Curb your cynicism over Davos

In our uncertain times, the World Economic Forum remains a place where the next generation of deal makers and peace bringers meet

On the final day of the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the local train is often packed with delegates, entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs returning home. AP
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The last day of the World Economic Forum at Davos is always anticlimactic, and slightly depressing.

The Belvedere Hotel, the site of so many parties and the temporary home of heads of states and governments during the five-day conference, begins dismantling tables and chairs. Rooms that a few hours earlier were packed with the chattering classes are emptied. The Promenade, where Uber, Infosys, Palatin and supporters of Ukraine take over shopfronts and host packed events, begin the slow return to their natural habitat.

By Friday, the local train weaving through the snowy mountains between Davos and Landquart is packed with delegates, entrepreneurs and start-up chief executives returning home and ruminating on what they learnt this past week. The very rich, of course, don’t use public transport – they fly out with helicopters or chauffeurs to their private planes in Zurich.

But Davos, as the WEF is commonly referred to, is so much more than a gathering of shiny people with plenty of capital, an echo chamber. The spirit of Davos is an open forum, a dialogue between thought and emerging leaders. It is a conduit for connections.

On some levels, it is truly glamorous – with casual sightings of Sting, Bill Gates, Angelique Kidjo and Diane von Furstenberg in snow hats and down coats trudging through the snow. But there is also something distinctly egalitarian about Davos. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had to line up at the Belvedere just like everyone else to get past the security checkpoint. Former British prime minister and now Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, goes to Barry’s Piano Bar for a nightcap and hangs out with the crowd.

Everyone is friendly and willing to have a 30-minute coffee meeting. I saw one billionaire investor ambushed by a youthful tech start-up entrepreneur at an elevator. He was listening politely and gave the techie his card. That wouldn’t happen in New York or London.

The truth about Davos is that there are multilayers of committed people, not just the financially elite. It has been called “a trade show for big ideas” by The New York Times, which is probably the best description of it – a potent combination of public and private, a place where political, business and community leaders come together.

But Davos could also be the fire-starter for roadmaps of hope. Governments do send leaders to Davos with the hope of back-channelling intractable conflicts. That was clearly the logic behind the presence of both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

The truth about Davos is that there are multilayers of committed people, not just the financial elite

The beauty of Davos is the access. You ride the shuttle bus number one next to Nobel Prize winners and billionaires. There is also energy and youth. Davos brings the next generation of chief executives who come to linger on the outskirts off-Davos. They don’t have badges to the conference, but they buy a “hotel badge” for a few hundred euros, share an apartment outside of town with friends, and gather in clans on the Promenade.

I listened to startling bright conversations and visions for Web3, AI and climate change. Inside the conference, you meet the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers and Young Global Leaders, programmes created by Prof Klaus Schwab, the WEF founder. These will be the next generation of deal makers and peace bringers.

There are also humanitarians who are awarded for their work in their homes, such as Diebedo Francis Kere, an architect I met standing in the security line, who was one of this year’s Crystal Awardees for contributing to social change. Mr Kere lives in Berlin but comes from a village in Burkina Faso where he was the first child to go to school. He now builds schools for the Gando community.

There are many who don’t win awards, too, but are doing purposeful work. I met an activist who runs an NGO that helps start businesses globally for members of communities who are subjugated in places such as Uganda or Jamaica. There are also humanitarians such as former British foreign secretary David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, who argue for ways to make the global financial system work for the most vulnerable communities. Human rights defenders such as Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard are also in attendance.

It’s within this demographic that change happens because given the collective brains and power in one small mountain city in Switzerland, anything is possible.

This year, the theme of WEF was rebuilding trust. Never was this more needed.

WEF took place during an extremely painful period in history. The war in Ukraine is still raging and Mr Zelenskyy reminded us at his Congress Centre speech on Tuesday that we must continue to support the fight against Russia. The Middle East has a brutal war in Palestine-Israel as well as flashpoints in Yemen, Pakistan and Iran. Neither Syria nor Iraq are fully stable. Times are so uncertain that the Taliban called for peace between Pakistan and Iran.

Meanwhile, in the many lines stretching throughout the Congress Centre (for coffee, for meetings, for entrance to a popular event), there was much talk of Donald Trump’s ascension in the US presidential polls and President Joe Biden’s rapid decline because of his inaction over protecting Gaza. At the private dinners, New York captains of industry argued that Israel has a right to self-defence while briefings on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza left others in tears. But there was also dialogue – people do tend to listen to each other in a small environment because you are there to be part of an open forum.

Prof Schwab’s original vision when he founded Davos in 1971 was to create a collaborative place where this kind of magic can happen – a spirit of brain power, creativity, imagination and yes, world power. It is a place where bilateral meetings can spark the road to peace treaties. Where there is real public and private co-operation and where business, political and community leaders meet on the shuttle bus.

Perhaps it is the beauty of the mountains, which a hundred years ago inspired the German novelist Thomas Mann to write The Magic Mountain – that place that provides a backdrop to fulfilling dialogue. Perhaps it is the stimulation of the whirl of so many ideas. But Davos continues to set the agenda to reflect on the big questions we’ll see in the year ahead.

Published: January 21, 2024, 10:45 AM