This year, I had an opportunity to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos for the first time. I had previously participated in the WEF program in Asia, but from this vantage point now, I can safely say that nothing prepares the first-time participant for the Davos experience.
Even the venue astounds — an idyllic town nestled in the midst of majestic mountains. During the Davos week, I can only imagine that for the 11,000 residents there are only one of three strategies to survive: participate in the Davos opportunity, stay indoors and become a recluse for the week, or participate in the sharing economy and exchange your apartment for an exorbitant sum of money then head for a week’s holiday in warmer climes.
The usual businesses on the main street are transformed with Hollywood-style branding, attracting the participating companies and governments to use them for engaging, networking. and educating other participants. Traffic is snarled. Rather than spend an hour to travel 100 meters (or not to move at all), it is best to abandon the car and take to the icy and treacherous pavements on foot to get from one venue security check to the next.
Given the physical limitations of many of the venues, the Davos experience is an egalitarian one for all participants. There are no large entourages. CEOs and Government Ministers wait in line. I saw people standing in the lunch queue who probably haven’t fetched their own lunch since… well, the last time they were at Davos! All part of the Davos experience.
There are many detractors who question the value of the Forum at Davos. Viewed purely in the context of the carefully prepared and scripted speeches of the world leaders present, I guess I would agree. However, this aspect of the Davos forum represents only a very small portion of what Davos is all about and its true potential to drive change in the world. Perhaps not the change on a grand, all-encompassing, world scale, but change for one company at a time — a policy at a time and a person at a time.
Davos is a stage to address some of the greatest issues of the moment. It provides an environment where eclectic groups can exchange views on a topic. It is these workgroups that drive the agenda long after the snow and ice of Davos have melted.
The diversity of thought and approach drives the outcomes of higher value. It undermines complacency. For example, aside from politics and climate change, artificial intelligence (AI) was probably the most hotly debated topic this year, being called everything from a catalyst for a dystopian society and digital dictatorship to an enabler of the next economic renaissance. What I found reassuring was that the media continues to stay invested in these topics, covering all angles of the narrative, painting what I hope is a more balanced picture for the reader.
The fourth hottest topic this year at the Forum was the continuing gender gap. I participated in a number of panels, sessions, and workgroups on this subject, including Mercer’s Women Who Thrive Executive Breakfast, a McKinsey’s private discussion on the war for talent and how to win it. I am exceptionally proud of how far SAP has come with regards to diversity and inclusion. However, following these sessions I realized one can never sit back on topics like this. We — society, industry, and SAP — are far from the finish line and sustained focus is required. We have the opportunity to learn from others and be better because of it.
And this is precisely what I expected from Davos. I hope that, as a result of the meetings I attended, the workgroups I participated in, the incredible people I met — from government to the CEOs and chairs of some of the largest companies in the world to the young founders of intriguing startups — that I am better for the experience it afforded to me. And that I will be granted time to translate this into actions that will speak louder than words. Actions that will make a difference.
Adaire Fox-Martin is a member of the Executive Board of SAP SE, Global Customer Operations