Skip to main content

Don Tapscott is the CEO of the Tapscott Group, and the chancellor of Trent University.

Last year I described him as "the elephant not in the room." This year he's more likely to be the elephant in the china shop.

The World Economic Forum starts in Davos on Monday – and there's a star attraction, or distraction, in U.S. President Donald Trump. On the agenda of the Monday-to-Friday event: more than 400 sessions, with Mr. Trump scheduled to speak on Friday. On the minds of organizers: collaboration.

"We need collaborative efforts," forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab said last week. "There is today a real danger of a collapse of our global systems. ... It is in our hands to change the state of the world."

For Mr. Trump, Davos sets up as an odd venue. The mission of the forum – this year's theme is Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World – is to facilitate dialogue and rise above national interests to solve global problems. Mr. Trump's "America First" mantra is all about national interests.

Joining Mr. Trump will be hundreds of CEOs, 70 heads of state or government, 38 heads of major international organizations and a record number of leaders from G7 economies. The opening address will be delivered by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India.

The forum is often accused of being a gabfest for the rich and powerful, and to be sure there will be plenty of that in Davos. But the organizers have made a concerted effort to be more inclusive. Nearly half of the proceedings, including Mr. Trump's speech, will be webcast. And there will be many representatives from international organizations, civil society, cultural and spiritual leaders, academia, labour and the media. Also in attendance will be the largest-ever proportion of female leaders.

In addition, the meeting is the foremost global summit representing younger generations, with 50 members of the forum's Global Shaper community, aged between 20 and 30, and 80 Young Global Leaders under the age of 40, participating. Ultimately, these are the people responsible for shaping our rapidly evolving future.

There will also be thousands of entrepreneurs, academics, activists and business people who, lacking a Davos invitation and the coveted white badge into the congress area, pour into town to hold events and meet in all the local hotels.

I have long believed that technologies such as the internet would be the great leveller in our society. Like the World Economic Forum, it gave everyone a chance to contribute to the discussion. It provided a venue to tackle problems collectively.

But looking at the world in 2018, it seems I've so far been proved wrong. As Mr. Trump's presidency enters its second year, the discourse enabled by technological innovations is disjointed at best, and shattered at worst. Digital technologies themselves are at the heart of this fragmentation and polarization.

Around the world, especially in the United States, public faith in the electoral process is at an all-time low, undermined by hackers and claims of so-called fake news.

Mr. Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote. Then American intelligence agencies concluded the Russian government interfered with the electoral process using internet-based tools.

It's just one example of the many challenges for our modern technology-driven society. How do we sort through all the misinformation spewed when a billion people essentially have printing presses at their fingertips? How do we ensure the gathering of quality news in a world where the purpose of information is seemingly not to inform but to reinforce our own biases?

Two years ago, Mr. Schwab wrote a book called The Fourth Industrial Revolution. He believes we are in the early stages of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. Neuro-technological brain enhancements. Blockchain transactions bypassing intermediaries. Genetic editing. These changes are happening at exponential speed.

This month, Mr. Schwab released a follow-up book with forum executive Nicholas Davis: Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution argues we cannot let the many new technologies simply emerge. All of us need to help shape the future we want to live in. But what do we need to know and do to achieve this?

In my view, two new digital technologies – artificial intelligence and blockchain technology – are emerging as cornerstones to this revolution. But with revolution comes disruption and evidence is mounting that we'll need a new social contract to deal with these massive innovations.

In the 20th century, countries built global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems. But let's face it – nation states and their institutions, such as the G7 or the UN, are proving woefully inadequate in solving today's pernicious issues. The failure to come to agreements on everything from how to stop warlords or govern the global financial system is evidence that we need new tools and power structures.

The forum is probably the most important organization working on multistakeholder approaches to solving these problems. These issues will be at the forefront of the Davos discussion. Hopefully, the Trump Show doesn't distract us too much – because, honestly, it's tough to imagine Mr. Trump having anything constructive to add to these debates. More likely he'll just be breaking a lot of china.

The world's most powerful government shut down on Saturday after President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress failed to reach a deal on funding for federal agencies, highlighting the country's deep political divisions.


Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles