Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the World Economic Forum, held annually in January, once again attracted more than 3 000 official delegates, ranging from world leaders to teenage activists, and from corporate titans to entertainment celebrities, to its home in the Alpine town of Davos, Switzerland.
The conference theme was 'Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World' and, as is typical of the WEF, two very high-profile personalities were present. Only WEF could have secured the attendance of the US President Donald Trump, and the teenage environmental activist, Greta Thunberg. The former, who last year withdrew the US from the Paris Accord (originally a WEF initiative), and the latter, a harbinger of the global danger of climate change, both played to over-flowing conference halls.
For me, this illustrated the necessity of a collaborative approach among stakeholders when addressing the enormous economic, environmental, social, and technological challenges we face together in an increasingly complex world. It was obvious in Davos, from the gatherings and speeches, that environmental sustainability is the world’s most pressing issue. This is hugely relevant for South Africa and our reliance on coal-generated power supplies.
While all of the seven key themes addressed over the four days were relevant for everyone, two were of particular relevance to Naspers: 'Tech for Good' and 'Society and the Future of Work', though outside the conference halls and in the various press conferences and side discussions, many more topics were discussed. One of the exhilarating elements of WEF is the chance to engage informally across a broad sector of businesses, governments, and NGOs.
The four days were jam-packed, and two sessions really stood out for me in the context of a technology group. One was 'Confronting the Weaponisation of the World Wide Web', which asked, 'How can artificial intelligence and machine learning protect open platforms and their users in an era of weaponised information?' The other was 'Safeguarding Digital Spaces', which addressed the issue of how stakeholders could come together to create safe and trusted digital environments while maintaining an open internet.
Both sessions emphasised — and here the US and the EU for once seemed to be in accord — greater regulatory controls were needed. As one of the top ten players in the global consumer internet sector, we share the responsibility among tech companies and governments for privacy and the protection of consumers, especially in safeguarding children and recognising they are the most vulnerable and open to abuse and exploitation.
As Naspers looks to the future, we do so acutely aware that technology will impact individual lives and the world at large. As Bob van Dijk, Group CEO Prosus and Naspers, said during a CNBC press conference, while technology impacts on “almost every aspect of people’s lives and makes it better… privacy is an area which everybody is concerned about, and I think good companies are taking proactive steps”.
We understand that sustainable businesses will be solution-driven and not focused only on the bottom line and that there is rightly a heightened expectation for technology companies to earn trust. Interestingly, there seemed to be a consensus among panellists in one session I attended that consumers tend to be more trusting of subscription, rather than free, news platforms.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the WEF was to experience the intense hunger for information and knowledge that reverberated throughout the halls and discussions, formal and informal. Because, eventually, that hunger translates into opportunities; opportunities to improve the socio-economic situation of the most needy; to provide employment; better education, and to deliver sustainable growth for our companies.
Growing a tech ecosystem
In South Africa, we are driven to contribute meaningfully to building the country’s economy through a growing tech ecosystem with initiatives such as Naspers Foundry and Naspers Labs, alongside our existing tech businesses. Naspers Foundry is our early stage tech business initiative, and Naspers Labs, is a development programme which equips youth to participate in the economy.
The Team SA delegation at WEF this year was led by Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni. Minister Mboweni stressed that WEF was an opportunity to tell the world that South Africa is moving forward, and it was gratifying to hear him confront the reality of our situation. This, I’m sure, will give investors confidence that South Africa is focused on making the tough decisions needed to get us out of our current economic conundrum.
As Klaus Schwab, the 81-year-old founder of the WEF said, its job was to “connect the dots” between great “leaders in collaborative activities to shape global, regional and industry agendas”. It was an honour and a privilege for Naspers to be party to help set that agenda.
* Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa is CEO South Africa, Naspers. Views expressed are her own.
* Fin24 is part of 24.com, which is in the Naspers-owned Media24 stable.