Connecting the dots in Davos

The idyllic, sun-and-snow-kissed town of Davos has emerged into the hotspot for connecting leaders from business, government and academia. The vision of Klaus Schwab around which the World Economic Forum has been built over the last decades is a key driver for collaboration across private and public sectors across the globe. Participants in Davos spread across the venues along the Promenade in sometimes more open, other times more secretive workspaces, receptions and meeting spots. We participated in workshops around digitization in transport supply chains, blockchain and numerous panels around AI and industry transformation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution was a key topic in Davos and leaders are investing their resources in helping this gain momentum — here are few reasons why we think it is an exiting time of change.

# 1 With the advancement of robotics into cognitive tasks, the human component needs refinement

The rise of robotics was one of the core themes around this year’s overall theme. While early management theories 100 years ago tried to define humans as machines in a production system and societies have done a proper job of making humans act machine like in numerous industries, the rise of robotics questions this stronger than ever before. Researchers and leaders across the board like IDEO’s Tim Brown and MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson highlighted that humans should not be treated as machines. Making humans more machine like will allow improved robots to easily drive humans out of their jobs. Carnegie Mellon’s Illha Nourbakhsh highlights another interesting component of human change alongside the rise of capabilities of bots. As a society we are accepting mediocrity in the interaction with robots. This is more than just being forgiving to technology that doesn’t live up to human standards. It rather makes us socially more mediocre. While the industry is far too nascent to have a full-fledged picture of this, it is something that you might want to remind yourself of the next time your start interacting with an AI. But there is hope: Nestle’s Peter Braback-Letmathe put a smile on the face of participants as he shared a story from one of Nespresso’s stores in Japan: The store introduced robot service agents and customers loved them. Customer interaction and relations were stronger than in the human-human setting. While the cultural component arguably plays a role in the Japanese store, it shows that the element of human robot collaboration is a driving factor of success in years to come. In a world, where the human role goes beyond machine-like production.

# 2 Technology platforms are key, but cross-stakeholder data interaction remains a touchy topic

In a session with leading transport companies which looked at the connecting role between production, supply chain and distribution, participants outlined an integrated technology layer between the individual actors. Roles of infrastructure is changing: Stores are changing to showrooms, scattered distribution locations in metropolitan areas are key for reaching customer in minutes and hours vs days, and real-time marketplaces are increasing the role of dispatching technology providers. With these changes at hand, a stronger tie between stakeholders is necessary. Companies can then drive towards a more event-driven distribution model, where retailers can share insights on interaction patterns with the consumer and conversion rate from store visits with the clothing manufacturers. This new level of interoperability will require two things: An integrated technology layer (likely driven by investments into more open APIs but the individual companies) and new business models around data sharing along the value chain.

Similarly the ways of customer experience which companies are creating is changing. GM recently hired 8000 developers and traditional automotive companies such as Mercedes have started to understand a while ago, that owning the experience means a radically different thing when your car is full of screens and, at least for parts of the trip, customers can fully immerse in that experience while the car is focusing on moving them through the traffic jam on the highway. The lines of products are becoming increasingly blurry and technology platforms across the players — from IoT connections to media content distribution — will help facilitate new customer interaction patterns.

# 3 The hype around the loop could change the way we think about public transport — we are getting there, but it’s not quite a loop yet

Companies like Hyperloop Technologies and Hyperloop Transport Technologies are upping their game to take a technology out of the labs that will enable ultra-fast travel at more than 750mph, allowing you to zoom between LA and SFO in just over 30mins. The latter , HTT, used the platform in Davos to announce their first test track for which construction will start later this year. HTT’s icon Bibop G. Gresta made participants dream about a new form of transport as he explained details around the 5-mile track in privately owned Quay Valley in California. Regulators are potentially confused. Firstly because the next generation of transport companies could be run by stylish popstars. More importantly because private solutions to solving transport challenge might yield a way out of loss-making public transport systems for which offering transport as a public good is probably the best excuse out there today. Roll out your maps to find the tech savvy countries that help roll out this vision.

# 4 Blockchain can commoditize transport solutions

Blockchain is on the rise. While the bitcoin hype is already a few years old with a couple of high-blood pressure moments for its investors, the technology is becoming more mainstream as likely all major banks have their heads wrapped around the tech or increasingly their money invested in those who have. The media industry is a likely next harbor with subscriptions and limited editions being distributed among a trusted chain. What’s in it for transport and mobility? While the convergence of airline tickets and loyalty points into one new currency currently seems fiction-futuristic, a trusted mobility network could commoditize the role of the powerful intermediary among its individual atoms, for instance the individual drivers in the system. The benefits to those seeking to maximize their earnings on platforms like Didi Kuaidi in China, Lyft in the US, Ola in India and Uber across the globe this might be incentivefull to try. Blockchain is commoditizing databases, protocols, and eventually trust. Next, It might as well commoditize part of our transport in a few years.

# 5 Governments are entering a new stage of leadership (slowly, but hopefully surely)

Two political leaders stood out during the discussions around the forum. Estonian president Toomas Hendrick Ilves has positioned the tiny Scandinavian nation with a population of just under 1.3m as a leader in digitization and e-government. Nearly two years ago the country already had some promising results from implementing digital services (5% of its electorate now votes online from anywhere on the globe; 99% of tax returns handed in electronically; 97% of health prescriptions filed online; >95% of bank transactions take place over the Internet — USA TODAY). In the Economist panel on Digital Ecosystems he pushed for a growing role of technology companies to educate regulators. The Estonian government, for instance, is collaborating actively with companies like Uber. Beyond achieving technological leadership in countries, the role of diversity in leadership positions was a key topic around Davos. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not only impressed last fall with a diverse, industry-experienced cabinet but followed his leadership on diversity with a strong stand on diversity and a new understanding of the term feminist as a driver for equality among men and women. Whether it is his role as a father or his overall perspective on the empowerment of women to create equal opportunities, both are a necessary positive message in an otherwise more crises driven world of politics these days.

# 6 While diversity is being discussed among established leaders, the young generation starts living this

The 18% mark which is the participation rate of female leaders invited by the WEF, or largely chosen by their respective companies to participate, was a heavily discussed figure over the last few days. While it is up from previous years, it is still a mediocre number showcasing that the world is just about to shift but far from being there yet. Fortunately, things are different among younger generations. Out of those below 30 at the events around the promenade, a good half of them were females. Now it is up to the leaders in power to make sense of this shift along the millennials and, both, mentor and empower young leaders and shapers alike — without giving advantage to the boys in the club as it was the case when they were striving to build their careers. It seems more like a fair game among the younger crowd, leaders shall embrace and promote this shift towards supporting smart talent regardless of gender. But in order to get there, we might all have to become a bit more of a feminist to achieve actual equality in opportunities.

# 7 Platforms tackling the refugee crisis are growing

Being home to a refugee camp, the issue of migration is neither new to Davos, nor only prevalent once a year. But compared to previous years, the current migration crisis in Europe reinforced the discussion around this topic on numerous panels in and outside the Congress Center. The Forum drove together players which are working on ground with their capacity to change the situation. Techcrunch’s Mike Butcher and Startupaid’s Paula Schwarz were two out of many taking actions who showcased ways of contribution and launched new forms of making an impact such as alongside large NGOs such as the World Food Programme which called for greater corporate investment into life-saving programs in all areas.

# 8 The Davos crowd challenged the Uber supply structure

While some regulators were sipping their reception drinks listening to Travis Kalanick’s interpretation of why Europe is a little slow on tech adoption, others found it hard to keep supply and demand stable for popular goods around the Swiss village. While Uber is quick at stabilizing supply on demand, tech adoption among regulators is probably the more difficult game these days where supply and demand are heavily out of balance.

For some memorable quotes from the sessions check out: