Plato would have recognized his concepts in action in Davos. I’m thinking about the cave, where reality is happening outside and all we see are shadows flitting across the walls.

Even yesterday’s hotel bombing seemed virtual. An obscure group announces on an Italian website they will set off “pyrotechnics and sugar” in a four-star hotel.

Two fire crackers went off, and police later found sugar in the heating oil tank. The result – the collective Davos excitometer briefly blipped.

Meanwhile, day three had one of the fine rituals of Davos on display – check out and click on their Davos 2011 button.

A string of interviews with Davos delegates, who bravely stand outside in the snow and cold for a volley of mostly puffball questions.

Brace yourself for a Groundhog Day experience.

There was former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who used the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 1999 and 2000 to launch the UN Global Compact, the UN’s corporate sustainability initiative that now counts more than 6,000 member companies.

Annan was asked about the new reality in Tunisia. As would be expected, his answer was diplomatic. Very diplomatic.

It is clear, he said, that authorities must listen to and understand people’s desire for change – but change must then also be managed.

Meaning: the interim government in Tunisia may need to include former ministers, since no one outside the old ruling clique knows how to pull (or even find) the levers of power.

My former boss, Shell CEO Peter Voser, can be seen explaining (for the umpteenth time) why no one can accurately predict oil prices. He is also allowed to get in a plug for Shell’s expected production growth.

The president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, said the recovery is now underway, but there was no time for complacency. And, prudently, he added that he was speaking in a private capacity and what he said was not signaling ECB policy.
And so on.

I prefer the BBC’s coverage but this year even more so. Perhaps because Shell is running cute ad banners on the BBC website – from the corporate campaign I finalized before retiring last year.

In an interview on the website, Pepsi Co’s Indra Nooyi, after a canter around world market growth prospects, is probed on why her company is so focused on managing water issues at a policy level – apart from the obvious fact that is uses a lot of water?

She, and the BBC interviewer, show Davos as its best. A thoughtful CEO acknowledging that her business potentially will infringe on a basic right of people – the right to water – and saying that Pepsi Co also knows it can’t solve this issue alone.

Elsewhere on the website, another side of Davos, a report about a blog on Reuters about the event’s most obnoxious party – wine tasting “basically drunken mess”. Revelers loaded up on heavy Cabernets, all the while fighting off jetlag and catching up on gossip.

Inside Plato’s cave – the main conference building which Davos citizens had rebuilt for the WEF at a cost of millions after founder Klaus Schwab hinted at finding a new home for the annual meeting – the shadows of reality fluttered apace.

The impressive team performance of Chinese officials and business people, scientists and artists is apparently prompting India – like POTUS, in his State of the Union speech – to consider how to deal with its own Sputnik moment.

One approach, dissected by Raghuram G. Rajan, an Indian professor at the University of Chicago, was attractive for both its boldness and its reach: can India skip China’s factory-of-the-world strategy?

Writing in my favorite newspaper, the International Herald Tribune (the IHT is a paper for the itinerant, slightly rootless global knowledge worker), Katrin Bennhold quotes Rajan as saying about India: “Could you leapfrog manufacturing? Can education be the passport to the service economy?”

Good question – if India can find a way to feed and build wealth for its 1.1 billion people with a service economy, India will do the world a great service.

It is fun to follow at a distance how Davos neophytes try to explain to themselves why and how Davos carries off its indisputable allure and has become a destination of such desire.

In a Reporter’s Notebook in the IHT, Peter Lattman says that his first full day – filled with already heard phrases (e.g. “manufacturing is moving east”) from a string of panels – convinced him that the global brainstorming that is the real conference is a sideshow.

The networking and the need to be seen in Davos are key. He suggests that the 2012 theme (after 2011’s Shared Norms for a New Reality) be “We Have to Be Here because Everyone Else Is”.

Works for me. And Plato would have liked it, too.

Bjorn Edlund
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.