Travel Journal: Davos
The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is an annual meeting of some of the most influential people in the world.
From CEOs and heads of state to social entrepreneurs and academics from leading universities, the meeting brings together diverse individuals and organisations to discuss global challenges and make concerted efforts at ‘improving the state of the world’.
The forum this year had a particular focus on natural resource management and the three academics chosen to represent ANU were Professor David Lindenmayer (ecology and wildlife conservation), Professor Adrienne Nicotra (alpine ecosystem change) and Dr Ceridwen Fraser (marine and Antarctic ecosystem change). We asked them for their collective impressions and experiences at Davos.
Overwhelming and surreal
The forum was a mind-broadening experience that allowed us to engage with issues well outside those we normally think about.
Davos resembled a movie set: snow banked metres high, wooden chalets dripping with icicles, roads clogged with tinted-window black limousines and vans, heads of state slipping on frozen paths, surrounded by dark-suited bodyguards, and military personnel with machine guns poised on rooftops.
Passing the airport-style security checkpoints, we entered the congress centre and joined the rich, famous, powerful and up-and-coming in the ice-breaking activity of peeling off coats and snowboots and pulling on heels and suit jackets. The cloakroom foyer was an excellent example of the way Davos connects and blends people through informal interactions.
The sheer scale of the World Economic Forum was extraordinary, with many thousands of delegates significantly outnumbered by non-attendees participating in major meetings on the sidelines. This resulted in accommodation being booked out for tens of kilometres in all directions and almost constant streams of shuttle buses and trains through what, for the rest of the year, appears to be a quiet, picturesque alpine city.
Attendees at the forum included household names such as Al Gore, Cate Blanchett, Richard Branson, Trudeau, Macron, May and Trump. They – and we – gave talks and took part in panel sessions, but much of the real business of the forum happened in the social interactions over buffet lunches and evening events in surrounding hotels. There, fortuitous meetings turned into fascinating and enlightening discussions – a reflexive exchange of business cards often opening up new networks and opportunities. Chatham House Rules applied, meaning that unless a conversation was being recorded, it was off the record – this allowed people to speak freely and openly on any topic.
ANU hosts the ‘Australia night’ networking event which is attended by key Australian politicians and business people from or with an interest in Australia. This event, and the sessions the ANU team speak at, help to place the University on the global stage, growing our reputation, friends and visibility. It also provided an important opportunity to discuss key issues associated with science and natural resource management with senior government officials and politicians.
Dynamic and stimulating
No amount of good ecology, evolution or clever natural resource management can keep pace if temperatures continue to soar.
Forum sessions ranged across diverse topics including economics, corruption, environment, sustainability and terrorism. Many were live-televised and included a mix of big names and dynamic ‘global shapers’ (young people driven to create change).
As scientists, we often attend conferences focused on our own field of expertise; in contrast, the forum was a mind-broadening experience that allowed us to engage with issues well outside those we normally think about. Nonetheless, our presence there as academics from a world-class university meant our opinions were valued, and often sought.
Each of us presented a short talk within the ANU ‘IdeasLab’ session – a workshop on future-proofing ecosystems through predictive analytics. The ‘pecha kucha’ talk format was extremely challenging – we each had only five minutes to present key findings from our research, with 15 slides – and the slides would move on after 20 seconds, with or without us!
As academics used to ad-libbing talks, the need to memorise lines and structure our talks to forum requirements was no easy task! “Stand on the X on the floor, don’t look at the slides, act natural”. Nonetheless, we received extremely positive feedback on our session, and the talks stimulated many discussions.
We each also presented longer, less rigidly formatted talks on our research, individually, in half-hour sessions where participants were invited to discuss key issues with us. Brian Schmidt introduced our IdeasLab session and was also a panellist in other sessions, including a fascinating dinner on space exploration, and a broad discussion on ethics at the interface between science and policy.
Our session contributed to several on the theme of the environment and global change and our presence provided opportunities for diverse participants to query us about our research and views and the potential application of our science to the global debate.
We talked about ways to conserve and future-proof ecosystems, pausing regularly to reflect on how such future-proofing has great potential – if the world can act to stop warming within reasonable bounds. No amount of good ecology, evolution or clever natural resource management can keep pace if temperatures continue to soar.It was a pleasure to discuss options for conservation, management and mitigation with thoughtful and powerful people who had a vision for positive outcomes.
Lasting friendships and networks
Everybody we encountered at the forum was interesting and intelligent, and we built friendships and professional networks that will, in many cases, last long into the future. Each of us has had follow-up interactions with people we met in Davos, from promises to visit ANU and Canberra, to active engagement with the University and our research activities. Our presence at this event, where decisions that shape the future of the world are made, can only be a positive and powerful way of promoting ANU as an active player in global issues.
Dr Ceridwen Fraser is ARC Future Fellow, and Professor David Lindenmayer is ARC Laureate Fellow, at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. Professor Adrienne Nicotra is Professor at the ANU Research School of Biology.