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Davos Group Sees Income Inequality as Top Global Risk

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Once again I'm participating in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. I'll be posting from here daily.

More than 2,500 participants from almost 100 countries representing business, government, academia and civil society will make the trek to this small Swiss town. Participants include more than 40 heads of state or government and more than 1,500 business leaders.

This group pretty much runs the works and it's painfully obvious to most of them that there hasn't been much progress in the last year. The world is full of chronic problems, such as poorly performing economies and the growing epidemic of youth unemployment. We still don't have an effective climate change strategy. There is armed conflict on many continents and around the world citizens are questioning the legitimacy of many government institutions.

Income inequality is being highlighted as an explosive issue. The ongoing gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens is the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade, according to more than 700 global experts that contributed to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks 2014 report.

The report, which can be read in full here, was released ahead of the Forum's 44th annual meeting.

The theme of this year's meeting is a good one: "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business." Reshaping we need.

The Forum argues that "Profound political, economic, social and, above all, technological forces are transforming our lives, communities and institutions. Rapidly crossing geographic, gender and generational boundaries, they are shifting power from traditional hierarchies to networked heterarchies." They also correctly point out that the world's leadership is not stepping up, but rather "remains focused on crisis rather than strategically driven in the face of the trends, drivers and opportunities pushing global, regional and industry transformation.

The forum's founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, told reporters recently that "What we want to do in Davos this year ... is push the reset button. The world is much too much still caught in a crisis management mode and we forget that we should take now into our hands and we should look for solutions for the really fundamental issues.  We should look at our future in a much more constructive, in a much more strategic way."

I've been coming to Davos since the mid-1990s and it is always the most stimulating if not hectic event for me each year. Just managing multiple, sometimes competing daily meetings in dozens of venues in the snowy town can be challenging. But it's worth it.

My job here of course is not to be a so-called world leader. I'm pretty much just a worker -- chairing and participating in panels, giving presentations on various topics and trying to stimulate helpful debate.

I'm often asked what the Forum is like, and what is its real meaning in terms of improving the state of the world? The Forum began four decades ago as a meeting for European executives to discuss pressing global problems. It evolved into a think tank, researching various issues and convening other events. Today you could think of the organization as a "do tank" that is engendering many communities that are researching, discussing and taking action on a number of global problems.

Yes, there is a lot of cynicism about the Forum's legitimacy. Critics dismiss the attendees as jet-set tycoons and business executives, and to be sure there are plenty of those here. But today this meeting of influential people from around the world represents a cross section of political and societal views.

Representatives from international organizations, civil society and spiritual leaders, academia and the media, as well as cultural leaders are also participating. Of course there will be some stars, such as Matt Damon. But he is here not because of his cinematic accomplishments. He is also co-founder of Water.org, an international non-profit dedicated to ensuring all people have access to safe water and basic sanitation. Damon is receiving a WEF Crystal Award.

In keeping with the theme, this year's meeting is focusing on four big ideas: 

• Disruptive Innovation: Scientific breakthroughs and new technologies are radically transforming how we live, learn, communicate and collaborate. How can people, organizations, industries and institutions turn disruption into long-term opportunities?
• Inclusive Growth: Widening inequality and the declining potency of long-standing growth models raises fundamental concerns around global, regional and industry drivers of prosperity. What models, sectors and industries will generate resilient and equitable growth?
• Society's New Expectations: The financial crisis has led to widespread erosion of confidence in business and government leaders. What are the necessary steps to orient businesses to the longer term, make governments more accountable and strengthen civic participation?
• A World of 9 Billion: Thanks to growth, millions of people are wealthier, healthier and living longer lives. Yet the escape from destitution by many put high costs on resources and the environment. How can economies embark on a more sustainable path to development?

In close to 250 sessions, participants will gain a deeper understanding of the forces transforming today's world, with a view to defining the necessary perceptions, ideas, initiatives and actions to respond. There will be sessions on climate change, the future of health and healthcare, the pressing youth unemployment challenge, economic prospects in major emerging economies including China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Russia, as well as the future of North Africa and the Middle East.

You can participate in this year's events too. "Digital Davos" will bring more of these discussions than ever to a global audience thanks to live streaming from more than 60 sessions and live tweeting from many others. A guide to following the Davos activities via social media can be found here.

A version of the post originally appeared in the GlobeandMail.com.
Don Tapscott is CEO of the think-tank Tapscott Group, and Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He is the author of 14 books most recently (with Anthony D. Williams) MacroWikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. @dtapscott