Including all actors in society is a 'foundation of everything we do' - Olivier Schwab, World Economic Forum

Olivier Schwab, speaking at the WEF in Sao Paolo in 2018 (Credit: WEF - Sandra Blaser)

For the first time since its creation in 1971, the World Economic Forum (WEF) will allow thousands of young people to follow the notoriously selective sessions of its 2021 annual meeting in Davos. We asked Managing Director Olivier Schwab, to tell us more about WEF’s plans, announced last week, for this unprecedented “Great Reset - Twin Summit”, supported by its in-house technology platform. Exclusive interview.

How are you going to organize the virtual aspect of “The Great Reset” Twin Summit of Davos?

We had a number of major events of thousands of people planned through the spring, including a series of workshops that we usually hold physically. Since Covid-19 started in mid-March, we immediately shifted our program to the virtual space and accumulated tremendous experience over the past two months. In April, we ran over 130 virtual meetings, over 170 in May and an equal number is planned for June. So, we have gained a lot of experience.

Isn’t Davos all about mingling, exchanging business cards, physical contacts?

Our partners and employees want to meet physically again, see each other at close distance. We may not be able to do a physical meeting at the scale that we have in the past because we have to respect certain safety measures. We are talking to the authorities about how to organize that, of course. So, the twin physical and virtual is a tremendous opportunity. We will be able to bring in those who are not there at a much larger scale. We have no limitations on the number of people we can bring in to interact. We will have to see how we build this hybrid interaction.

What are these 400 hubs responsible for connecting thousands of youngsters around the globe to Davos all about?

Ten years ago, we decided we had to integrate young people in our activities and get them into the conversation with CEOs, government and global leaders. We launched “The Global Shapers Initiative”. We found young people who were willing, and had the energy to do something in their cities, and we gave them a platform, visibility, connectivity and encouraged them to take some action and raise funds to create programs for their peers. These 400 hubs now interact regularly. In the past, we’ve only been able to invite a handful of them to Davos because of the space constraints. By doing this twin meeting we think we will be able to connect all of them.

How exactly is it going to work?

We are still experimenting. We are testing different technologies to allow break-out sessions within a video conference. You can have a 200-person video conference, split it up into chat groups, and have them come back together again. There are also match-making technologies to pair sessions to your interests. It’s going to be a fascinating experiment because it is the first time that, at this scale, we will be able to combine physical and virtual.

What will be the ratio between virtual and physical?

This is still in development. You cannot duplicate from one to the other. You cannot take the design of a physical meeting and simply put it on line. After an hour or two on the screen people are exhausted. You have to redesign the interactions, think about different ways to get the participants engaged. One could imagine a certain broadcast virtually to thousands of people with questions and some interactions, and then [those online] break up into virtual rooms, while the discussion continues in the physical room. There has been tremendous progress in the technological tools the past two months. We are also testing things like holograms.

You are yourself in front of a formal backdrop on this zoom call?

This is a tool on Zoom but we have been developing interaction technologies for 20 years now. We have our own platform called Toplink like a private Facebook for the Forum partners. We have a thousand users who can share information, chat, and do event management. We are simply integrating additional technologies to it like videos, networking, match-making.

What are the entry costs of these technologies?

We have different services for different stakeholders. For large multinationals, the fees are between 100 000 and 600 000 CHF. Depending on the level of partnership, they get access to a certain number of our platform activities, and for their executives, to our physical meetings including Davos and regional events. For young people, academics, NGOs, and government representatives there is no fee.

Do they get access to the same things?

It depends. What we try to do when we create a platform is to try and to get the relevant actors engaged there. It’s by invitation for NGOs and academics.

You just closed the “Virtual Ocean Dialogues”, the first on-line global conference on the subject; was it a trial for Davos 2021?

We had already launched it long before the Covid-19. A platform more open to the public was an idea that we developed last year. There were 70,000 livestream views and over 1,250 registered participants. We are learning from that.

Davos has the reputation to be a “Club for the rich”. How do you deal with that in a post Covid-19 world?

The idea to include all actors of society has always been at the foundation of everything we do. It’s the multi-stakeholder concept. Governments alone, businesses alone, NGOs alone cannot solve the big issues of the world. So, to create a platform where all these actors come together to move things forward was necessary. We very quickly became a global organization and integrated Indian, African, Chinese, Latin American voices. We have a diversity that is unmatched since the very beginning. Then, we added NGOs, young people with the Young Global Leaders and The Shapers, and technology innovators. The Covid-19 crisis accelerated an awareness which had culminated this year with the understanding that we are facing a climate crisis and we should come together and do something about it.

This is the idea of the new social contract Davos wants to promote?

This year, together with the International Business Council - a hundred CEOs of very large multinationals - we started developing an ESG standard (Environment, social, governance standard).  A reporting standard just like the financial one. These things are difficult to develop because you have to get people on board, talk to regulators, and NGOs. The “opportunity” of the Covid-19 crisis is that it accelerated that momentum and awareness. This is what we want to do in Davos next year: tell our partners that this a real opportunity to take responsibility to build a more sustainable, inclusive, cohesive world.

The presence of Greta Thumberg was the big happening last year; any names for the next edition?

What we see in the world right now, a trend the crisis has accelerated, is more nationalism and regionalism and an erosion of the structures of global cooperation. The discussion around the “big names” starts now and will continue through the fall. But we think that multilateralism is not dead, and we have to work hard to keep this global cooperation alive.