Davos finds renewed relevance

The World Economic Forum had a problem. To put a fine point on it, after 30-plus years, it looked like the only people around the world that took the annual meeting in Davos seriously were the delegates themselves.

The World Economic Forum had a problem. To put a fine point on it, after 30-plus years, it looked like the only people around the world that took the annual meeting in Davos seriously were the delegates themselves.

Held for one idyllic week each year in a little Swiss ski town, the exclusive gathering of the world's political, business, and celebrity elite increasingly had been criticized as an alpine ego trip and glitzy junket for a select few.

The old saw about the Forum as "the place where failed presidents go to look successful and new CEOs go to look presidential" gained new currency, suggesting that perhaps there was more snow than substance in evidence at Davos. And to add to the excitement drain, many news organizations seemed to quietly acknowledge this new reality, reducing their on-site coverage of the event.

And then, in the blink of an eye, it all changed this year.

As delegates drove through the icy mountains east of Zurich, the global markets were hammered with bone-chilling losses.

The official theme of the World Economic Forum - the power of collaborative innovation - quickly shed its zippy, "We are the World" quality and took on real urgency as the so-called "economic decoupling" proved illusory, and everyone realized that a global recession is still no respecter of nations or peoples.

Clearly, if necessity is the mother of invention, then crisis is the midwife of collaboration. Call it waking up to the reality of lifeboat living, but in Davos, everyone got seriously focused on working together on a host of issues.

This urgency was reflected in every panel or conversation that I participated in during the week of the Forum, as leaders of every stripe consciously lessened the purely theoretical (how many carbon credits will offset the half-life of a Snickers bar?) and partisan self-interest (how do I get more power?) to what could and should be done for the global good.

As a historian, a communications leader, and a delegate, I couldn't help but be struck by the fateful conjunction of the annual forum and the real-time global crisis. It was one of those inflection points that leaders and communicators immediately recognize and embrace, where the lines suddenly intersect between style, substance, and destiny. To their enduring credit, the World Economic Forum and its delegates made the most of it.

Mark Stouse is the global communications leader at BMC Software. He attended the World Economic Forum as a delegate and participant.

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