What's the attraction of Davos?
Over the years, “Davos” has become a brand name -- but for what, exactly? I’m back this year for my ninth meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), and I'm still trying to figure out precisely what it symbolizes -- and why, in a busy world where nobody does anything more than once or twice, so many world leaders, corporate chief executives and media poo-bahs come back year after year.
Here are some starting points for the curious or confused Davos-watcher:
-- Davos has come to symbolize the elusive process we describe as “globalization” of the world economy. It’s a celebration of the technologies and corporations that make global commerce possible. It’s a “class reunion” for the business and political elites that drive the global system. And it’s an initiation rite for new arrivals, countries such as China and India, that have become economic powerhouses since the Davos meetings began 39 years ago.
-- The personalities I associate with the WEF are the people who embody this vision of the global economic order. Among world leaders, the obvious Davos people are Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, along with King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan. Among business tycoons, the superstar is Bill Gates, who’s even more a Davos guy now that he’s a global philanthropist than he was as chief executive of Microsoft. Other names on the business all-star list would be John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, which built the networks that define Davos World, and Muhtar Kent, the Turkish-born chief executive of Coca-Cola, the ultimate global consumer-product company. Among entertainers, we’re talking Bono and Angelina Jolie. Among journalists, the two giants are Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who holds an annual “conversation” with Gates, and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek.
-- Davos is also a series of causes (beyond the rarely mentioned but universal cause of making money). The forum has 18 “initiatives,” ranging from climate change to water to wellness. Attendees this year have been assured that Davos will be reducing its carbon footprint, a somewhat dubious proposition, frankly, for a conference that virtually every attendee flies to, often in private corporate jets. To make sure that everyone is properly networked, the forum also has 16 “communities,” which bring together such groups as “Social Entrepreneurs,” “Thought Leaders,” “Technology Pioneers” and the “International Media Council” (this last group is not to be confused with “Thought Leaders,” please.) As for the anti-globalization movement, the Forum has even found a way to network and co-opt that, too, by creating something called the Davos “Open Forum,” where globalization critics can denounce the high and mighty assembled a few kilometers away. And lest things get too exuberant, this bucolic village is filled in late January with heavily armed and very tough-looking Swiss anti-riot police.
-- The uber-personality of Davos, of course, is the man who founded the event back in 1971, Klaus Schwab. He’s usually called “Professor Schwab” hereabouts, in deference to the fact that he was once a professor of business at the University of Geneva. It’s telling that he started the Davos meetings as a way to introduce European companies to U.S. business practices, at a time when American global dominance was in its infancy. Back in 1971, Europe was still struggling to find its feet after World War II, and the Asian giants of today were still desperately poor socialist nations that ranted about U.S. imperialism. The first formal name for the Davos meetings, in fact, was the “European Management Forum.” That was changed to the World Economic Forum in 1987, when Schwab could see the first glimmerings of globalization.
Schwab is a public relations genius, there is no other term for it. He has managed to take this sleepy Swiss ski village and turn it into the very epicenter of connectedness. He is brilliant at understanding (and exploiting) the moment. After Sept. 11, 2001, he smartly shifted the next January’s meeting to New York. When the newly rich Arab states were looking to make connections, he made Davos a hub; when India and China began to rocket toward wealth, he hosted what amounted to debutante parties, with special sessions and speeches and celebrations of the newcomers. Knowing where the new money was coming from, he franchised the World Economic Forum, creating mini-meetings in Jordan, Egypt, China and elsewhere. Since 2007, he has been running something he calls the “Annual Meeting of the New Champions,” which meets each year in China.
The high-minded (and sometimes numbingly self-serious) ambition of the Davos forum is illustrated by the names that Schwab gives to each year’s sessions. In 2006, it was “The Creative Imperative”; in 2007, “The Shifting Power Equation”; in 2008, “The Power of Collaborative Innovation”; and last year, when the world was still on the edge of economic ruin, it was “Shaping the Post-Crisis World.”
It’s a relentlessly sunny outlook, which I suspect is one reason that people come back. They want to be cheered up, reinforced and re-certified as members of the global power grid. Even when the economic weather is stormy, Davos will report that we can look forward to “intervals of brightness,” as British forecasters like to say on cloudy days.
It’s easy make fun of Davos: It’s a big, ripe target, as Schwab well knows. But frankly, I wish that other global institutions had adapted to change as well as the World Economic Forum. Schwab understood the power of networks before the CEOs who were building them; he saw more clearly than any finance or foreign ministries the power of free trade and globalization to lift developing economies.
For a journalist, Davos is an irresistible opportunity for gluttony -- like one of those breakfast buffets in business hotels where you can have cereal and scrambled eggs and waffles. The most interesting events, for me, have always been the ones I least anticipated, like a discussion of new research on the biomechanics of the brain, or a dinner with economists and financial tycoons examining why the Crash of 2008 happened. I'll be filing regular reports from Davos over the rest of this week to give you my own idiosyncratic take on what’s happening here.
But in many ways, Davos is everywhere now. The idea that it represented -- of networked global business and politics -- is now a pervasive fact of life. You don’t have to go to Switzerland this week to find it; just connect up your iPhone or your laptop, and you can wander into the world that Davos symbolizes and, in its own relentless way, helped create.
So why do people return to this physical location, where it's usually freezing cold and you stay in rooms that often aren't as nice as your local Day's Inn? With something as ephemeral as globalization, I think there's a desire to actually touch it, feel it, stand next to its fellow members in line for a cup of coffee or the men's and ladies' rooms.
Floating in a "networked" world, you want to believe that there are real people with their hands on the controls -- that this is a digital empire with its own flesh-and-blood Caesers and Neroes. This globalized world is not simply a "floating island," as Swift described his imaginary world in Gulliver's Travels -- it's a real place, anchored in the snow and ice each January.
| January 25, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
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