Liebreich: Davos Wrap

Workers clean up the Davos Congress Centre after the WEF

Photograph by Tom Wagner/Bloomberg Markets

Workers clean up the Davos Congress Centre after the WEF

It’s a wrap: The fifth and final installment of my Davos blog. I’m writing this in the plane on the way home.

Early start again Saturday morning (groan). My final turn in the moderator’s seat as a bunch of WEF Technology Pioneers and industry titans discuss how hyper-growth startups should partner with established corporate players. Given the crowds at the piano bar last night, it’s not surprising only a handful of participants showed up, but the discussion was all the better for being more intimate. Many Davos sessions are so big you just go through the motions of discussion, but today we really got into it. These people were razor-sharp, and they weren’t pulling punches: they all knew that most partnership discussions are a huge waste of everyone’s time, and they were not there to make feel-good statements. Invigorating stuff; Davos at its best.

Then it was off to one of the best restaurants in town, Gault Milau-listed Mann & Co, for a working lunch around a document we are preparing for the upcoming London Clean Energy Ministerial. Even a discussion of grid interconnections and intermittency-management strategies can be positively enjoyable with the right selection of amuse-bouches.

In my first blog post five days ago, I said I went to Davos for three reasons: Because it’s a great opportunity to catch up with members of the clean energy tribe; because I love the random meetings with amazing people, which open up new relationships and provide food for thought for the coming year; and because it is just so damn anthropologically interesting. On these metrics, Davos 2012 scored 100 percent.

And yet…and yet…this particular Davos Man is also left with a feeling of unease.

The official tagline of this year’s meeting was “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.” Written on the side of every delegate bag is also the line “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” The program is replete with sessions on worthy subjects like energy poverty, inter-generational equity, women and inclusion. The corridors seethe with leaders from the NGO community; many of the Young Global Leaders and Young Global Shapers are extraordinarily civic-minded. The problem is this is not the main business at Davos.

There are three main communities at Davos. The zeitgeist community tries to capture the current state of the world’s economy. In 2009 it was all about the post-Lehman crash and panic; in 2010 it was about banking; in 2011 it was smug satisfaction that the world was back on track thanks to Asian growth; this year it was all about the European fiscal crisis. The zeitgeist folks are the ones you’ll see on the news around the world: Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi, Christine Lagarde and so on.

What you don’t see on TV is the echo-chamber dissection of these statements by the assembled commentariat. Think Islington or the Beltway to the power of 100, wearing snow-boots and drinking daiquiris. Nor do you see the comedic chase scenes as news organizations pursue speakers around Davos begging for them to repeat their statements with some tiny variation in nuance.

Not once since I have been coming to Davos has the zeitgeist community managed to correctly forecast the big issues of the coming year, from the financial crash to the Arab Spring to the European crisis.

Then there’s the business community. These are the folks that pay the bills (the WEF took in revenues of an estimated $185 million last year)–huge companies, organized into various industry groupings. While there are some open sessions on finance, energy, health, media and so on, by far the most important sessions for the business community are the private ones: industry partner sessions, industry governor sessions, side events, receptions and so on, not to mention meetings they organize with each other around town.

The third community consists of NGOs, academics, Young Global Leaders and so on. These are the people who really care about improving the state of the world. The problem is that these three communities–the zeitgeist community, the business community and the do-gooder community, for want of a better name–don’t meaningfully interact in Davos. Case in point: Women. Although the official attendance ratio for female delegates is 17%, none of the industry sessions I went to had more than one in 10 women, and most were more like one in 20. I am sure if I had made it to any of the sessions on human rights, social inclusion or urban design, I might have found a ratio closer to 50-50.

The issue is one of legitimacy. It’s hard to see how you can define a progressive agenda for sustainable transportation when you have no women around the table–not to mention no disabled people, no regular public transport users, no one under the age of 40 and no one representing the emerging middle classes in the developing world.

Even within industries there can be deep divisions between different communities. I attended session after session over five days, yet it turns out I met executives from only five of 16 energy-related Davos partner organizations. And that’s not counting the huge number of energy companies that attend but don’t bother becoming partners.

Fact is, you don’t see any Russian, South-East Asian, Indian or Chinese energy executives in any sessions on climate, sustainable development, green growth, energy efficiency or clean energy. They’re too busy lobbying energy ministers and doing deals with each other. The same goes for most of the big U.S. and European energy companies. Dan Yergin, a leading advocate for the oil and gas industry, was in Davos too, presumably attending session after session on energy, yet I ran into him just once in five days. How is this possible?

The answer is that there are essentially two energy programs in Davos, each with its own agendas, sessions, even parties. I know that one of them is engaged in “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models,” trying to accelerate the world’s shift to clean energy and an equitable extension of services to energy-poor. The other–well, how would I know? I don’t go to their sessions and only ever bump into them in the corridor, or maybe at the “cultural soirée” with which Davos winds up on Saturday night.

Not that this undermines the value of Davos. I met more people and achieved more in five days than I could in two months of normal business. Nor does it mean that nothing good comes out of it all–Davos has had a huge and generally positive influence on the world.

What it does mean, though, is that Davos is fundamentally a conservative event that serves to preserving the status quo, not tear it down–and it always will be. The truth is, you cannot have a real transformation without some incumbents losing out. So it is unrealistic to expect any gathering of the power elites–whether from business, politics or the non-profit sector–to really embrace change. If it is radical change you are after, Davos is always going to disappoint.

Or, as one of the banners at the Occupy WEF igloo camp more succinctly put it: “Transformation?? Bullsh*t! Nobody with four aces wants a new deal!”

What do you think about this article? Comment below!