Davos 2020: AI, Greta, changing capitalism and women on the moon…

It’s fairly easy to write Davos off as the place where billionaires go to meet other billionaires to talk about how to best squirrel away their cash. And consequently to ignore or decry it.

Except that the billionaire cabals are only a small part of the story.

Davos has always been a place for big ideas and serious issues discussed not just by politicians and captains of business, but activists, pressure groups, NGOs, academics, UN agencies, and so many others.

Davos is a place where history is made.  It helped avert a war between Greece and Turkey in 1988 and launched the Gavi – the Vaccine alliance which has vaccinated 760 million children – in 2020.

And there is a lot of talking, by everyone. But isn’t that a good thing, especially if it’s accompanied by action? To make a difference on the biggest challenges facing the world – we have to bring everyone into the tent.  To have conversations with as many people as possible.

This year was notable for the number of young people at the event.  The WEF has had its ‘Shaper’ community there for many years, and Greta Thunberg was joined by activists from all over the world, Isabelle Axelsson (Sweden), Loukina Tille (Switzerland), Vanessa Nakate (Uganda), Greta Thunberg (Sweden) and Luisa Neubauer (Germany). And I was delighted to see folks from One Young World – a partner for the Global GoalsCast.

Here are a few of the many things I noted

1 Everyone gets climate change – and its two minutes to midnight

Ok, so I will caveat this by saying everyone apart from the US and Australian heads of state, but no matter where you were in Davos people were earnestly talking about climate change and what they can do to keep the rise in global temperatures at a limit of 1.5 degrees C.  Company after company made announcements on this topic with Microsoft pledging to remove as much carbon as it has emitted in its 45-year history, (as well as unveiling a $1bn green tech fund). The outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mr Carney, also joined the debate saying: “From where I sit, there is a fundamental reshaping of the system under way . . . It means not just profitability going down, it means companies going out of business in sectors that have become sunset industries.”

Away from Davos in his new year message United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres painted an apocalyptic picture of global relations, conjuring up a modern-day version of the “four horsemen.”

“I see four horsemen in our midst — four looming threats that endanger 21st-century progress and imperil 21st-century possibilities,” he said citing geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, global mistrust and the dark side of technology as the four big existential threats to the planet and its people. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible represent pestilence, war, famine and death.

The theme of Davos this year, Stakeholder Capitalism, means that business now does have to at least acknowledge a relationship with the planet. It is no more business as usual.

There were also whispers that several major states are on the verge of making climate-related disclosure mandatory for companies. Maybe they are going to push these through in time for COP26, the major climate summit in Glasgow which is coming in November.

In some cases it isn’t more than greenwash. Greenpeace hit out at Davos banks for $1.4tn climate hypocrisy with a report highlighting financial support given to hydrocarbon sector by 24 institutions. Meanshielin his discussion of stakeholder capitalism Professor Lutfey Siddiqi of the London School of Economics said he was still concerned about the way that tokenism could undermine faith in businesses. He pointed the finger at companies who had made small changes a few years ago, but were not really in proportion to the type of impact they could be making. “Proportionality is important: he added. “if you are a large organisation that can make a big impact you need to move a lot faster.”

Staying positive, at Hub Culture we hosted a press conference featuring five young climate change activists including Greta Thunberg, who once again eloquently expressed their anger about the slow progress in tackling a global emergency.

Meanwhile WWF,  Director General Marco Lambertini also found some positives. “Science has never been clearer, awareness has never been greater and we are beginning to see a lot of strong response,” he told me. We are at a key point where people are realising that fixing the planet and stopping climate change is in our own interest.

There was some follow-up to another devastating aspect of climate change which emerged in the lead-up to Davos. What happens to all the animals? The Australian bush fires are reckoned to have wiped out more than half a billion creatures and given us iconic images of Koalas and Kangaroos fleeing the blaze. But – as Vanessa Nakate reminded us – that as tragic as the story is in Australia is millions of animals have already perished in Africa due to climate change, and no one seems to care…

2 We need data to measure SDGs

What about SDGs? To be frank if you weren’t wearing an SDG pin at Davos you might as well have been naked. They were this year’s must wear and pretty much everyone had them.

Away from the pins though it was encouraging to hear how some companies are starting to put sustainability on the agenda and also having the evidence to gauge how they were doing, proving that not everything is green wash.

At the Equality Lounge I chaired an event which featured Alexandra Mousavizadeh, partner at Tortoise Intelligence and authority on companies and social responsibility and Huw van Steenis Senior Adviser to the Chief Executive of UBS and my podcast co-host Claudia Romo Edelman. We discussed what social responsibility really looks like for companies and how it can be accurately measured. Tortoise Media had unveiled its Social Responsibility Index (looking at the FTSE 100 companies) a few weeks before the event.


Huw van Steenis spoke about the importance of having good data for SDGs arguing that data is foundational; without it your can’t risk manage, mobilise capital or hold people to account. He underlined the need to transition to a lower carbon economy, and that $100 trillion of capital could be required to make this happen. Data will enable us to see if we are on track.

3 We are shooting for the moon

Occasionally at Davos you meet someone and learn something totally mind blowing. This year’s epiphany came from Richard Ambrose, the Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin. We had a fascinating chat in the Hub Culture studio about why space travel is back in the agenda. Not only are we going back to the moon as soon as 2024, but this time a woman will be landing there. One small step for woman… You know the rest.  We’ll also see a space station set up to orbit the moon. And we’ll be using all of the knowledge gained to work towards landing on Mars.

4 Resistance is Futile: AI might save us all

So where is AI now on technology hype chart? Is it still going to be the technology that will dispatch all those annoying tasks into history leaving us to be more creative? At Davos 2020 AI was definitely back on the agenda. At the Hub Culture studio I conducted a series of interviews with technologists, many of whom are using AI in practical and highly useful ways. Take Nawal Roy of Holmusk who told me about how his  company is dedicated to transforming the lives of people with behavioural health and chronic diseases through data driven medicine. He said he thinks that mental health is ‘the cancer of tomorrow’ and that it will be the biggest health problem within 5-10 years. How we create a full treatment protocol around it is going to be crucial and Nawal explained to me how data is going to play a big part in helping us to create this.

And I had another great chat with Olivier Oullier of Emotiv, who has been combining AI with neuroscience to create brain monitors which might help us to perform better, not just at work but in life in general. Maybe AI will be a technology that is not just transformative for humans, maybe even the planet too as we use its data to analyse and ultimately respond to some of the situations that will be caused by climate change.

Stan Stalnaker and I had a fascinating conversation about how to create a digital middle class at Facebook – from decentralised currency to government.

Another highlight for me was a live session with the girls from Kakuma who are part of the @iamtheCODE organisation helmed by the incredible Marieme Jamme. I spoke with girls who want to be climate activists, coders and journalists.  Girls who don’t define themselves how the rest of the world sees them – as refugees. It was great to hear their questions for world and business leaders. I like to think that some of the great technological advancements of the 21st century will come from girls and women in the less advantaged areas of the world.