Davos at a distance
I’ve never been to Davos, despite attempts by many over the years to persuade me to go. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that it is a special event for many people, and for many reasons. It is anchored by wide-ranging and engaging agendas, and participants get to mingle with a global cornucopia of important people. It is also the place to see and be seen for heads of state, politicians, academics, thought-leaders, media pundits, CEOs, and movie stars.
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in that intimate setting remains one of the year’s hottest tickets, but its organizers want their event to be much more than what it currently is—a big, prestigious talk-shop. They want it to influence policy at the national, regional, and global levels.
Yet, over the years, and in the context of an increasingly unsettled and uncertain world, Davos has not had much impact.
I get a range of responses when I ask attendees why so few, if any, of the interesting discussions that have taken place in those beautiful Swiss Alps have led to change that improves the lives of most people.
Some say the strength of the typical Davos agenda is also a weakness. The topics are overly ambitious. In trying to cover too much for too many, breadth trumps depth.
Others cite the inherent difficulty of distilling the opinions of such a varied group of people into specific action points. This is never an easy endeavor, and it becomes a virtually impossible one when it involves so much wealth and so many egos.
Then there are those who believe that too much time is spent arguing about what has happened—especially when things have gone horribly wrong—and too little time is devoted to what lies around the next corner, and the one after that.
But most of the Davos devotees I talk to say the problem is more fundamental. They say that many of the attendees who truly matter are not interested in the organizers’ higher ambitions, and some are even suspicious of them. In either case, these key players do not want to give up control of their narratives, and they certainly do not wish to delegate any meaningful part of their personal agenda to Davos.
It will be difficult to overcome these obstacles unless Davos organizers make major changes. Specifically, they need to do two things that no one who puts on such events has seemed willing or able to do.
First, they must revise how Davos’s agendas and discussions are structured.
To be more productive, more useful, they need to be much less inclusive at some key moments. Very difficult (and highly delicate) decisions have to be made about who to involve in certain meetings and who to exclude. This would require additional (and closely monitored) status levels for participants, which could only be implemented by changing the World Economic Forum’s current role of convener/facilitator into a much stronger one of super-conductor/enforcer.
Second, key participants must truly collaborate—something that has not happened. This lack of collaboration has been particularly costly at a time when the world teeters on the brink of an economic abyss.
Shared interests must come with a greater sense of shared responsibilities. Narrowly focused national agendas must develop greater peripheral vision, and mutual assurances must be supported by credible peer reviews. The probability of these things being done is small, if not de minimis.
I am not happy about this. Given the global changes in play today, there is an enormous need for better coordination and understanding among those who influence developments in critical areas. This world has lost many of its economic and socio-political anchors, and leaders are finding it impossible to keep up with developments on the ground. Suspicion too often displaces mutual trust, which is why this prestigious gathering will continue to fall short of its vast potential.
Even if nothing really consequential gets done there, Davos will remain a hot ticket, but I will not be going.