Richard Smith: A Davos diary – an ingenue at the World Economic Forum 2004

Thursday 22 January – 17.19 On the plane from London to Zurich

I’m on my way to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, a ski resort in Switzerland. It sounds grand and may turn out to be grand. I imagine rubbing shoulders with Colin Powell, Jack Straw, and the like and discussing “the big issues.” But the only picture that comes to mind is of a man in a balaclava smashing up the Davos Macdonalds.

On the plane I?ve been reading the blurb I?ve been sent. As usual, I discover that I should have read it earlier?but somehow I never do. My most important discovery is that I should have rubber soled snow boots. Will I get frostbite as I chat to Colin? I also discover that that I need two days to open my account on the website and that I?m supposed to have emailed in advance my three minute contribution for the panel I?m joining. It seems unlikely that anybody else at the forum will be as shambolic as me, and maybe I?ll be thrown out before I even start.

19.18 On the train from Zurich to Lindquart

Reading the information further I discover the good news. “It is,” I learn, “a hallmark of the annual meeting that there are no formal speeches or prepared remarks.” How, I wonder irreverently, does this fit with having to email my contribution. What it means is that I can spend the time on the train that I planned to spend sketching out my remarks writing this diary instead.

“The World Economic Forum is an independent international organisation committed to improving the state of the world. The forum provides a collaborating framework for the world?s leaders to address global issues, engaging particularly its corporate members in global citizenship.” Rich guys from big companies rub shoulders with smart academics to think about making the world a better place. For the man smashing up Macdonalds this is all hypocrisy: it?s a chance to spend a few days in a smart resort, eating big meals, and easing your conscience. I intend to approach it positively. The people who run the big companies and go to Davos have enormous power and resources. My Lockean view of the world is that most people want a chance to do some good and will do so in the right circumstances.

This year?s annual meeting has the theme of “Partnering for security and prosperity.” Partnering, security, and prosperity are all positive words designed to appeal to the customers of the forum, and the blurb makes clear that you can?t have security without prosperity and vice versa. I agree. In an “interdependent” (very much a Clinton rather than a Bush word) world no one country or group can fix everything. We need partnership?and a trip to Davos.

The “seven threads” of the conference are ensurng global security, promoting global growth, managing new risks, building corporate resilience, spurring innovation, harnessing the diversity of values, and reducing inequity.

“Lively discussion and frank exchange of views have come to symbolise the “spirit of Davos.” In some circles a “frank exchange of views” is a euphemism for a punch up?but presumably not at Davos. Perhaps, however, I will get a chance to tell a senior member of the US administration that some of their policies?for example, on climate change?make me queasy.

20.41 On the train from Landquart to Davos

The Guardian tells me that Clinton was in Davos to open the forum and that Dick Cheney?the American vice-president, who is perhaps even more unpopular among liberals than Bush himself?arrives on Saturday. Maybe I?ll bump into him in the dinner queue, but I somehow doubt it. The pictures in the Guardian are of “anti-globalisers” being dragged away. Am I, I wonder, on the wrong side of the barricades?

The same issue of the Guardian also includes an obituary of Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe-Langenburg, “the playboy who made Marbella into a glamorous resort.” In his prime he was “a celebrated bon-vivant, dancer?till?dawn, rally driver, hunter and sportsman.” Oh dear, I think. I?ve been an editor for 25 years, regularly go to bed at 10.30, drive about 500 miles a year, and have never shot anything. “I have,” says Hohenlohe-Langenburg in a quote, “lived in castles, Venetian palaces and the world?s best hotels. I have looked into the eyes of the most beautiful women.” There I have him. I lived two months in a 15th century palazzo in Venice, and my wife is a “real good looker.” Mind you, she is my first and only wife.

21.53 Arrive Davis Dorf station

I see some cars completely buried in snow. It about minus 5 degrees. There?s no taxi. I set off walking. Immediately I see lots of police people?young, charming, and helpful ones who speak English. I spy a taxi and take it.

22.05 Arrive at the Alpine Pension

The hotel is Swiss gothic with a touch of the Hitchcock. I seem to have the last room in Davos, a grade just up from the youth hostel. The room has no phone, but it?s warm and clean?although smelly.

22.15 In search of food

I set off in search of food. The congress centre is ringed by security and only people who have registered can enter. I circle round through the dark and snow in search of an Italian restaurant, which I conclude is probably mythical. I do find a restaurant, which is thronged with Davos attendees all in animated conversation. Perhaps the world?s problems are being solved right here. I sit happily in a quiet corner, drink and eat, and read Andrea di Robilant?s “A Venetian Affair.” I love eating alone.
Friday 23 January

8.15 Registering

Daylight reveals snow capped mountains and forests. Registration, I discover, happens in a BP garage at the back of the congress centre. I?m given my magic pass, the usual bag full of wisdom (or at least lots of documents) and a palm pilot through which I can scan the huge agenda, sign up for sessions, get information on all the participants (including Bill Clinton, Jack Straw, and all the glitterati), send any of them a message, send an email to the outside world, catch up with breaking news, and have my fortune read (the last I made up).

8.45 Arrive at the conference centre

I must pass through airport style security and click my pass through a machine. Inside it?s space age chic?computers everywhere, big screens, people in conversation, people clicking their palms and talking on mobiles, and huge numbers of staff willing to answer your every question and serve you tea, coffee, fresh orange juice, pastries, small sandwiches, and other delights. Although I?ve passed a sign that says “No ties: fine 5 Swiss francs,” I see a good many?but I also see a pile of notes and coins. (Later I discover that the money is donated to charity.) Most people are in black?although the dress code is “sporting or smart casual” (presumably excluding swimming trunks or a football strip). The mix of people looks good: only slightly more men than women, lots of young people, a good ethnic mix.

Inevitably you start spotting “celebrities.” President Musharraf of Pakistan sweeps by. I couldn?t miss him because he?s surrounded by security men. Other people with clusters of security agents and photographers I don?t recognise?and I feel it would be impolite to ask them who they are. There?s David Puttnam. Steve Forbes sits down beside me. There are lots of religious leaders, including the past Archbishop of Canterbury. Everywhere people are being interviewed for television (and as I?m writing this in my hotel room CNN is showing a series of interviews from the forum).

It does make you feel like one of the in crowd. Why, I wonder, was I asked? I am only a “media fellow,” but that?s a notch up from an assigned journalist. I can go to anything and am required to speak and mediate sessions. The process that “anoints” you is wholly opaque. Nor am I clear whether I?m in forever or on trial. Still it?s fun.

I start in on the process of selecting which sessions to attend. This reminds me of being at the Edinburgh fringe. There?s so much choice that you are overwhelmed and left with a permanent feeling that what?s happening next door is probably more interesting.

A delicious moment occurs when I look for the BMJ Publishing Group among the list of participating organisations. There we are, but we are listed as an “entertainment” organisation. I?m not sure if that?s a simple mistake, a comment from some wag, or an aspiration.

10.45 My first session: Clearing the data smog

After writing my diary I discover that I?m not allowed to quote people without permission and can use the material in sessions only as background. I?m not even sure if I?m allowed to say who was at the sessions. I tried to inquire after the forum but the entire media staff had gone on holiday?which is hardly surprising. I must thus play it safe and not tell you who was at the sessions, but the list of participants in the whole forum is public. Think power, money, cleverness, innovation, nuttiness, artiness, entrepreneurship, and lateral thinking?and you?ll imagine who was there.

The session on information overload begins with the correct but initially counterintuitive observation that our biggest problem is not too much information but too little in that what we don?t know is far more than we do know. Further getting the wrong information is often a good thing because it prompts new thinking and creativity.

Search engines usually don?t get the right answer first. In order to achieve that goal it?s necessary to get all information on the web. This isn?t easy, not least because of language problems. The next problem is to deliver information more personally, which means getting into the brain of the user. Nothing is yet as efficient as the human brain.

The internet contains as much information as 100 000 Libraries of Congress–but the information is a dreadful mess. Further, about 95% of corporate information is never used. Perhaps, it is suggested we could learn from experts in waste management. Universities are some of the worst offenders in producing useless information. We are suffering from information pollution.

One definition of information is that it is uncertainty reduced. Journalists are in the information business, and increasingly they are filters not originators of material. They are confident that they will always be needed because filters will always be needed. But the filter doesn?t have to be present news organisations. Good filtration depends on knowing the needs of users, which in its turn depends on dialogue and relationships. News organisations are not good at dialogue and relationship. The sociologist Raymond Williams (not there because I think he?s dead, so quotable) said: “There are no masses only ways of seeing people as masses.” Going on: “The people ?formerly known as the audience? don?t want your message. There is no demand for messages. Journalism will become harvesting what?s known, much of which will come from the audience. The readers become co-producers of knowledge.

This was a great session, full of wisdom, wit, and acute observation.

12.00 Through the streets of Davos

Immediately after the session I set off for the Sunstar Hotel, and quickly I realised I?d severely underestimated the size of Davos. I sweated as I rushed through the snow and the bright sunlight.

12.30 My second session: Who is responsible for your health?

I spoke in this session, which took place over lunch. Unfortunately the quality of the conversation was way below that in the previous session. We seemed to agree that health was the responsibility of everybody?from individuals through governments to international bodies. Much of the discussion concerned obesity, and we discussed it with great relish over a three course meal that culminated in delicious ice cream.

16.30 An address by His Majesty King Abdullah II, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

The pleanaries are “on the record” so I can reveal all. The king of Jordan is introduced by is introduced by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum forum in 1971 and is executive chairman. Tall, thin, elegant, and bald Schwab speaks beautifully with a thickish German accent and is the embodiment of the forum. My suspicion?with only the evidence in front of my eyes?is that it is the power of his personality that has created this remarkable forum.

Wearing an immaculate suit and speaking perfect English with an American accent, the young king speaks with a power and conviction that eclipses any of the eminent politicians I hear subsequently. This is a Harvard Business School king?not literally as he attended not Harvard but Sandhurst, Oxford, and Georgetown University.

Justice is his favourite word, and he wants action now. “Peace, equity, and justice are not just lofty goals. They are critical to the success of every nation?and the hopes of every individual.” The Arab world is in a mess and going too slowly. Growth is slower than in other developing countries. Unemployment is high. The way out is clear?through education, innovation, technology, free trade, and “most important, justice.” “Innovation,” he observes, “cannot take hold in closed societies.” Arabs must move on, but so must the rest of the world: “the credibility of the world?s commitment to justice is being tested.”

He spoke of the “unavoidable” road to peace in the Middle East: “two secure states, Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and the dismantling of settlements, two capitals in Jerusalem, and an agreed solution to the refugee issue.” The US must actively lead.

Schwab sees this young king as essential to the future of the Arab world and peace in the Midde East. He took the World Economic Forum to the Jordan Valley last June and will take it to the Dead Sea next June. Bluntly?almost rudely?he asked the king whether he was alone among Arab leaders in his views. The king referred to the “dialogue within Islam” and noted that he was not alone: he had “many friends sitting in the front row” who thought as he did. But, he warned, if he and his friends did not succeed then it may be a very long time before the Arab world would reform?and the clash of civilisations might be inevitable.

I find it ironic that with all the talk of democracy at the forum (particularly from Dick Cheney?see below) the hope of the Arab world should depend on a king. Perhaps democracy if it existed in more of the Arab world might have thrown up such a figure?but it probably wouldn?t have done.

After the session I ring home and speak to Flo, my 12 year old daughter. I tell her about the king. She knows and cares nothing for the king, but does know about his queen?who is “so pretty.” She was at the forum and speaking, but sadly I missed her. I wondered if a “drop dead gorgeous” wife (as an American woman described her to me) who appears in Heat magazine and appeals to 12 year olds in the West is an advantage to the king in his conversations and struggles with elderly Arab rulers. I have no idea.

16. 40 My third session: Have the postwar global institutions reached the end of the road?

Nobody answered directly the question that is in the title of the session, but there was unhappiness with the state of the world expressed both by the Americans on the panel and the representatives of the developing world. Tanzania and Uganda need $28 per head to reach the millennium goals for development but have only $7 per head. Yet if the extra money could be found then these countries have the capacity to reach the goals. But there is no political will in the developed world to find the money, even though it?s a tiny sum compared with the money the developed world is spending on armaments.

The United States transfers something like a quarter of its gross national product within its borders in order to “fulfill the social contract”?meaning that the government will provide education, health care, social services, pensions, income support, and the like. Yet the rich countries transfer only a fraction of 1% of their wealth to the poor world. In other words, there is no social contract between the rich and the poor world. People in rich countries are willing to see those in the poor world starve, live on the streets, and die of treatable diseases in a way that is mostly not acceptable within the richer countries. A true global society would mean a social contract between rich and poor.

People in the United States, we were told, didn?t like being the only superpower, although it was preferable to any other country being the only superpower.

20.00 My fourth session: Are public intellectuals really a dying breed?

This was a dinner session graced by a Nobel prize winner and several eminent artists and writers. There were about 30 of us, and we were a rummish bunch. The most interesting interaction of the evening was a writer born outside America but who now lives there describing how the public space for debate had shrunk dramatically after 9/11 and particularly when the US government had decided on war with Iraq. All the mass media supported the war, and it was very difficult to be doubtful about the war and not be seen as an enemy of the US. In contrast, in a particular developing country, where free speech had sometimes been difficult there was a vibrant debate with many different views expressed. His observations were generally not appreciated by the predominantly American audience, but I supported him.

With a few drinks inside me, I suggested that the subject of the evening was nonsense. “There will always be people coming up with new, disturbing, and challenging ideas. Isn?t that what?s meant by ?public intellectuals.? What?s important is having free speech so that they can present them.” Then?as an almost contradictory afterthought?I said: “But even if there is repression people will find a way to express their ideas.”

Saturday 24 January

7.15 My fifth session: Are businesses becoming more risk averse?

I rise at 6.30, and as I walk down to the Belvedere Hotel, Davos?s smartest hotel, at 7.15 the tops of the mountains are appearing from the darkness of night. The session includes prominent politicians and businessmen, and much of the discussion revolves around whether regulators have over-reacted to Enron and Parmelat. The businessmen present feel, wholly unsurprisingly, that they have.

An interesting moment for me was when an academic in the audience suggested that CEOs of big companies were reluctant to criticise each other in public. The implication was that this would be a form of regulation. A business leader said: “Well who wants to criticise. We all think that there but for the grace of god?..” Exactly, I thought, the reaction of doctors?with Bristol and Shipman as results.

10.30 An address by Dick Cheney, vice president of the United States

The temperature rises and the main hall fills rapidly as we await the speech from Dick Cheney. I can?t help reflecting that I usually go out of my way to avoid politicians, but here I am seeking one out. It?s the lure of power. This man is the second most powerful man on the planet, and there is a feeling that he is in fact the most powerful as he, a highly intelligent man, is pulling the strings of the most powerful, who seems to be a dolt.

The reason he?s come?a man who rarely leaves Washington?is to reach out to Europeans. The Americans may have over-reached themselves (the way that all empires end) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and need some help. Europe is a word used a great deal in his well delivered but ultimately uninspiring speech, but freedom is the word used far more than any other. The US is fighting not to preserve its pre-eminent position in the world, its wealth, and its ability do as it pleases but rather it is fighting for freedom. And freedom comes from democracy. Therefore the world?and especially the Middle East?must have democracy whether it wants it or not.

The United States has a three point strategy for countering terrorism: democracy for all; cooperation among “freedom loving peoples”; and a willingness to go to war if all else fails. Europe had shown itself to be weak on the last of these by its reluctance to support the war in Iraq. The word that was conspicuous by its absence in Cheney?s speech was poverty. Democracy will ensure that poor people get richer, and there is no need for the US to share out its wealth.

After his speech Cheney comfortably answered questions on Guantanamo Bay and the budget deficit, and a high moment came for him when the “Grand Mufti of Bosnia” thanked him and the American people for what they had done for Muslims in the Balkan peninusula. Less comfortable was when Schwab asked him about his Christmas card (thereby of course revealing that he had a Christmas card from Cheney, I didn?t get one), which mentioned empires. Is the US an empire? “Certainly not,” answered Cheney. The US leaves countries as rapidly as it can. It doesn?t attempt to add territory.”

11.30 My sixth session: Where do big ideas come from?

This smallish workshop included entrepreneurs who had had dramatic achievements. Oe man– a “serial entrepreneur”– had founded five companies, at least one of which had grown to a billion dollars. We discussed where big ideas come from.

There was general agreement that implementing ideas was more important and difficult than having them. Ideas usually emerge from creative groups rather than spring ready made from single minds, and creativity flourishes in organisations that celebrate diversity and encourage different ways of thinking. Bring the arts, spirituality, and science into your organisation to encourage innovation and new if not necessarily big ideas. Ridiculousness is important for creativity, as is a willingness to fail. The Silicon Valley mantra is that “You have to fail to succeed.”

Some people are “ideas people,” and they should be allowed to thrive. Even more important, however, might be those who are gifted to receive ideas.

14.00 My seventh session: An open source model for creating value

Open source software is seen as a model of a future less dominated by business, but its mostly copies of other kinds of software, usually not easy to use, and used predominantly by engineers. Nevertheless, open source in biotechnology could help the whole sector move ahead, and the trend in many businesses is for customers to become joint producers of value. Our rapid responses are an example.

17.00 Address by Bertie Aherne, Taoiseach and President of the European Union

Bertie Aherne gave a workaday speech on Ireland?s agenda to improve competitiveness in the European Union, but it was an inward looking speech for a world forum.

18.45 Encounter with a leading science editor

The editor of one of the world?s leading science journals interrupted me and said hallo as I was seated at a computer. Unfortunately I wasn?t searching for wisdom but for the football results.

19.30 Music

The Marinsky Theatre orchestra from St Petersburg played the music to the Nutcracker, which was first performed in the theatre in the 1890s. I enjoyed the music so much that I snoozed a little.

22.20 Walking home

After an excellent dinner uninterrupted by the need to have big thoughts I walked back to my hotel as more snow fell.
Sunday 25 January

7.35 Davos Platz station

I drink coffee with a man who runs a high tech company in Austrlai. He?s on his way home via Tokyo. Some 96% of the company?s revenue comes from outside Australia, and every six weeks he flies to the US, Europe, and Tokyo. “Isn?t it strange,” he observes, “how in this high tech, networked world we have to travel more than ever.” Many Australians that I know fly every month to the US or Europe. Probably at any one time a considerable proportion of the Australian population is in the air.

8.02 Train from Davos Platz to Landquart

Another foot of snow fell during the night. The train ride feels like a bobsleigh run with thick snow either side of the track, except that the ride is slow and stately. It?s a true Winterwonderland: everything intensely and cleanly white, glimpses of high mountains, occasional steep drops, and trees so improbably heavy with snow that they remind me of the small trees my grandmother would put on Christmas cakes. Sometimes there?s low clouds, and as we approach Landquart it begins to snow?but suddenly at the end I see patches of blue sky.

As we glide down the mountain I read of the improbable adventures of Giustiniana Wynne being helped by Casanova to procure an abortion in 18th century Paris. They visit the “midwife” in the middle of the night in full Carnevale dress, including masks. Casanova can be recognised because he has a small pink rose painted below his white eye.

12.45 Zurich airport

How do you measure the success of a meeting? New ideas, new skills, new contacts, new motivation, new insights? I have some of all of them.

Read rapid responses to this blog.