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In 1971, the inaugural European Management Symposium was held in Davos, a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, the event a precursor to what would later become the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

Borge Brende | YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
Borge Brende | YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

“I felt the future should not be based on animosity and controversy. It should be based on reconciliation,” WEF founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab told The Japan Times during a 2013 interview, recalling the early years of the Davos conference. “In 1971, I published a book on multistakeholders, which means problems should always be solved through dialogues among the stakeholders, among all those people who are interested in the problems. So, I created a platform for multistakeholders to come together.”

The “stakeholder” concept described by Schwab was outlined in the Davos Manifesto, a set of ethical principles for business leaders launched in 1973. “The purpose of professional management is to serve clients, shareholders, workers and employees, as well as societies, and to harmonize the different interests of the stakeholders,” it said.

Half a century later, the WEF unveiled the Davos Manifesto 2020 — an updated version to spell out the universal purpose of a company — for its 50th annual meeting in Davos, which kicks off on Jan. 21.

What was written in the 1973 Davos Manifesto still applies today, but the 2020 version is expanded to cover ideas of sustainability, inclusion and technology governance.

The 2020 Davos conference, which brings more than 3,000 of the world’s business heads, political leaders and other influential individuals together from all over the world, however, comes at a time when the world is increasingly polarized and full of conflicts. Whether the WEF platform will be able to contribute to enhancing dialogues among global key players remains to be seen.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Cabinet ministers will be skipping the upcoming conference because of the looming Brexit deadline. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also miss this year’s Davos meeting despite attending the event last year.

However, even though he is mired in a myriad of problems ranging from his impeachment in the House of Representatives to flare-ups with Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to show up in Davos.

Borge Brende, president of the WEF, expressed concern about how nations are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, with little regard for international responsibility.

“This is a huge paradox because we live in a truly globalized world. Your problem is my problem and vice versa. We live in a more integrated world than we ever did before, but our response is very fragmented,” he told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“Look at climate change. The policy of another nation on climate change also means a lot for other nations because (carbon dioxide) emissions are global. It’s the same with emissions to the sea or plastic in the oceans. … That’s why we have to have global rules,” said the former foreign minister and environment minister of Norway.

Top Risks 2020, the latest annual forecast of political risks released earlier this month by risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, shows current levels of global instability, with U.S. domestic politics listed for the first time as the top risk of this year.

“Trump’s policies coupled with turmoil in Washington will confuse and further destabilize long-standing relationships, with big question marks over countries that already feel particularly exposed: think South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia,” the report said. “Trump is also more inclined to miscalculate, making tail risks around those geopolitical confrontations that occur more unpredictable and dangerous.”

The U.S.-China trade war also casts a shadow over global economic prospects. According to the International Monetary Fund’s latest estimates, the bilateral conflict could drag the global economy down by as much as $700 billion. It has also caused an economic slowdown in China.

But the bilateral trade row isn’t the only problem, said Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer. He told a Tokyo meeting in November that the greatest source of U.S.-China conflict comes from a technological “Cold War” in which China is building a separate technological ecosystem against the U.S.-led one.

“The American tech ecosystem, with all its strengths and shortcomings, is built by the private sector and loosely regulated by the government. The Chinese system is dominated by the state. That’s also true for big data collection, for development of artificial intelligence (AI), for the rollout of 5G cellular network technology and for defense and retaliation against cyberattacks,” Bremmer said.

“Where exactly will the new Berlin Wall stand? Where will we find the boundary between one technological system and the other? Will Europe align with the United States? … What pressure will even Japan face?” he asked.

To find solutions, he said, the U.S., Europe, Japan and like-minded partners must work together to set future standards for AI, data, privacy, citizens’ rights and intellectual property.

At last year’s Davos meeting, Abe delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of creating international rules for the free movement of data across borders. Referring to the speech, Brende said that the WEF is currently working closely with the Japanese government to follow up on the G20 agenda where Japan, as the chair country, underlined the importance of this concept dubbed Data Free Flow with Trust.

“We need a rule-based cyber area and not the Wild West,” Brende said, adding that the WEF has also set up the Cyber Security Center in Geneva, where private sector and governments will collaborate to enhance cybersecurity across the world.

Though it is a huge challenge, the WEF president said his organization aims to be an effective platform to help business and political leaders find solutions to pressing issues.

“In a world that is so much more integrated, let’s come up with not only fragmented solutions,” he said. “The World Economic Forum’s public-private cooperation platform can be an effective platform in finding solutions on some of the most constructive dialogue, innovative solutions on climate change, biodiversity, inclusiveness and economic growth that is necessary to move forward.”

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