Reflections on Attending the 50th World Economic Forum

Thursday, January 30, 2020
by Feridun Hamdullahpur

world economic forum in davos

I had the honour of once again joining more than 3,000 business and government officials at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland this past week. With it came Insights and observations on the state of the world economically, socially and politically; and connections with other universities, research institutions and industry partners.

Though I could write an entire book about the activities and discussions at the WEF, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on my recent time in Davos and the future state of post-secondary education, Canada and the University of Waterloo.

Calls to Action on Climate Change

There were many initiatives discussed and announced during the WEF, but climate change and sustainability were the primary topics on everyone’s mind in and out of meetings and sessions. With 10 years left on achieving the targets set out by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this put a direct emphasis on both assessing current progress and how governments, businesses and all organizations can make the needed changes to policies and initiatives to reach our national targets.

It was important to have this conversation over and over throughout the WEF given that there are so few venues for global governments, businesses and not-for-profit organizations to gather and discuss the state of global affairs and plan together. The UN, COP summits and gatherings of the G7 and G20 are all valuable outlets, but they are naturally limited to governments or NGOs when the solutions we need must be holistic in nature. WEF leaders even committed to planting 1 trillion trees around the world during the summit. This is, of course, not a solution in and of itself, but is a gesture of action and indicative of the non- complacency tone I witnessed.

Increased Presence from China

Cooperation was of significant focus this year as well. It was felt from nearly every nation and organization I had the opportunity to speak with and hear speak during the week’s sessions. This was the 50th anniversary of the WEF and the audience of attendees certainly did not look like it did 50 years ago. At its inception, the WEF was dominated by the United States and other Western, European nations. The global nature of the summit couldn’t have looked more different in 2020.

Representatives from every continent could be found in Davos this year. There was also a noticeable increase in the presence and coordination from China. From businesses to universities and government offices, the level of involvement from China couldn’t be missed. It remains to be seen whether this change is a result of recent U.S.-China trade/diplomatic tensions or the continued evolution of China’s global focus, but it certainly was evident. Where once only a single tower of influence existed at the summit, there is now a larger circle of influencers there talking and discussing the future together.

Role of Universities in Learning and Research Top of Mind

Universities, researchers and the future of our global workforce was also right in the mix of conversation at WEF. The future potential of quantum computing, scaling health care in an aging world, particularly with the recent news of the coronavirus top of mind with those gathered, and the expansion of AI were all major topics at international keynotes and meetings.

Businesses and governments are attempting to foresee the economic and societal shifts these technologies and breakthroughs will have, because they now see that thanks to work being done right here at Waterloo and other major research hubs around the world, these disruptive technologies are coming right around the corner.

The gathering of university and business leaders also brought forward the question of the role universities should and will play in a rapidly changing world. Every university – no matter how established or heralded – is wary of a future poised for sizable disruption. Demographic shifts, technological advancements and the internationalization of education is changing the face of post-secondary education and the development of future talent. This is a challenge full of opportunities and one that I know Waterloo is ahead of the curve on tackling.

Recognition and Praise for Canada

Throughout my time in Davos I was also struck by the tone of recognition and appreciation for Canada. Our country has always been welcomed and respected by our international peers at the WEF, but there was a noticeable deepening of respect this year for our country. We were viewed as leaders in sustainability and action in a number of portfolios and our dedication to research and learning in technology, science and public policy were recognized everywhere.

We all have a role to play in building the world we want to see in the future and Canada is being given the opportunity to be the leader I know it is capable of being in a highly fluctuating global environment.

It was good to see that at the end of days of meetings, conversation and events that no matter the strife and conflict our world faces, we are still talking and working together on so many fronts, and universities like Waterloo are at the heart of that cooperative and collaborative future.