Sir Donald Gordon Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
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Another was being told by an archbishop, at the Duke of York reception that evening, that he was thrilled to see PMs treated as if they were students – being asked questions, told when to get up or down. Funny thing is, they said they enjoyed it, too! It was also inspiring to take part in the private breakfast and lunch discussions, engaging on topics of substance with some pretty interesting souls. A preoccupation was the financial services sector, which is still a mess and isn’t about to be fixed just yet. Then again, apart from suffering an overdose of chit-chat over lunches and dinners with ambitions to change the world (if only...), it was fun to see that Blair looks older, that Gates does have an odd voice, and that in one panel a neighbour from my intentionally isolated country house at Kastriani, Kea was presenting (!). Oh, and the band in the McKinsey party, plus freezing in the small hours of the morning and chatting with the guy behind Google’s driverless car who turns out have been Herb Simon's close friend and collaborator – and still has his calculator.
But, beyond the fun and feeling of self-importance associated with a personal (as opposed to institutional) invitation, what was the point of it all? On a personal level, it’s fun to expand your horizons and see beyond your peripheral vision. I was surprised to see the private and public sessions looking at how and why higher education, US-style, has to rethink its model and uniformly high cost base, which cripples alumni with debt without securing their future. Technology is on the cusp of disrupting this time-honored model, which still funds my own employer, and things are moving fast – faster than many in our profession would think. It was also encouraging to see the extent of talk (if not yet action) on the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth, which cripples lives and risks destabilizing emerging and advanced economies alike. I fear we’ll continue lamenting this next year…
Perhaps the most memorable event was a simulation on poverty, offered, predictably, at the fringes of the meeting. Crossroads, a Hong Kong charity, had a terrific hour-and-a-half programme where Davos men and women who felt like it, role-played the daily lives of impoverished villagers barely making a living. Sounds trite, but it’s a powerful reminder of just how hard it is to live hand to mouth. There’s nothing more vivid than a staged immersion when, on your knees, you have to make paper-bags from torn newspapers and flour glue, beg nasty shop-keepers to buy them, buy protection, and put up with insult, to ensure your “family” lives. Perhaps this is what the WEF should organize for all its attendees - a reminder of the realities that Davos participants might be unwittingly oblivious about!
Beyond personal take-aways, I think the true function of Davos is sense-making. Davos helps create, and then capture, the zeitgeist. It’s where people come to listen to those who might just know more than they do – and see what they find interesting and important. It’s about making sense of what others make sense of. And this is no small matter.
Finally, in addition to sense-making, it’s good to bring different stakeholders under one roof, and prime them to speak candidly. To quote CNN’s colourful Richard Quest, “if Davos didn’t exist, we’d probably have to invent it”. In an ever more fragmented world, where problems are becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent, we need structured opportunities to put the pieces back together. Davos isn’t a place to decide; but it is an opportunity to engage in a more frank exchange of ideas, gauge reactions, sense the mood, and make sense of the world around us. It also helps to put in perspective the daunting task of tackling the large, systemic issues that will become ever more important: from sustainability and food security, to the stability and redesign of the financial system, to the increasingly uneven nature of our economic system. Will we fix it by going to Davos? Absolutely not. But paying lip service is not to be scorned. Figuring out what others figure out, and reminding ourselves of the systemic problems that lie ahead, non-addressable and intractable as they might be, is better than ignoring them altogether.
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