How to change the world at Davos

Impressions from the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 20 January.

Image: World Economic Forum/Sandra Blaser

Liz Rebecca Alarcón
Venture Manager, Accelerate Change
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Leadership is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Only by addressing the biggest issues of our time at their intersection, and involving all sectors to solve them, will solutions lead to lasting change.
  • To make the most of the Annual Meeting, attendees should embrace unlikely bedfellows and work with them to spur action.
  • Avoid compartmentalization. "Interconnectedness" overrides "contradiction".

Like millions of others around the world, I followed the Obama presidency in awe. The hope, the grace, the unlikelihood of his ascent. What a remarkable moment in history. There was another aspect of his presidency that fascinated me, though. President Obama had a unique trait: a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. He could pivot from signing a bill into law to addressing a national emergency with seamless ease. “That’s it!” I thought, “that’s how I’m going to change the world.”

When I received the news that I was selected as one of the #Davos52 – the lucky group of Global Shapers chosen each year to attend the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting – I knew what I had to do.


Conjuring the Obama spirit - wearing many hats
I descended on Davos, ready to engage “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World” armed with all the compartmentalizing I could muster. Conversations where I planned to highlight the issues of my city. Check. Mingling with relevant professional contacts. Check. Sessions where I planned to ask tough questions. Check. Panel participations where I’d wear all my hats. Check. Pockets of free time to allow for serendipity. Check. Check. Check.

Such was my attempt to channel the Obama spirit, that with the help of the deep fake exhibit on the second floor of the Congress Centre, I became none other than Michelle Obama herself. Check!

I navigated the icy corridors of the Annual Meeting switching hats on behalf of the communities I call home, eager to address the world’s most pressing environmental, social and governance issues. But the prospect of endless possibilities to change the world quickly began to fade.

In sessions meant to reimagine a more equitable future at work, I witnessed male chief executives consistently interrupting their only female counterpart on the panel.

I saw scientists, gurus and cultural leaders gather with their peers in the Congress Centre’s lounge, hovering on the periphery, unsure of their role in the kind of “stakeholder capitalism” invoked at #WEF20.

In speeches, I heard heads of state deny climate change while simultaneously endorsing the newly launched 1t.org, a multistakeholder effort to grow, conserve and restore 1 trillion trees by the end of the decade.

While new members signed up to the Forum’s community of CEO Climate Leaders, fewer signed up to discuss youth unemployment, the status of refugees, stagnant wages and growing inequality – all imperative issues to address if we are to achieve a sustainable world.

The opportunity of contradiction
These gaps and contradictions plagued the experience of the Annual Meeting. The veil continued to be lifted as I was faced with my own contradictions. Should I moderate a panel on the promise of youth sponsored by an organization accused of egregious human rights violations? Should I follow-up on the promise of investment in my start-up from someone with political views conflicting with mine? Was it right to stay at a nightcap after realizing it was sponsored by a government at odds with my country?

Suddenly, compartmentalizing felt inappropriate.

The long days blurred into one another and the raclette-overdose and stimulation fatigue started to set in. It was getting harder to move past the “checks” and go deeper into my why. But the veil was gone now, and this opportunity may not come again.

What was I going to do with my remaining time in Davos?

I declined the offer to moderate the panel. I left the nightcap much sooner than I’d originally planned. I’m still in conversations with the potential investor.

In the 50 years of the Annual Meeting, there has undoubtedly been progress. Tangible actions, platforms and partnerships have been launched at the world’s most coveted table. Activists and leaders have been given a stage to rally for the causes they believe in.

Have you read?

Tough choices
To truly achieve “a more cohesive and sustainable world” we have to make new choices. Only by addressing the biggest issues of our time at their intersection, and leveraging all sectors to try to solve them, will we reach solutions that lead to lasting change.

Rather than compartmentalizing, to make the most of the Annual Meeting, attendees should embrace unlikely bedfellows and work with them to spur action. Interconnectedness overrides contradiction. Stakeholders should address how the future of work intersects with civic engagement, how mental health is affected by climate change, how gender inequality relates to regulating AI. Band-aid solutions should take a back seat to long-term action. Delegates should continue to welcome being challenged by their multistakeholder peers and play their part in creating systems change.

These choices are not easy. Compartmentalizing might yield immediate outcomes for us to applaud, but as we look towards the Forum’s next 50 years, if the aim is to achieve lasting change, “stakeholder responsibility” needs to be bold and it needs to be integrated into a collective vision. The state of the world depends on it.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipForum Institutional
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Innovation Prize: Meet the next generation of changemakers

Natalie Pierce and Maria Sol Adaime Gabris

July 11, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum