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The European skiers have once again checked into the hotels of this small Swiss village, replacing the attendees of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. (ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS)
The European skiers have once again checked into the hotels of this small Swiss village, replacing the attendees of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. (ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS)

World Economic Forum

Examining the true meaning of Davos Add to ...

This year, Oscar-winning actress and HIV and AIDS campaigner Charlize Theron was given the Forum’s Crystal Award. Theron received the award because of her commitment to improving the lives of African youth - in particular, those suffering from HIV and AIDS, through the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach project. Pakistani Emmy and Oscar-winning film maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was another winner. A recent film of hers persuaded politicians in Pakistan to treat acid attacks as an act of terrorism and be punished with prison terms.

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the Forum as a gabfest designed to help businesses make more money. I attended one of the “private meetings” Mr. Chakrabortty ranted about hosted by the consulting company McKinsey & Company on overcoming youth unemployment. This is a huge problem, with the jobless rate for young people more than 50 per cent in Spain and Greece, and close to 25 per cent in Sweden.

But there are also millions of unfilled jobs. How do we overcome the skills mismatch? McKinsey announced some deep research at the meeting, since there is a complete lack of reliable information on the topic, explaining what could be learned from more successful countries such as Germany.

In another meeting hosted a private Ukrainian foundation, educators, policy makers and business people had sessions dealing with higher education, and the potential for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Representatives from Harvard, Stanford and MIT all came to Davos to discuss the issue. See my article on that extraordinary discussion here.

To be sure, business executives have private meetings to discuss new opportunities and partnerships or sell their goods and services. Country leaders meet with business executives to pitch their countries for investments too. But the norm is more like the Forum event I attended yesterday on the “moral economy,” where executive after executive discussed practical mechanisms that would force corporations to be more fully responsible members of society.

One speaker was Bill George, a former CEO of Medtronic and now a professor at Harvard Business School. He made a strong case that the purpose of a corporation is not simply to make a profit. Rather, society gives a licence to corporations to perform certain functions, including to create employment, innovate and create broader social value to society.

After Michael Porter wrote his famous article in the Harvard Business Review that capitalism has to be rethought along “shared value” principles, he immediately headed to the 2011 Davos meeting to promote his concept. He knew he would be talking to thought leaders from around the world.

As for the fact that there are cocktail parties? As someone who speaks at 60 conferences a year, I can’t remember one cocktail-free. True, some of the private events hosted by unnamed web entrepreneurs might be over the top. But I’m not sure we should all agree that having fun is a bad idea.

A curator of communities

I find Davos productive for a number of reasons. It’s intellectually rewarding; for example, there was a dinner last night with 10 Nobel Prize winners in attendance. And yes, there is great networking. But what drives me, and, I’m guessing, most people, is that the Forum helps me make a difference in the world. If you are a defender of the status quo, you’re not going to have a very good time at Davos, because the discussion is a lot about change.

Which brings me to my main point of discussion: What is the Forum, and what is its real meaning in terms of improving the state of the world?

The Forum began four decades ago as a meeting for European executives to discuss pressing global problems. It evolved into a think tank, researching various issues and convening other events. Today you could think of the organization as a “do tank” that is engendering at least a dozen communities that are researching, discussing and taking action on many global problems.

Earlier this week I discussed the Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils, which were created in 2008. They bring together more than 1,500 of the world’s most relevant experts from academia, business, civil society, government and international organizations. The councils are the vehicle for the Forum to achieve its year-round dialogue.

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