The assumption that Davos will solve the world’s problems is as silly as thinking Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make human beings intelligent. Yes, it is the most important publicised gathering of rich people in the world, but as the Swiss say, money talks and wealth whispers. There’s a lot of the former in Davos over the past decade. There are other quieter meetings in Switzerland that guard their privacy as Swiss people do.
As Davos turns 50 and asks itself the question what it has achieved, my view is that the question is too broad to capture the many successes the forum has enabled be that in placing sworn enemies around the table to talk peace, give a bad conscience to the world’s richest and the greediest chasing profit at all cost and this year by default or design, telling the summiteers that they are under constant watch, whether at Davos or Washington, Brussels, New Delhi or Beijing about climate change.
Climate change is not business as usual. Let that sink in.
Climate change is about money and investments in ways people in Davos have never seen before. It is facile to say Wall Street will lose power to Greta Thunberg because Australia is burning and glaciers are melting, but this much can be said. Half a generation of young people around the world including in India are asking questions of treaties and negotiations, science and technologies developed for them. An entire generation is asking why disease and guns kill if entire careers have been made on finding vaccines and negotiating peace deals. Will women and people of color always be portrayed as weak and begging? Millions are asking who is paying, for whom and to what effect? Nobody has an answer and a few Davos pundits are the first to acknowledge that the world needs a serious course correction. One person, I spoke to said what if there was no Davos in 2021? Think.
The story goes that Klaus Schwab who heads Davos (and was a professor of economics in Geneva University) was inspired by the United States (US) Secretary of Labour George Schultz who
would gather people around Jacuzzis in California to discuss geopolitics, jobs, trade and industry without minders and spooks. Ski slopes were Schwab’s answer to Jacuzzis and what was once a Swiss village full of sanatoriums for patients recovering from tuberculosis is a yearly spot where leaders gather to talk about public health, AI and eating vegan food.
Up until 25 years ago, Davos (the event, not the village) was sane and relatively inexpensive a place people could hold discussions, exchange views and build relationships speak to spooks and spies. Yes, spooks and spies going around their business of collecting data. Media access was fairly limited and journalists respected journalism and people spoke off the record.
Then Silicon Valley happened to Davos – first the good, then the bad and finally the terrible. A few years later, the might of new trade rules under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) unfurled on the world and leaders realised that Davos’ skiing slopes had met domestic economic slalom. The Americans with long interminable sentences and limited knowledge of the world discovered fondue in which they dipped potatoes. Culture is a comment.
Indians were amongst the earliest groups to embrace Davos that was originally called the European Economic Forum (EEF) based out of Geneva (the WEF’s offices are based in Geneva). The first Indian businessperson to attend such a session was the late father of Pune based Baba Kalyani, Founder and CEO of Bharat Forge (BF). The other Pune businessperson Rahul Bajaj holds the world record for attending almost all Davos sessions without a break. He is an institution in Davos.
In fact, the Indian presence in the early years was all business people. The Bombay club as they were called. Builders of companies and developers of ideas, people of knowledge and let us just say it as it should be – people who could hold a conversation without having to say ‘do you know who I am’? Then came the Delhi crowd bringing with it what Delhi brings – politics without plans, attitude without positions except for saying India was shinning to bored audiences and empty rooms. Bureaucrats looking for jobs for themselves and their family ordinary pursuits riding on the ambitions of a grand nation.
This is also where India’s Foreign Minister Madhavsinh Solanki handed over an unsigned note to his Swiss counterpart René Félber asking him to close the Bofors investigation. That note was leaked to me (I was not attending Davos that year) and Solanki had to resign. I bring it up here because Davos is also where trustworthy relationships are built and lifelong friendships forged beyond the flashlights and selfies.
So what is the best use of Davos? Does business gets transacted in the alpine village? The best use of Davos as I have seen it from various perspectives is that it is a business forum. Nowhere on earth can the CEO of a multinational company meet between 20 and 30 counterparts in two days. Calendars and time zones mean meetings can take years to schedule. Davos is on CEO’s calendars including some very crooked ones. These appointments are set up months in advance in the run-up to Davos.
This is also where business people get to meet their political leaders without minders. Take India, for example. It is fairly impossible if not impractical for an Indian businessperson to get past babudom to spend time with a minister in a convivial environment discussing business and music, food and poetry. Indian businesspeople and some politicians value this kind of time, as do their counterparts from all over the world. Unfortunately, Davos has become very expensive and crowded leading smart CEO stays at Klosters – a short train ride down from Davos – to do two or three round trips and leave by Wednesday which is also when people who understand the game start shutting down. On Wednesday Davos will be over for all practical purposes.
The United Nations (UN) family cuts a sorry figure at Davos, as do heads of multilateral and bilateral agencies. They set up expensive stalls and offer free food and drinks to a generation that finds them funny and irritating. Davos is not going to help you make a point if you have failed elsewhere. They are out of touch and social media is not a twitter account unless you are called Donald Trump. Journalists interviewing one another – what do you think is going to happen next, or what is your Davos takeaway - while waiting to interview important people is passé. It is a precious waste of money and time. Stop singing.
Everyone has his or her favourite Davos story. Besides l’affaire Solanki, mine is the time when together with Mr. S. Ramadorai, the former CEO and Managing Director of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), we brought Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari racing car to the one street village and
caused a traffic jam. Movers and shakers of billion-dollar companies stood in line to touch the master’s jewel. As someone who understands speed and risk, I will write about it one day, in another form and forum.
Till then, do stop and think – what do we want to happen in Davos 2021? I believe the world needs an entirely new alphabet, a new grammar, and fresh hope. I see the undercurrents of good. I keep the faith.