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WEF 2018 Fringe players aim to upstage Trump in Davos

A person places a chair on a stage lit up by the World Economic Forum logo

WEF hopes to solve some of the problems facing the world, rather than simply rearranging the chairs

(Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

When arguably the world’s most divisive figure makes an entrance, the atmosphere is bound to charge up. What better way to kick off the World Economic Forum’s annual congress, entitled “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”, with the arrival of US President Donald Trump?

“Our world has become fractured by increasing competition between nations and deep divides within societies,” said WEFexternal link founder Klaus Schwab at a pre-meeting press conference. By gathering together so many influential politicians, business leaders and civil society figureheads under one roof, WEF hopes to “overcome these fault lines” and “improve the state of the world”.

This will be the 48th external linkWEF annual meetingexternal link and the message from Schwab has taken on a familiar ring. Once again, WEF has awarded itself the seemingly impossible task of trying to untangle an endless shopping list of potential global disasters.

What is WEF?

The World Economic Forumexternal link started out life in 1971 as the European Management Forumexternal link, designed to bring together business leaders in Europe and the United States.

It changed its name to the World Economic Forum in 1987. It’s showcase annual meeting has always been staged in Davos, apart from 2002 when it switched venue to New York to show support for the US following the 9/11 terror attack the previous year.

This year’s meetingexternal link brings together 3,000 delegates, comprising top politicians, business leaders and representatives from civil society, culture, technology, science, religion and academia.

Indian Prime Minister Marendra Modi will present the meeting’s opening address while US President Donald Trump will deliver the closing keynote speech.

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Even the seemingly rock-solid, safe haven host country, Switzerland, has been buffeted by the turbulence of this fractured world. Having been stripped of its treasured banking secrecy by the US in recent years, it is now struggling to find its future place alongside the fractured, post-Brexit European Union.

The WEF meeting does not shy away from tackling thorny issues and leaves practically no stone unturned in producing a smorgasbord of talking points - from conflict zones to climate concerns, the refugee crisis, the state of the economy and the impact of new digital technology.

Stage crashers

Measuring the results of Davos conferences, however, is tricky. To do so, one has to count all the handshakes that have taken place behind closed doors in the labyrinth congress centre. And then count all the times those handshakes have been fully honoured.

But the ski resort of Davos does not seem to mind. It is gearing itself up for its biggest week of the year when it basks in the glare of the world’s media cameras and takes advantage of the deep pockets that are coming to town.

Beyond the heavily guarded borders of the congress centre Davos will experience a change in appearance and character. Shops, offices and cafés are rented out to international companies and other organisations. They advertise their presence with large, colourful banners. Every country, it seems, wants to be seen – and seen large.

Other actors are also lining up to crash the global stage erected by WEF. In the last few years, Davos has witnessed a growing number of fringe acts popping up along the margins of the congress centre. 

Most notable is the fintech crowdexternal link, an irresistible tide of start-up companies and entrepreneurs dedicated to changing the way the world thinks about finance – and a lot more besides. The blockchain and cryptocurrency crowd do not sit comfortably with the WEF set. 

The last word

They prefer to set up camp in a local church, a stone’s throw away from the congress centre, preaching disruption and occasionally thumbing their noses at the traditional bankers and grey suits ensconced in WEF’s inner sanctum.

This year, one group of crypto ‘anarchists’ have gone a stage further – launching the first ‘alternative WEF’ annual meeting in nearby St Moritz a week before the Davos event. The inaugural Crypto Finance Conferenceexternal link hopes to marry cutting edge digital finance projects with the most dynamic, risk taking hedge funds and venture capitalists.

Some of those money men will then head off for Davos to cut more deals. While they are there, they can catch Trump’s conference closing speech. While it may take some people aback that the US President will not conduct the opening key note speech, it will not surprise others that he will have the last word.


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