DAVOS, Switzerland - On the face of it, Davos doesn't seem to make much sense. For business and political leaders who are increasingly mistrusted by the public, cloistering themselves in a luxurious mountain redoubt for a week seems like a good way to sharpen the perception that they are far removed from the interests and concerns of their constituents. And in a world of ever-proliferating global forums -- TED and Google Zeitgeist for the techies, Clinton Global Initiative for the high-minded policy and business types, the list goes on -- the World Economic Forum (WEF) has a bit of an identity problem. Aside from the invigorating alpine freshness, the good skiing, and the chance to meet Charlize Theron, is there any reason to come here? And does what happens here still matter at all?
First, for all the interconnectivity enabled by social media and information technology, personal meetings still matter, and Davos consistently gathers some of the most powerful and intelligent people in the world in one place. That includes the nearly 40 sitting prime ministers and presidents who are here, figures such as Shimon Peres of Israel, Mario Monti of Italy, David Cameron of Britain, and Angela Merkel of Germany.
But more importantly, that includes guys you've probably never heard of -- guys like Carl Ganter, who I've befriended here. Carl runs Circle of Blue, an organization that provides data on the world's water crises. He's one of the smartest guys in the world on the question of dwindling water resources, and is particularly attuned to how water shortage exacerbates risks pertaining to food, energy, and health. I have no particular expertise on the topic -- but it's interesting, it's important, and it helps me to think more clearly about an issue that directly affects the global political risk focus of my own work. I wouldn't have bumped into him were it not for the WEF. Davos unearths the interdisciplinary aspects of your profession thanks to serendipitous encounters with other attendees.
Second, a lot gets done here. Not "by" Davos. Davos itself doesn't do anything. But the key word in World Economic Forum is "forum" -- the event provides a platform for powerful people to pursue their distinct interests. There's no fat here. Sure, there are people who are just here for the parties and the scene -- but you won't slot them in for a 30-minute meeting.
It's like 2,000 of the world's top decision-makers having Hillary Clinton's U.N. General Assembly schedule for a week. I'd say six weeks of work actually gets done here in just a few days. That's certainly true for me. It's not the way I'd want to live my life -- I'm thoroughly exhausted by the end of the trip. There are a huge number of business deals getting done here. This year, I know of two technology agreements involving U.S. firms, one energy deal involving an African firm, and a medical devices agreement.
Once again, Davos isn't a government -- it's a forum. It enables private and public players to get on the same page. For example, in a public session I hosted, there was a great back and forth between the governor of Brazil's development bank and a major investor in the country; it led to a private discussion after, cards were exchanged, and I strongly expect interactions like this ultimately lead to an improved business climate down the road. Davos may not make policy, but it's at least a nice little uptick for global productivity.
But even if Davos is a place where lots of powerful and intelligent people can meet each other and exchange ideas, does that matter for the rest of the world? Does Davos live up to the WEF's claim to be "committed to improving the state of the world"?
Again, I think the answer is yes. But we need to rethink how we understand Davos.