By Adam Lashinsky
January 25, 2010

A “Davos virgin” speculates about the World Economic Forum.

I head to Europe this week to attend the World Economic Forum annual meeting, better known by the name of Swiss town in which it is held, Davos. I am a Davos virgin, so I intend to see the conference through the eyes of the newcomer that I am and to  drink up its global celebrities, big thinkers and attendant hangers on (read: journalists, consultants, and so on).

Upon informing a Wall Street source that I’m embarking on my first Davos voyage, she remarked: “I would love to hear all about Davos – how much of it is forwarding policy goals — and how much of it is socializing.” Any conference of almost any size is by definition some mixture of windbaggery and substance. (I sincerely hope the conference that I will co-chair in July, Fortune Brainstorm Tech, will have more of the latter and less of the former.) By reputation, Davos appears to be exemplary at both, with extra dollops of earnestness.

The luggage tags the conference organizers sent me ahead of time read: “World Economic Forum: Committed to improving the state of the world.”

Can one conference in a Swiss ski town really improve the state of the world? I’d say I’ll let you know in a week, but that would be naive.

Beyond “Davos Man”

I’ve found that those who don’t attend Davos – by choice or because they aren’t invited – tend to roll their eyes when the gabfest comes up. It does appear to be the ultimate see-and-be-seen scene in the worlds of business, politics and development.

Then again, could something that brings together heads of state, corporate leaders and leading politicians for thoughtful conversations on a broad range of topics be merely a bunch of hot air? My hunch is that unlike the recent climate-change conference in Copenhagen, which was intended to produce a governing document, sparks lit in Davos spread into flames in unforeseen places, ways and times.

In its admitted earnestness, the World Economic Forum is nothing if not purposeful about how it expects conversations to go in Davos. (The conference opens Wednesday, Jan. 27, and closes Sunday, Jan. 31; Oodles of official information about it is available here.)

The theme is: “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild.” The explicit message is to brainstorm on ways to fix the mess left over from the financial crisis of 2008. Organizers are mindful that many people come to Davos to do  business. Yet they try to steer the conversation away from merely dealmaking. For example, I am hosting a panel Friday that will include Google (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt, France Telecom (FTE) CEO Didier Lombard and William Green, CEO of Accenture (ACN), we will back into business issues by discussing “Technology for Society,” with our charge quite literally being to discuss how existing information technology can help people.

Notable absentees

Novel, right? (Notable for who won’t be in Davos (at least from the latest list of attendees I’ve seen) in the week of President Obama’s State of the Union address and Apple’s (AAPL) unveiling of whatever it is unveiling:  Senior members of the Obama administration and anyone from Apple or IBM (ibm), whose “smarter cities” campaign would seem a natural Davosian conversation starter.)

To the social aspect, Davos is very much about parties. One double, triple and quadruple books. The preparations make it feel like a college campus with competing dorms and fraternities hosting simultaneous events every night. A frivolous waste of time, perhaps. Unless your job is to network, in which case it sounds like an efficient and target-rich environment.

Davos is famously full of technology entrepreneurs and executives, the types, in short, I can and do see at restaurants in Silicon Valley or even in my neighborhood in San Francisco. My goal, then, is wherever possible to get outside my comfort zone and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise. As an example, the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches sponsors a concurrent conference alongside the World Economic Forum. Its topics are a little further afield even then the main conference. Two of the more interesting-looking sessions: “Switzerland: Cherry Picker of Europe?” and “Does Religion’s Claim to Truth Lead to Violence?” Judging from the speaking, dining and partying commitments I’ve already made, I can’t promise I’ll make it to this group of events. But I’ll try. It seems to be in the true “spirit of Davos,” hot air and informative not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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