I arrived in Davos yesterday, the official opening of the World Economic Forum (in reality, many of the government officials, executives, and reporters have been here for days, meeting formally and in more casual encounters).
Davos itself is a village of 13,000 inhabitants nestled at 5118 feet in the Swiss Alps. In the mid-eighteenth century, the town became a destination for men and women suffering from lung diseases, known for the healing powers of its microclimate (Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly spent a winter here in 1880 to alleviate the ravages of tuberculosis). In the late 1900s, Davos also began attracting speed skaters and especially skiers. Today, the resort's narrow streets are crammed with winter sports shops and the snowy, slippery sidewalks crowded with well-outfitted skiers and snowboarders.
This week, the winter athletes and village residents share space with the small army of well-dressed (black is the new black at Davos) men and fewer women who are part of the World Economic Forum.
Security is very tight. Helicopters hover over the main streets; police officers are everywhere; and the entrances to the main halls have full-throttle checks. Almost as ubiquitous as the (serious and courteous) security personnel are the media. It is hard not to bump into an impromptu interview, a photographer at work, or reporters tapping away on their Mac books.
It all adds up to a curious scene: the jaw-dropping majesty of the surrounding mountains intermingles with the crawling traffic and the focused dark-suited pedestrians each carrying their World Economic Forum briefcase and wearing the (prized) conference badge. The resulting energy is equally interesting: part gracious formality, part keen intelligence, part coursing ambition and more subtle creativity.
It seems there are as almost as many languages being spoken as there are conference sessions. And because so many have traveled so far to get here, jet lag is manifest on many faces. Coffee consumption is high, followed closely by sparkling water and small pastries.
The opening reception began late yesterday afternoon with speeches by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the Forum, Micheline Calmy-Rey, president of the Swiss Confederation, and Dimitry Medvedev, president of the Russian Federation. I was struck by several insights in this session (which also included a performance by opera singer José Carreras, who, along with film composer A.R. Rahman, received the World Economic Forum's Crystal Award for artists who have used their art to improve the state of the world). Among the remarks that I will take away from the conference were:
• The observation that many individuals (and perhaps institutions) today were in danger of "global burnout," in which they are doing too much firefighting instead of actively addressing key issues. The risks of global burnout include inadequate attention to big, thorny problems and possibilities and growing disengagement on the part of leaders and Numerous signs that Russia is open for business. The accelerating development of the nation's financial system, the privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises and efforts to foster entrepreneurship all point to a nation eager to integrate itself more fully into the world economy and to take a seat at the changing table of global powers.
• China's growing might and its importance to world leaders. The elephant in every room I found myself in yesterday was what China's white-hot ascendance means for other countries, the global economy and the larger environment. Supposedly, Napoleon once said of China, "let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world." Judging from day one of Davos, she is rubbing her eyes and climbing out of bed, and the wider world is rumbling.
• In the sessions I attended, there was a palpable sense that in many respects, we are leaving an older world behind as a new one emerges. Whether we are talking about the growing interdependence among nations or the one billion people using social networks or the national resource constraints pressing in on us, it seems clear that older boundaries, frameworks and ways of operating are being shattered.
What will we, as concerned global citizens, do to build a new worthy reality--not only from the top down in the manner of this week's meeting at Davos, but also from the bottom up, day by day as we each walk our respective, interconnected paths?
This was the question I am left with at the end of a long, thought-provoking day.
Tomorrow: More to come from Davos where I will join a distinguished panel to discuss the merits of failure. You can also follow my tweets live from Davos.
Follow Nancy F. Koehn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nancykoehn