The World Economic Forum -- like the Clinton Global Initiative, the TED Conference, the Aspen Ideas Festival and other such global confabs -- is a carnival of ideas, opportunities, dreams and confessions.
It's less manic than CGI, not quite as laid back as TED, but definitely part of the same family. And it has the added distinction of being, as far as I can tell at least, the Mothership -- the event that launched the pattern in which the global meritocratic elite would gather together face-to-face to discuss a wide-ranging, even eclectic agenda. Clinton very definitely shaped his conference to be Davos-like (with the added layer of the attendees making "commitments" to do good works in the world), and while TED began life with a smaller and quirkier dream, it has morphed under Chris Anderson's leadership to rival (in talent and ideas at least) any other gathering on the planet.
Other major conferences tend to gather a narrower range of people to talk about a single subject (the World Health Organization) or have become so unwieldy as to be impossible to navigate (most UN gatherings).
The World Economic Forum and its close cousins are different, and professor Klaus Schwab, the founder, knows it. In his introductory session for Davos newbies, he explained the big idea and how it came about.
As a Management Professor, he advanced something called "stakeholder theory" - the idea that companies are not just responsible to their shareholders but to a broader range of stakeholders. If such stakeholders gathered to discuss issues, shape a common agenda and find resonances, not only would the company be stronger, but society would be better. Schwab wrote a book about the idea in 1970, and then decided that he wanted to build a platform to try putting it into practice. The first World Economic Forum took place in 1971.
The result, 40 years later - a conference that CEOs, presidents and prime ministers feel like they have to come to, and that some happily pay literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend - is nothing short of astonishing.
The people who come to the World Economic Forum are segmented into different communities - government leaders, media leaders, strategic partners (which are basically Fortune 500 companies, and are the ones who pay the big bucks to attend). Over time, Schwab has added other key communities -- technology pioneers, young global leaders, social entrepreneurs, global growth companies (which are going to be the future Fortune 500 and are largely in China). The list of communities shows that he's a man who is on the cutting edge without being faddish. All in all, it's a reasonable representation of many of the groups who make things happen at the global level in our world.
The more I thought about it, the more I realize that the core idea -- and this is not a criticism, simply an observation -- is quite old and simple: a healthy social ecology gathers its various segments every so often to bat around ideas, address recurring problems and shape a to-do list for the year or ten ahead. It's old-school community development really, something that good alderman do in their neighborhoods and good mayors do in their cities: gather the shopkeepers and real estate developers and homeowners and cops and kids and teachers and say, "So what's this neighborhood going to be about next year?"
The fact that Professor Schwab came out of the management world simply means that his scope was global and his network was CEOs.
Comparing Davos to a local community development meeting will inevitably bring up local/global issues. The image is so crystal clear it begs to be said out loud. Isn't it quaint that a slice of the world's ecology gathers in a Swiss hamlet to engage face-to-face. It makes that global village metaphor feel so, well, real.
I wish. In a smart Atlantic piece, Chrystia Freeland explains the rub: "Today's global super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves." They move their companies where their customers are (increasingly Asia), they can't find their way around their hometowns because they are so infrequently at home. If lifting people into the middle class in India with jobs and goods means someone has to fall out of the middle class in Indiana, well, that's globalization.
One of the reasons for the increase in the number of World Economic Forum-type events is because the group that gathers here likes to be together. The down-low on Davos is that the really exciting events - the soirees, the nightcaps, the endless-discussion dinners -- happen after 10 p.m., like in a college dorm. Leading up to the World Economic Forum, I got dozens of e-mails advertising various late-night social events, and almost nothing touting the formal agenda during the day. These people like to socialize with each other. This is their community.
Look, nobody expects the CEO of Citi to walk to work, become president of the PTA and support the neighborhood Little League team. But there was a time that great companies were proud of the cities they were based in. That meant something for jobs, neighborhoods, art museums, local charities. Are those days numbered?
Interesting that a stakeholder-driven, community-development-like approach to shaping an agenda for a globalized world could hold such dangerous consequences for local communities.
(This piece is re-posted from the Washington Post.)