As the global environment has changed dramatically today with geopolitical fissures, technological advances and a shared economy, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting will kick off on Jan. 23 in Davos, Switzerland, with more than 3,000 of the world’s influential and wealthy individuals coming from 100 countries.
This year’s meeting in the snow-capped Alpine town will focus on the theme of “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” which will see discussions on possible solutions to the rifts that have emerged politically, economically and societally.
“Creating a shared future in a fractured world requires addressing issues on the global agenda in a holistic, interconnected and future-oriented way,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF. “Our annual meeting in Davos provides an exceptional platform for collaboration to create new global initiatives.”
One of the highlights of the four-day meeting will be the expected attendance of major political leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump. If Trump’s visit is realized, he would be the first sitting U.S. president to attend the WEF meeting since Bill Clinton 18 years ago.
Chinese President Xi Jingping last year became the first Chinese president to attend the Davos forum and made opening remarks defending globalization. Xi’s remarks were taken by world leaders as a strong message that China wants to assume a global leadership role as other world powers struggle to tackle domestic issues.
This year, another of Asia’s giants will be in Davos. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first Indian prime minister to attend the annual meeting since 1997, is expected to deliver the keynote speech at the meeting.
The gathering of key world players also comes at a time when the European Union faces the uncertainties of the Brexit process. In Asia, the North Korean nuclear issue lingers as a huge threat to regional security, while Japan and South Korea remain at odds over historical issues.
“We are now a year out from the Brexit decision, and we are a year out from the Trump administration that articulated an America-first foreign policy doctrine,” Lee Howell, a member of the WEF’s managing board, said. He added that leading European countries such as Germany and France, as well as South Korea and Japan, went through major elections last year.
“Politically speaking, a lot has changed from a year ago. I anticipate significant political discussions in Davos,” he told The Japan Times.
Under such a rapidly changing world, the annual meeting will also feature in-depth discussions of the technologies shaping the future, often dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.
In the past few years, the WEF has boosted its efforts to collaborate with global leaders of artificial intelligence and robotics. It opened the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco in March to accelerate cross-sector cooperation with startups, world-leading companies, experts and governments to hammer out science and technology policies that can benefit society while minimizing downside risks.
The center has nine areas of focus such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, cross-border data flows and precision medicine.
“If I have precision medicine and if I’m able to edit your genes to deal with certain diseases, shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It shouldn’t be just a few that can afford it,” Howell said. “So we need to talk about some principles first, not only on how you design those technologies, but how you deploy them and how you actually regulate and govern them.”
Another example would be drones, according to Murat Sonmez, head of the San Francisco center. Safety and security issues need to be discussed as there is no common registration protocol for drones right now. It is also necessary to have a regulatory framework regarding who owns data collected by drones and how the data should be used. Drones will also have an impact on civil aviation policy.
“If you are in a city like Tokyo, people can fly 15 to 20 different types of drones. There needs to be technical architecture to track these drones and register them so you know where they are,” Sonmez said.
That would require involvement of policy makers around the world.
Sonmez said Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has been an active partner participating in projects at the center.
“They are one of the first governments to engage with us here in San Francisco. We have a person in San Francisco from METI, a dedicated person who actually works at the center,” Sonmez said.
He said at least 10 more governments will join their projects in the near future, and they are also working with international organizations, including the World Trade Organization and International Trade Union Confederation, so they can discuss cross-border data flow and its impact on jobs and skills.
“I can say interests are high because these cities, states and national leaders are trying to accelerate the creation of these protocols because technologies are moving so fast,” he said.
The center also has about 30 partner companies, including Salesforce.com, Microsoft Corp. and Japanese firms such as Suntory Holdings, Ltd., Sompo Holdings and Cyberdyne Inc.
Sonmez said WEF established the center in San Francisco to be in the proximity of countries such as Japan and China as Asia is becoming a major player in the fourth industrial revolution.
According to a recent study by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the Handelsblatt Research Institute on patents related to fourth industrial revolution between 2011 and 2016, 12 of the top 25 applicants at the EPO are Asian companies, with seven from Japan, three from China and two from South Korea.
Samsung Group topped the number of patent applications filed at the EPO with 1,634 applications, followed by LG Group’s 1,125 and Sony Corp.’s 885. Other Japanese firms in the top list include Panasonic Corp. with 413 applications, Fujitsu Ltd. with 274 and NEC Corp. with 245.
Sonmez also pointed out that Japan is also significant in terms of its size and demography.
“It’s the third-largest economy in the world, and it is rapidly aging. So the issues that a rapidly aging society have are very different than those populations with many young people,” he said, adding that there are a lot of implications for future society.