The idea to set up a global economic forum was first mooted during a meeting of European business leaders in January 1971.
The meeting, held in Davos, Switzerland and sponsored by the European Commission and European industrial associations, was presided over by German-born Klaus Schwab, then professor of business policy at the University of Geneva.
It was then that the European Management Forum came into existence as a non-profit organization.
The headquarters of the European Management Forum was set up in Geneva, Switzerland. It was also decided that the annual meeting of European business leaders will be held in Davos in the first month of every year.
The credit for setting up the Forum goes to Professor Schwab, who also ensured that the initial annual gatherings keep their focus on how European companies could keep pace with US management practices.
Professor Schwab always wanted the European Management Forum to eventually become a global institution. That vision started taking shape in 1973, with the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate mechanism and the Arab-Israeli War.
The January 1974 annual meeting set the ground for the change as it expanded the focus from just management to much broader economic and social issues. Also, in a major shift of policy, the forum for the first time sent invitations to political leaders to attend the Davos meet.
In 1976, the forum brought in a system of membership, allowing "the 1,000 leading companies of the world" to join it. The same year, the forum included regional meetings held around the globe to its yearly activities. And with the publication of the Global Competitiveness Report in 1979, the forum also added another feather of being a knowledge hub in its cap.
Eight years later, in 1987, Professor Schwab’s dream was realised when the European Management Forum was rechristened as the present-day World Economic Forum. And the institution sought to transform itself into a platform which also provided space for resolving international conflicts.
The WEF took another leap forward when in September 2007, it organised the inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions in China’s Dalian. This meeting of the Global Growth Companies (GGC) was dubbed as the "Summer Davos".
The GCC meeting differed from the winter Davos meeting, in which the world`s foremost companies participate and focus their efforts on macroeconomic, geopolitical and social challenges. On the other hand, the GGC meeting was launched to lay special emphasis on the role competitiveness plays at a corporate and national level in ensuring growth. At the Dalian meeting, the forum set up a new community of fast-growing companies destined to join the ranks of global multinationals in the next 5 to 10 years.
The 2009 summit took place amid worries that the global economy was falling into another Great Depression. Political and business leaders gathered at Davos in 2009 January warned nations against taking protectionist efforts. At the five-day meeting, the emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies articulated the worries of the developing nations and marked their strong presence telling the Americans and others in the west how their business models turned into bubbles, which were to burst anyway.
The 2011 annual World Economic Forum meeting had ended on a cautious optimism with global leaders raising doubts about the world`s ability to combat effectively a possible financial crisis, even as they asked corporates not to sacrifice long-term growth for short-term profits.
Not only from political leadership, the word of caution was also heard from business leadership with PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi asking businesses to think beyond making short-term profits.
At present, the forum has a Centre for Public-Private Partnerships whose job is to involve businesses, civil society and political authorities in initiatives dealing with health issues, chronic hunger in poor and developing nations. The forum also has a knowledge centre, the Centre for Strategic Insight, which has gone in for expansion of late to include several other competitive reports, the Global Gender Gap Report, Global Risk reports and regional scenario reports.