The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008 came to an end Sunday with a call by business, government and civil society leaders for a new brand of leadership, one ready to address the challenges of globalization, terrorism, climate change and a looming water crisis. The invitation-only event isn't exclusive to experts on the economy - if it were, I wouldn't be here. I went to Davos as the spouse of the physician/scientist husband who was invited to speak on a panel called Update 2008: Designing a Cure for Cancer. Much like Thomas Mann's main character in The Magic Mountain, written in Davos, I was an "ordinary [wo]man," amongst a sea of world leaders and power brokers. This convergence of knowledge and influence in one place made for some heady observations and encounters.
An Open Society - There was a time when the World Economic Forum was a closed society, with participants quietly asked to keep the general tenor "off the record." All that has changed; at this year's meeting the talk was of social entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility, global citizenship, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and emerging economies, primarily China, India, and resource-rich Russia. The range of participants and their expertise, whether they were 18 or 80 years old, was inspiring. And in the spirit of this year's theme - The Power of Collaborative Innovation - heads of state, business leaders, scholars, young activists and noted philanthropists alike discussed the major economic, political, societal and technological forces currently at work, and they are exploring the ways in which these forces will impact the future.
However, a caste system - embodied by a wild array of different colored badges - is firmly in place, with attendees and speakers assigned colors based on "level of guestdom." Purple badges with a horizontal red stripe were for people "with" other people, i.e. I'm with Steve Forbes or I'm with Sir Win Bischoff, Citi's new chairman. Dark blue badges belonged to Forum staff. Some members of the press wore apricot colored limited access badges while others had the near full access white with blue horizontal stripe worn by Forum members and participants. Others wore butter yellow, pale violet and sea green; spouses wore white badges bearing only a name and photograph. While no one was willing (or able) to tell me the exact hierarchy, it was clear that the magic badges let some folks in and kept others out. Security and space are at a premium as people scramble to get a seat in the most desirable forums, so this semblance of order MUST be in place. I wasn't able to pre-register for a few storytelling sessions but with so many to choose from and the genuine kindness of WEF "bouncers," who permit entry if/when seats are available, by no means did I feel that I missed anything. Ok, so we didn't make the cut for Friday evening's Google party, the most sought after invitation all week long. But again, given the richness of the overall experience, neither the physician/scientist husband nor I felt that we missed a beat.
That said, much of the action takes place outside the Conference and meeting rooms. On a snowy walkway to the Forum early one morning, I fell in step with a solitary former Vice President Dan Quayle. Later that day, I crossed paths in a stairwell with Al Gore, the other former VP-temporarily in residence. He and two or three of his " I'm with people" were heading downstairs as I was heading up. One afternoon, while seated in one of the conference lounge spaces, I couldn't help but overhear Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean being interviewed over my left shoulder; economist and former Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers Laura Tyson chatting with friends about the upcoming Presidential elections to my right. I didn't strike any deals, that wasn't my aim. The physician/scientist husband reacquainted himself with colleagues and made a new "friend" or two.
Taking a break from the Magic Mountain town and influence makers, the physician/scientist husband and I enjoyed one spectacular afternoon on the ski slopes. The crystal clear air and sparkly snow at our ski tips was offset for a time by a haze of smog blanketing the town below. This brown mantle, for a breathtaking moment, was perhaps the ultimate metaphor for the Davos experience. The plethora of ideas and strength of the players set against a backdrop of natural beauty, in fact, is being destroyed by our consumption and inability to get along and problem solve collaboratively. Breaking away from the noise gave us the clarity to think about all we'd absorbed. In a place filled with people, many of whom are capable of the highest humanistic ideals - Bono, Bill Gates, Al Gore, George Soros, Emma Thompson and the British Council's the Davos 6 - one wonders if we will be able to break out of the smog and see there is still a mountain looming above.