Celebs and politicians shine off-stage at Davos 2018

Global leaders take centre-stage at the World Economic Forum but it’s what goes on off-stage that counts

Gendarmes of the cantonal police (top L) stand on a roof to monitor the area near the Davos Congress Centre (R), the venue of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF), in the town of Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Miguel MEDINA

Donald Trump dominated the last two days of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week, his celebrity wattage fascinating other world leaders and top executives alike, as he characteristically played to the crowd in front of him with an investor-friendly message that the United States was open for business.

While politicians traditionally steal the limelight in Davos – on the first day it was India’s Narendra Modi and Canada’s Justin Trudeau causing a stir – and celebrities also add a touch of stardust, with actors Cate Blanchett and Shah Rukh Khan joined by musician Elton John at the opening gala, what is actually likely to influence news and policy for the remainder of the year occurs off-stage.

It is in booths around the meeting rooms, in storefronts on the main Promenade, up at the Hotel Schatzalp on the “Magic Mountain”, in the nearby high school and elsewhere throughout Davos that issues and topics ranging from the environment to the refugee crisis, to the power of social gastronomy, are put front and centre.

Jostling for a place high on the agenda, groups, individuals and organisations set up on the sidelines of the forum, knowing that the top executives, billionaires and world leaders gathered in Davos are at their most receptive thanks to the relaxed atmosphere that the elite nature of the annual meeting creates.

This is what motivated polar explorers Robert Swan and his son Barney to journey to the Swiss town shortly after the conclusion of a 600-mile expedition on foot to the South Pole, powered solely by renewable energy, to highlight the dangers of climate change to this special audience.

On the terrace of the mountain-top hotel, surrounded by snowy peaks, they cannot hide their intense emotion as they recount their recent pioneering and harrowing experience in the Antarctic. By sharing, they hope to inspire people to make the necessary changes to mitigate the impact of climate change. By using only solar power and biofuels to complete the trek in what is the most inhospitable place on the planet, they hoped to prove that everyone can make the switch.

Robert was the first man to walk to both poles in the 1980s and on this latest expedition he could clearly see the impact of climate change. The edges of Antarctica are disintegrating faster than even most pessimistic predictions, he says.

“The surface of Antarctica has changed. Entirely different to 32 years ago. A pie crust surface, solid at first but skis would go through [it]. We had to go slower [than planned],” he says during a discussion hosted by the Global GoalsCast podcast – which profiles individuals working toward achieving the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – and US broadcaster CBS.

This is just one of many events held during the week of the forum. The Crossroads Foundation's A Day in the Life of a Refugee live experience at the Hilton hotel next to the Congress Centre gets CEOs down on their hands and knees, giving them an hour-long taste of what it is like for those trying to find a better life in Europe.

Manchester United star Juan Mata was in Davos for a day to promote his Common Goal initiative that calls on football stars to join him in pledging 1 per cent of their salaries to support efforts to break 2.5 million people out of the poverty cycle. Technology also hugs the corridors of the forum, with booths within the Congress Centre showcasing the latest virtual reality, including being able to see yourself in the body of someone else.

Social gastronomy sessions offered hot soup and the promise of world peace. Representatives from the United Nations World Food Programme and Cargill, the global agribusiness, joined with chef David Hertz, one of the social gastronomy movement’s leaders, to make El Salvadorian soup “to warm up dialogues”. Hertz’s Gastromotiva organisation uses food to empower troubled communities such as in Brazil’s favelas and prisons. The idea is that people who live in these communities are taught to cook and then they train others, boosting their employment opportunities and spreading self-respect.

Davos provides time to educate the elite on all of the above, when captains of industry and their partners have the time to think and learn. Everyone is equal at the annual meeting – that is its power. World Economic Forum founder, professor Klaus Schwab, has come up with a perfect recipe.

It mixes heavy security cordons, a high entry price and a who’s who list of attendees with a down to earth and secluded alpine location and a format that means that once your inside you are treated like an insider. This has the profound effect of lowering everyone’s defences. Conversations just happen as everyone rubs shoulders and minds are very much open. Bear in mind this is all going on with the world’s press corps in attendance. A very paradox.

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The annual meeting also makes a great platform for the sounding of urgent warnings, thanks to the heavy media presence. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and others such as Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s foreign minister, called on Europe to take a greater role in hosting refugees. They highlighted that just as a result of Syria’s conflict, 10 million people have sought refuge abroad, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

The message from the Swan polar explorers was equally direct as well as practical. People can do a lot to help mitigate the effects of climate change with just a small action, such as electing to not eat a meat-based meal once a week, says Barney Swan.

“We are in a survival situation here on planet Earth,” says Robert, 61, who is nicknamed Rocky after the eponymous underdog character in the Hollywood boxing movies of the same name.

He and 23-year old son Barney are also urging greater use of renewable sources of energy. For their expedition, Shell provided advanced biofuels and Nasa came up with solar-powered ice melting technology.

"To come home and discuss emissions and climate change" is what ultimately inspired Barney to complete the arduous journey, he says. Barney and Robert were also inspiring through their honesty, courage and integrity – all characteristics that hit home with high achievers who love to hear and see something extraordinary.

Perhaps that is why president Trump was such a hit in Davos. He revelled in the part of the biggest celebrity in a place already not short of them.  

You can hear more about Robert and Barney Swan's adventure in the South Pole at www.globalgoalscast.org