Klaus Schwab, the bespectacled 78-year-old German economist who presides over the World Economic Forum, has decreed that this year's gathering is to dwell on the notion of a "fourth industrial revolution" — his attempt to summarize the technological innovations changing the way the world works. 

On Wednesday afternoon, he took to the forum's main stage and invited the audience to gaze upon the future. "I couldn't imagine anybody who could represent more the world which will come out of this fourth industrial revolution," he said.

He was referring to the Canadian prime minister, seated to his left in a white chair. In Schwab's view, the new world — a "young world," a "digital world" — will be typified by diversity and plurality, significant investments in infrastructure and a fostering of entrepreneurial spirit. "Who could represent such a world better than you, prime minister?" Schwab asked of Justin Trudeau.

This was heady stuff. But then Davos is rather far above sea level.


WEF Executive Chairman and founder Klaus Schwab gave Trudeau a warm welcome. Schwab was also kind to Stephen Harper when he appeared three years ago. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

One wonders who the world would have had to get excited about had Canadian voters chosen differently last fall. And one is reminded that present renderings of the future are not always predictive (the hoverboards of 2016 are not the hoverboards that we were promised by Back to the Future).

Schwab, it should be noted, was also kind to Stephen Harper. Three years ago, when Harper addressed Davos, the forum's founder commended Canada's performance through the global recession, crediting the prime minister's "personal leadership" and pointing to the lessons that "the Canadian model" might teach the world. 

Three years later, Trudeau's session was entitled "The Canadian Opportunity." And here the World Economic Forum was explicitly invited to compare Trudeau with his predecessor. "My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources," Trudeau reminded. "I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness."

One imagines a high five or two around the Prime Minister's Office when this line was conceived. 

Insofar as the current and former prime ministers have now delivered significant set-piece speeches to the same forum, each speaking after winning a majority mandate, both attempting to declare the coming of a significant moment for the country, the comparisons are inviting. 

Different points of reference

Harper's speech — perhaps most-famous for his unexpected suggestion that the age of eligibility for Old Age Security would have to be adjusted — was remarkable for its ambition. The former prime minister generally made every effort to sound as unexciting as possible and to act incrementally and gradually, but three years ago in Davos he spoke of "major transformations."

Trudeau talks to Facebook chief in Davos

Trudeau chats with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, during a bilateral meeting in Davos. Trudeau is attending the World Economic Forum where political, business and social leaders gather to discuss world agendas. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Able to boast of Canada's relatively strong economy and going so far as to vaguely question the fiscal policies and political will of unnamed other countries, Harper said Canada would make the right choices. Taxes would be kept low, changes would be made to how the government funded innovation, and trade deals would be signed.

The government would "make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to China." The regulatory burden would be reduced on such projects. And there would be immigration reform and pension reform (the latter a reference to the aforementioned OAS change). 

"Western nations, in particular, face a choice of whether to create the conditions for growth and prosperity, or to risk long-term economic decline. In every decision, or failure to decide, we are choosing our future right now," Harper explained. "Canada's choice will be, with clarity and urgency, to seize and to master our future, to be a model of confidence, growth, and prosperity in the 21st century."

Trudeau wanted to talk about confidence and growth and prosperity and the future too, but found different points of reference: climate change, education, technology, equality. While Harper preached fiscal prudence, Trudeau said that "our recent election shows that Canadians understand that confident countries invest in their future." He dwelled on the notion of leadership, in implicit contrast to his predecessor. "Technology itself will not determine the future we get," Trudeau said. "Our choices will. Leadership will."

Trudeau sells Canada to World Business Leaders2:09

Trudeau repeatedly cited the principle and quality of diversity. In 2012, during a discussion with Schwab after the prepared remarks, Harper also cited cultural diversity as a uniquely Canadian quality, but conceded that it might be hard for other countries to replicate Canada's success. Trudeau took that unique diversity and presented it as a reason to invest in Canada, perhaps even as a comment on the current world (could he be reminding the international community that Canada has nothing to do with Donald Trump?). 

While Harper's speech was a specific set of prescriptions, Trudeau's was more of a branding exercise. Harper, after five years of minority government, presented an agenda for the country that might amount to something. Trudeau, newly elevated, put forward a series of principles that could drive an agenda.

The story of both men might be found in putting these speeches together. But perhaps the lesson of Harper in 2012 is not to get too specific while in Davos.

Three and a half years after Harper said Canada would seize the future, Canada let go of him. And with him went a spotty record of transformation. In all but final ratification, he got his trade deals. But not a single new pipeline was built. Last fall, the federal government's Science, Technology and Innovation Council reported that "Canada's lagging business innovation performance … continued to deteriorate." 

Last week, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce called for an overhaul of the Harper government's changes to both the temporary foreign worker program and the Express Entry policy for skilled immigrants. Meanwhile, Trudeau's Liberals have vowed to reset the age of OAS eligibility. 

Of course, the Liberals might yet ratify those trade deals. And they could make changes those immigration reforms. And they could figure out a proper policy on innovation (one area of policy that Trudeau also touched on). And they might yet be in power when a significant pipeline gets built. So Harper might at least one day claim some foresight. 

The lesson here might be something to do with humility, or the fleeting utility of a triumphant appearance on the Davos stage. In 2012, Schwab congratulated Harper on his "resounding victory" the previous spring. But that only got Harper so far.

Trudeau might look like the future at present, but will he still look like the future in 2019?

He might at least be measured by how close he comes to fulfilling the current idea of the future. The idea of the future can be a useful way of measuring progress.