One thing always occurs to me when I arrive in Davos for the World Economic Forum meeting: If we were really any good at building consensus and solving problems, we’d all be sticking the same kinds of power plugs into the same kinds of wall outlets by now. Instead, we travel the world with our byzantine collections of power adapters (or we leave them at home and buy new ones abroad).
I mean, if we can’t even solve this power plug crisis, how can we possibly hope to solve the world’s challenges today and elevate standards of living for people?
Well, it turns out there are more pressing power problems facing the planet than my travel inconveniences. In many ways, Davos will be a return to more traditional long-term economic goals the WEF was created to address. Whereas recent meetings had been dominated by the very durability of financial systems, including the Eurozone, today the major economies are eyeing exits from crisis economics and refocusing on growth.
To me, the Davos meetings should aspire to answer two main questions: (1) How best to maximize economic growth, and (2) How to ensure that the benefits of growth reach the greatest number of people in sustainable ways.
Those two questions are consequential enough to generate a seemingly endless supply of panel discussion topics. This year’s WEF stopped at 250 or so official meetings, and another 150 or more unofficial meetings.
Excepting my power plug issue, nearly everything that can be discussed will be discussed. In some cases, panel topics meet the WEF caricature of being absurdly short (30 minutes might be enough time for an idea or an insight from Ed Phelps, but not both), or cringingly pretentious (“Big History for Big Picture Thinking” or “Rethinking Living”). And it wouldn’t be Davos if a celebrity or two didn’t make an appearance, and this year is no exception: Matt Damon will discuss water for all (credibly).
Neither of arguably the two most powerful women in the world will be in Davos this year – German Chancellor Angela Merkel is out with a skiing injury, and U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen will just be assuming office. But look for Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, among others, for their insights on the changing roles of women in key sectors, and the impact of equal opportunity for girls in all economies.
WEF should be commended for building a program that addresses critical long-term issues and will elicit the insights from global leaders in business, government, and civil society on an array of specific issues, including youth unemployment, food security, privacy, climate change, trade, immigration, data, and infrastructure, to name a few.
One issue I’ll be most interested in involves power, and that’s power to the people. Electrical power, that is.
Numerous WEF panels will discuss the many challenges associated with the urgent need to deliver electricity to people all over the world, but especially in rapidly developing countries. How we source energy – centralized, or off grid, from fossil fuels, or alternative energy? How to measure and account for the environmental and economic impacts? How to finance the enormous need for energy infrastructure?
And I’ll be looking forward to one leader in particular who aims to transform his country – Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will discuss his country’s historic reform to allow foreign investment in the oil sector.
These are not new issues to WEF, but they are as consequential as ever. Energy impacts our politics, how and where we live, and how we move about. And the choices we make today will reverberate for decades to come. Taking a few days to make some progress on these issues seems worthwhile to me.
Tony Fratto, a former U.S. Treasury and White House official, is a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, which consults for GE.
Editor’s Note: Ideas Lab has launched a special project page devoted to coverage of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 annual meeting in Davos, which you can see by clicking this link. The page features exclusive Ideas Lab content and curated items from the WEF blog. The page also features a live stream and videos of various Davos panels and programs being held this year.