Business Strategy

Insights from the World Economic Forum: US Takes a Backseat to China, UK, and Computer-Lead Innovation

world economic forum

“Do you know which company was the first to apply for patents to use a drone in business? AIG, not Amazon or Apple. AIG’s use? For claims adjustment.” – Michael Zeltkevic, Head of Financial Services for the Americas for Oliver Wyman

So began ‘The Future of Financial Services’ private luncheon held by Oliver Wyman at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This luncheon is attended by industry leaders from across the globe and is an example of the thought-provoking dialogue that permeated the Swiss mountain village in January.

After beginning with a global ‘Women Leaders Reception,’ hosted by my fellow C200 (The Committee of 200) members Joyce Russell, President of Adecco; Kate Gutmann, Chief Sales and Solutions Officer for UPS; and Margery Kraus, Executive Chairman for APCO Worldwide, the Forum officially commenced.

The atmosphere this year was frenetic yet muted, anticipatory from a political perspective while also restrained. The World Economic Forum theme of ‘Respected and Responsible Leadership’ was repeated in both official sessions and in business-related bi-lateral meetings held alongside the usual ‘feast for the mind’ full-plate array of breakfasts, dinners and elaborate nightcap fetes.

Here are three key insights that set 2017 apart from previous years and that may hold the key to what the year holds for business leaders around the world:

  1. A Shifting Spotlight

For the first time in many years, the United States was the object of a more distant fascination (Trump, the then impending inauguration, the resultant market rally) while not being as center stage as it typically is at the WEF in Davos itself. The spotlight belonged to the newcomers from the outside, the Chinese, with the first President from the People’s Republic of China ever to attend the WEF, Xi Jinping, who invoked aspects of Abraham Lincoln in his address to the entire Forum. A few days later, Theresa May arrived fresh from the UK and her ‘clean Brexit’ speech repeating in crisp tones to those in this Swiss mountain village her belief in the decision and her country’s future.

  1. Not Your Traditional Year

Titans of American industry were noted for their brief Davos attendance as the US Presidential inauguration in Washington took place on Friday of the WEF week, January 20th. Some executives, such as Citi’s Michael Corbat, elected not to travel to Davos, leaving that duty to a respected Citigroup senior delegation who handled it with aplomb. Others, such as GM’s Mary Barra, was present for a shortened period before departing prior to Friday. Those that did attend from any corporation and from any nation were ready to do business and do it now, making for an ebullient mix of varied business deals and a sense of urgency.

  1. Computer-Lead Innovation is King

Last year’s gathering focused on, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ and representatives from firms in multiple countries debated how best to apply new computer-led innovations into all aspects of the economy. That 2016 theme carried over into this year, complete with additional information about artificial intelligence, robotics and resultant process alteration, which gave formal sessions on populism additional texture and meaning. Marsh McLennan’s breakfast session on Cyber Security in the European realm noted differing rules by EU Nation-States related to disclosure of any breaches, underscoring the need for increased focus on resultant complexity for Board members of those global firms whose businesses operate in multiple jurisdictions.

2017 as a year of change

One resounding takeaway is that the world is in a marked shift to a new realm, with all actors advised to watch and respond thoughtfully as much further change is ahead. In January 2016 during Davos week, let’s not forget, the price of oil was $28, the Iowa Caucuses hadn’t yet been held, and Michael Bloomberg was still seriously considering a run for the White House. With this as backdrop, one can only speculate what the 12 months until WEF 2018 will bring and we, as part of the world, to it.

About the Author

Lisa Pollina is an executive who has negotiated over $50 Billion in M&A, joint venture, and professional services deals while holding global P&L responsibility for over 20 years. She has been a member of The Committee of 200 (C200), an invitation-only group of the world's top female entrepreneurs and C-Suite executives who work to foster, celebrate and advance women's leadership in business, since 2015. Join the conversation at @committeeof200.