… Or permeates to the rest of the world and shapes it.

Youth and Davos – where’s the link?

When I came back from the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos last year, I recall being completely star-struck, overwhelmed and completely down from a fever that’s bound to happen to any tropical person who ventures in the Alpine mountains in the peak of winter. I was energised from all the interactions. I was giddy from the ego-boost that inevitably comes from walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s leaders. I was pampered by the hospitality. Above all I felt inspired.

One year later, as I am catching up on the videos from the sessions at this year’s Annual Meeting (AM14), I feel all the glitz from this event has worn off me, allowing me to look upon Davos with perspective, and focus on the essentials.

Firstly, what’s Davos and why does it matter?

A couple of weeks back, the curtains closed on the Annual Meeting 2014 (AM14 or Davos). 2,500 people – from the private sector, academia, governance, civil society – gathered in the small Swiss ski village for four days of intense talk and networking (and partying.) With its limited media penetration, and high security, on-invitation-only exclusive profile, Davos fuels speculation, awe, resentment even, for being a rich man’s talk-shop, where the world’s business magnates and political masters apparently spend their times secretly plotting the world’s agenda.

Truth be told, Davos is an excellent place for agenda-setting purposes. It all kicked off as the brainchild of one guy: Professor Klaus Schwab. His goal, by establishing the World Economic Forum in 1971 (then called European Management Forum, until 1987), was really quite simple: getting people to talk. It would be a thoroughly multi-stakeholder forum. Over the years the WEF attracted a range of people from all sectors of the social, economic, political and academic and scientific landscape. It expanded into Global Agenda Councils which looked at various global issues ranging from oceans to intellectual property, and into communities – the latest being the Global Shapers Community for youth under the age of 33, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The commonality around here, is that these people knew how to shift the needle.

During the Annual Meeting, people such as Christine Lagarde deliver their views on the economic forecast for 2014, while experts in other fields host sessions and discussions on existing and upcoming topics. These are as diverse as climate change or the spread of big data, or art in a digital age or tackling orbital debris. More importantly, people bump into each other in the corridors of the Congress Centre, exchange business cards, talk, establish connections – sometimes the sparks fly. This is a golden opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas. In particular, those who decry the seemingly sluggish, unimaginative infrastructure of global politics may find value in these particular dynamics which emanate from the World Economic Forum, and appreciate the seeming ease with which ideas and energy and initiatives for collaboration are sparked.

So where’s the catch?

In the collective imagination, Davos has become synonymous with the gathering of an economic and financial elite, the proverbial “Masters of the World”. As far as representativeness goes, the statistics on Davos this year were not exceptionally flattering: 85 people present in Davos collectively owned as much wealth as the 3.5 poorest billions in the world. Only 15% of Davos attendees this year were women… and of the 2,500 present, less than 50 were youth under the age of 30. Ironically, the question of inequality was debated very seriously in Davos. It stands to reason that the worldview emerging from the Annual Meeting would therefore be very skewed. In this respect, it is inevitable that Davos should attract so much flak.

As stated earlier – the World Economic Forum did start enlarging its outreach through initiatives such as the Global Shapers Community. From a youth perspective, engaging the future leaders into a wide array of discussions is a clear investment. The presence of youth at every WEF event ensures that the right questions are asked. That the perspective of the world’s upcoming demographic is well represented. That the simplicity of solutions crafted by a youthful mind meets the right stakeholders who can scale it up. As Karuna Rana, one of the Mauritian Shapers puts it after attending the World Economic Forum on Africa, it is what you make of it.

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