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01.27.11

The Buzz of Davos

What topics are dominating the hallways and panels at the World Economic Forum? From low-income countries to Larry Summers, David Kirkpatrick on six things everyone is talking about.

What topics are dominating the hallways and panels at the World Economic Forum? From low-income countries to Larry Summers, David Kirkpatrick on six things everyone is talking about. Plus, John Kao on the irony of Davos' elites bent on social innovation and the best video moments from WindMade's panel on wind power.

Digital + Business = Everything

The realities of digital convergence are finally sinking in on Davos Men and Women (of whom there are more here than in past years), from the discussions to the behavior of conference attendees. At one session of 80 people, about 35 were carrying iPads, a device only first announced sometime around last year's Davos. What does Digital Convergence mean? That the proliferation of digital tools fundamentally changes the social and business landscape. Both hallway talk and numerous formal sessions explored the likely transformation of industries of all sorts as they face an empowered consumer, mobile devices, and the availability of instantaneous data over the Internet. For example, as panelists in one session asked, why should companies respond to complaints on Twitter—rewarding those who complain in public—even as they keep people on hold in their call centers? Actually improving customer service for every customer seemed to this audience more promising for a company's long-term health. Facebook was on many lips—Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, termed it "the biggest experiment in anthropology the world has ever seen."

Gallery: Davos' Power Panels

GLOBALISM
Are the "Norms" Shared, or Not?

"Shared norms for the new reality," is the theme of this year's World Economic Forum, but for many, especially from the developed world, the norms in poorer and non-Western countries seem strikingly different than what old-school Davos-goers from rich countries would like or expect. And there is a growing sense that what was once called "the developing world" is no longer content with second-class status in any way. Since income inequality gets talked about a lot here, the language matters, and some are using the phrase "low-income countries" to sound less judgmental. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, it just requires an adjustment in thinking. For longtime Davos attendees, what was once a mostly American and European conclave has acquired a more genuinely global cast. This clearly engenders a healthier dialogue that is "multi-stakeholder," to use a favored Davos adjective. And the opportunities for large companies in "low-income countries" come up more and more frequently. Some of them are a consequence of the aforementioned digital convergence—like the cellphone providers in Africa and Latin America that are now beginning to serve as banks because poor consumers find trading cellphone credits more convenient than using cash.

FREE LARRY!
The Forum’s Omnipresent Star

For the past two years, as the chief economic spokesman of the Obama administration, Larry Summers delivered self-contained, disciplined performances at Davos. This year, Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President who incurred public wrath for his retrograde pronouncements about women and the sciences is ubiquitous, liberated—even a little evolved. At a dinner talk Wednesday, paired with Yale’s Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, he stepped back from his prior pronouncement that achievement was the best route toward self-esteem, not the other way around. These days, he mused, creativity might trump discipline and accuracy and rote learning—a la Harvard dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Kids should have a chance to be kids. “People on average live a quarter of their lives as children. That’s a lot. It’s important that they be as happy as possible during those 18 years.” Elsewhere, Summers has been omnipresent—appearing on several panels and strolling through the Congress Center unmolested. At a session on the politics of low-growth, he responded to a poorly thought out question without condescension, and threw in self-deprecating cracks about his appearance. Agreeable isn’t the first adjective that Summers brings to mind. But when told that he looks relieved to no longer bear the burden of speaking for the Obama administration’s economic policy, he nodded vigorously.

GLOBAL FRATERNITY
The Mostly Male Face of Davos

The World Economic Forum is like a fraternity—loud, clubby, and male. In years past, just 17 percent of the participants were women. This year, however, the Forum insisted that strategic partners—the big company that forks out megabucks for the privilege of aligning their brands with Davos—send one woman for every four men. Have the quotas made a difference? Not much. The quotas—and the topic of women and Davos—prompted eye rolls on deep background with several women who run large, name-brand institutions. Yes, there are plenty of powerful women on the program: Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi, Google’s Marissa Mayer, MIT President Susan Hockfield. And some journalists might be tempted to stay Saturday just to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s address. But in general, women occupy secondary, supporting roles. The myriad support staff at the Congress Center is overwhelmingly female. Even women possessing coveted white badges are frequently presumed to be someone’s spouse. One woman who heads her own global organization wasn’t stressed when she sat down to dinner in the wrong room—she figured nobody would call on her to speak. World Economic Forum is primarily a business function. And in Europe and the Middle East, from whence a disproportionate share of Davos pariticipants hail, senior female managers are few and far between.

PLANNING
The Perils of Booking Ahead

Generals always fight the last war, and Davos always fights the last meltdown. With Swiss precision (and rigidity), the World Economic Forum is planned months in advance, with improvisation generally confined to the Piano Bar. So when the globe springs January surprises, Davos can seem like an analog conference in a digital world. While the conference is devoted to containing risk, the risk that the population of the Middle East would take to the streets in fiery protests wasn't really foreseen. The result: Jamie Dimon held forth on ways to avoid future meltdowns, but the word Tunisia barely registers on the program. Davos is all about an establishment order. And this week a big chunk of it is being upended. The conference's planners are doubtless scouring the Internet for experts who can fit the bill for next year's version. Prospective theme: The New Order in North Africa and the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities.

WORKING TOGETHER
Understanding the Limits of Government—and Business—Power

An awareness of the gravity of global problems—climate change, income inequality, ongoing intractable wars in many regions—properly pervades the elegant halls of the newly renovated Congress Centre. But many attendees don't have any expectation that the path to progress will be found by governments alone. "The only place we can start solving the big problems is at the intersection of business, government, and civil society," said Raj Gupta, McKinsey's longtime managing director, at one session. In a hallway, Arianna Huffington, unprompted, echoed the same theme: "Our political system is so broken that to fix it we need to see how we can activate what's happening in civil society." That's one way Davos does make a contribution—it brings together an extraordinary number of NGOs and social entrepreneurs and mixes them up with rich and powerful executives of companies. While that might have sometimes been seen as intrusive in the past, now at Davos business leaders actively look to the social sector for ideas.

David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for the Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.