From Davos 2022 to Davos 2023: The six themes then that have set the agenda now
This article has been updated.
- Davos 2022 held last May was the first in-person Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum since January 2020. Davos 2023, running from 16-20 January, marks a return to the January event.
- The themes that emerged then have shaped the intervening months and provide essential reading ahead of Davos 2023.
- The May event reaffirmed why this historic meeting should usher in a new era of global cooperation.
World leaders came together in Davos for the 2022 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, against a backdrop of deepening global frictions and fractures.
It was the first time the event has taken place in-person since January 2020 – when the coronavirus emerged and rapidly changed the course of the conversations in Davos.
This year, 2,500 world leaders and experts reconvened in Davos to address the most pressing challenges of our time: Ukraine and the future of the global world order, the growing urgency of the climate crisis and its impact on food and poverty, the outlook for the recession and the future of work, and how to end COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic when many countries still don’t have access to vaccines.
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“The political, economic and social circumstances of our meeting are unprecedented,” said World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab in his opening remarks.
But Davos 2022 was far from all talk. Business and government launched exciting initiatives across many areas – cooperating on everything from net-zero commitments and pandemic preparation, to accelerating jobs and skills, to collaboration on cyber resilience and the metaverse, many of which are detailed below.
With the theme ‘History at a Turning Point,’ the 2022 Annual Meeting was a reminder of why it’s so important to meet physically, Forum President Børge Brende said in his closing remarks.
Here's the story of what happened. Six agenda-setting themes emerged during the week, which reaffirm why this historic meeting should usher in a new era of global cooperation.
Theme #1: Ukraine shines a light on importance of global cooperation
The importance of global cooperation has always been a key theme of Davos, but this year, geopolitical conversations took on new urgency against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
Davos 2022 began with a live address from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, who called for help “as fast as possible” to equip Ukraine for victory and rebuild the country after the war. He also called for “maximum” sanctions and a “complete withdrawal from the Russian market.”
A Special Dialogue on Ukraine brought together 70 CEOs alongside the Prime Minister of Ukraine (who joined virtually), the President of the European Commission, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine and the First Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine in person in Davos.
“This is the war for our existence and our identity. This is the war between Russia as a state and the people of Ukraine, and it is impossible to win a war against the people,” said Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during a Davos 2022 session.
With global aggression on the rise, Ukraine reminds us we must bring attention to the “forgotten or ignored” conflicts around the world, said H.H. Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, in his first-ever appearance at Davos.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger joined virtually for a conversation with Klaus Schwab, warning the conflict in Ukraine could permanently restructure the global order, including the US-China relationship.
“The camera of history is rolling on all of us now,” echoed Gregory Meeks, US Congressman and Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a session on the global geopolitical outlook. “In our interdependent world, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.”
“We need business, government, international organizations and civil society to be part of the solutions,” wrote World Economic Forum President Børge Brende. “Rebuilding global cooperation after years of erosion requires focusing on what has proven to work. During our current period of upheaval and discord, we must reaffirm, and strengthen, mechanisms of cooperation, because history has shown it is the only way to address our most urgent priorities.”
Throughout Davos 2022, world leaders – including Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – called for European unity.
“This is Europe’s moment,” added Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament. “Europe can become the global project for peace.”
“Global cooperation is the antidote to Russia’s blackmail,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.
“Now, in 2022, we know well that liberal democracy does not come naturally. It requires considerable effort and nurturing. And the end of history is nowhere in sight,” warned Prime Minister Sánchez.
This is why NATO must continue to play an important role, as speakers stressed in several sessions.
“Freedom is more important than free trade,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a keynote. “The protection of our values is more important than profit.”
Theme #2: Three interconnected crises - climate, food, energy
The climate crisis has long been a key component of the Davos agenda. But with rising emissions, rising energy prices and rising food prices – inextricably linked and exacerbated by the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine – climate conversations took a graver tone at Davos 2022 as world leaders discussed the need for immediate action.
“Emissions went up in 2021 by 6%, while coal usage expanded by 9%,” said US Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry, during a high-level panel of climate leaders. “We realize that countries are concerned over energy security, but we can't jeopardize the planet by investing in legacy fossil fuel projects that will cause irreparable damage.”
“The humanitarian crisis has only worsened since COP26. Over 3 million Kenyans and 20 million Africans are facing extreme hunger due to the effects of climate change,” added Elizabeth Wathuti, Founder of the Green Generation Initiative. “The war in Ukraine will only exacerbate these terrifyingly high levels of food insecurity.”
Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security: “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said CNN’s Julia Chatterley, who moderated the food security panel.
Countries must drastically scale up efforts: “It isn't just about words anymore – it is about action,” said Xie Zhenhua, China's Special Envoy for Climate Change. “Climate action, now, is critical.”
This must include country-level and city-level commitments to nature-based solutions, said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director at UN-Habitat, during a session entitled Returning Nature to Cities.
Companies have a vital role, too: “We need a new form of environmental capitalism wherein all companies commit to net-zero and start relying exclusively on renewable energy sources,” said Mark Benioff, Co-CEO of Salesforce.
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A critical player in reaching this goal is the First Movers Coalition, which announced a major expansion during Davos 2022, including new corporate and government members and the launch of two new sectors (carbon dioxide removal and aluminum).
Collecting good data is essential, and stakeholders must collaborate on a common standard for ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) frameworks, said leaders during a session dedicated to ESG disclosures.
“What we need to do now is to go beyond and to make those disclosures meaningful,” said Laura Cha, Chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, during the session. “And in order for those disclosures to be meaningful we need to have a harmonized standard.”
Leaders also discussed how we can fix both the energy crisis and the food crisis – and in turn address the climate crisis.
“The biggest part of the response comes from putting emphasis on clean energy, renewables, energy efficiency and, in the countries where they have nuclear capacity, increasing nuclear production,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, during a session on the energy outlook.
Theme #3: Don't use the 'R' word (but it might be coming anyway)
Monday’s Global Economic Outlook panel at Davos 2022 opened with the question on everyone’s lips: are we heading for a global recession and, if so, how concerned should we be?
Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was cautious, noting the “horizon has darkened” since the IMF’s last forecasts, due to food and energy price shocks, stalled action on the climate crisis and the slump in digital money assets.
While leaders agreed a recession may be on the horizon, David M. Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of The Carlyle Group, had some advice: “Don't use the ‘R’ word. It scares people.” He changed the “R word” to “banana”: “The signs are not as favourable as I would like…but a banana may not be that far,” adding that any “banana” would likely be “mild.”
The response requires learning from history: “By studying the last 500 years of cycles, like a doctor who sees many, many cases, it's not just that there are patterns, there are cause-effect relationships,” said Ray Dalio, Co-Chairman and Co-Chief Investment Officer of Bridgewater Associates, who spoke during the economic outlook session as well as on the Forum’s Meet the Leader Podcast. “So, when we see not only the patterns, but we see the cause-effect relationships, we can deal with what's happening now.”
Despite geopolitical tensions, the lingering pandemic and inflation at 40-year highs, leaders are hopeful: “If any one of those starts to resolve itself or show some positive signals, will give positive signals to the markets, to give more certainty to investors,” said Adena Friedman, President and CEO of Nasdaq, during a session on the US economic outlook. “I’m hopeful that we can manage our way through this situation and still continue to see growth in the economy.”
During Davos 2022, the Forum launched the Resilience Consortium, which brings together ministers, chief executives and heads of international organizations, to accelerate collective action across key resilience drivers for the global economy and develop a common resilience framework.
Theme #4: Preparing for the next pandemic requires ending health disparities
COVID-19 has been a hot topic during every Annual Meeting since January 2020, when the virus emerged – and thanks to the vaccines, attendees were able to return to Davos, more than two years later. However, the pandemic looks quite different in many low-income countries, where just 13% of people are vaccinated (compared to 75% of people in high-income countries).
“Racism is not only when black people or brown people cannot breathe because of police violence,” said Winnie Byanyima, Undersecretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), during a session on racial equity on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.
“Racism is when black people, brown people, people of colour take their last breath because of policy violence, when they are denied life-saving, pandemic-ending medicines," she continued, "when they can’t access care or education because debt is choking them.”
The developed world is not immune: “As of January this year, by some measures, only 1% of the $67 billion pledged toward racial equity by the largest companies in the world has been dispersed,” said Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, during the racial equity session. “Only 22 Fortune 500 companies fully cover race and ethnicity in their ESG reporting, while over 48,000 posts for directors and vice-presidents of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in US companies remain open.”
Despite great strides, health inequities go beyond COVID-19 – and sexual violence continues to be “used as a weapon of war in conflict around the world,” Nadia Murad, co-founder of the Global Survivors Fund (and a survivor herself), said during the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Outlook session. “It's used as a targeted strategy to destabilize communities to destroy victims whose lives to dissolve the ties that bind our communities.”
Corporations are taking immediate steps to end disparities. During Davos, Pfizer, a Strategic Partner of the World Economic Forum, launched “An Accord for a Healthier World,” offering all of its patent-protected medicines and vaccines (including the COVID-19 vaccine) on a not-for-profit basis to 45 lower-income countries.
Leaders at Davos 2022 discussed how governments, corporations and other stakeholders can collaborate to improve health equity – starting with preparing for the next pandemic.
“Investing in health systems and regional bodies like Africa CDC and African Medicines Agency must be a key priority,” said Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. “We have to act in the full expectation that there will be another pandemic.”
“We need to finish the job – and we can do that by investing intelligently in infrastructure like lab networks, community health workers, supply chains and simultaneously help countries defeat HIV, TB and malaria as well as make them safer against future pathogens,” said Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Theme #5: Gender, inequality and Jobs of Tomorrow
The pandemic shone a bright light on the disparities between formal and informal workforces – and the fact that our economic system is “structured…on the shoulders of women,” who take on the majority of unpaid or underpaid care work and informal work, as Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, during a session called A Generation of Lost Progress: Achieving Gender Equality.
Oxfam released a new report during Davos 2022, Profiting from Pain, which highlighted wealth disparities that only increased during the pandemic.
Davos 2022 generated substantial support for the importance of changing the care work model. The Forum’s new report, Jobs of Tomorrow: The Triple Returns of Social Jobs in the Economic Recovery, is “a call to action to lead an ambitious, coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach to initiate a new wave of investments into three foundational social institutions: education, healthcare and care.”
“There’s a lot of data around the multiplier effect for investment in care in particular, especially the developing economies because it enables more women to go into the labour market,” said Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, during a session, Revaluing Essential Work. “And by creating investment in care brings more women into the labour market, which lifts the economy in general.”
CEOs and ministers held the first meeting of the Jobs Consortium at Davos 2022, to champion productive employment, growth in the jobs of tomorrow, new standards in the workplace and better wages for all – with a focus on social, green and tech jobs.
In addition, the Reskilling Revolution marked two years of progress, benefiting over 100 million workers in the journey to provide 1 billion people with better education, skills and economic opportunity by 2030.
The Forum's community of human resource officers also launched the Refugee Employment and Employability Initiative to support Ukrainian refugees – read more.
Theme #6: 'Our future is digital'
Technology, carefully executed, could act as a multiplier to address multiple challenges simultaneously – from reducing poverty to stopping climate change, as the First Movers Coalition is working to do by commercializing emerging clean technologies.
But to get there, digital inclusion, security and appropriate regulation are essential. Leaders at Davos 2022 discussed what this future might look like – and launched several exciting initiatives to advance both technology, and trust in it.
“Our future is digital. If you’re not part of it, you’re out of it,” Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner, told the Forum’s Meet the Leader Podcast.
To foster digital inclusion, The Edison Alliance, a Forum initiative that aims to increase affordable digital access to healthcare, finance and education, launched a digital policy navigator. This will provide policymakers, regulators and businesses with a one-stop shop for case studies, best practices and other one-of-a-kind resources. The Edison Alliance also launched a new network of “Lighthouse Countries” including Bahrain, Bangladesh and Rwanda will work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on the new programme in their respective countries.
“Given the pervasiveness of digital technology in our society, in our lives, in our work, I think it's inevitable to have stronger regulatory regimes around all facets of technology. If anything, I think the responsibility of stakeholders like ourselves or businesses like us is to both anticipate and adapt to regulation versus ignore it or expect not to have regulation,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a wide-ranging conversation with Klaus Schwab at Davos.
Companies are taking action to address these challenges and adapt.
At Davos 2022, leaders from the space technology sector called for increased cybersecurity around space-based services as well as regulatory frameworks and collaboration of all stakeholders. Back on Earth, 18 leading oil and gas stakeholders launched the Cyber Resilience Pledge, in which they commit to collaborate and take collective action on cyber resilience.
Stakeholders launched Defining and Building the Metaverse, an initiative to provide guidance on how to create an ethical and inclusive metaverse. The initial focus will be on governance, and economic and societal value creation.
The metaverse “mustn’t be shaped by tech companies on their own,” said Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs for Meta Platforms, Inc. “It needs to be developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia and the people who will use these technologies. This effort must be undertaken in the best interests of people and society, not technology companies.”
Why take these actions? As Microsoft’s Nadella put it: “Microsoft will only do well when the world around us is doing much better. So, in other words, there is no way for Microsoft to be successful given our business model, if the input we produce – which is digital technology – is not creating tons of value added output that is leading to economic growth in the world.”