By Robert Hickson 20/01/2016

It’s Davos time again. As usual the World Economic Forum publish their Global Risks Report to coincide with that.

Source: World Economic Forum
Source: World Economic Forum


Also as usual, it mostly seems to be the here and now issues that pop to the top. That’s not surprising, given that it is based on a perceptions survey. It is reactive rather than predictive. This year it is the Syrian refugee crisis and the Paris climate change meeting that appear to have been big influences.

The Forum highlight the fact that they surveyed nearly 750 “experts and decision-makers”, but they don’t appear to distinguish between the opinions of more sophisticated long-term risk experts and business leaders worried about the latest threats to their market. They produce some nice graphics, but they seem designed more for getting people and media organisations to report on the report (like I am), than to provide any great insights.

In the risk and business worlds though, perceptions are often nearly everything, so it can provide a useful indication of what risks people are thinking about.  What I like most about their approach is that they do try and show how risks can be interconnected.

The report does look back at what they previously focussed on (Figure 1.1.1 in the report). Historically they have focussed more on economic and geopolitical risks. But recently there has been a shift to highlighting environmental and societal risks.

Risk aficionados will note that most of the non-economic risks are rather vague. To properly manage risks you need to be clearer about what they are. But that’s not what this report is really about.

The vagueness is particularly notable in the technology area. For example “adverse consequences of technological advances” is not a very useful way of describing a risk – that can cover everything from a new social networking app through to genetically modified foods, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and mini black holes created by physics experiments.

I predict next year they will include some more specific technology-associated risks – particularly about artificial intelligence and automation, and maybe DIY genetic hacking. The theme of this year’s meeting at Davos is the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The World Economic Forum is turning into a little publishing empire. They are releasing reports and opinion pieces on a weekly basis now. Mostly it is repeating stuff others have already written about (societal, technological and environmental changes) without providing new perspectives (but adding in nice graphics and production values). I expect it is part of a strategy to demonstrate their value to the movers and shakers that the Forum wants to bring to Davos (and similar meetings).