This past week I was one of the fortunate 2600 or so people to participate in the 2014 Annual Meeting of The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
It was my first experience at Davos and here are my feelings after four days on Magic Mountain (Davos is also the site of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s famous 1924 novel called Magic Mountain )
1. Overwhelmed: There is rarely a concentration of so many talented folks from government, technology, business, the arts in a small town that has one single street (The promenade) which can be walked end to end in about 40 minutes. One moment I was in a room with Mohammed Yunis the Nobel Prize winner for his pioneering work in Micro finance, Matt Damon the actor and Ariana Huffington and a few hours later at a small breakfast that included the leaders of McKinsey, BCG, the Harvard Business Review and Facebook. Or a few hours later watching Simon Peres the President of Israel on the same stage that a few hours earlier Hassan Rouhani the President of Iran was standing.
2. Humbled: If you ever think highly of yourself a visit to Davos serves as a nice tonic and slap in the face. Yes, you are fortunate to be there but you clearly realize that your inclusion must have been a major mistake. Its not just all the big names but the place is filled with young folks from NGO’s and tech startups and the Arts who are scintillatingly brilliant, driven and often succeeding in changing the world. You feel small.
3. Inspired: While it may be easy to make fun of “Davos Man”, and it is still 85% men with two thirds from countries that account for 12% of the worlds population, it is clear that many of these folks are here to actually help deliver on the World Economic Forum’s mantra of “Committed To Improving The State Of The World”. This is done on at least three levels.
First, it is a forum for connection where people who would not connect with each other or have access to each other can. Eminent bankers sitting with young students. Bill Gates counseling young entrepreneurs. Larry Summers (Economist), Maurice Levy(Marketer) , Marc Benioff (Technologist) conversing and commenting on why developed countries are less optimistic while developing countries are more optimistic about technology. At most conferences you do not get such a smorgasbord of viewpoints. Oddly the different angles inspire far greater insights than most conferences where everybody is really in the same Industry.
Second, the conference itself has between 8 and 10 parallel tracks that one can attend that span everything from what the outlook for China or Japan or Europe is to new advances in healthcare, energy or environment to sessions on meditation, the mind in a hyper connected age and the future of privacy. If you decided to keep away from your Industry (like I decided to do ) and only expose yourself to new arenas and perspectives you can and be illuminated beyond belief. This understanding of a much bigger canvas surely helps make the world a better place because it brings more perspective.
Third, this is about people. Even though one is surrounded by amazing names and titles which leaves one feel small, in time one realizes these are human beings and people and while intelligent and driven just simple carbon based life forms. Oddly conversations occurred between any two folks were both high minded and illuminative and simple and human.
4. Educated: My notes from all my meetings and sessions were prolific but I tried to narrow it down to some key themes that I sensed were a silent undertow to the overall event. Here were my top six.
a) Unemployment: There was a real concern that a combination of technology that in the short run destroys more jobs than it creates, businesses that maximize margin versus investment and governments focussed on austerity versus growth (outside of Japan) are creating long term problems with over 200 million people worldwide looking for jobs.
b) Age versus Youth: Countries like Japan are aging to such an extent that in the next 20 years their population will decline by a quarter unless they let in immigrants. Other nations in Western Europe are running economics to protect the well being of the established and leading to high unemployment among the young with Spain having over 50% unemployment. Will the young who are highly social and connected pay attention or use social media to tweet pictures of food to each other?
c) Inequality: If there was a theme to this conference it would be inequality among different constituencies (young versus old, tech enabled versus tech challenged, employed vs unemployed) and the potential social and political ramifications of such inequality. A general thesis was that an investment in education was critical and progressive taxes may be necessary.
d) Technology and Data: A large part of the optimism at the conference was not just that the economies appeared to be on the upswing in most places, thought during Davos markets began getting shaky, but that technology was going to enable great advances. There was a belief that while there would be short term dislocations and impact of technology overall it was a force for good. The governance of data is likely to be a huge issue.
e) China: If there is one country that dominates Davos it is China. Whether it is in the room or not, one sees a more confident, more assertive China. Along with the United States it increasingly appears we live in a G2 (Group of 2 world), with Europe being bifurcated into a growing Germany and East and a muddling along West and most of the emerging countries somewhat eclipsed in the limelight versus some year ago.
f) Google/Alibaba/Tencent are increasingly more powerful than most Governments: Apple does not show at these events and Facebook was present and is on the rise but the dominant tech companies at Davos were Google who held a party where everyone came to kiss the ring and Tencent and Alibaba who lurk in the air and are clearly about to join Google as two of the other three huge global players (even though initially China based)
Oddly the power of Internet companies is a reason why the WEF which is a truly global organization is so relevant. Today in a connected world, countries may increasingly be containers of the past with rules, regulations and codes that fail to resonate with where we are and organizations like the WEF allow for solutions and conversations about the future to happen.
If ever given a chance do go. It is a mind blowing event.