I attended a de-brief session on this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), hosted by Swissnex, an annex of the Swiss consulate in San Francisco. The organization had invited three Davos veterans to discuss the “echoes” that reverberated from the five-day gathering of the world’s (thought) leaders in the Swiss Alps. The panel included John Markoff, senior writer for The New York Times, Ann Winblad, partner with Hummer Winblad Ventures, and Paul Saffo, a forecaster and essayist and fellow with the WEF.
Markoff moderated the panel with a nonchalant distance to the celebrity entourage for which Davos is famous. The anecdotes that Winblad and Saffo were happy to share with the audience, made for a lively overview of what the rest of us missed. Markoff started with the provocative assessment that Davos may perhaps have peaked in the Clinton years. Saffo, who has attended the Forum for 15 years in a row, agreed but found the intense days, which are rich in unexpected encounters with people from very different arenas of business, politics, and culture, still extremely challenging and inspiring.
“The Shifting Power Equation” was this year’s theme, and the panelists agreed that it was, although determined in September of last year, timely and spot on. First of all, interestingly enough, all three panelists observed that it was the first year in Davos that the United States (after sympathy and solidarity in 2001, criticism in 2002, 2003, and 2004, and open opposition in 2005 and 2006) seemed somewhat marginalized. Saffo noted that there was a clear consensus that the nation-state order is on the wane and that the “US is caught between being too weak to really influence events, but too powerful to be completely ignored.” Delegations from China and India were omnipresent and the "Indian reception also had the best food," as Saffo noted happily.
Besides the shift of economic power to new regional heavyweights, there was broad consensus about a more philosophical but nonetheless dramatic shift to the agenda of all economic players: climate change is now widely seen as the top priority. No one really questions the urgency of counter-measures any more, said Saffo. In one of the many pre-functions of the Forum, the DLD conference in Munich, Sir Norman Foster poignantly called “Green” the “new red, blue, and white.” This is a carefully chosen phrase indicating that “the green corporation” is not just the “new black” and thus another short-lived trend. Rather, it is rather a fundamental stakeholder requirement and the main current of businesses’ “social contract” for the future. Saffo saw a sea-change at work in the business leader’s thinking: The discussions about climate change went, in his eyes, far beyond the traditional do-good corporate responsibility.
Yet there are no easy solutions and Saffo still sensed a “vast uncertainty” regarding the ability of global institutions to meet the challenges we all face. Saffo pointed out that Davos is not supposed to provide answers or closure, rather, it is a place where questions are raised and conversations begin – it’s about “opening minds.” He described how he found himself to be an “entertainer” among all the “really powerful men and women driving the world economy and said: “if there were a place for a conspiracy of the world’s most powerful, then it would be in one of these conference rooms at Davos. But if you look at their faces, you realize that they're struggling with real answers to the pressing problems themselves.”
Anne Winblad struck a more pragmatic chord and commented on some of the other issues at Davos such as what she described as the “Web 2.0 invasion.” She scoffed at how web 2.0 entrepreneurs such as Catherina Fake from Flickr or YouTube's Chud Hurley were treated like popstars and bloggers were ueber-present without really mattering (some may disagree, see The Davos Conversation blog). Second Life, of course, was virtually present in all conversations, too - view this video below that Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine) shot at a WEF reception of German publisher Hubert Burda ("How many of you have avatars?"). A man in the audience remarked that bloggers could be for the Forum what bees are for the beehive: they bring the honey into a seemingly chaotic organization that becomes a smoothly running system because of their very contributions, following a seemingly secret logic. Wikinomics, in other words.
The other “new royalty” at Davos were the big private equity firms. Private equity earned quite a bad rep lately and now the industry has responded by setting up a foundation to improve its image. PR work yielded first results: Several articles in the international press this week painted a more differentiated picture of private equity investments, referring to research suggesting that companies refloated on the stockmarket after private ownership performed better than other new issues. According to an Economist article, studies also find that investors have done well so far of private equity, with the average buy-out fund beating the S&P 500 index in 1980-200.
All three WEF attendees agreed that Davos is still an extremely relevant place and not only an intellectually enriching experience but also good business, worth every dollar and minute you spend (at least $25K, according to the panelists, and little sleep every night): “If you refer to a meeting or a conversation in Davos, your call will be put through right to the top of any organization.”
Click here to read the session summaries of the 2007 World Economic Forum