Azeem's commentary: Letter from a ski resort
My takeaways from the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos.
A small ski resort, 1,560 m high, with regular snow dumps and icy roads is not the obvious place for an international conference. But Davos is Davos and that’s what you get. It was my first time attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting and, despite much advice from friends who are regulars, I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience.
Yes, it’s true that food is strangely hard to find. Without careful planning, you can easily go 16 hours without catching sight of a canapé. “Eat food when you see it”, I was advised by a veteran. They were right.
It’s true that the ambulatory logistics (you’ll understand why I’m using that phrase in a second) are complex. I walked more than 12 km a day over the four days I was there. Much of this involved trudging across ice and slush, up and downhill, as well as navigating the airport-style security around key hotels and the conference centre itself. Perhaps it was poor planning that meant that on one peak day, I reckon I put my bag through an X-ray machine 16 times. I also was nursing a foot that had healed from a fracture only a couple of days earlier: returning to London, the air boot is back on.
It’s also undeniable that participating in the Annual Meeting gives you a very interesting lens into some of the key issues that businesses, governments and NGOs are wrestling with. I want to share a few takeaways from it. Read this with the caveat that the event is enormous, and has too many diverse voices, to be captured in any one summary. I saw and heard what I could, but I also had a really full schedule of talks, workshops and interviews to accommodate.
The challenges of thinking about global risks
One of the difficulties with understanding global risks is that most people tend to be more comfortable looking in the rearview mirror than speculating about uncertain outcomes. The Annual Meeting has been caught on the hop in two of the last three years. Back in 2020, the Forum did not discuss the prospects of a global pandemic, yet only a couple of months later one would be declared. War in Europe was not mentioned in the Forum’s 2022 Risk Report, which was published just a month before Putin’s folly began.
The 2023 Risk Report introduced the idea of the potential “polycrisis” centred on natural resource competition — from water scarcity to growing demand for certain minerals. The idea of a polycrisis is that the interaction between multiple risks could produce a far bigger impact than than the sum of each part. In other words, a polycrisis is what happens when risks enter a negative feedback loop and produce great harm.
Thinking about risks in this way is a step in the right direction. We should go further. A polycrisis could be the result of several initially independent risks. What if there is an underlying dynamic that is making the risks emerge in the first place? And what if the interaction between these risks is the sign of a system in transition, at the boundary of a phase change from one state to another, potentially at the “edge of chaos”?
While all system changes are likely to exhibit events that look like a polycrisis, not all polycrises are system changes. If your washing machine floods, you crash your car, your dad gets lost on his way to hospital and your daughter’s flight is delayed, all of which results the shed having caught on fire unnoticed, it is a polycrisis. It isn’t necessarily a sign of system shock.
In my book, I postulated that we might be approaching a phase change.
Complexity scientists refer to moments of radical change within a system as a ‘phase transition’. When liquid water turns into steam, it is the same chemical, yet its behaviour is radically different. Societies too can undergo phase changes. Some moments feel abrupt, discontinuous, world-changing. Think of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The rapid reorganisation of our society today is just such a phase transition. A phase transition has been reached, and we are witnessing our systems transforming before our very eyes. Water is becoming steam.