To say that tech was front and centre in Davos last week is putting it lightly. The entire Promenade – the long main street where all the action is – was dotted with pop-up pavilions for companies like Facebook, Google Cloud, Plantir, Cloudflare, Salesforce, ConsnSys, Infosys and Workday.
Notice anything about that lineup? It’s heavy on B2B, and that was a significant factor for my three main takeaways following a week of discussions at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.
1: Platforms continue their slide.
The divide between social media platforms and B2B players that has been growing over the last year was on display at #WEF19. In the words of one speaker, first it was all about crypto, then it was all about blockchain, now it’s all about trust. The thinly veiled swipes at the data practices of social media platforms were a constant. Open digs on topics from election security to bad lobbying decisions of the Lean-In sort filled conversations from the mountain top to the congress centre. Behind-the-scenes meetings showed that Facebook, while still out of touch, was perhaps beginning to listen. Then, news broke that Facebook planned to merge Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. DG Competition’s Chief Economist Tommaso Valletti tweeted, “what a bunch of lies.” Maybe Sheryl and Nick’s apology tour came too soon.
2: B2B companies stand apart and were omnipresent.
Davos is the annual meeting point of governments and businesses. As they represent key customer groups of software companies and cloud providers, where better to both have discussions on the future of the economy and society while strengthening your customer pipeline? While the platform conversations were pessimistic, the B2B players were pushing conversations on privacy, ethics, AI for good, and the future of work. These companies are openly discussing the risks and benefits of AI and blockchain and trying to make sure they have a positive impact across sectors, income groups and geographies. It’s clear that input from all those communities is key to achieving inclusive innovation. I’ve walked away hopeful that companies are striving to improve inclusion and engagement.
3: The future of work debate gets real.
I noted a major shift in the debates on the future of work and workforce development. In years past, you heard lines like “AI is meant to work with humans, not replace them.” At #WEF19, things seem a bit more realistic. The tech sector is being more up-front about what displacement means and how to tackle it. Many were worried that even digital re-skilling won’t be targeted at those that most need it. New research launched in Davos surveying 8,000 working-age people from eight markets found that over three-quarters of workers vulnerable to automation had little to no concern about being automated out of a job. If that wasn’t worrying enough, most have few savings to plan for the future. Examples like these are cause for alarm. While the conversations on the surface seemed to be progressing, Kevin Roose of the New York Times reported that some CEOs, while publicly discussing upskilling, privately asked “Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?” Maybe reality just got a bit harsher.
With the looming 2019 EU elections driving debates about the role of social media platforms in our lives and the breaches of privacy that are sure to continue, we have not seen the last of techlash. Big tech, like big oil before it, is ever so slowly understanding its global responsibility in the age of truly digital economies. But, as I heard one techie say this week, it takes time to turn the Titanic. While there is surely more to be done, it’s never been a more exciting time to work at the intersection of tech, politics, and communications.