Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, at the Davos Agenda, Switzerland, in January 2021
Salvatore Di Nolfi—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
January 19, 2022 7:00 AM EST

TIME editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal talks to Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, about collaboration, hopes for the climate, and the power of youth. This interview has been edited and condensed.

I recently heard an interview you did with Sundar Pichai [Alphabet CEO], and you asked him about remote work. He said that we’re living on borrowed time. How do you think about that sentence, “We’re living on borrowed time,” and the necessity of being together in person?

I think it actually can be very effective, to create an exchange of information to learn from one another, but it cannot really establish trust in interhuman relationships; you need the in-person encounter. You need to have some moments on the side of the video screen. So during the last two years, [the World Economic Forum] made considerable progress, because we always felt we should not be just event-oriented. As a matter of fact, today, most of our partners are engaged in at least one of our initiatives. We have over 50 initiatives, platforms for public-private cooperation. I’m very proud to say, since the beginning of the crisis, we have won over 200 additional partners who joined us without knowing when they could go to Davos or not. But I think the time has come to bring people together, because we see a degradation of trust in the world, and trust only builds through personal relations. And the World Economic Forum, in a broader sense, is a community of multistakeholders, businesses, governments, civil societies, young generation, to work together.

What was your takeaway from COP26?

Three comments. The first one is, I think the whole discussion around COP26 created a global awareness of how serious the climate-change issue is, and that focus on this issue is already quite a success.

Second, COP26 didn’t fulfill all the expectations, but I think the significant importance of Glasgow was to show how businesses are taking the lead. So there are numerous initiatives, and some had been created or catalyzed by the World Economic Forum. I’m mentioning the Mission Possible Partnership, which brings together over 400 companies in aluminum, steel and so on. That’s something we pushed very much since Biden announced the First Movers Coalition to make commitments to buy ships, or planes, which are run by green fuel, and by making a commitment to buy such innovative products, advancing the innovation, because there’s also people who would say 50% of the innovation, which we need in order to become carbon neutral, does not yet exist.

And the third one I would say is in the area of nature-based solutions. It’s the One Trillion Trees Initiative to plant 1 trillion trees over the next 10 years. [Marc and Lynne Benioff, TIME’s owners and co-chairs, are among the supporters of the One Trillion Trees Initiative.] Or in a broader sense, it is the whole regeneration of agricultural biodiversity, which we need, in addition to just decarbonizing different industries.

What is the theme of Davos this year? How are you thinking about the role of climate at Davos?

I had numerous meetings here, just to get a feeling of what our political and business constituents expect, but we need a slogan. The slogan is “Working Together, Restoring Trust” because we feel that the accent should be on working together, generating an impact. And only the credibility of your working together comes from achieving results.

We were obviously in something of a global trust crisis before the pandemic. Do you think the pandemic may deepen that crisis?

Yes, definitely. I mean, look, even on a national basis, I would say, global cooperation has slowed down substantially. I see two reasons for it. First one is that the pandemic has polarized societies. And in a polarized society, it’s much more difficult to take decisions because decisions usually, particularly political decisions, are based on a compromise. The second factor is that governments are very much absorbed by crisis management. Maneuvering from day to day, you don’t see any more long-term perspectives, except in some more Australian type of countries.

The critique of Davos over the years has been its elite nature. How do you think about and address the lack of trust among stakeholders who may not be at Davos?

We have opened doors to the media. It is even more important than ever. Second is that practically all sessions are streamed so the public can participate and our own media capabilities. We try to push out to engage the public. And the last element is that the forum has established a very powerful youth organization. I’m a big believer in the necessity to integrate the young voice because more than 50% of the global population are below 30 years old, and they are not integrated. So when we talk about those who are left behind, I’m thinking particularly of the young generation.

How do you see the impact of the pandemic on the fourth industrial revolution?

I think the pandemic has very much accelerated some technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. We see it in the area of artificial intelligence, of course; we see it in the medical area, genetic area. I think one of the areas I’m particularly interested in is quantum computing; we see quite some progress. The first concern is, since these technologies develop so fast and usually you need to create our own technologies, you need also policies to make sure that a technology is serving people and society. And the whole discussion we have now about social media and so on shows us that we need to regulate this technological progress. The danger of this pandemic is that governments are so absorbed by fighting the pandemic, so very little energy is left to really muster to create the necessary boundaries, to make sure the new technologies are really human-centered.

We didn’t talk about inflation.

My concern is very short term. We do not know some major factors. The first one is how much new variants may lead to, let’s say, shutdowns. Second is, we do not know what the consequences will be if the Fed puts some brakes on. So we have some uncertainties related to next year. Now longer term: How do we maintain our intergenerational responsibility?

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