques.

Schwab’s first collaborator in this project was Hilde Stoll, and they married shortly after. They remain each other’s trusted partner to this day. Recognizing the need for a broader “social consciousness” in doing business, Hilde has since set up her own organization, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, honouring and gathering social entrepreneurs from all over the world.

Davos World Economic Forum history Klaus and Hilde Schwab wedding
Hilde and Klaus Schwab on their wedding day in 1971

1973 – A prescient warning on the environment

Two developments distinguished the third Davos meeting. First, Aurelio Peccei, the Italian industrialist, delivered a speech on his book “The Limits to Growth”, which had caused a sensation by calling into question the sustainability of global economic growth. The author outlined the choices that society had to make to reconcile economic development and environmental constraints.

Second, participants took the initiative to draft a code of ethics based on Schwab’s stakeholder concept. From its beginning, the Forum set out the principle that it should neither act as an advocacy group nor express any opinions on behalf of its members or participants. The “Davos Manifesto” was a rare exception to this policy, and it has been updated for our 50th year.

Davos history manifesto

1976 - Bridging the Arab World and the West

In 1976 the Forum launched a programme with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), offering a platform for emerging economies to present investment projects to Davos participants. Among the 26 nations taking advantage of this initiative were Bolivia, Iran, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the Philippines and Thailand.

The meeting also reinforced the participation of civil society by inviting prominent speakers such as Ralph Nader, the American consumer rights activist and environmentalist.

After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing oil embargo, the West’s relations with Arab countries had become tense. In October, the Forum organized the first Arab-European Business Cooperation Symposium in Montreux, Switzerland, together with leading Arab and European institutions.

World Economic Forum Davos history - Arab-European Business Cooperation Symposium
The first Arab-European Business Cooperation Symposium, held in Montreux

1979 – Opening the door to China

Schwab followed Deng Xiaoping’s early economic reforms with great interest and in 1979, a delegation from the People’s Republic of China participated in the Davos Symposium for the first time. Later that year, Schwab paid his first visit to China at the invitation of the Chairman of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and led a Forum delegation of 20 European CEOs visiting China.

It was the beginning of a longstanding relationship between the Forum and China. It led to the creation of a yearly “China Business Summit”, and - as of 2007 – an annual “Summer Davos” in China. Officially the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, it hosts the movers and shakers in global innovation and science, and is regularly attended by the Chinese Premier.

Members of the European business delegation in China
Members of the European business delegation in China

1987 – The beginning of the end of the Cold War

To reflect its global membership and the fact that economic policy was at the forefront of its activities, the European Management Forum changed its name to the World Economic Forum.

West Germany’s Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, made a strong appeal for the West to change its approach and reach out to the Soviet Union. Some historians now regard his speech as a critical marker of the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union seeking closer ties to the West.

Davos World Economic Forum history Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Schwab
Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Schwab in 1987

At that time, the USSR was seeking to implement major economic and political reforms – perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) – under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. “The West has no reason to fear cooperation,” Genscher told participants. “Our motto must be: Let us take Gorbachev seriously. Let us take him at his word! If there is an opportunity today to reach a turning point after 40 years of confrontation in West-East relations, it would be a mistake of historical dimensions if the West would miss this opportunity just because it cannot overcome the general mindset which, with regard to the Soviet Union, always assumes a worst-case scenario.”

Genscher’s appearance coincided with the presence of the first official delegation to Davos from the Soviet Union, which was led by Ivan Ivanov, First Deputy President of the State Foreign Economic Commission, who explained the implications of the new reforms.

1988 – Averting war between Greece and Turkey

The tense relationship between Greece and Turkey almost escalated into war in 1988 – but personal meetings at Davos between Prime Minister Turgut Özal of Turkey and Andreas Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece, built enough trust to stave off conflict. After their first encounter in Davos in 1986, the two leaders returned to Davos after many preparatory visits from Schwab to Athens and Ankara. At Davos 1988, they negotiated and signed the Davos Declaration aimed at normalizing relations. War would have been unavoidable had he not met Papandreou in Davos two years before, Özal told Schwab later. Because of that encounter, he was certain that he could trust his counterpart.

Davos World Economic Forum history Prime Minister Turgut Özal of Turkey handshake
Prime Minister Turgut Özal of Turkey, right, among delegates at Davos 1988

The human and economic toll of HIV/AIDS occupied an important place in the discussions at Davos. So did the environment. Carl Sagan, the celebrated American astrophysicist, highlighted the risks to the environment and life systems from some of the very technological developments that have been the basis for our prosperity and progress.

1990 – German reunification and a new Europe

In October 1989, the Berlin Wall – the divide between East and West and stark symbol of the Cold War – was pulled down. On 3 October 1990, Germany was reunified.

Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of a reunited Germany, with Klaus Schwab

Spurred by discussions at Davos, an informal group of East and West German parliamentarians and business leaders joined forces to call for a monetary stabilization programme for the German Democratic Republic. This initiative became a pillar for the economic reunification of West and East Germany.

At the Annual Meeting, a session on the “New Europe” also took place, bringing together the heads of Western and Eastern European countries for the first time.

And in a final historic meeting that year in Davos, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who would step down as his country’s leader in November, sat down with Vo Van Kiet, First Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, who would become prime minister the following year. Two years after this encounter, Vietnam signed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a move that led the country to become a member of ASEAN in 1995.

1992 – Mandela and the end of apartheid

Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid leader and head of the African National Congress (ANC), who had been released from prison two years earlier, made a joint appearance – the first outside South Africa – with President F. W. de Klerk and Chief Minister of KwaZulu, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The meeting of the three key players in South Africa’s transformation process showed that, despite differences, they shared a commitment to move the country forward towards democracy. The handshake between Mandela and de Klerk symbolised the end of apartheid.

Davos history Mandela handshake
Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk make history at Davos

To make this joint appearance happen, Klaus Schwab had travelled to South Africa several times to set with each leader the conditions for their participation in a Davos session.

The ANC had stood for the nationalization of banks, mines and strategic industries, but during his discussions with other leaders at Davos, Mandela reconsidered. “They changed my views altogether,” he recounted to journalist Anthony Sampson, who wrote Mandela: The Authorized Biography. “I came home to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.’”

1998 – The birth of the G20

At Davos, reforming the global financial system in the wake of the financial crisis then affecting emerging markets, particularly Asia, was key. Participants emphasized the need to include major developing countries into the process. One idea was to set up a body to include 20 countries – half developed economies and the other developing ones. Just such a meeting of what became known as the G20 was held in Bonn, Germany, later in 1998. Participation was restricted to finance ministers and its scope limited to global finance.

In subsequent years, Schwab, among others, proposed elevating the G20 meeting to a summit. This finally happened in 2008 when the US hosted a G20 summit in Washington DC to address the impact of the global economic crisis. In September 2009, world leaders meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announced that the G20 would replace the G8 as the main forum for coordinating global economic policy.

Davos history Iran Masoumeh Ebtekar
Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice-President of Iran, was among delegates in 1998

1999 – Kofi Annan and the Global Compact

In the run-up to the Annual Meeting, which had as its theme “Responsible Globality”, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Klaus Schwab discussed how to rally participants to support a global effort to highlight the social responsibility of business. This was the genesis of the UN Global Compact, a set of ten ethical principles that almost 10,000 companies have signed up to.

AP Archive

2000 – Bill Clinton and the launch of GAVI

The 30th Annual Meeting at the turn of the millennium was special for many reasons. Chief among them was the high-calibre participation of political and business leaders. For the first time, a sitting American president, Bill Clinton, came to Davos.

Davos World Economic Forum history Bill Clinton Klaus Schwab
Bill Clinton and Klaus Schwab

At the Annual Meeting 2000, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) was born. Among the early supporters of GAVI was Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has been a regular Davos participant since 1996. By 2018, GAVI had reached over 700 million children, preventing more than 10 million deaths. Other Davos health launches that followed on its heels included the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria (2002) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (2017).

2002 –Davos’ moves to New York after 9/11

The World Economic Forum held its Annual Meeting in New York – the only time in its history it has taken place outside of Davos - to show solidarity with the United States and the people of the city after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The World Economic Forum flag flies at the meeting venue
The World Economic Forum flag flies at the meeting venue

2005 – The launch of the Gender Gap Report

The Forum launched its milestone study Woman’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap. This landmark effort to assess gender equality led to the Global Gender Gap Report, which the Forum introduced in 2006 and has become one of the most closely analysed annual benchmarking exercises after the Global Competitiveness Report. As we all tracking the gap, the Forum runs an increasing number of taskforces in various countries which work with governments and businesses to speed up progress towards parity.

World Economic Forum Davos history Joseph R. Biden, Democratic Senator from Delaware, USA; Carly Fiorina, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, HP, USA
Joe Biden, then Democratic Senator from Delaware; Carly Fiorina, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, HP

2007 – A looming crisis

As 2007 progressed, worries mounted about the global financial system, particularly the US economy and real estate market. The Forum’s Global Risk Report that year warned that a blow-up in asset prices was one of the major risks confronting the world. Meanwhile, the tech revolution that would ultimately underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution was well underway.

Mark Zuckerberg among tech leaders in 2007
Mark Zuckerberg among tech leaders in 2007

2012 – Bringing in young leaders

The arrival at Davos of Global Shapers – exceptional emerging leaders in their 20s – underscored the importance of addressing youth concerns.

Global Shapers at Davos

In its regional meetings, the Forum visited new places and expanded its coverage. The East Asia meeting was held in Bangkok for the first time, while the World Economic Forum on Africa took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The first World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia convened in Istanbul. In November, the World Economic Forum on India was held in India’s National Capital Region, Gurgaon. At the Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai in November, the Forum hosted the inaugural Meeting of Leaders of Regional Organizations, a platform to strengthen global governance through cooperation among regional organizations.

2016 – Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Technology has brought humankind to an inflection point. At a time when billions of ordinary people carry a supercomputer in their pocket, Schwab coined the term Fourth Industrial Revolution to describe the far-reaching impact of the digital age. It was the theme of Davos 2016 and the topic of his book, an unprecedented transformation of businesses and societies that raises profound ethical questions.

To help governments and businesses keep up, the World Economic Forum launched the Centre for the fourth industrial revolution network. Working with over 100 businesses and governments around the world, the network is focus on co-designing agile policies for emerging technologies that maximize their benefits, while minimizing their risks for all of society. In just two years, the network helped develop the world’s first agile air space regulation that supports drones and commercial aircraft, launched government procurement guidelines for artificial intelligence solutions and developed an agile personal data policy. There are over 45 projects in development across four Forum-led Centres and around 10 Affiliate Centres.

2018 – ‘A real panel, not a manel’

The Co-Chairs of the 2018 meeting were all exceptional leaders in their own right: Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation; Fabiola Gianotti, Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); Isabelle Kocher, Chief Executive Officer of ENGIE Group; Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF; Ginni Rometty, Chief Executive Officer of IBM; Chetna Sinha, the Founder and President of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank and Mann Deshi Foundation in India; and Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway. Together, they also made up the first all-female panel of Davos Co-Chairs, sending a powerful message as the shockwaves of the #metoo movement continued to spread.

The year was notable for its level of political participation: heads of state included German chancellor Angela Merkel, new US President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron and then UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

On the geopolitical front, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece met his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, and agreed to rename a highway ‘Friendship’ as part of amicable progress on a long-running naming dispute in the region.

2019 – Nature’s emergency

Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, the revered British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and primatologist Jane Goodall made sure the urgency of our environmental crisis was on the agenda at Davos 2019.

Beyond Davos, the World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders dedicated to making the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy, and Mission Possible, which aims to make industries including shipping and aviation net-zero for CO2 emissions by 2050.

2019 was also the first year that a refugee took on the role of Co-Chair: Mohammed Hassan Mohamud fled conflict in Somalia and has spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, galvanising action to end such injustice.

2020 - Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World

The 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos will push once again for “stakeholder capitalism”, and its priorities in the current era: it will assist governments and international institutions in tracking progress towards the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, and facilitate discussions on technology and trade governance.

Meeting the SDGs will be at the heart of Davos 2020
Meeting the SDGs will be at the heart of Davos 2020
Image: UN

“People are revolting against the economic ‘elites’ they believe have betrayed them, and our efforts to keep global warming limited to 1.5°C are falling dangerously short,” said Schwab. “With the world at such critical crossroads, this year we must develop a ‘Davos Manifesto 2020’ to reimagine the purpose and scorecards for companies and governments. It is what the World Economic Forum was founded for 50 years ago, and it is what we want to contribute to for the next 50 years.”

The above text draws heavily on the World Economic Forum's interactive timeline, written by Michael Hanley and Alejandro Reyes.