Davos Man

January 25 2007

While “Davos” – the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – is on, a couple of thoughts.

Arnold Toynbee would have fitted in there. His passionate engagement with contemporary as well as historical issues would have made him an easy person to programme. Several of his later books are in the form of published dialogues with other figures. I can envision one of those dialogues in a closing plenary. After that, I’d want the concert, in the same hall, to be with Daniel Barenboim’s inspiring West-Eastern Divan (orchestra), which Barenboim founded with his friend Edward Said. Toynbee was an admirer of Goethe: a good lead-in. It’s made up of young Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab players, and it seems odd to me that it has not yet played at Davos.

But before that, Toynbee would have been presented with a “Crystal Award”.

Toynbee could have participated in the first four Davoses, 1971-74 inclusive. I’m not sure whether the Forum’s programming was as wide-ranging in the early days as it became later.

The WEF was originally The European Management Forum – until 1987. I’m feeling a strong seasonal Davos pull at the moment, having been at every Davos from 1993 to 2006 inclusive.

Davos gets a mixed press. (Highlights of the last few Davoses are on YouTube.) The WEF is the creation of Klaus Schwab. From 1972 to 2002 he was Professor of Business Policy at Geneva university. Lance Knobel, long-time managing editor of the WEF’s magazine of which I was publisher, called the WEF in our earlier years “gloriously personal and amateur – and I don’t see that as a pejorative”. It’s a non-profit foundation and used to be run from a modest one-storey building that looked like a primary school, in Cologny, Geneva. In 1999 it moved to slicker premises (bad good architecture, it’s been called) overlooking Lake Geneva. For detractors it’s a “rich man’s club” – which is probably the feeblest of all descriptions – and a talking shop.

In the early Davoses, participants would almost literally ski down to the Congress Centre, check in their skis and have their badges written out by hand by the formidable Maria Livanos Cattaui.

Security, in my earliest Davoses, was hardly intrusive. A few cantonal or federally-supplied security guards with their dogs (with their own mugshots), no scanners. Came the Seattle riots in 1999, and Davos 2000 and 2001 was on guard against a possible tide of demonstrators coming up the valley.

An anti-Davos, the World Social Forum, was started in 2001 in Porto Alegre in Brazil. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva surprised his voters by showing up at both Davos and the virtually simultaneous anti-Davos.

Came 9/11 – and Davos moved. The 2002 Meeting happened in New York.

Came 2003 and it returned to Davos (a contingent of Alphorn players in the Waldorf Astoria had seemed to be calling it back). Colin Powell came, to pre-announce the Iraq War. It was felt in ’03 that the usual Saturday night gala, in reality a series of parties in the Congress Centre, shouldn’t happen: times were too serious.

That was a mistake. Company after company, led by the consulting firms, held its own events in the town. They’d done that before, but it was more marginal and private. Davos began to turn into a scene for mere corporate hospitality, and a bad precedent was set. The Meeting which had begun as an off-the-record retreat started to turn into a jamboree. It became the world’s and the media’s property. There was more advertising: banners hung from buildings, projections onto mountainsides.

Security since 2003 has been another affair altogether. The easy walk from place to place became scans and queues at previously easily-accessible venues. As you waited, you started to look at your fellow-participants and wonder whether all this was indeed now what the detractors claimed. Driving became difficult, with delays and detours. By 2006 the town was looking like a place under siege, with wire, barriers and checkpoints. The intimacy had gone.

The Forum had had itchy feet by 1999. There was talk of moving the venue permanently. The 2002 move was actually a slightly odd but effective gesture of solidarity with New York, but New York, or any major city, could never be a substitute for the mountain retreat which Davos had been. But who would pay for security at Davos? What combination of the Forum, the federal government and the canton? The Meeting itself is far from universally popular. Some businesses do well, others suffer. A skiing season is interrupted. The disruption is annoying.

The Forum has responded recently by running some parallel events involving the town.

The Forum became rather starstruck. Professional celebrity-philanthropists were invited. The media attention was thereby increased. President Clinton’s arrival with most of his cabinet in 2000 (a meeting run by Lance) set a new benchmark in disruption.

The increasing cost of running Davos and other activities made the WEF ask for more and more money from its corporate “partners”, which in any commercial organisation would be called “sponsors”. So those partners demanded more and more space on the programmes. Davos isn’t supposed to be a sponsored conference. There was a tendency to which Davos fundamentalists, and a fortiori detractors, objected.

A more important change in the WEF around the time it moved into its new building was the shift from a merely enabling organisation – a facilitator for a network – to a facilitator of global initiatives with follow-through – on health, the digital divide, education, whatever. The glorious amateurs were replaced by younger and slicker teams with better degrees. Who rarely stayed long because the WEF organisational structure is far from “flat”, as the WEF tells us it is. Power resides at the top. People come and leave.

People have been saying that “Davos” is on the decline for a long time, and new reasons are constantly given. It isn’t. Nor is it the special retreat that it was when participants skied down to the Congress Centre to have their badges written out by Maria Cattaui as they were handed a cup of Glühwein.

At its best, it’s an incredible mixture of CEOs, scientists, artists (though the Forum’s taste in art and literature has always been a little unreliable), academics, religious leaders, major journalists, young entrepreneurs (22 year-old Slovenians), NGOs, social entrepreneurs. As Lance has often said, getting the best out of the week (as good as – I’m not at all reconciled to the cutting short by one day) is about not doing what you always do, and going to sessions that expose you to subjects you aren’t normally exposed to. Davos has never only been about business and it is, or was, possible to be busy for the whole week without going to a single session on a purely business issue. For a year or two from 2002 there were too many sessions on corporate governance, Sarbanes-Oxley and similar topics, and the programming began to look dull.

The one-time managing director of the WEF Claude Smadja used to say to people: “If you think you’re coming to a conference, don’t come.” Making everything work: the beautiful, unflustered thing called Swiss logistics. The Swiss understand logistics like no other people, because living in Switzerland was itself a logistical exercise. High points: the unexpected encounters, even if they were programmed by the WEF. The trudge to the Waldhuus for a session on Mars. The closing lunch in the sunshine at the Schatzalp.

Various waves have given Davos its flavour over the years. 1992 to 2001: influx from eastern Europe and Russia. 1995 to 2001: dot com boom. 2002 onwards: issues raised by 9/11. Now other matters.

In 1987 the WEF started a magazine for its members, World Link, which it ran in Geneva. In 1991 a joint venture was set up with a UK publishing group in London, and I came in. In 2002 the bi-monthly magazine was closed and relaunched as an annual, Global Agenda, for Davos 2003. I am not at Davos now because the 2006 edition published a rant by a geneticist and activist at Yale, Mazin Qumsiyeh, advocating the economic boycotting of Israel – an unbelievably crass editorial misjudgment, which got through all the filters which should have caught it. The tone was confrontational, and Davos is about everything except confrontation, and the article was not balanced by a counter-view. Lance Knobel was no longer with us. A publishing prize – official status as the magazine of the World Economic Forum – was squandered. The power of the Israeli lobby ensured that we were closed down – which is no less shocking, since this would not have happened if a similar view had been expressed in relation to an Arab state.

Coming back eliptically to the subject of this blog, it seemed a good idea the other day to set up a Google alert for Arnold Toynbee. I had to cancel it in order to reclaim my inbox.

I expected occasional, interesting references. What I got was a daily deluge of media allusions, almost all of them based on a very narrow range of misquotations or quotations that were wildly out of context and/or not understood at all. As well as telling me that Toynbee is often misquoted, this exercise revealed something else to me: the Coelho syndrome. The common factor is an unusual appeal to the partly-educated outside the West.

Toynbee seemed to be a Western dissident and to have important things to say to non-Westerners. Many of those Google alerts came from press references in Serbia, or Turkey (despite his writings on Armenia), or Latin America, or India. Other Western historians and philosophers don’t get the same welcome. Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian and therefore quasi-Westerner (and Davos man), is culturally ambiguous. You only have to travel to notice his vast global following. I hate to compare Toynbee with a figure such as Coelho, but there’s a parallel.

One more point. I am not so sure Toynbee would have been welcome at Davos (at least at a closing plenary) after all. His views on Palestine were too forthright.

18 Responses to “Davos Man”

  1. Lance Knobel Says:

    A great vade mecum on Davos. I’ll have a long, more thoughtful response on Davos Newbies when I get a moment.

  2. […] stick at these days, which is great. If you want some perspective, hurry over to David Derrick, who reflects on 14 years at the Annual Meeting. People have been saying that “Davos” is on the decline for a long time, and new reasons are […]

  3. davidderrick Says:

    I think the Forum’s “partners” often feel aggrieved because they are not given the additional programming space to which their growing cash contributions seem to entitle them.

    Much WEF dissidence comes from partners who feel they get a poor deal at one level, and can’t afford to back out. The Forum is doing the right thing by not caving in.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    A former WEF colleague writes:

    David –

    Your Davos musings are both deep and delicious – thank you for alerting me to them. I’ll be re-reading them for pleasure in the coming days…

  5. davidderrick Says:

    I’ve missed Stauffacher’s bookshop at recent Davoses. Herr Stauffacher had a shop in Berne and a space in the Congress Centre and sold participants’ books (and CDs). There was no bookshop at Davos/New York, and you didn’t need one, but nor was Stauffacher in evidence when the meeting returned to Davos. He had hinted that he was retiring. I asked the Forum why they had not found a substitute and was told: “None of the members mentioned it”, a very weak answer. The bookshop was a whole dimension of the Annual Meeting and its loss was a major, not minor, loss.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    I said that security arrangements had destroyed the feeling of intimacy in the town. But it remains in the Congress Centre.

    That Centre is nothing like most convention centres, with their empty meaningless spaces and endless walks. A large part of Davos’s success is due to it.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    An afterthought on rereading this. “It is, or was, possible to be busy for the whole week without going to a single session on a purely business issue.” There is very little now which is not partly a business issue.

  8. davidderrick Says:

    There is a crop of second-rate academics and other figures of various kinds who live on conferences, and do Davos because it flatters them to be there and the Forum hasn’t had the discrimination to weed them out. Of course, that motive isn’t absent in anyone and helps to perpetuate the Meeting, but for the group I am talking about Davos looms larger than it does with others.

  9. […] My post of a year ago is there for anyone who wants a rapid impression of Davoses 1993-2006. […]

  10. […] to 2006 January 25, 2009 My post of two years ago sketched the history of the World Economic Forum and its Annual Meeting up to […]

  11. […] I wrote a impressionistic piece about the Davoses I attended (1993 to 2006 inclusive) here. […]

  12. […] Davos man, about Davos from 1993 to 2006, […]

  13. […] Davos thoughts. He was there from 1993 to 2002, 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 […]

  14. […] battle was lost long ago: I dated the final capitulation to […]

  15. […] I’d said that Toynbee had “an unusual appeal to the partly-educated outside the West”. I could have phrased that as “the, in western terms, partly-educated”. […]

  16. […] of these may have come back, but after Menuhin died, the WEF became more celebrity-conscious than it had been before (Bono, Hollywood). The celebs jumped on the bandwagon. This year, Gergiev […]

  17. […] Davos man. About the Annual Meeting up to 2006. […]

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