Last year, I had to do a Wikileaks in order to post the Davos programme in advance, since for some reason the World Economic Forum no longer publishes it thus online. This year, my sources weren’t there or weren’t sharing. You can see it now, after it’s all over.
Lance Knobel wrote some Davos thoughts. He was there from 1993 to 2001, I from ’93 to ’06. His post is an equivalent of my retrospective. The joke about “Committed to improving the state of the world” sounding like local government (London Borough of Camden, actually) was mine. I agree with him when he says, before all the qualifications: “The Forum is truly committed to improving the state of the world, and some of the corporations that are members are wholly on board with that mission.” Some things can be taken at face value. It doesn’t mean they succeed.
From ’08 to ’10, I worked for a company that sent me to some other meetings, in China, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa. We had CEO-only rights at Davos, so I couldn’t go back there.
I enjoyed the regional meetings less as an ordinary participant than I had done as a semi-insider. I became more aware of the waffle. (Whiteboards had become de rigeur. By the end of a session, if not at the beginning, they had to have exuberant but incomprehensible markings on them in many colours. Afterwards, they would be collected and made to line a corridor.) Lance: “The dark, dirty secret you learn when you run the program at Davos is that the vast majority of CEOs have nothing to say. That doesn’t mean they are bad CEOs. It’s just that there is no correlation between being a successful business leader and having interesting ideas and the ability to express them.” Many CEOs experience practically nothing when they travel.
“Fast-moving events, like the beginnings of the Arab Spring one year ago, leave the Forum flat footed. So, too, do the kinds of faint rumblings that might just turn into something significant, but could also be a bust. The Forum isn’t about weak signals or the long tail. It navigates skillfully along the tides of conventional wisdom, but with just slight deviances in the course so that there is the appearance of freshness and discovery.
[...] The staff of the Forum has grown at least threefold. There’s a decidedly engineering-like approach to building the program now, with a cascade of agenda councils and meetings. I was, and am, more attuned to artisanal production. To my eyes, all the additional resources and grand processes has just pressed the program flatter and flatter. Davos continues to attract absolutely extraordinary people. But they are forced into discussions where the unremarkable is the norm.
[...] Davos remains a wonderful privilege. If I were ever invited again, I’d be on the next plane to Zurich (fat chance, I know). I had some of the best experiences of my life working on Davos [...].”
Swiss cleanness, cold air, a thrilling confluence from around the world, a residual rustic simplicity (disappearing now, I sense). Dôle wine, snow, the swell of technological change under it all. The best years were before 9/11. Before the Seattle riots of 1999, actually. Seattle was a foreshock of 2011-12. After them, the security barriers started rising and the easy-goingness which had given the Annual Meeting its charm was gone.
I’ve written a lot about Davos here, partly about the meeting, partly about the history of the town and canton.
The Tomasee: source of the Rhine near Landquart