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The future in Davos

January 17, 2017

Nothing will remain the way it is now. Welcome to the digital world, one of the main topics this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Jahrestagung 2017 des Weltwirtschaftsforums in Davos
Image: WEF/Christian Clavadetscher

The future can look so old-fashioned. There are five middle-aged gentlemen dressed in grey or blue suits sitting on a podium in one of the many hotels in Davos, talking about the digital world. All of them represent billion-dollar companies including Siemens, UPS and HP and all of their eyes sparkle with excitement when they talk about the brave new world.

David Abney of US logistics company UPS is currently in charge of a transportation fleet of more than 100,000 trucks and 500 planes. For the year 2050 he envisions small mobile packages that fly or drive themselves to deliver products.

"Hold on," interjects the head of printer manufacturer HP. "The consumer won't need you anymore. He will simply get the product he wants out of his 3D printer. That will be much more environmentally sound as well." Brief silence. "Well, who knows what we'll be doing by then," Abney laughs politely.

Digital direction

Perplexity combined with great excitement and many question marks dominate the discussion on the digital future in Davos. Hundreds of talks are scheduled on the subject, all of them with top-class panelists. On the podiums, scientists discuss the topic with CEOs and politicians. As early as 7 a.m., Australian finance minister Mathias Corman is sitting in the audience at one of the talks. He wants to learn, he says modestly. 

What he learns is that the working environment will change dramatically. Permanent positions, clear career paths, that may be today but it certainly isn't the future. Instead, the CEOs talk about a 'liquid workforce' of employees who keep finding new work on a project-basis as free agents of sorts, who don't stay with a company permanently - wage earners who have three, four or even more different careers.

The customer is king

Bill McDermott, head of SAP, says "all businesses are changing right before our eyes." Nonetheless, he sees a rosy future. "The consumer is in charge of everything, whether it is shopping or something else. The consumer decides."

That's because all products will be customized and only those things will be produced that the consumer really needs or wants. That is, assuming the consumer even knows how to handle the digital applications. 

Executives learn programming

US electronics giant General Electric has been in a digital transition for the past five years, says Steve Bolze, head of GE Power. Each business division now has its own chief digital officer and at the last meeting of senior management, all 600 executives had to practice programming. That barely leaves them time to catch their breath because "the amount of data that is coming in has grown astronomically."

Data security

The risk of data theft is growing correspondingly. Inga Beale of insurance company Lloyds of London has observed that more and more companies are safeguarding themselves against cyber-attacks. "The number of insurance policies for data protection has tripled during the past three years," she says, although she doesn't believe that protection can be absolute.

"Should we not pull the plug and disconnect at some point?'' asks someone from the audience desperately and earns only mild laughter. Companies that don't continue to digitize further, won't survive, they say. And consumers? They need to be trained. "We need millions and massive online courses for everybody," the head of SAP tells the audience to applause.