The World Expo Center in Dalian, where the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2011 was held. Copyright World Economic Forum via flickr
Last week I had the pleasure to attend the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China. The meeting in Dalian is called the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, and in comparison to the more widely known one in Davos it apparently has more a focus on new technologies. How else would it be possible to present the latest advances in lighting technologies as part of a session organized by Nature…
The meeting was actually quite diverse; there were sessions even on topics such as art and Buddhism. Yet, clearly there was a focus on business and global governance, and in the context of the more technology-oriented approach of this meeting this meant that there were some interesting discussions on sustainable growth, alternative energies, and so on.
But what did I really learn from these? Well, if you keep up with the daily news and analysis anyway, there wasn’t too much new to be learned. Of course, it was interesting to see some of the high flyers in action and to hear their personal assessment on various issues. But this clearly wasn’t the place to formulate grant visions in much detail. One-hour panel discussions are hardly the place for that. It was far more interesting to talk to some of the participants during coffee breaks, and to exchange opinions privately. I also attended a closed session by the WEF’s Risk Response Network. Discussing not only issues such as the risks to the public arising from new technologies but also the problems we have in dealing with risks offered some new perspectives. Perhaps the secret really is to try to get invited for more of those closed sessions.
But unfortunately, the mingling of the more scientific participants and those from business or politics didn’t seem to work too well. The more scientific discussions were hardly attended by business people and vice versa. I think both sides are to blame a little, and there were not even that many science policy types attending that could bridge this gap, with one of the notable exceptions being the Chinese science minister. That seems like a big missed opportunity to me. In this age, new technologies can revolutionize any business rapidly, and being informed about the trends in science can only be good for business.
More generally, it seemed that all those CEOs, representatives of NGOs etc. very much saw the world from their top-down perspective. Some of the discussions seemed quite ‘meta’ to me. In terms of global risks and sustainability for example, there seemed to be the conviction that there are a lot of answers and solutions, but that there is a general failure of political leadership to execute these, with the danger being that the longer we wait the greater the implications if catastrophes unfold. As someone said in one of the discussions, “the motivation of politicians is to get re-elected, not to execute.” This theme was pervasive in discussions on several topics. There was also praise for the Chinese to have their more long-term vision in the form of five-year plans.
Well, this made me a bit uncomfortable. This is very much a top-down approach in the way that these top executives run their company: implement a strategy and everyone has to follow suit. Is this really the public governance we want? Follow and shut up. There was almost no mention throughout on the fact that politics also works to a large degree from the bottom up.
For example, the risk of a global flu pandemic that kills millions within weeks unfortunately is all too real (c.f. swine flu, bird flu). Or earth quakes, tsunamis. If there is indeed a lack of leadership in addressing such threats, then I think this is the result of wrong priorities. Criticising leaders for inactions will only get us that far. If there is a public consensus that certain risks need to be mitigated, leaders can be forced to act from the bottom up. via the public. But to create risk awareness, everyone needs to be aware of such risks in the first place, and this issue is where I think the discussion needs to go.
Anyway, would I attend the World Economic Forum again if given the opportunity? Certainly! The WEF, and those attending these meetings, need more confrontation with science, and more of the bottom-up perspective.