More than ever before, the economic leaders gathered for this year’s annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos are turning their attention from finance to science – or at least recognizing how intimately the two are related.
DAVOS - "Homo davosiensis," as participants of the annual summit in Davos, Switzerland have come to be called, is a species plagued with self-doubt – even as it maintains a blind faith in the benefits of globalization. Thanks to the flow of merchandise, data, and capita, participants agree, things seem to be working okay economically speaking, despite financial crises here and there that take even the experts, astonishingly enough, by surprise.
And yet questions still abound. How does one satisfy the need for energy in a booming global economy? How sure can we be of oil supplies? What dangers does cyberspace pose? Can climate change be brought under control? Now that dangerous causes of illness can spread rapidly around the world, is there increased danger of deadly pandemics? Maybe the world has already become so complex that mankind can no longer target and drive development but has become a ball tossed around by the processes of fate.
What these questions have in common is that they can't be answered by economic competence or political decision-making alone. Yes, "Homo davosiensis' has cottoned on to the fact that many processes in a globalized world come down to natural inevitabilities. Viruses, for example, aren't going to stop spreading because someone forbids them to. Nor are energy problems going to disappear. Even the ever darker cloud of climate change can only be understood in the context of the laws of nature even if these are still not understood in all their details by the experts.
Such are the themes on the agenda of this year's World Economic Forum, where more events than ever before are being devoted to scientific subjects. Indeed, "Homo davosiensis' is being asked to look beyond the confines of economics. The species has come to understand that many of the globalized world's challenges can only be mastered with the help of scientists, researchers and engineers.
Exploring energy and Internet
"The global energy context" was one of the first topics tackled on the very first day, even before German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the opening speech. On the eve of the opening, American TV channel CNBC held a several-hour-long brainstorming session about "energy innovation" with creative conference participants. If there were no simple answers, there were many promising ideas.
Another major talking point in Davos this year is the subject of resources – water, food, primary goods, as are the risks of a world linked via the Internet. Invited to talk about the latter is 82-year-old Nobel laureate for physics Murray Gell-Mann, who after a career researching elementary particles founded the famous Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The institute's website states that it is dedicated to "complexity research expanding the boundaries of science." Physics – where highly complex things are not exactly unusual -- is the point of departure but work at the institute is interdisciplinary.
Complexity can also concern financial markets or social processes. Quite naturally, a central question being raised at this year's gathering is how the Santa Fe researchers' models can be applied to describing and understanding economic systems.
Actually tallying up this year's WEF program shows that events with scientific and medical themes in fact outnumber events devoted to the euro crisis, an issue that many assumed would dominate discussions. The fate of the euro will not be decided in the snowed-under Graubünden mountain resort town of Davos. But if the world's economic leaders can learn something about the various interdependent scientific phenomena at play in our globalized world, the summit could end up proving far more valuable than if they had spent the whole time contemplating currency markets.
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Photo – World Economic Forum