The four faces of the World Economic Forum

Simon Zadek
9 February 2007

Anthony Barnett's insightful reflection on of the "three faces of the World Social Forum" (protesting, networking and proposing) on openDemocracy inspired me to mirror his elegant profiling with a comparable take on the World Economic Forum, which met in Davos on 24-28 January 2007. My three-way take on WEF is that it involves networking, futuring and deal-making.


Networking is the most obvious. One can create an interesting effect by crowding 2,500 people (a fraction of WSF participation numbers) in-the-main important (politics, business and money ... oh, and some civil-society and labour leaders and an assortment of thought leaders and arts-stars) into a small Swiss village under the intense pressures of overkill on content, limited space, awe-inspiring security, maximum visibility, limited time and, crucially, a sense of wheels-within-wheels that creates an event-DNA to want to rise up through the hidden hierarchies to ever-more-private meetings.

The effect is to project every participant through a crazed, five-day pathway of often fascinating, loosely associated, extremely short, desperately and always critical discussions or, more likely, ingestions of knowledge, emotions, aspirations, drive and, most of all, ambition.

Choose a subject, identify the globally acknowledged expert, owner or leader, fight your way into her or his session or struggle to catch them on the hop, grasp the soundbite, energise yourself to frame a half-baked question - and repeat exercise sixty-to-a-hundred times in a twenty-four-hour period interspersed between drink, food, music, slipping over in the snow, and grabbing a few hours of sleep.

Simon Zadek is chief executive of AccountAbility. His books include The Civil Corporation: The New Economy of Corporate Citizenship (Earthscan, 2001); he is currently completing his next, The New Competitiveness

As in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Simon Zadek wrote a blog from the 2007 World Economic Forum at Davos on openDemocracy

Also by Simon Zadek in openDemocracy:

" From the magic mountain: the World Economic Forum "
(29 January 2004)

" openDavos: Simon Zadek's blog "
(February 2005)

" Reinventing accountability for the 21st century "
(12 September 2005)

" China's route to business responsibility " (30 November 2005)

"Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)

"The World Economic Forum: changing the world from within" (22 January 2007)


Futuring, my second face of the World Economic Forum, concerns a peculiarly human obsession of imagining oneself (and others) into the future. Part of this is about prediction, and there were a host of sessions focused on very possible aspect of tomorrow's world, from biotechnology to ageing to robotics to renewable energies.

"Technology provides the solutions" to offset the menace of climate change, said Jacques Aigrain, CEO of Swiss Re. Technology solutions must also be easily transferable to India and China - countries that Aigrain termed "our pension funds" - as they will be the future drivers of economic growth. He added that it is the politicians' responsibility to take pre-emptive measures, although in the end "market solutions will prevail".

But futuring at the World Economic Forum is far more than prediction (and a little less than planning). It's all about imagining one's role in the creation of futures. As John Hope Bryant, one of the forum's Young Global Leaders explained: "In order to have dignity you have to offer it first ... You cannot call yourself a leader unless you are prepared to serve".

Similarly, as the forum announced on its home page: "The Annual Meeting closed on an 'upbeat mood' with the Co-Chairs pledging on behalf of the 2,400 participants to use their positions of leadership to turn commitments on the top issues of climate change, global trade and globalization into action".

Just imagine what this would mean if it was a binding commitment with real actions. But of course that's impossible as long as people remain accountable for the wrong things, a point I made in my (rather criticised) pre-Davos openDemocracy article.

Prime ministers and presidents will return to their presiding, electioneering at best, usually to the lowest common denominators from New York to Tehran; business leaders will do what it takes to meet their responsibilities to bonus-hungry fund managers, sadly for those who lost their lives in Texas, and lost their pensions more or less everywhere else; and civil-society leaders ... well, we can only hope that they will regroup, and start strategising around (what I called in my openDemocracy blog the moment of "painful mainstreaming".


But it is deal-making, my third face of the World Economic Forum, that lies at the heart of the matter. As one participant remarked: "the World Economic Forum is nothing more than the world's most prestigious trade show".

True, there is a dazzling array of offers in evidence at Davos. Among the heavyweight gatherings designed to deliver high-profile announcements, this year's star attraction was a tantalising message (delivered by Pascal Lamy, among others): that the assembled trade dignitaries from Europe, India, Brazil and the United States had reached the restarting gate of the Doha trade round, and aimed to finalise a deal before George W Bush's fast-track authority expired in 2007.

As Lamy announced with classical French poise and enigma, "This morning's meeting has given new energy into the talks, to the point where the landing strip is approaching".

At the other end of the spectrum is the cut-and-thrust of a more common marketplace. Huddles of people inhabit every corner of Davos, of diverse categories and specialisms:

  • business leaders bonding to enable their teams to follow through on the devilish details of commercial deals
  • civil-society activists and labour leaders plotting together, or cutting framework deals and creating new multi-stakeholder initiatives with their newfound business collaborators
  • politicians building alliances to support their decisions for more, less or different regulation, new schemas for tax hikes and subsidies, or election campaigns to come.

There is also one other key deal-making area at Davos: the market for people. Building one's reputation at Davos is just one step away from profiling oneself through "reality TV" - a far smaller audience, of course, but with a bigger appetite for talent, fabulous job opportunities and deep pockets.

When British prime minister Tony Blair took the main stage with Klaus Schwab in addressing single-handed a packed plenary, it did occur to me that this looked and felt like the world's largest 360-degree job interview. "Despite the multiple challenges in the world today I am optimistic", Lord Tony (presumably soon to be) pattered away, accompanied by a double helping of intelligent, exquisitely framed, light humour.

Exactly which job Tony was pitching for was somewhat unclear. But there is little doubt that he needs somewhere to park himself in just a few months, and just maybe the forum itself could offer a sweet spot location for a global diplomat looking for a power-platform.

A fourth face

Davos left me, as you can see, tired but in high spirits. Actually, that is not strictly true. I did regain my high spirits some days after I left (hence the delay in writing this closing piece).

It is a real privilege to be at Davos, a moment to interact with extraordinary people with the capacities, if applied, to transform our world. I play out its three faces to the full - networking, a wee bit of futuring, and the odd deal cut here and there. I see how much potential there is to do things differently, the vision, skills, technologies, and oodles and oodles of money.

But in my heart of hearts, and despite my inclination towards both grounded and entirely unfounded optimism, my despair returned as I descended the magic mountain on which Davos perches back to the reality of our lives.

Blair has not rescinded his government's decision on BAe Systems; Siemens' chief executive (present at Davos) remains in his post despite his company being arraigned for embezzlement, bribery and tax evasion; and Volkswagen's largest shareholder, Porsche, whilst (through Audi) taking a high profile at climate change-friendly Davos, has coerced Angela Merkel into undermining the commission's attempts to curb vehicle emissions.

Cynicism has no role in seeing beyond the glitz that there are many fine people at the World Economic Forum committed to making a positive contribution. But it is not enough. The forum could be much more if it could speak the truth to power.

The litmus test of such a move must be to develop a fourth face that concerns acknowledgment of the sources of our current problems. Misaligned accountabilities that pervade our most important institutions must be part of this honest confessional, which in turn drives our leaders to making commitments that they cannot possibly keep. This fourth face could prevent Davos being reduced to dangerous tomfoolery and raise its game in moving it from being an important institution to one that is great.

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