I am attending my fourth World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. I first came to the WEF annual meeting in this mountain ski village eight years ago. This year, despite a balmy winter not far away in Zurich, the snow in downtown Davos is so deep, it resembles something out of the Russian winter in Dr. Zhivago. Like the snow outside, the policy discussions inside the forum are layered high.
So what's the buzz in Davos this year? The topics are many, the gossip varied. Is capitalism spreading, failing, or merely adapting? (A perennial WEF theme.) What's next for the "Arab Spring" revolutions, as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement now presides over the Egyptian parliament while Syria's regime teeters on edge? Who will President Barack Obama's opponent be? Can French President Nicolas Sarkozy survive re-election? Will China be different under its planned leadership transition? What do we do about world hunger, illiteracy, and disease? Most importantly, was that really Mick Jagger at last night's party? (Yes.)
Maybe the biggest thematic set change at the WEF is how Europe's economic health is viewed. In a word, distressed. In 2009 - my last trip here - Europeans were hurling blame at America and Wall Street for causing the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s. Now, the sandbag is on the other foot as the Eurozone deals with sovereign debt migraines, austerity measures, undercapitalized banks, and vexing unemployment. So European leaders like David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and others are here to reassure and define what must be done to reverse these troubling times. Two or three years from now, Davos delegates will be hearing about how these problems were solved - we hope.
The news media likes to characterize the Davos forum as an elite confab of the rich and powerful, but that's a bit overstated. Where there are VIPs, there are protesters. The “Damn-the-1%” Occupiers are here, but then they have always been here, it seems. This year, they are taking shelter in the frozen streets of Davos in hand-crafted igloos - yes, igloos. The irony is, the 99 percenters may outnumber the 1 percenters here this week, since a growing number of WEF attendees are civil servants, academics, and NGO stewards from poorer nations.
I relish coming to Davos because it is a communication and public affairs professional's dream. You meet accomplished people from around the world, from every industry and profession. If you don't exchange at least a few hundred business cards at the forum, you weren't here. The Turkish bazaar of intellectual content and programs is overwhelming the first time, but you don't have to eat more than your mind can absorb.
I once called the WEF the World Cup of networking events, but it's more like the Olympics because every participant feels like a winner just by coming and participating. Where else can you meet a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, a Korean marketer, an Indian business school dean, an African social reformer, a Nobel laureate, a Bahrainian banker, and multimedia journalists like Andrew Ross Sorkin all in the space of hours?
Davos may not be the place where the world is saved, but it is a place where people serious about changing things can test ideas. Ideas debated here can set in motion multi-stakeholder dialogue that starts high and flow downward. So eventually, specific ideas or programs for "improving the state of the world" - WEF's motto -can start here, even if few remember the source.
I wish WEF's leaders would remind us periodically of the positive world developments jump-started in Davos. I think I will put that in their suggestion box.
Now, which way did Mick go?
Jack Modzelewski is president of the Americas at Fleishman-Hillard.