January 24th, 2011
05:56 PM GMT
It is easy to take pot-shots at the World Economic Forum in Davos. As most of the developed world groans its way back to growth, there is something a bit obscene about rich, famous and powerful people getting together on a Swiss mountain side to talk about how to make things better. It has a ring of “let them eat cake” about it.
This year’s jamboree will add fuel to the fire - with a large new Congress Centre entrance, with oodles of lights.
But as I say every year - that ignores what happens here. I don’t for one moment think that the sometimes pretentiously titled panels are really what this event is about. (Some are without doubt interesting and stimulate thought and debate, but you don’t need to schlep to Switzerland in winter to do that.)
Rather, Davos is about access, meetings, talking and schmoozing, which is why the most important rooms here are not the big halls where tedious panels will take place, but the bilateral rooms where government ministers and CEOs meet each other.
There is nothing as vulgar as a deal being done - that isn’t what Davos is about. Rather there is a handshake, a knowing nod, a sharing of understanding about future plans. It’s more: “I am doing this. What are you doing and how can we help each other?” Davos becomes neutral territory where opponents can chat. One top CEO told me that he meets all his top clients over the course of a week.
With so much firepower in this one place, there is also the chance for the global agenda to be clarified. Leaders make speeches. CEOs set out their thoughts. Activists present their protests. But by the time we all leave at the end of the week we have a good idea of what the issues in 2011 will be and how they will be tackled.
Last year the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said he wouldn’t need a bailout (he would and he did). We all left Davos knowing sovereign debt would be a growing problem and that there was no real plan to tackle it. Basel III wasn’t discussed much during the plenary sessions and panels, but it was the talking point of the coffee bars. Financial reform was on everyone’s agenda and eventually became law.
Perhaps where Davos tries, and some think fails, is when it attempts to become all things to all people. There is nothing sadder than Davos trying to become modern and ending up looking like your parents disco dancing. This year the congress bristles with social networking lounges, risk response network centres, social leaders, global young leaders, global young entrepreneurs, CEO tweeters and networking lounges galore. Much of this is nonsense. The real decision-makers will be having nothing of it and will be closeted away in their bilateral rooms and salons at nearby hotels. Most of us need only a coffee bar and an internet connection. Leave the jargon to the kids.
Davos would be wise to remember why it works. It creates an environment where like-minded people can meet and eat. A hot-house in the cold of winter where, every now and then, something actually gets done.
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