What is Davos?

| Article
Circle of blue chairs
Circle of blue chairs

Davos is a modest ski resort near Zürich, Switzerland. But that isn’t why it’s famous. Every January, Davos hosts the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). A highly curated selection of delegates from global business, government, civil society, media, and academia converge on this Swiss town to attend sessions designed to spark fruitful discussions around the most pressing issues of the day—and ultimately drive impact.

In 2024, the annual meeting will be centered on rebuilding trust in an environment of rapid transformation. We are living in a time of increasing geopolitical polycrisis, new economic policies shaped by the climate crisis, and rapid advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence. Responding to such profound forces of change requires building trust on three levels: in our future, within societies, and among nations. Delegates of Davos 2024 will explore themes including reforming multilateral approaches, leveraging AI for the benefit of all members of society, upholding the momentum from COP28, and maintaining an open trade system. “I’m looking forward to an opportunity,” says McKinsey senior partner Andres Cadena, “to reunite with global thinkers, to deploy our human capacity to understand the uncertainty we are facing, and to problem solve on that uncertainty.”

For more on WEF, the annual meeting in Davos, and insights on what lies ahead in light of geopolitical unrest, the climate crisis, and the ongoing advancement of technologies, read on.

What is the World Economic Forum?

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, WEF is an international not-for-profit organization focused on promoting cooperation between the public and private sectors. Founded in 1971 by German economist Klaus Schwab, WEF seeks to foster a spirit of collaborative entrepreneurship to address global issues and shape governmental, industry, and social agendas.

In 2020, WEF issued a new Davos Manifesto establishing that WEF is formally guided by stakeholder capitalism, which posits that a corporation should deliver value not only to shareholders but also to all those who have a stake in the destiny of the company, including employees, society, and the planet. Its goals include a commitment to “improve the state of the world.”1

WEF partners with many international organizations and corporations to run projects addressing global concerns. This year, collaborations are focused on building resilience for the next generation, reimagining globalization, rewiring for AI, navigating the green transition, and addressing the empowerment gap and economic inclusion.

Learn more about McKinsey’s collaboration with the World Economic Forum here.

Circular, white maze filled with white semicircles.

Introducing McKinsey Explainers: Direct answers to complex questions

What happens at Davos?

Davos isn’t just about the keynotes. The meeting is also famous for the networking and social interactions that take place in the corridors, side rooms, hotel suites, and restaurants of the Alpine town. “For me,” says McKinsey senior partner Kate Smaje, “Davos is all about making those unusual connections, where you get to talk to people who are doing very different things than you and being able to connect those dots and start to think about things in different ways. For me, it’s never about a session; it’s often about those coincidental meetings that happen in the margins of the sessions.”

Some 2,500 delegates and hundreds of others gather in Davos during this period, making it perhaps the largest assembly of global decision makers all year. As McKinsey senior partner Enno de Boer aptly characterized the meeting, “It’s business speed dating on steroids.” For McKinsey veterans of the Davos meeting, connecting with clients takes center stage at the conference.

Since its adoption, WEF’s 2020 manifesto guides companies in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The manifesto states that a company should “pay its fair share of taxes,” show “zero tolerance for corruption,” uphold human rights throughout its global supply chain, and advocate for a competitive, level playing field.2

Who attends Davos?

In 2024, the annual meeting will welcome over 100 governments from around the world, all major international organizations, WEF’s 1,000 partner companies, as well as civil-society leaders, up-and-coming leaders, the foremost experts in a range of areas, social entrepreneurs, and members of the media. Leaders attending are expected to include Antony Blinken, António Guterres, Emmanuel Macron, Jens Stoltenberg, Ursula von der Leyen, and others. Approximately 1,000 corporations hold membership in WEF, and members send a small number of key delegates to the meeting in Davos based on their membership tier. Official attendance is by invitation only.

In 2023, there were more than 2,000 delegates, including John Kerry, Christine Lagarde, Olaf Scholz, and many other high-profile names.

What’s on the agenda for 2024?

This year’s annual meeting in Davos will take place January 15–19, 2024. For this year’s meeting, WEF is currently focused on rebuilding trust in an era of rapid change and increased fragmentation. To effectively respond to such profound disruption, WEF will aim to start restoring trust at three fundamental levels: in our future, within societies, and among nations.

McKinsey’s partnership with WEF for the Davos meeting each year includes events and interventions aligned with shared goals. For 2024, McKinsey’s knowledge collaborations with WEF are intended to foster global cooperation for sustainable, inclusive growth. Here are a few of the initiatives to look out for:

  • Achieving security and cooperation in a fractured world. The world is reckoning with new concentrations in global trade, complicated by rising geopolitical tensions on multiple fronts. This year at Davos, McKinsey, WEF, and other stakeholders will collaborate to understand the nuances of changing global interdependencies—and how we can best collaborate to ensure a sustainable future for all. “Geopolitics will be paramount” at Davos this year, says McKinsey Global Institute chair and senior partner Sven Smit, “and how that implicates business.”
  • Creating growth and jobs for a new era. A new economic framework is here, borne out of increasing geopolitical instability and the climate crisis, as well as the acceleration of artificial intelligence. Governments, business, and civil society must creatively work together to avoid a decade of low growth and to put people at the center of a more prosperous trajectory.
  • Artificial intelligence as a driving force for the economy and society. The year 2023 was generative AI’s (gen AI’s) breakout year. As more governments and companies begin designing and deploying gen AI tools, collaboration between public and private sector organizations (including McKinsey and WEF) aims to ensure that the transition toward the future in tech is as orderly and equitable as possible. “It’s hard to see generative AI not being a key theme this year,” says Kate Smaje.
  • A long-term strategy for climate, nature, and energy. Decarbonization and value creation are not a zero-sum game. Innovative leaders are boldly showing others how to do both simultaneously. Amid continued uncertainty, McKinsey and WEF will work together at this year’s Davos summit to chart a course toward carbon neutrality and a nature-positive world by 2050, while providing inclusive access to energy, food, and water.

What happened at Davos in 2023?

At 2023’s Davos meeting, WEF focused on several themes: boosting resilience after a challenging few years, reimagining globalization and changing interdependencies, accelerating sustainability, increasing parity among communities, and imagining a future space economy.

Hear McKinsey senior partner Pedro Rodeia and other McKinsey delegates discuss their priorities in the lead-up to Davos 2023.

What impact does Davos have?

WEF describes itself as a new kind of institution, with the adaptability, entrepreneurialism, and stakeholder trust necessary to make it a platform with the power to make change. The upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic have, to many, underscored the organization’s ongoing value, and a record turnout is expected in 2024.

For McKinsey senior partner Tracy Francis, the value of the Davos meeting is in “the human interaction of a multitude of different types of entities—start-ups, nonprofits, governmental organizations, business. There’s a lot of talk about a new world order, but I do think that just being together in person and exchanging ideas increases connectivity.”

And while the spotlight shines bright on the well-known names, it’s the smaller interactions that can mean the most. “In Davos, I always like to meet the start-up or technology company that comes up with an idea that, if it works, could scale through the planet and change something,” says McKinsey senior partner and McKinsey Global Institute chairman and director Sven Smit. “You’ll find hope in these kinds of things. The big voices will be there, but the small voices bring a lot of hope.”

To keep up to date with McKinsey’s Davos coverage, visit McKinsey and WEF. Also, search for #davosagenda on social media and look out for live events with McKinsey experts in the time leading up to the January meeting. And stay tuned for Davos updates in your inbox.

Learn more about McKinsey’s collaboration with the World Economic Forum here.

This article was updated in December 2023; it was originally published in January 2023.

Circle of blue chairs

Want to know more about Davos?