At Davos, tackling risks — and making sure Davos doesn’t risk its future

Jan 20, 2011

The big brains at the World Economic Forum — the people who put on the annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, of top CEOs, heads of state and NGOs — have one official goal in mind for this year’s event:  tackling risk. And by that they mean risk everywhere: in the financial system, in the environment, with the Internet and in agriculture. If any area has teetered in recent years or looks likely to teeter in the future, the folks in Davos plan to study it, discuss it, try to solve it — and possibly write a few white papers around it. And rather than just running from risk, the WEF wants world leaders to learn to embrace what's to come.

So from January 26-30, in the massive Congress Centre, there will be sessions on topics such as the risks and opportunities in the “water-food-energy nexus” (moderated by IdeasLab at MIT);  how to invest in a risky world (Gary Parr from Lazard (laz) explaining where investors should be betting); and learning why your fears are nothing (presented by the mountain climbing head of San Francisco-based DareDevil Strategies). George Soros and folks from the IMF and the University of Chicago will debate how to redesign the international monetary system. The minister of home affairs of India will talk about the realities of terrorism. Risk, it seems, will be inescapable.

That’s the official focus.

Behind the scenes, much of the work seems to be on making sure the Davos experience isn’t an elite boys club and that China gets its proper respect. On the first issue, this year there’s not just a big push to bring in women, but a mandatory requirement. If delegations are sending five people to the event, at least one has to be a woman. Last week, Fortune's Duff McDonald pointed out that it’s a bit like ”a grade school gym class kickball team-selection process (one girl per team on the field at all times!).”  But on the other hand, ooof: Only 17% of the people at last year's conference were women. So clearly whatever the WEF was doing before this wasn't working.

On the China front, efforts to bring the powerhouse into the fold can be seen everywhere. In 2001, there were only three participants from China. This year, WEF's tally is up to 66. Chinese executives and government officials get seats at the table, from China Mobile's (chl) chairman Wang Jianzhou to Dalian's party secretary. But there are a few areas where China is noticeably absent. The WEF provides a list in advance of religious leaders, NGOs and labor leaders who will be attending. There are plenty of distinguished names from Korea, Ireland, Brazil and the Phillippines. But no one from China. Perhaps in the future, Chinese executives will be required to bring someone from one of those camps for every four attendees.

One thing is certain: The event is massive. Here’s the breakdown of participants, provided today by Kevin Steinberg, the chief operating officer of the WEF:

  • Total attendees: 2,500
  • Attendees who are chairmen, CEOs or business leaders: 1,400
  • Heads of state: 35 (with the majority of the G8 attending)
  • Government and interfaith "public figures": 250
  • Academic experts: More than 200
  • Media leaders: 200

That's a lot of egos, titles and opinions crammed into one Swiss town. But I guess the WEF has been managing that risk pretty well for a few years now.

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