Letter from Davos: A Powerful Telescope Into the Future


Every year, when the world’s most politically and economically engaged leaders gather in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum meeting, there is a Canadian contingent working the hallways and gracing the panels. Since 2016, Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, has been part of that contingent. She shares her experience and takeaways from the 2020 event.

Suzanne Fortier 

As head of an international university, I am privileged to have stimulating conversations every day, whether with students, researchers, partners, or colleagues from around the world. The discussions held at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos are ones I especially look forward to, as I believe that this gathering of global stakeholders is a powerful telescope into the future.

I first began attending the WEF Annual Davos Meetings back in 2016, and while every meeting is thought-provoking, they are also very different from one year to the next, reflecting the main agenda items on the global scene. 

The 2020 Annual Meeting was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the WEF and capped off a year that was marked by social, economic, and geopolitical turmoil with rapidly shifting realities. We saw flare-ups in foreign relations, civil uprisings and clashes with governments, uncertainty about the future of the planet, and, most recently, the spread of a life-threatening health epidemic. 

Some wise advice I received before attending my first WEF annual meeting was to carve my own Davos. The meeting’s program, with its rich and diverse choice of sessions, gives each participant the opportunity to have a unique “personalized” Davos experience.  

My Davos journey this year included topics that piqued my interest such as listening to Yo-Yo Ma talk about the power of narratives, the annual session on the Global Economic Outlook and a presentation on the recent claim of quantum supremacy. The majority of my time, however, was devoted to topics that are much discussed at McGill.  I had the chance to participate on panels that covered important subjects such as education, of course, but also addressed mental health issues, steps for increasing social inclusion, and the future of work.

Most would agree that climate change was at the forefront of discussions at Davos. Very few attendees, if any, denied that this was a pressing and urgent issue concerning us all. But what was most interesting was to hear voices from so many different roles and perspectives all gathered in one place.

We heard the voices of activists, from Greta Thunberg to Jane Goodall, two people featured on TIME’s 2019 list of the most influential people—separated by several decades in age, but united by their determination and commitment to save our planet.

The objective of creating a carbon neutral future was discussed in a session that reported the disturbing statistic that only 33 percent of primary energy is converted into useful energy for transport, industry and buildings. Industry leaders on the panel not only validated the figure but also promoted realizing greater efficiency, particularly given that technologies required to do so are already available.  

The release of BlackRock’s annual letter to CEOs, a few weeks ahead of the meeting, and its observations on climate change resonated throughout the meeting. A greater recognition among investors that climate risk is investment risk was evident, as was their anticipation of a fundamental reshaping of finance.

The Striking a Green “New Deal” session brought together politicians who discussed “new deal” agreements that link goals to combat climate change, social justice reforms and economic development. They acknowledged the challenge of bringing people on board in the transition to a greener future. While there may be buy-in on the importance of addressing climate change, it is far more difficult to achieve agreement on solutions that require important lifestyle changes. 

McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier at the World Economic Forum in January. A member of the Canadian contingent at Davos since 2016, she’s now also Chair of the WEF’s Global University Leaders’ Forum, a role she says enhances McGill’s learning environment as one that “responds to the needs of our world.” World Economic Forum photo

Two other topics that have been recurring at Davos since I began attending are education and the future of jobs. What stood out this year, in particular, was their close integration with social inclusion through the common Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society. In fact, one of the seven themes for this year’s meeting was Investing in Human Capital for Inclusive Societies.  Two reports were released during the annual meeting, which were of particular importance to me: Jobs of Tomorrow and Schools of the Future, both rethinking the future within the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Jobs of Tomorrow report looks at what professions might emerge in the future, and what skills will be required to successfully fill them, while the Schools of the Future looks at how education systems need to realign with the realities and needs of evolving societies, and stresses the need for new education models.

Lifelong learning and the opportunities for reskilling and upskilling are now seen as an essential element of social inclusion, as is giving children from the earliest stages of life learning content and experiences geared toward the needs of the future. Learning 4.0 was brought to life through highlighting examples of 16 innovative schools, systems and initiatives from around the world, while the launch of the WEF Reskilling Revolution Platform, bringing stakeholders together around the ambitious goal to “provide better jobs, education, and skills to 1 billion people in the next 10 years,” set the path to lifelong learning. 

The theme of Investing in Human Capital for Inclusive Societies discussed several issues that have prevented people in the past from fully participating in society.  Sessions such as The Big Picture on Mental Health, The Future of Good Work, The Reality of Racial Bias, Free to Be (LGBTI) and Disability Inclusion are good examples of the deep connections between the WEF and the key issues of today’s world, and its commitment to promoting social inclusion. 

While the annual meeting certainly does not disappoint when it comes to the different offerings within the official program, conversations outside of the session are equally interesting. 

Davos brings together thousands of people who each contribute their different views, experiences, and ideas. For me, the ones who always stand out at the meetings are the participants from the Global Shapers Community. Their creativity, talent and commitment, as well as their boundless energy, give me confidence that they are well equipped to take on the challenges we are facing now and will face in the future. They truly represent the WEF’s motto to be “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” 

What happens now that the meeting has come to a close and the Alpine town has regained its tranquility? As someone who has the privilege of being part of the WEF stakeholder community, I have reflected on this question. Having access to this great “telescope into the future,” how can each of us use it for the benefit of our own community? For me, it starts with using what I learn at Davos at my own university and in my own community to build a learning environment that responds to the needs of our world, and equips learners to shape its future and take on the challenges we face, whether climate change, health crises or other issues that may await. Using the words of the WEF, I hope to give members of the McGill community the opportunity to be local and global shapers.  

Professor Suzanne Fortier is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University. In 2016, she was appointed to the World Economic Forum’s Global University Leaders Forum (GULF). She was appointed Chair of GULF in 2019.