Neither the global elitist conspiracy that leftists make it out to be, nor the toothless prattle fest that more rigorous policy wonks tend to see it as, the World Economic Forum is once again gathering leaders in Davos, the Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann’s novel.
“Davos” is the world’s ueber conference. It has, in its 41 years of existence, developed an alluring magic – perhaps just because its essence is so hard to pin down.
Davos is part CEO self-help group – here CEOs can talk to anyone with a conference badge and a tie and assume they know EPS and ROI, and also share the burden of being so successful that your pay package may cause riots.
Part gathering of positive minds – which other conference organization can, without blushing, claim it is “committed to improving the state of the world”?
Part big thinking – in Davos you may find solutions to malnutrition in one session and settle a civil war in the next, quantum physics may meet quantum literature.
Big part: the ultimate network – CEOs in Davos, who usually participate in a discussion session or two to show they think big in the service of world improvement – typically have six months worth of private meetings with customers, business partners, governments and NGO leaders in the two or three days they are there.
Few CEOs stay all five days. That would seem too eager somehow.
The WEF is also a fantastic intellectual smorgasbord, if you make full use of the side events in the rich, rich all-day program spread over some big hotels and conference sites in the mountain resort.
When I used to attend, in my time with ABB which was a strategic partner and thus had five participant spots, a day could look like this.
Breakfast meeting on corporate ethics. Some guru opens, all discuss. Thoughts fly.
10-11.30 a.m. – will country X be rescued? Panel of angry experts who seem to miss not being able to use PowerPoint.
11.45-12.30 – panel on climate change. Serious topic, small conference room, usually very full.
12.45 – 2 p.m. – lunch meeting on African literature, with Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian 1986 Nobel Prize winner.
2.15-3.45 p.m. – big hall: Bono, Tony Blair and Olusegun Obasanjo discuss poverty and governance challenges. Bono is funny, effective and provocative, Tony Blair beams purposefully and speaks evanescent soap bubbles, and Obansanjo, the Nigerian president, shows that haiku probably never was his form of expression.
4.15-5.30 small conference room crammed- how to increase your EQ, some guru speaks who just sold zillions of books reminding business people that they have feelings. Or should have.
6 p.m. dinner meeting – do men and women communicate differently? Deborah Tannen, funny and well prepared, opens. All talk. And talk.
And late, around 10.30 p.m. until the oxygen feels rationed– nightcap with Bill Clinton and Simon Perez (150 people come to hear two good friends impress each other with their perfect recall of every missed peace opportunity in the Middle East).
11.30 until midnight – Google party, great fun. Sergei Brin tries to behave like a real human being.
Off to bed.
This year, 2,500 people will assemble in Davos, of which 1,400 are executives. The coolest people come by train, the most obnoxious by helicopter.
They are the usually the ones who cause riotous scenes at the main hall coffee bar, a long U-shaped thing.
Since they are used to people getting out of their way in their companies or government buildings, they walk with complete abandon towards the bar during the breaks – careening into other A types also used to getting right of way.
It is a sight for contemporary anthropologists like me.
Member companies, like ABB, pay more than 100,000 dollars a year to be listed as strategic partners – a status which means they are “consulted” on the “agenda”.
Still, each of their executives will need to spring for more than 5,000 dollars in conferences fees, just like all others unless they are of the poorer contributing class – NGO leaders, professors, artists etc.
Don’t get me wrong, Davos is worth every penny for the CEO’s networking alone.
With all its vanity bonfires and irritating self-importance, the WEF has its firm place in the global calendar. We would miss it if Davos, the conference, disappeared.
I saw it also like a global annual Rorschach test. The tensions and ambitions of a fractious world are projected and interpreted by a select global elite.
This year, the WEF’s own Global Risk Report has listed 37 risks that should keep all decision makers up at night worrying.
Klaus Schwab, the founding chairman, says he is concerned that governments and companies no longer can cope with this new reality – and the problems that come fast and furious at nations and corporations.
Let’s see what the Rorschah test looks like when the WEF wraps up this weekend.
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.
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