Upon mentioning, a few weeks ago, that I would be going to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, my colleagues’ reactions ranged from skepticism to incomprehension. ‘Isn’t Davos dead’, asked one typical response, ‘or at best irrelevant in a world where globalization has come to a halt?
I was invited to join the International Geneva Day at the House of Switzerland but took the opportunity to invite myself to the Open Forum of the WEF – which can be freely accessed and is very different from the “elite” conference whose participation fee is now a whopping 250.000 Swiss Francs. It seems that inflation does not stop at the Alps!
As a first-timer, I was quite excited to go and see with my own eyes how the Davos myth holds up to scrutiny.
A few lessons from my experience:
First, come with the right shoes! The smartest have apparantly spikes under their business shoes; others are wearing boots. I had neither and together with my friends from the national statistical office came close on several occasions to falling unceremoniously into the snow.
Second, come prepared and know where you want to go (and where you can go). While the official forum program is well communicated on the WEF website and associated app, the rest isn’t. The open forum event, which sounded like it would take place the whole day turned out to be only a short morning event. Despite significant effort, I couldn’t even find a list of all the different side events, let alone understand which ones are free to access or by invitation only.
Some cool stuff happens in the village (more on that later), so it’s worthwhile to plan some time to just walk around. An agenda that includes all the open events and where they take place would be welcome.
Third, be aware that Davos is a small village far away from everything else and accommodation is terribly expensive. The closest town is in the Kanton Graubuenden, a good two-hour train ride from Zürich with the Raetische Bahn. To find accommodation in Davos or its immediate surroundings is nearly impossible.
This assumes, of course, that you haven’t got a quarter of a million francs to pay the entrance fee. If you’re willing to pay 8000 Swiss Francs (around the same in Euros) you’ll probably have no problem finding a place. For the rest of us mere mortals, you’ll probably end up staying in a town like Chur, which means long trains every the morning and evening.
Fourth, check out new stuff and be open to surprises.
The many side events, workshops and exhibitions outside the closed conference area cover very diverse topics and have different forms of engagement. The open forum session that I attended discussed how to produce and consume healthy local food and featured a vigorous debate around whether it’s less carbon-intensive to eat local food or to import it from regions where the energy needs are lower. For instance, did you know that eating an imported banana from Panama has less of a Co2 footprint than eating steak from a cow raised in Graubünden, the canton in which Davos lies.
A very different topic was presented in the House of Ukraine, where an exhibition showed the atrocities committed by the Russian Army against the Ukrainian population and just a few meters further was a presentation about “green blockchains”.
The nice thing about Davos is that as it is a small village. You can just walk around the main road and spontaneously stop at exhibitions or any other events. Most of them take place in local shops - outsourced for the week for the purpose, which must be quite attractive for the shop owners.
Fifth, Davos has become more of an Italian minestrone than a simple two-ingredient Swiss raclette.
Today at WEF you can discuss economic issues or trade and policy, yet more and more topics – from x to y - have cropped into the forum. In some ways, this makes the forum more relevant to our times yet on the other it seems to be losing its ability to generate any concrete recommendations. In response to the question, “How do societies become more resilient against the polycrisis?” I heard one prominent panelist answer, “We need to bring all involved stakeholders together to foster, in a mutually inclusive way, public-private partnerships that drive innovation, growth and happiness for all”. Really?
Six, meet people!
The most useful part of Davos is meeting people and networking. As Klaus Schwab, the founder of the Forum, puts it, “in an increasing divided world, creating trust through personal interaction is critical.” For me personally the House of Switzerland’s day, which included a focus on data, was a perfect opportunity to connect to people who could become interested in our Data for Change foundation. If you go, prepare to meet some people but leave space to meet new acquaintances. Networking here is easy and fun, so use it to enlarge your network.
So, even though it was less magical than I thought, I was glad to be there - as one of the things that I always wanted to see once. This being said and while many of the global elite still gather in Davos each year, it nevertheless feels like the famous Davos myth is fading away like the snow during the last weeks of winter in the Graubündener Alpen.
- Johannes Jütting, Executive Head of PARIS21