Back home on Cape Cod, Davos 2019 already seems an age ago. So before the happenings of last week entirely fade from my overly full memory banks, here are a few thoughts on what I saw and heard.
This year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting came at a time when the very idea of Davos Man is under greater scrutiny than ever before. Yet, whatever you think of a gathering of the world’s 0.1%, there’s no doubt that Davos continues to set the agenda in a way that few events do. Not many people love Davos (even those who attend it). Plenty hate it. But few ignore it. It’s certainly an interesting trip ...
Insights from This Year’s World Economic Forum Meeting
- Davos is becoming like Edinburgh – the “Fringe” dwarfs the “official” event. Roughly 450,000 people attended events at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2018. Almost three million saw comedy and music and theater on the Fringe. Even more millions saw balloon-folding for free on the Royal Mile. Similarly, there are 3,000 official attendees of the World Economic Forum, but probably 10 times that number show up to present at, attend or run logistics for the hundreds of non-WEF organized events that light up the Promenade.
- Drawing a crowd is non-trivial. Many of the official events were held in front of very sparse audiences, our spies told us. While providing great photo ops for local constituents back home via the 6:00 news, they’re not particularly great draws when there’s so much competition for attendees’ time and attention across official and fringe events. A number of high-end spaces on the Promenade (Strip!) were similarly empty, we observed. Given that the all-in cost of turning a barber’s shop into a tricked-out meeting space is probably north of $1 million, this seems like a red rag to the anti-Davos man bulls.
- Masters of the Universe are star spotters too. “Oh, there’s Prince William.” “There’s Will.i.Am.” “Wasn’t that Matt Damon?” You’d think if you had bank and were used to holidaying on the Cap Ferrat, you’d be pretty immune to the presence of the odd “name” strolling around town. But no, the great and the good love to clock the even greater and gooder.
When President Trump came to Davos last year, CEOs and other world leaders could be seen lining up to get selfies. Rubbing shoulders with the future King of England and the Greatest Living Englishman – David Attenborough – was this year’s hot “get.” If you trade in currencies, as many of the 3,000 do, wanting to access a little of the most powerful one – celebrity – perhaps isn’t such a surprise.
- Chitting and chatting about the future of work. The future of work was as hot a subject as it’s ever been this year. The best session I attended on the subject – apart from ours of course! – was a low-key early morning chit-chat between Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Wall Street Journal editor in chief Matt Murray. It was so low-key that the room was hardly full, and the interior design gave the sense of two neighbors talking about the price of fish in a grim northern industrial town in England, c. 1920. It was funny to think that this was the architect of the greatest business turnaround since a certain elephant was taught to dance almost 20 years ago.
Touching on many of the hot-button issues that we here at the CFoW routinely focus on, Mr. Nadella gave a series of crisp and on-point answers to some of the thorniest questions business leaders face today. In the absence of any queries from the audience, I posed the question I find the hardest to answer: What happens to middle-aged non-technical folks who will find it hard to retrain for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Somewhat reassuringly to me (but not to the middle-aged non-technical folks), he found that hard to answer too.
- Davos – no town for introverts. A tip for Susan Cain fans – stay home. Unless you’re comfortable shilling and being shilled at 24×7, Davos is not worth your time. In fact, it will leave you irritated and annoyed. Although Cain’s books Quiet and Quiet Power have touched a nerve, Davos (wo)man has never sat still long enough to read them. In fact, the E in WEF should probably stand for “extrovert.” Don’t ever causally ask, “Hi, how you doing?” unless you’re prepared to be on the wrong end of a breathless 10-minute elevator pitch about this project or that book deal or this fantastic new virtual currency. If you’re the type who struggles to get a word in, you’ll struggle to get a word in.
- This is the last Davos. Year after year, critics of the World Economic Forum confidently suggest that Davos is done – an anachronism, an embarrassment, a disgrace. Yet, once again, even in the shadow of Trump and Brexit and AOC, the reports of Davos’ death are greatly exaggerated. While there was a sense this year of a conference in search of a theme, the idea that the elites are going to stop wanting to see and be seen just because there’s a little interregnum in what it’s polite to talk about it, doesn’t cut the mustard. Davos is such a fixture on the Industrial-Military-Tech-Politics-Think Tank-Academia-Journalism Complex circuit that folks will show up in 2020 even if the theme is “Finding the Theme of the 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.”
- This is not the last Davos. Another reason Davos is such a fixture is that there are very few other places in the world where important, powerful people (and yours truly) can meet other important, powerful people at the drop of a hat (essential in sub-zero temps) and/or a moment’s notice. Davos is a watering hole, and all the big beasts go because the other big beasts are there. Contacts are made and renewed. Deals are done. Crazy ideas – sparked by random interactions – become a little less crazy. Much of big business is formal and driven by agendas and spreadsheets. But lots of big business isn’t; much of big business is as casaul as a conversation you’d have with a friend over a late-night whisky when the bar is emptying out. Davos is really just that: friends (some real, some “transactional”) having a whisky late at night when the bar is emptying out. They still don’t teach you that at Harvard Business School.
- The hills are alive ... with the sound of silence. WEF’s Annual Meeting would be a great time to go skiing. From my apartment window, I could see there was hardly anyone on the slopes. All the locals leave town, and tourists know to stay away. I would have thought it a perfect argument for zigging while others zag. Literally.
Back to Reality
Davos 2019 is over, and the year beckons. The dramas in London and Washington will soon come to a head. The next crop of U.S. presidential contenders will start jostling for the right to endure a year or 10 of microscopic scrutiny. 5G and IoT and AI and big data will continue to get bigger. China will continue to rise. And for most of us, there are sales quotas to be hit and reports to be written – the pain of the quotidian. Our daily bread ...
By Davos 2020, the world could be quite different. But that’s a story for another day. Another Davos.