WEF is a Circus
The second thing you notice: the seasoned visitors bark the name like an old dog with a sore throat: wef, wef, wef. For me, being in January 2023 a newbie at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, the first word coming to mind was: Circus.
An entire village is coated with corporate architecture (literally, I mean structures, not posters). Almost every building along the Promenade, the main street of Davos, is colorfully and message-heavy revamped, each to lure international visitors into a mystical and promising show of their own. All the big consultancies, tech giants, many States, and NGOs are building a circus-like scenery amidst the WEF conference happening in the highest security venues, protected by strict Swiss police and military forces.
The Promenade was permanently lined with star-branded black limousines and vans throughout my stay. The many times I walked up and down the street to get to the different venues, I was at least two times faster and could enjoy the alpine view and crisp air if not next to a waiting car with a running engine.
Let me briefly lay out some basics for those who have never been to WEF and those criticizing and opposing the format. In essence, it is a two-folded business conference. One is open to the public, the second by invitation only. If you would like to partake in the latter one, you will need to know the right people, pay, and go through rigorous and lengthy security validation.
Is it fair that only the rich, powerful, and famous meet behind closed doors? Isn’t this happening all the time anyway? In times of live streams from the venues, not a valid issue, I would argue. Especially since many VIP people also mingle with the countless side events happening throughout the village and open to the public. I met so many people I usually would not be able to meet in person. This alone is of utmost value to me.
Thus, the spirit of Davos was one of the collective and open gatherings to address what is essential to business. We live in times of war, erosion of social cohesion, misinformation, resource competition, climate change, and many more, summarized as poly crises. So, don’t you think meeting and exchanging in person after almost three years of isolation is good? Don’t we need to make new connections, bond, and build human alliances to act for what is necessary?
But what is vital to the WEF community?
They say that the word climate change was used twice as often at WEF than inflation. It felt like the topic of sustainability was a thick red ribbon interlaced into any piece of communication. Hanging in big letters from the many buildings covered with advertising or ushered with doomsday tonality at the different panels.
For example, Chief Sustainability Officer Daniel Schmid from SAP laid out that businesses need to move from a sustainability strategy to a sustainable business strategy. It can no longer be an annex to a corporate strategy. It must be its core, the foundation of every business action, because it is also a new means to make money. PwC even claimed sustainability is the new profitability. And it is also about risk mitigation. As governments and lawmakers tighten the requirements and increase the reporting obligation of corporates on sustainability year by year, companies start acting with more due diligence.
But first, is this enough, and second, is this the priority? You get both perspectives in Davos.
Everyone talked about ESGs. It’s big, right? But with more than 600 reporting provisions globally, including regulations and voluntary standards, how can we align businesses to transparency and impact? And as corporates slowly grasp this reporting monster and ESG overtakes sustainability in the stakeholder discourse, has anyone thought about the consumers? Regular people, non-experts, are still struggling with what sustainability means and encompasses. Corporations must take immediate action to bridge the gap between ESG and sustainability communications if we do not want to lose consumer trust and understanding for good.
But this is just the lens of the global north. 5 billion humans are missing access to primary healthcare. What do you think their priority is? Pediatric surgeon Dr Neema Kaseje from Doctors without Borders frames it pointy: No care, no care for the environment. Equity is priority number one, she says.
Equity is the word I heard a lot. A solution for addressing imbalanced social systems. Equity for the global south, equity for women. But what about equity for nature? Can we, for example, build equity in healthcare for Africa and simultaneously avoid repeating the same environmental mistakes by introducing a linear medical equipment supply chain? Could the design of circular products be the solution for people and the planet?
It dawned on me on day one—the need for more design. Design is absent in Davos, maybe at the WEF in general. I don’t mean that things aren’t stylish or pretty. I mean design as a process, discipline, and outcome. When I prompted my observation to a WEF veteran, they replied: that design thinking had been the topic a few years ago, and they moved on.
Oh, ok, so design thinking is equal to design, and if it is there once, it loses relevance? So, what about business or money? It never gets out of trend.
I haven’t met designers. And DESIGN (yes, in capitals) was no topic on stage or in discussions. I think this should bother us. First, as an industry. If Davos is the gauge for what is relevant in the future, design as an industry must be part of it to remain relevant. And secondly, I think design as a mindset and principal bundle is pertinent to solve some of Davos’s addressed problems and challenges.
For example, the design of the WEF Annual Meeting itself.
- Replace the car traffic with different means of personal logistics. It would be a delight for everyone.
- Design the many venue architectures fully circular. I met with an NGO representative that told me that all furniture, plants, and building materials were put in the trash at the end of the week.
- Include the youth, the next generation, by design into the WEF program. They were absent, too.
As Milton Glaser once said, design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. And WEF is about changing to the desired. So, I would urge the organizers to design better … and to put the design back on stage for good.
As the design is also about beauty, that will be a chance to design experiences and artifacts that help the global community build better humans, not better business machines.
Karel J. Golta
CEO + Founder