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If in my immediate reflections on the first day I saw an underlying uncertainty emerging, the story of the remainder was perhaps unsurprisingly a somewhat contradictory experience. In some ways, an education in how uncertainty at these levels is managed out of significance; in others, an engaging sight of what could be possible if these people would admit that they are just people and have all the same limitations as everyone else.
The story of uncertainty management is about structuring issues into boxes, explicitly or implicitly agreeing a division of responsibility, and then focusing only on what is directly in front of you. This was primarily apparent in the structure and arrangement of the conference – the subjects considered, the arrangement of the rooms within (and also outside) the Congress Centre to which they are allocated, and the people who speak at and attend them.
To put this in context, the Congress Centre is a very large building in the heart of the resort town of Davos, with about 10 rooms of various sizes ranged across four floors. The largest, the Congress Hall, has a capacity of several thousand and accommodates the headline sessions – the opening and closing sessions, and the world leader solo addresses (John Kerry, for example, packed the hall). The smallest is up on the top floor and has a capacity of about 50. In between there are several different spaces, one with a giant screen across the back wall. The picture is then completed outside the Congress Centre with several hotels opening up their facilities, and a UN World Food Programme temporary building rather like a large marquee. Heavy security marks the entrance to all of these – the pass I had was probably the most financially valuable thing I will ever own; I heard whispers that paying your way to one costs upwards of £15,000.
The basic allocation of this space was that the financial market discussions and presentations dominated the main spaces, with even more elite private discussions and small group negotiations taking place in the hotels. In between, into the more ‘fun’ spaces and the WFP tent went most other things – out of sight, and for most out of mind. Richard Branson tweeted to this effect on one subject, but his point had wider significance:
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) January 23, 2014
The result of this and the sheer number of parallel sessions (5-10 at any one time) meant Davos was in some ways rather like digital television – with so many options, the vast majority chose the few channels they felt closest to, and watched only those. Christiana Figueres, head of the UN climate body and a rarity as a female speaker (85% of speakers were apparently male; I heard no figures on ethnicity, but let’s just say a bias was fairly clear), called out her fellow environmentalists on this at the environment dinner on the penultimate night: ‘How many of you,’ she asked, ‘have been to events with the same 30 people all week?’ I would say 70% of the room raised their hand.
Perhaps the most frightening impact of this became clear to me at a private event later the previous evening. A very senior and influential financial luminary who must remain nameless was speaking. His main point was that the role of government in crisis must be to err on the side of acting too hard and too fast – while mistakes are inevitable in crisis, those made in this way are at least easier to correct for. His message was that, if anything, governments should have moved harder and faster in the financial crisis.
Then someone asked him if that should hold for the climate crisis. His answer? ‘It’s not my job.’
This clearly is a view that financial luminaries have been allowed to have; it is one that explains an awful lot; and it is also one that can be explained by the structures I observed. Even at these gatherings, the people who hold the purse strings are not seeing or hearing the vital information. While each group talks amongst themselves about the issues they specialise in, the interconnections pile up and wait for us to walk into them.
It is the concept of interconnection that seems most difficult to grasp in Davos. The vast majority of the assembled elite simply don’t seem able to understand the concept of complexity, the idea that every interaction counts, and that linear cause-and-effect simply doesn’t describe the way our world works. They hide from it, probably because in their positions to appear uncertain is suicide.
That said – and here the conflicting experience begins – if this cross-fertilisation and the space for such constructive uncertainty at this level is going to happen anywhere, it will be at the World Economic Forum. This is the closest people at this level will come to hearing different voices, and to be fair to the organisers, there were a few sessions – climate in particular – that made the main stages so as to prod them in the right direction. Indeed, efforts are made to create space where coming into contact with new ideas is possible – both through the sessions, and in particular through the presence of the Champion Communities (150 or so Young Global Leaders and Shapers, under 40s and under 30s respectively, plus around 30 Social Entrepreneurs) on panels and intervening from the audience. These included some of the most impressive and thoughtful voices – from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky to Ushahidi Executive Director Juliana Rotich – and certainly most of the freshest interventions.
Overall, I think the best way to imagine the WEF is to picture a village with 3000 inhabitants, a conference centre, a few hotels, and little else. In the village, (almost) everyone behaves very nicely towards each other. You meet someone in the street/corridor who is not too obviously in a hurry, you say hello and probably have a chat; likewise in queues for toilets and food. The only difference to any other village is that pretty much all of the 3000 are among the most (theoretically at least) influential in the world. In a very weird way, it sort of allows them to be normal for a week.
I think this is the crucial part of explaining why I have come away feeling so invigorated despite getting about 10 hours sleep in total between Thursday morning and Sunday night. Yes, the contacts I made were great and will be great for this work. Yes, I found some of what I saw and heard depressingly single minded. But that high and corresponding low pale into insignificance beside the main feeling I came away with – which is that these are just people. That pretty much all of those I met want to be good. And to me, that means change can happen.