What I Saw and Heard at Davos

February 4, 2010
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

It’s never easy to sum up Davos with a single headline or sound bite. There are simply too many subcultures. It’s really several meetings within a meeting.

I offer these snapshots from my five days there to give you some flavor for the event:

  • There is little expectation that the economy is going to roar back to life. I heard little optimism that the economy had stabilized itself to the point that government stimulus could be removed safely. Even China, with its return to nearly 10 percent growth rates, is viewed as continuing to rely on government props.
  • The United States continues to disappoint. A year ago, everyone at Davos expected the new administration to make fast progress on financial reform, economic stimulus, and climate. We Americans in Davos had to spend a lot of time explaining why a 59-41 majority in the Senate seems to leave the President powerless.
  • One of the great aspects of Davos is the opportunity to pose unexpected questions to interesting people. At the civil society dinner, I asked Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho how we can tell the story of climate change more effectively. He thought for a moment, and came back with this: stop saying “save the planet.” His view is that the planet will survive—human cultures and civilization are what’s at stake, and it should be explained that way. Great thoughts from a thoroughly engaging man.
  • For all the power brokers in Davos, inspiration usually comes from the unknowns prowling the halls. The British Council brought six “Changemakers,” all under 20 years old, from around the world, Iraq to Portugal to Canada. Their energy and enthusiasm make them great candidates to co-chair Davos in 2040. Let’s hope their vision of a better world stays intact.
  • There was much consternation about the gender representation of Davos participants. Just under 20 percent of the speakers were women, and this upset many of us, men and women alike. While some of this is reflective of how power is distributed in the C-suite and presidential offices, the meeting would be strengthened by more women on the podium.
  • This was to be a “Greener Davos,” as the Forum called on execs to use the communal shuttle instead of private cars. Why then was traffic so much worse this year?
  • French President Sarkozy was the lightning rod of the event this year. His call for a more moral capitalism split the audience. I heard many business leaders say that his call was long overdue. An equal number dismissed it as grandstanding. Regardless, questions about the values we use—or don’t—to guide the global economy were never far from the surface.
  • One of the fascinating elements of Davos is seeing public figures show their real personalities, unfiltered. This was on display the last night at the closing “gala,” when South Africa showed off its remarkable recent history and its host role at the World Cup this summer—and did so beautifully. Leaders from the country’s government, business, and arts communities were visible throughout—and they put on a great gala. Best of all was this gem from South Africa’s Finance Minister Trevor Manuel: “Tonight we rock, tomorrow we work.” Maybe Timothy Geithner ought to try that.

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