WEF 2020: Can Tech Lead the Way to a Sustainable Future?

21-24 Jan 2020


In late January, over two-and-a-half-thousand political and industry leaders descend upon the World Economic Forum (WEF) in beautiful Davos to discuss some of the most pressing global issues. This year the WEF called upon stakeholders to work towards a “cohesive and sustainable world”. The message was clear: technology should be harnessed to provide solutions to global problems, and policy-makers need to create a cohesive, efficient and effective regulatory effort.  Whilst discussions were coloured by a strong emphasis on climate change, the tech sector maintained its dominance at Davos by engaging heavily with the WEF’s new ‘Tech for Good’ initiative.

With the world’s focus on sustainability, climate change and ‘green’ processes, this year presents both challenges and opportunities for the tech industry. On one hand, it is likely that governments will demand more from industry. On the other, the significant potential of technology to solve climate-related issues will lead policy-makers across multilateral and national forums to seek partnerships with industry players and garner the support of ICTs in solving some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. In 2020, it will be important for the ICT industry to be aware of their obligations as well as to be actively involved in the development of new standards and frameworks which allow the tech industry to help solve global challenges by doing what they do best.

2020, a turning point for cybersecurity?

Among the top risks facing the world in 2020, cyberattacks and digital warfare ranked number five in the WEF’s newly released Global Risks Report. Although it should come as no surprise that cybersecurity was high on the agenda, discussions at Davos highlighted significant themes for the 2020 policy-making landscape. Recognizing the new east-west “cyber cold war”, the WEF warned that “in 2020 more than ever, cyberattacks are no longer a question of if, but of how and when. This is a concern that applies to us all.”

Attitudes at Davos confirmed that we can expect to see a far more cautious approach to 5G and the IoT, both of which are believed to heighten vulnerabilities to cyberattack. Likewise, regulators will be paying more attention to artificial intelligence and the ability of cybercriminals to use the technology to create more evasive malware, particularly around elections. Perhaps most significantly, the WEF warned the world to be vigilant in its adoption of cloud computing. Whilst increasing numbers of businesses and governments have placed their trust in cloud technology, “the level of understanding about [its] security remains low [and], in fact, is often an afterthought…” During the week, these discussions hit a poignant note when The Guardian newspaper broke a story about the alleged phone-hacking of Amazon CEO, Jeff Besos, by the Saudi crown prince.

Industry leaders looking to get involved in the multilateral discussion around cybersecurity and the development of new standards should engage with the WEF’s Centre for Cybersecurity. The Centre’s activities focus on addressing three main challenges; firstly, strengthening global cooperation for digital trust and security; secondly, security of future digital networks and technology; and thirdly, building skills and capabilities for the digital future.

Global attitudes shift on Blockchain, Digital and Cryptocurrencies:

The WEF decision to establish a Global Consortium for Digital Currency Governance marks a significant shift in the international consensus on blockchain, digital currencies and cryptocurrencies. Indeed, in response, the price of Bitcoin rose from around $8,200 to $8,455 within an hour of the announcement. Outlining their aims, the WEF explained that the consortium will focus on designing the first framework for digital currencies, including stablecoins. Recognising the potential financial inclusion benefits of the technology, the organization explained that opportunities in this space will only be realized if appropriate regulation is created.

Whilst we have seen some developments in the discussion around blockchain governance in the past year, the regulatory landscape has remained fragmented and far behind technological development. The decision to create these standards should be taken as part of a broader multilateral push for cohesion and stability in the tech world. Support for the consortium shows a new-found buy-in from global stakeholders, who emphasised the need for “[e]fficiency, speed, inter-operability, inclusivity and transparency” in future policymaking.

In the coming year, it will be important for industry leaders to involve themselves in the consortium’s new initiative. The WEF has expressed interest in receiving support from the private sector to co-develop this inaugural set of guiding blockchain principles.

From the WEF 2020, two very apparent themes have taken hold. Namely, the call for cooperation between state actors and the tech sector, and the need for regulators to stop playing catch up with tech and take part in wider multilateral pushes for cohesive regulation. The hope being that encouraging both, the WEF’s messages of utilising technology to solve global issues can be realised.

Author: Nikita Andersson, Access Partnership