The story of Davos

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When Davos Newbies was launched in 1999, it was all Davos, all the time. I haven’t been back to Davos since 2001 (and the New York “Davos” in 2002), and so the blog has understandably drifted into other areas.

But reading some of the reports from this year’s Davos there are some things that I think deserve comment.

My friend Felix Salmon posted a very critical view of Davos and the World Economic Forum the other day:

Is anybody here seriously examining the idea that Davos was institutionally responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008? I’ll be on the lookout for that over the next few days. But I suspect that the preening potentates will be far too busy giving themselves the job of rebuilding the world to stop and ask where they went wrong in building the last one, and whether they might actually owe the rest of us a large collective apology.

There’s a more pointed critique by James Gibney on one of The Atlantic’s blogs:

Here’s what’s potentially dangerous about the Forum’s worthy-sounding ventures on climate, global education, corruption, and health etc. For starters, they reflect the needs and goals of the Forum and its members, not the world. The sponsors of the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI), for example, are Qatar, Singapore, and Switzerland. Why them? Will the emerging grand master plan pay extra attention to the priorities of a sharia-bound absolute monarchy, a one-party state that bans chewing gum, and a minaret-bashing, tax-dodger-protecting bastion of chauvinism, or did those countries  just happen to have some no-strings-attached money to burn? Schemes like the GRI are spawned and shaped outside the public view. The biggest job for the staff members running them is to keep the people paying the bills happy.

I have sympathies with Felix’s view, but I think it’s a stretch to hold the Forum “institutionally” responsible for what happened. For me, that’s overrating the Forum’s influence and power.

As Gibney makes clear, there’s a lot that has changed at the World Economic Forum since my time. When I first became involved with the Forum, there were 60-70 staff members. A decade later, when I left, there were perhaps 120. Now, from what I hear, there are more than 300, and the numbers continue to grow. But that’s still a very small organization. Whatever the Global Redesign Initiative concludes, I think it is a very good bet that it will have no impact whatsoever on anyone.

Part of Klaus Schwab’s brilliance in creating and developing the Forum over the years has been sustaining the illusion of power and influence. I remember some newspaper article calling Klaus the world’s greatest concierge. People within the Forum bristled. But there’s no shame in being the world’s greatest concierge. The Forum is great at bringing business and political power together, with a leavening of intellectual power (the dancing bears, as some of the academic superstars called themselves in my day). The Forum has always worked incredibly hard to be more than that, with its endless stream of initiatives and agendas and councils. But, as far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of there there, even today.

There’s another reason why I hesitate to wholeheartedly endorse the more dramatic criticisms of Davos and so-called Davos Man. The biggest noise, particularly in the last decade, may have been made by the American financiers and the advocates for a capitalism red in tooth and claw. But the roots of Davos are very firmly in what some call Rhineland Capitalism.

Gibney, in his Atlantic post, notes that Jack Welch was a long-time Davos holdout. True. (When Welch finally came, I recall he had a session where his staff had really taken over the design and presentation. It was cheesy and over-rehearsed. Very non-Davos.) But that’s partly because the “spirit of Davos” was not the mantra of shareholder value espoused by Welch, but a more nuanced, socially oriented vision of value and values exemplified in that era by a Welch competitor, Percy Barnevik. Barnevik’s creation, ABB, never did become the great rival to GE that it was hyped as, but that was the model that most of the Davos Men wanted to follow.*

That more socially conscious capitalism has been in relative retreat for quite some time. But it never really went away in Davos. It’s very easy to mock the Forum’s grandiose aspirations to “improve the state of the world”, but it’s sincerely held. To my observation, in the world of giant corporations and large financial groups — the Davos crowd — it’s pretty rare to find people who have a primary motivation to do good. It may be overstated, misguided, even delusive, but the Forum is a holdout against the more corrosive elements of that world.

*An aside. I remember attending some cocktail party at The Belvedere one Davos with my wife, who was wearing her spouse’s badge. In the hierarchy of Davos badges, the spouse’s badge hardly ranks at all. But when we struck up a conversation with Barnevik, it was notable that he paid as much attention to her as to anyone else in the group. He didn’t judge on the basis of titles and badge designations. That’s rare.

3 thoughts on “The story of Davos

  1. Robert Scoble

    I agree with you after visiting Davos the last two years (I wasn’t invited this year). They are earnest about their belief that they can change the world. And since they have the money to really make stuff happen once in a while they really do change the world. By the way, I really appreciate the advice you gave me about preparing for Davos.

    Reply
    1. Lance Knobel

      I’m always happy to help, Robert.

      It’s very easy to be snarky about Davos, and there’s a lot to snark about. But I really cherish the many years I was able to go, as do most people, and it’s hypocritical to carp too much.

      Reply
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