Amidst 3,000 most influential leaders from all walks of life, there were also 50 “Global Shapers” at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos this year. I was one of them and found Davos as invigorating and meaningful as I had imagined. The start itself was exciting; after two days of brainstorming on the role of artificial intelligence in shaping democracy, other speakers and I boarded a train from Zurich to Davos. About 10 minutes before reaching Davos station, I noticed the ticket collector walk in, furiously waving a passport. It happened to be mine. I hadn’t left my seat, so my Davos journey began by wondering how my passport had learned to walk.
But things settled down; the theme of the 47th Annual Meeting was “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”. It explored some of the most pertinent questions facing business and society today, including, but not limited to, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on globalisation, job creation, democracy, ethics and morality.
My days usually began at six am, when it was still pitch-dark and -22 degrees outside. On the second day, I missed the shuttle transfer to the congress center and ran five kilometers, in slippery snow, to make it to a breakfast with Christine Lagarde in time. There were 10 of us in the room; Lagarde was keen to hear our views on the future of workforces and the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, gender roles and the economy. Towards the end of breakfast, she shared an interesting story from when she was finance minister of France. Often presidents of companies would come to report on their strategies; when she asked them about their board composition, they would always say that they would love to have a woman on their board, but they just couldn’t find any, the ones they knew already being fully booked. So, she kept a piece of paper in her bag with the names of 20 women ready on it. Breakfasts like these set the tone of the day and we headed for public sessions, bilateral meetings and working group discussions with a sense of possibility.
It is my belief that diversity in all shapes and forms — gender, age, origin, opinion, culture, conviction — is an asset to problem-solving. One of the key challenges for the technology sector is designing products and services that help societies embrace the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution equitably. With this in mind, I organised a roundtable discussion for my fellow Global Shapers with Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, and its President, Jean-Philippe Courtois. There were three key takeaways: Firstly, millennials value organisations with a clear social mission. Secondly, new operating models are required for the bottom of the economic pyramid; 3.5 billion people are not online. There is a strong correlation between poverty and digital connectivity. We must ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is inclusive. Lastly, collaboration among policymakers and technology players must be enhanced. Often, public policy lags technological innovation, creating an antithetical relationship.
I was also part of a working group on last-mile internet connectivity. It had representatives from corporates, start-ups, governments and international organisations. We resolved to scheduling a call every month to share our concerns and outline further steps. There are some who criticise Davos for being removed from ground realities; they couldn’t be more wrong. I noticed a sense of great urgency in every session and in every stakeholder to transform their ideas into action and make a measurable impact.
In the wake of recent geopolitical events, a key construct for this year’s annual meeting was democracy and civil society — in that context, it was energising to see the importance placed on India’s role in shaping the global discourse. Even in the context of economics, despite India’s poor ranking in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, it was hard to miss the palpable excitement about investing in India and exploring new business opportunities. A stable democracy, coupled with a high demographic dividend and the emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs, were discussed on several platforms.
The Annual Meeting concluded on January 21, around the same time as the new President of the United States was sworn in. The closing act at Davos was an orchestra performed by Afghan women who had overcome adversities of all kinds. I was sitting next to fellow Global Shapers from Chicago, Lahore, London, Moscow, Kiev and Dhaka. We all closed our eyes, soaked in the moment and felt grateful for what we had witnessed. A quote mentioned in the roundtable with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella summarised how we felt: “If we change the way we see the world, we change the world we see.”