The World Economic Forum ended a week ago. That means the jet lag is gone, the expense reports are largely completed (if not yet reimbursed), and normal life has resumed.
Was it worth it? That’s the question I posed at the outset, wondering if the substance could possibly outweigh the windbaggery. My unequivocal answer: Yes.
Make no mistake, though, the talking at Davos is fearsome. On Sunday morning, Jan. 31, I boarded a 7 a.m. bus for a two-hour ride through the Alps from Davos to the Zurich airport. It was pitch-black outside as well as inside the coach, which was about half full. Most people, including myself, had been out late the night before attending dinners as wells as the concluding gala for the conference, hosted by the government of the South Africa. And yet, the overachievers who make up the attendees at WEF couldn’t stop talking. Half a dozen whispered conversations raged on that bus at what felt like the middle of the night. This, I was sure, was Davos in a nut shell.
Still, the conversations were meaningful. The panel I hosted on “Technology for Society” made news, when Eric Schmidt of Google (GOOG) proclaimed his company’s desire to stay in China. It also informed. For example, Joel Selanikio, CEO of a non-profit called DataDyne, explained how his group uses simple and widely available technologies like text messaging to improve health care services. View the entire panel for yourself here.
Davos is a unique animal. It’s like the United Nations in that many of the world’s most powerful people show up. It’s unlike the UN in that it has no peacekeeping armies, no vaccination program, no Security Council, and no legislation. At its best, it provides a neutral ground for conversation. At its worst, the conversation goes nowhere.
But what conversations they were. Public sessions are part of the appeal. But a bigger part are the private events. They typically are off the record. From one dinner I attended I can tell you that smartypants big thinkers like the Santa Fe Institute’s Geoffrey West and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee have a lot of interesting things to say about smart-grid technology. From another dinner I learned that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is surprisingly passionate about staking out ground for Republicans on climate-change legislation. He more than holds his own with David Cameron, the silver-tongued leader of Britain’s Tory party.
The shoulder-rubbing in Davos can be downright amusing. Bill Gates walked out of a meeting room as Eric Schmidt and I were going in. I passed what I was told was the leader of an African nation wearing a snappy military uniform and a sweet hat. One afternoon I walked by famed George Soros, who looked tired. I couldn’t blame him.