Why Davos elites should invite the populists to the table

Carolin Roth
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Inviting Mr and Mrs Smith might be a way to direct the conversation to issues that matter most to ordinary people (Source: Getty)

The year has barely kicked off and 2017’s biggest business get-together, held in the Swiss mountain resort town of Davos, has already begun. And, this year, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting is headlining under the theme of “Responsive Leadership”.

This theme leaves plenty of room for interpretation and imagination.

My sense of what best describes leadership in the current political climate of populism is getting a grasp of people’s worries and wishes, and acting upon them to improve their lives. I worry, however, that those who are not part of the conversations in the warm chalets and conference rooms of Davos will have no chance to shape the ideas of those who are inside. In other words – they drift further apart.

While business leaders, politicians and policy-makers greatly benefit from the exchange of ideas and knowledge with like-minded peers in Davos, this year more than any other, the attendees should include the ordinary man and woman on the street. Fly in Mr and Mrs Smith, Herr and Frau Meier, and Monsieur and Madame LeBleu, and give them the best seat at the table. I am sure they would appreciate some champagne and canapés too.

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Brexit and Trump have profoundly shocked the establishment, who blindly trusted in groupthink and misleading polls. The elite, more than ever before, seems out of touch with their electorates, their employees and consumers earning minimum wage. While I question the merit of populist policies such as limiting immigration and protectionism, the people do need to be heard.

The Davos elite may have been less surprised by 2016’s political earthquakes if they had spent as much time talking to ordinary citizens as with their business contacts. In the end it is those ordinary citizens who will be voting for their political parties and buying products from their companies.

The notable absence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from Davos has led to much speculation that she is rejecting this idea of merely rubbing shoulders with the world’s top few per cent. While she is officially not attending due to a “conflict in schedule”, she might simply not want to be seen in Davos in an election year when the backlash against her immigration policy is dividing her government.

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So what would ordinary citizens bring to the table if they were indeed invited to Davos? I have a feeling it would not be musings on the power of artificial intelligence or climate change, but rather something closer to immigration, job security or simply how to make ends meet.

Show leadership and be inclusive – that is my best advice for the Davos elite.

Mr and Mrs Smith will gratefully accept the invitation. They might also appreciate a second glass of the bubbly.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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