Great Transformation

01.26.12

A Tale of Two Davoses

The ‘top of the top one percent’ stereotype doesn’t really apply to this year’s conference, as the worlds of business titans and do-gooders rarely intersect. Joanne Lipman on the Davos divide.

It's the common refrain about the Davos World Economic Forum: It's the meeting of the "top percent of the top one percent." But that's only half-true.

In fact, this year feels more like two parallel meetings, with two very different groups that rarely (and sometimes never) intersect. One group is the titans: The CEOs, hedge-fund managers and political leaders who get most of the headlines. The other is the do-gooders: The small non-profit groups and nongovernmental organizations, the leaders of startup renewable energy companies and green tech firms.

In theory, the purpose of the meeting is for the two groups to intermingle and influence each other, working together towards the forum's larger goal of promoting a shared vision of the future.  After all, the theme of this year's meeting is "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models."

But here's what reality looks like: Many of the business leaders arrive by private plane or helicopter; stay at luxury hotels like the Grandhotel Belvedere that are reserved for the forum's big-ticket supporters; are chauffered to events in private cars; and take meetings and meals in private rooms at private events. The do-gooders, meanwhile, stumble out of steerage at the Zurich Airport, take a two-plus hour train or shuttle bus to get to Davos; stick to the published meeting agenda, and are often relegated to hotels that are out of town, in Klosters or beyond.  Members of one group can go for the entire week without ever encountering the other.

The WEF meeting, in other words, has its own version of the 99% and the 1%.

The meeting has grown ever larger, and is at a record 2,600 participants this year, which has exacerbated the issue. Like a giant college—think Michigan or Ohio State, where kids join fraternities to make the sprawling campus seem smaller—Davos men and women create their own fraternities, gravitating toward others like themselves.

For the do-gooders, who could use both the karmic buy-in and the financial support of the business community, it can be a limiting experience. "I'm pretty frustrated.  It's all so siloed," said Jem Bendell, a sustainability consultant whose business card quotes MK Gandhi and says it is printed on recycled paper "handmade by women in India."

Up at the top of the food chain, some executives have noticed the same thing. "The majority of NGO (non-governmental organization) types and the majority of business types are like ships passing in the night," notes Robert Moritz, chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers LP, speaking from a comfortable couch in the private "PWC Thought Cafe" in the Grandhotel Belvedere. "There's a small circle that intersects, but that intersection is fairly small."

Moritz sees a potential solution, though. "I think about how do you divide and conquer: Pick smaller issues as opposed to great thought leadership," he says. Thought leadership about the broad global future " is good," he says, "but there isn't enough accountability."