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Davos Diary: Heading to the World Economic Forum at a Crossroads Moment for the World

From Davos to DC, it's clear that the world is in need of big ideas. Let's hope the president, and those business and government leaders gathering a continent away, rise to the challenge.
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As soon as I hit "Publish," I'm getting on a plane for the seven-hour flight to Zurich, followed by a two-hour drive to Davos for the 2011 World Economic Forum.

According to early reports, the mood in Davos this year will be "somber."

"Humanity is at a cross-roads," Klaus Schwab, the Forum's founder, plans to say in his open remarks. "We can either continue to work as lobbyists for our narrowly defined self-interests and keep doing the same old things that got us into the crisis in the first place," or we can "act together as true global leaders, with the long term global public interest in mind and at heart."

It's a sweeping statement, but I don't think Schwab is overstating the case. Nearly 40 years ago, Jonas Salk talked about how the world was moving from Epoch A (based on survival and competition) to Epoch B (based on collaboration and meaning). But a global economy that leaves millions behind and is driven by greed, injustice, and the "narrowly defined self-interests" that Schwab warns of, makes it harder to move to Epoch B any time soon.

It's telling that a survey of Davos participants found that growing economic disparity is seen as one of the two biggest risks facing the world in the coming decade. In a piece previewing Davos, James Ledbetter, the editor of, describes the growing gulf between the world's rich and poor as "not only immoral, but dangerous, as it can lead to open conflict between nations and internal political turmoil."

Indeed, today, a country's internal economic health is as much a national security issue as the size and quality of a country's army was in the 20th century. The solution, according to Schwab, is an embrace of "basic values and shared norms" that can "guide the decision-making of leaders and help ensure inclusive rather than exclusive outcomes."

As part of the push for inclusive outcomes, the forum is once again granting full access to a collection of social entrepreneurs from around the world. This is the 10th year the conference has offered a platform to what it considers "voices from the ground." But there is something different this time around. In the past, social entrepreneurship and efforts at developing civil society were the Davos equivalent of icing on the banker/CEO/head-of-state cake. Now they are an essential ingredient, baked into the cake.

This shift stems from the growing sense, even among the elites, that our current political and economic systems are inadequate to the task of addressing the multiple crises the world is facing. As Schwab puts it, "One thing is certain: we can't keep doing the same old thing in a new era that requires new responses."

So there are panels like the one on "Scaling Up Big Ideas," moderated by James Gregory Dees, a professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. According to the Davos schedule, it will look at "models of collaboration," the "nature of social innovation," and the "challenges of scaling," while addressing the question, "How can social innovations be scaled up for wider effect and greater impact?"

There's also an IdeasLab featuring Marissa Mayer of Google, the Crown Prince of Norway, and "young global leaders," including Calvin Chin, the CEO of Qifang, a Shanghai-based online community that helps poor Chinese students pay for college, and Allon Raiz, CEO of Raizcorp, a South African company that helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Among the topics to be discussed: "promoting transparency in government, business, and civil society."

I'll also be interested in a panel on the "Media's Role in Shaping Norms" that will feature David Brooks, Peggy Conlon, CEO of the Ad Council, and Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti social entrepreneur.

The overarching theme of this year's forum is "Shared Norms for the New Reality." Among the shared norms Schwab will highlight in his opening remarks is "collective sacrifice."

It's a notion that has been conspicuously missing from America's political dialogue -- even in the face of the economic hardships of the last two-plus years. As David Leonhardt recently noted in the New York Times, countries like Germany and Canada have avoided mass layoffs by cutting hours and pay for everyone, while the notion of shared sacrifice has failed to catch on among our political leaders.

That's why early reports that President Obama will use his State of the Union speech to deliver a theme of national unity and renewal have been so encouraging. It's expected that the 44th president will hearken back to another president who faced a crossroads moment, JFK, who, in 1961, responded to the national shock at the Soviet Union having pulled ahead in the space race with the launch of Sputnik by promising to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

"Expect the president on Tuesday to hearken back to that time," wrote HuffPost's Howard Fineman, "and to say we face another 'Sputnik moment' -- an economic one." And the New York Times calls the president's speech "a pivot point not only for himself but also for the nation."

Crossroads and pivot points. This is one of those moments when you have the feeling that if we get it wrong, we'll be living in a very different world.

From Davos to DC, it's clear that the world is in need of big ideas. Let's hope the president, and those business and government leaders gathering a continent away, rise to the challenge.

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