A Week in the Clouds


The air is rarefied, enough to make one light-headed. The altitude is high and from the mountains, the view and vistas are endless. When the sun shines, the sky is a magnificent blue, and when the snow and mist arrive, the gloom is deep and thick.

I was privileged to spend the week at the WEF (World Economic Forum), also known as Davos, as that is where the annual global meeting is held, and, frankly, my description above is both about the physical place and the existential experience of attending.

The mission of the WEF is as follows: "committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas." And put more simply, it is the international institution for public-private cooperation. More on that later.

No doubt you have seen something about Davos this week in the news - and no doubt it was either about oil prices, China, gender equality, technology and world peace or Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio (sorry...I have to), both of whom I met and proudly resisted the selfie...although I did get Leo to tell me how difficult it was filming The Revenant -- cold!

And, as always, there was a lot of criticism for the Forum - elitist -- in many senses...head in the clouds (the flip side of my metaphor)...nothing practical ever comes out of there...an agenda to change the world order for corporations and the wealthy...a growing celebrity culture...the same talking heads on the same platforms...year after year and a general tone deafness to the world's real issues.

So what is it? A boondoggle for the ruling class or the hope of the world?

Frankly and honestly, I fall on the side of hope and I think my loyal readers know my cynicism well enough to hold the knee jerk until the end.

I think that a part of the problem is that there is an expectation every year that Davos will deliver a cure...a magic pill...a silver bullet that will solve the world's problems just like that.

Perhaps that view has its basis in the history of Davos, which from the mid-19th century had been the place to go to treat and cure tuberculosis for the very reasons I began with - the air, atmosphere and altitude created a microclimate and no less than Robert Louis Stevenson went there for the cure. And even today there is a thriving healthcare culture that takes advantage of that unique confluence -- here is an example that actually is redolent of Forum issues as well -- I met a couple who have a summer program that treats children with severe eczema, a growing problem in the world now being traced to industrial pollution.

Back to the point -- maybe the history of Davos as a place for cures has remained in trace memory and created an expectation that when you come off the mountain, you come home healed.

Truth is, Davos, both the Forum and the place, is not about cures -- it is about finding new strength in that special environment -- a special new strength that, when nurtured and fed properly and cultivated wisely, does in fact change lives, creates new direction and opens possibilities never before contemplated.

I liken Davos to what I call synapse jumping. I have long believed that true innovative creativity comes about when you experience many different and eclectic things...not at all connected...but all of interest to you...and then it happens -- some catalyst occurs that links two or more of the ideas, two or more of the experiences, two or more of the things and you get that flash -- the bulb over your head that signifies the eureka moment (and I do love those moments).

So at one level that is what Davos is all about. A session about the migration of birds across the Middle East as a metaphor for regional cooperation might be followed by a discussion about the upcoming US elections topped off by a panel creating a dialogue on the best way to balance altruism and profit as corporations search for the best way to give back in meaningful measure.

And by the way -- that is all before lunch. You repeat the process and then dinner might be a roundtable of carefully curated personalities (and experiences) who spend the evening strategizing on the issue of civil discourse...listening, if you will, to solve world problems.

Then, of course, the catalyst is often the chance meeting in the hall, on the streets, at a dinner or something even more serendipitous, as one of my friends experienced standing next to David Cameron in the men's room. And the etiquette here is such that just about everyone will talk to you -- answer your questions, engage in discussion, point you in a direction, give you an opinion. And therein lies the true value of being here and the biggest personal takeaway for anyone.

Then, of course, there is the private meeting. The quiet, nonpublic venues where heads of state and key business leaders meet, thrash out issues, create dialogue, engage...

One friend of mine who works for a global healthcare company described meetings with government officials from around the world discussing regulatory issues...problems of access to affected populations and how they might better partner to end disease.

Another described similar meetings, but the issue was tax and business environment, and still others trade reform and import/export rules...and the list goes on.

And sometimes the takeaway comes from a quiet moment when two people, who otherwise might not have any forum to exchange ideas or even dialogue, grab a sidebar moment and change the conversation.

I was told a story by a young man who was a participant in the Global Shapers Community -- the leaders of tomorrow who are empowered at Davos to speak their mind in any forum they can...he comes from Israel and sat through a few public sessions where a young woman from the Arab world did the pro forma...until after one session she took him aside and asked, "How do you do it? How do you manage? Why is your high tech so good?" And thus began a changed conversation...

Back to China, gender equality, technology and world peace, Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Read/watch the news...lots of opinions, lots to learn and plenty of real optimism...and love for Bono and his music and hope that Leo gets an Oscar....

China is still growing and there are plenty of bullish China Hands like my boss Sir Martin Sorrell. On gender equality the issue grows...what began as a "feminist" discussion mushroomed to include much more and then began to split off into different streams. Technology and world peace? Maybe on the key consensus topics as best expressed by Israel's former President, a 92-year-old tech-savvy millennial and Davos figure, who said:

Science and technology will force people to be more open-minded to the world. It will also empower young people to contribute to progress in their societies. It is an unstoppable process, even by the preachers of hate and religious dogma. -- Shimon Peres

...and no more on the celebs...

Let me end with Robert Louis Stevenson - who went to Davos for the cure and never lost his curiosity and drive to make the world better...listen:

Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. -- Robert Louis Stevenson

And there you have it -- the only way to judge Davos, and by that measure, it's my belief that it is hugely successful.

What do you think? And damn, I didn't take that selfie....

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