SES-LINK at the World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos

Maja Schlüter was invited by the European Research Council (ERC), who has been funding our work in the SES-LINK and MuSES projects, to present the group’s research in the ERC’s Ideas Lab at the World Economic Forum (WEF). When arriving in Davos I was welcomed by two meters of snow and a village in chaos. The Forum transforms this sleepy alpine village into a high security zone four times its size populated by heads of state, CEOs and selected civil society members. Shops in the main street transform from skiing or fashion stores to showcases for companies, media or countries like Russia and Ukraine (facing each other). The masses and the snow grinded traffic to a complete standstill so that walking on slippery and icy sidewalks was often the only option. In wise anticipation the Forum welcomed each participant with a pair of snow grips. Luckily I lived in a little chalet a 40 minutes hike up the mountain, which was a welcome escape from the traffic and the overwhelming intensity of days full of talks, discussions, conversations, and encounters.


The topic of this year’s WEF was “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”. The future, particularly with respect to future economic and technological development was indeed very much in focus; there was much less debate, however, on how to make this a shared future among all. I was impressed by the diversity of sessions from ethics, empathy, and transformative arts to big data, novel technologies, economic forecasts and addresses of heads of states. Many sessions were designed for interactions between speakers and participants, be it in break out groups or in the science hubs which were little “amphitheatres” for presentations in the middle of one of the big halls. New technologies of the so-called forth industrial revolution featured prominently, from global data visualizations on huge screens, to sessions and installations of virtual and augmented reality, drones and blockchain. (Maybe) not surprisingly, sustainability was not a big topic, and most of the sessions related to it were about climate change impacts (prominently featuring Al Gore), and technologies (e.g. technologies in food production, food engineering, energy systems). Exceptions were sessions on new economic narratives involving among others SRC’s executive director Johan Rockström on the carbon law and planetary boundaries or Kate Raworth from Oxford University with doughnut economics as well as our ERC Ideas lab.


The Ideas Lab “Safeguarding our Planet’s Assets with the European Research Council” with Anne Magurran (University of St. Andrews), Yadvinder Malhi (University of Oxford) and myself focused on insights from our ERC funded research on biodiversity and the co-evolutionary dynamics of social-ecological systems. It was an interactive session where participants engaged around several tables in discussing the issues raised in the short presentations we gave at the beginning. Anne emphasized the need to maintain ecosystem distinctiveness, as the particularities of each ecosystem matter for resilience. Yadvinder pointed to the importance of fires for the carbon balance in tropical forests. I talked about the need to take interdependencies between people and ecosystems and the complexity they give rise to into account when developing interventions or management strategies. I focused particularly on the critical mechanism of social-ecological feedbacks, reinforcing and balancing, and their role in rapid change or lack of change, respectively. The importance of taking human behavior into account which I highlighted was picked up in the breakout groups, for example with respect to people’s risk perception. The discussion at my table with representatives from business and academia evolved around the political dimension of environmental problems and the problematic of short term economic decision making.


In reflection I was positively surprised by the Forum’s atmosphere of openness, curiosity and diversity. Everybody (well almost) was very accessible and interested in engaging in exchange. I experienced lots of spontaneous conversations with different people over coffee, before the beginning of sessions, over dinner or in the shuttle to the conference center. There were interesting, critical discussions about ethics in the forth industrial revolution (being human in the age of AI) involving provocative voices such as Yuval Harari, the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, and Jodi Halpern, a Professor of Bioethics from Stanford, or about shaking up gender norms and the need for a broader definition of leadership with leading women in business. To what extent these discussions remained mainly within certain groups, such as researchers and NGOs, or reached across the different stakeholders to engage business and government is, however, hard to tell. Similarly, of the many talks that happened behind closed doors, in meetings and side events in the many additional venues along the promenade of Davos little was heard. While the scientists’ stories about the environment were often of gloom and doom, business people this year seemed to be quite optimistic as the economies of many countries are doing well. Still a long way to go, I am afraid, until the realization of the dependence of the economy on the biosphere has entered mainstream thinking and action.