The global risk that is Davos

By Felix Salmon
January 14, 2011
Jim Ledbetter reads the 50-page Davos global risks report so you don't have to

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Jim Ledbetter reads the 50-page Davos global risks report so you don’t have to, and comes away with three and a half questions, all of which boil down to more or less the same thing: what if Davos is itself a global risk?

Reading the report, you get the strong sense of a circular argument along these lines: “My tools are broken. How will I fix them? I will use my tools!” About as close as the WEF gets to a solution for broken global governance is “a well-informed and well-mobilized public opinion sharing norms and values of global citizenship.” Yes, well … good luck with that.

The one thing that a Davos risks report can never say is that there’s some non-negligible chance that the World Economic Forum itself will make things worse. Last year, when I went looking for contrition in Davos, I sought but did not find “an indication that much if not all of the crisis was caused by the arrogance of Davos Man and by his unshakeable belief that the combined efforts of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals would surely make the world a better, rather than a worse, place.”

That belief remains intact and inviolate, and it severely constrains the ability of the WEF to change its ways for the better: you can’t learn from your mistakes if you never admit that you ever made a mistake in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, there’s no doubt that the delegates at Davos are important and powerful; what’s more, many if not most of them have genuinely good intentions. They also love to talk about quantifiable deliverables, both in business and in philanthropy, which allow people to measure whether what they’re doing is working. But they never apply that mindset to the WEF itself. Because they know that if they did, they would risk finding out that the value it adds is negative.

6 comments

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Fellix,

Two years ago, I went looking for contrition and found none. I found myself among the problem rather than the solution, I decided. Though when I ran a session on rethinking and remaking industries, the group in the room (mostly VC types; no ties) chose to remake banking and their solution to its problems was to create the radically transparent bank. OK.

Last year, I had the feeling that I was surrounded by the disrupted when I’d rather have been among the disruptors. I think that’s key: Should we look for contrition and solutions — and disruption of broken ways — from those who will be disrupted? Doubtful. But these are the people with the resources and power. Precisely right. That’s the struggle. WEF to its credit does try to bring in disruptors; that’s why it has emphasized young and tech leaders. Symbolically, that’s even why they bring in YouTube, to connect Davos to the outside. Can that work? You tell me.

Is there a Davos for the disruptors? That’s what I’d like to join. Can Davos do that? Doubtful. But if someone does, the counterpoint will be valuable, putting pressure on Davos Man, who still, again, holds the capital and the law.

Posted by JeffJarvis | Report as abusive

Hey Jeff, are you going to DLD this year? Does that aspire to being Davos for disruptors?

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

Don’t leave out Council on Foreign Relations Man, Bohemian Grove Man, Clinton Initiative Man, Fareed Zakaria Talk-Show Man and his doppelganger, Charlie Rose Man…so much to screw up, so many conferences and seminars and panels and dialogues – and so little time!

Posted by midasw | Report as abusive

Thought experiment: kidnap random people from around the globe and bring them to Davos. Kidnap every third attendee (at random) and put them in one of the kidnappee’s place.

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Posted by LadyGodiva | Report as abusive

The fact that such a small group of people have so much power is the problem and should be addressed. If you are at one of the “World Summits” and believe that you actually represent the world, you are definitely part of the problem.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

I’ll follow your post. Thanks for sharing.
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Posted by assyly | Report as abusive