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Is there room for the protester at Davos?

Being stuck on the ground, waiting in an airport for a delayed flight to take off, often provides me with a surprisingly eye-opening and high-level perspective on the world. As an antidote to the boredom, I’ll scan the waiting area and imagine how the worldview of someone in the room differs from mine.

Sitting in the New Delhi international terminal as I made my way to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, I noticed a young man who was dressed in the counter-cultural style of his generation. I wondered what he might say if I told him where I was going — that is, to join a discussion among political, business, and cultural leaders about the problems facing our uncertain world.

“Why you and not me?” he might ask. The answer was obvious — until I further imagined his explanation. “I am your future. My generation represents almost 50% of the world’s population. We are the force that brought about all the revolutions in the world last year — whether it was Tahrir or Tunisia or Occupy Wall Street. I am the one looking for and finding solutions … you guys are just talking!”

I was still thinking about the young man as my car drove into Davos, Switzerland. As I checked into my hotel, I heard about a group of protestors who had come to “occupy” the Forum summit. This resolute group of youth was camping out in igloos at a car park just outside the security cordon around the meeting.

The theme of Davos this year is “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.” And I wondered, somewhat doubtfully, if the sort of disaffection that young people have with an out-of-date status quo would play any part in this year’s Davos discussions.

Nonetheless, I have arrived in hope. The event’s more than 100-page agenda suggests that there is more to the event than just the intent as spelled out in the theme. No less than 10 sessions, for example, are being organized to explore the new contours of capitalism, starting with a TIME magazine debate on the question “Is 20th-century capitalism failing 21st-century society?”

That’s a good start. But no matter how new or bold the conversation’s topic might be, you risk reaching the same old conclusions if you involve the same old participants. And “same old” is the last thing the world needs today. With elections in three of the most strategically important nations — the U.S., France and Russia — on the horizon; with continuing economic turmoil; with new uprisings in Africa and the Middle East; with even a Mayan prediction of Apocalypse, the world is desperately looking for new models and new answers.

All I see on the streets, however, are the same old faces.

I echo World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab’s view that the old ways of fixing these things have become dated and ineffectual. It used to be “hard power” applied from the top that got things done. In turn, it became “soft power” — the achievement of change by persuasion. And today? Schwab believes our future rests on “collaborative power” — that is, “the integration of empowered newcomers” into the decision-making process. Absolutely, I say.

The young bloke at the New Delhi airport may well deserve a boarding pass on the flight to Zurich. (Perhaps I should have given him mine.)

Let’s not forget that just a few weeks back TIME magazine chose The Protester as its Person of the Year. “In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints; they changed the world,” the magazine wrote in its issue, and rightly so. Embracing this person could have been the big transformation that Davos has sought to define this year.

Will this great opportunity sit cold and wasted in an igloo outside?

Vineet Nayar is vice chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies and the author of Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down.