Tech Boom Lures the World Economic Forum to San Francisco

  • Group to open its second U.S. location, after New York
  • Organization to solicit recommendations on tech policy

The World Economic Forum, the host of the annual gathering of political and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, is planting a flag in San Francisco, as the area’s technology industry grows in prominence on the global stage.

The Geneva-based organization has chosen the tech epicenter for its second U.S. office, positioning itself near Silicon Valley heavyweights, said Murat Sonmez, who will run the new space. The nonprofit forum -- whose only other satellite offices are in New York, Beijing and Tokyo -- announced the new location on Monday at a conference in San Francisco.

“Technology is having an unprecedented impact on the global economy -- not just on the business side but on how people live and who we are -- and it’s happening very, very fast,” Sonmez, a member of the forum’s managing board, said in a phone interview. “We wanted to be close to where this innovation is coming from so we can touch and feel these developments.”

The explosion of the technology industry in the San Francisco Bay area and the growing influence of young companies such as Twitter Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. has transformed the region in recent years, drawing hordes of well-paid workers, giving rise to thousands of new startups and fueling housing prices to levels surpassing even New York. At the same time, their inventions have left regulators scrambling to keep up with issues such as data privacy, driverless cars and drones.

The World Economic Forum -- which brings together business, political and societal leaders to shape agendas -- will have 60 staffers in San Francisco who will solicit policy recommendations on technologies, with the goal of developing regulations that don’t hamper these innovations, Sonmez said. The office, called the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is slated to open in February.

“We want to be able to connect with the startups, the investors and venture capitalists in the Valley and San Francisco so we can have an early view into what’s coming and provide that view to the rest of the world,” Sonmez said.

Tech Growth

Silicon Valley companies received the biggest share of U.S. venture-capital funding in the second quarter, with $8.2 billion going to 311 deals, according to a July report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association. San Francisco has gained 1,139 software and tech services firms since the beginning of 2010, data compiled by CBRE Group Inc. show, while jobs in those fields have tripled.

“Harnessing the potential of new technology and the digital economy -- while addressing the new challenges they may present -- is a task that requires deliberate collaboration, and I commend the World Economic Forum for their leadership in this space,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in an e-mailed statement.

Klaus Schwab, the forum’s founder and chairman, said the center will be based in San Francisco’s Presidio, a former Army post near the Golden Gate Bridge that is now a national park.

The center “is intended to be a truly global, multi-stakeholder, inclusive platform for dialogue, for challenging conversations, for sharing ideas and experience, as well as for joint action on the most important questions of strategy, policy and governance related to the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he said at the event announcing the office.

The World Economic Forum, created in 1971, has about 1,000 members. Its annual meeting in Davos draws the world’s economic and political elite, which this year included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Inc.’s chief operating officer.

The forum’s board of trustees includes tech luminaries Marc Benioff, the co-founder and head of San Francisco-based Inc., and Jack Ma, the chairman and founder of China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

The new center “will serve as an essential forum where some of our brightest minds can help us understand the trends shaping our world and navigate the future,” Benioff said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Smart Move’

Opening a San Francisco office “is a smart move,” said Seth Weinert, a conference participant and a managing director of global corporate development at real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., which has an office in the city. “They recognize that the tech and venture-capital communities, the academic institutions and the culture of innovation in the Bay Area will be significant contributors to their initiatives.”

Jim Breyer, founder of Breyer Capital, a venture-capital firm based in Silicon Valley’s Menlo Park, said the group could help shape the social and policy issues surrounding artificial intelligence, a growing area of computing in which electronics can make independent decisions, such as the Siri personal assistant on Apple Inc’s iPhone.

He said he’s invested in 10 artificial-intelligence companies in the last two years and plans to add a dozen more in the next five years.

“I am certain that in the next decade it is a Golden Age for entrepreneurs and investors for artificial intelligence,” Breyer said. “At the same time, there are so many discussions that need to occur around the ramifications and tensions that AI might bring. That World Economic Forum dialogue is a very significant positive.”

Benioff, speaking on a panel, said that technology and robots could replace human workers.

“We are at a serious point,” Benioff said. “Will people trust what is going on, or will they not trust what is going on?”

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