Now we know it from the horse's mouth. The World Economic Forum (WEF), where big beasts gather for a five-day brainstorm, is its “own best Big Idea".
Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN deputy secretary-general, writing in a Financial Times weekend magazine devoted to Davos 2011, says so.
Now that the 2,500 delegates have trooped home, his words are comfort to anyone who might feel they fell short of the WEF's ambition of “improving the state of the world".
Malloch-Brown, who is also vice chairman of the WEF, wrote of the participants:
“They are the idea: a global cast of business and civic leaders, politicians and academics trying to get their arms around global problems that flop across borders and sectors with no respect for the way state policy-making is traditionally organized."
Point well made. Why ask more from a gathering, even one with such a high profile?
As Malloch-Brown says, “Its informal invitation-only character – with the bills paid by its business members – has allowed it to fill some of the space that states cannot, even if it has not quite cut the pretension".
Bono, before he became a Davos regular, used to call the WEF “Fat cats in the snow".
This year's theme “Shared Norms for a New Reality" did nothing to help endear the WEF to its critics, who see it as a nefarious, nebulous, elitist conspiracy that uses big words to hide its devious designs..
But Malloch-Brown, who sees Davos simply as a place for sensible dialog, makes another couples of key points that I broached in my opening WEF blog:
No. 1. “Davos is an indispensable start-of-the-year point to take the world's temperature."
No. 2. “As most attendees are there principally to network and build contacts across the global economy, the public policy is hatched in snatched moments in the participants' busy schedules:"
And in the final two days, some interesting things happened.
There was a demo, with stones and bottles thrown, on Saturday. Police used water cannon and rubber bullet scatter guns to disperse the 100 or so protesters.
It must have been cold to be water cannoned in those freezing temperatures. I've only been doused once, in Pinochet's Chile in warm weather, and that was bad enough.
Social media was used by the Davos protesters, to mobilize for and broadcast their demo.
Neither the Davos protestors nor the digitally savvy Davos participants yet use social media as effectively as in Tunisia, the first Facebook revolution.
On Saturday alone, Davos aficionados sent 21,000 tweets to #WEF, and 17,000 tweets to #Davos.
“This shows that the spirit of Davos is now also on Twitter," said Matthias Luefkens, the WEF's social media manager.
And Facebook streamed interviews on its own site, many done live from Davos by Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. As for Twitter, much liked were the “Davos moments" that participants were encouraged to tweet.
My favorite came from Ms Zuckerberg (I've translated her words back into English from the report today by Neue Zuercher Zeitung, so this is not true verbatim):
She wrote: “A Tunisian minister came up to me and thanked me for our technology that fueled a revolution without blood-letting. Goose pimples."
The protests in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, inspired by the events in Tunisia, led to a flurry of internet fact seeking, Blackberry reading and some actual conversations among Middle Eastern participants in Davos.
As so often, powerful folk from other parts of the world didn't care as visibly, or as much, as they perhaps should about democracy in the Arab world.
There is a lot at stake in terms of regional and global security, so one must understand US calls for “orderly transition" in Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.
And from Davos came real, candid insights from the area, courtesy of New York Times reporting:
No. 1. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will be spared protests. Because these are not democratic regimes, their people don't feel let down, said Jamal Khashoggi of the Al Waleed 24 News Channel.
No. 2. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, asked whether a wave of democracy in the Middle East would be more destabilizing than a nuclear Iran, said: “I don't know; in Saudi Arabia, we have neither nuclear weapons nor democracy".
No.3. Why would Kuwaitis protest, asked a Bahraini delegate. The country's rulers had just paid every Kuwaiti citizen 3,000 dollars to celebrate 50 years of independence.
Three thousand dollars, that was the price participants had to pay for a one-way helicopter ride between Zurich airport and Stille, a Davos meadow used as a temporary heliport.
So, goodbye from Davos, observed for you at a safe distance, with a few final personal reflections:
Western politicians came to Davos 2011 to talk up their stimulus measures, back the euro and defend budget cuts.
Western corporate and banking folk this year showed more confidence – economic stimulus helps their business in the OECD, and Asian demand has come back – and also said “enough already" about more regulation.
So what, if anything, might “Davos man" have learned on the Magic Mountain in 2011?
(I still use the phrase Davos “man" coined by Samuel Huntington in 1997, because the skew is still such despite efforts by founder Klaus Schwab to get more women delegates.)
Perhaps we must look at the outside to see the lessons.
– Improving the state of the world is an never-ending project
– It is good to have a place where the thoughtful and the powerful meet to talk
– When powerless people lose their fear, even autocratic regimes can quickly crumble
– Social media allows communities to form fast and change to happen at twitter speed
– There is a new reality (hard to describe) and a need for shard norms (hard to achieve)
And what is an “improved" state of the world anyway?
A poll just published by Globescan provides a hint. Most people don't think Gross National Product is an adequate measure of progress, as you can see at http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/ethicalmarkets2011/
What should business do? In Edelman's Trust Barometer, a surprising insight quoted by The Economist this week: across the world, many people agree that the best way for companies to contribute is to focus on making profits.
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.
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