When I went to Cannes last year, I thought nothing could be more absurd. I was wrong; Davos is much much much more absurd.
Much to my shock, I was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum this year, all because of a talk that I gave at AAAS. Even though I was on travel ban, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Given how many folks have asked me about it, I also figured I should do a trip report. This is that. In very brief high-level form.
Getting to Zurich was surprisingly easy, thanks to a direct flight from LAX. From Zurich, I hopped a bus with a bunch of other attendees. Imagine SF-Tahoe, complete with the traffic jams and snow piles everywhere as you go up into the mountains… only the bus is full of brilliant people that you admire deeply.
When I got to my hotel, I was a bit surprised to find that my $350+/night hotel room was crappier than the $39.99 ones that I mastered in rural America. There wasn’t even working internet and the lobby smelled foul. Le sigh. That’s what I get for going for the “cheap” option. The funny thing that I learned as the week went by is that many of the hotels are shite. There was something utterly absurd about realizing that the world’s leaders pay obscene prices to stay in crappy hotels (except for those lucky enough to have connections to get an apartment in town or those unfortunate enough to have to get a place outside of town and commute in because the crappy hotels are filled).
Security is omg overwhelming and everpresent. There are police officers at every door, street corner, and lining every hotel. Probably 1 police to every 2 people. Metal detectors and bag scanners are everywhere (along with coat checks and badge scanners). Not all of the events take place in the same building so every 2-3 hours, you end up going through a new set of security/coat check, making regular trips to the airport seem like cake. Oddly, by the second day, it just seems normal.
There are different kinds of sessions: big lecture sessions, workshops, breakfast/lunch/dinner discussions, and private events. Most sessions have a cap so you have to wake up at 7.30AM to sign up for sessions for the next day using kiosks that are everywhere (in hotels, in the lobby). You can print out your schedule on the kiosks too.
The big lectures are rather boring, but this is where many of the big politicians speak. I only went to a few of these after I realized that they were boring and that politicians couldn’t afford to say anything that they wouldn’t say on TV. Seeing Condoleezza Rice speak was dreadfully painful – I hadn’t think it was possible for my opinion of her to sink any lower. She spent the entire lecture telling Davos about why America was stable and on the right path. I walked out. The best lecture that I attended was a discussion between Al Gore and Bono about their respective activist projects – finding commonalities and connections between global warming and poverty. Twas neat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also pretty rad. There was also a panel featuring six youth from around the world which was super great to see, especially since these kids are at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum to the teens I normally interact with. These young folks were full-blown activists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers. Intense!
Workshops are the bomb. They are topically oriented and everyone works in small groups solve a problem. I attended two of these – one on technology and development and one on status. At the tech & development one, we were to imagine how to address the problems of a fictional village (called Tupointo… 2.0). We were split into groups – villagers, government, NGOs, funders, and tech companies. Not surprisingly, I was assigned to be a villager. After working out our needs as villagers, we all compared our goals and then had to split up with reps from other groups to negotiate. Our villager group rocked, but when we had to compromise, I nearly killed one of the guys from the tech sector for not understanding villagers. Turns out he’s a pretty powerful tech guy in RL… oops.
The second workshop on status was structured as a game where we were given gems that we had to trade to work our way up the status latter. It quickly became clear that some were born wealthier than others. I was a member of the poverty class. Realizing we would never win by getting money and realizing that whenever a member of our group did well, they were shipped off to another group, our group decided to aim for bottom, maximize happiness and conversation, and laugh at the other groups going crazy. The wealthier classes were much more invested in succeeding and one of the members from the upper-middle class nearly went ballistic over how the game was rigged and she wasn’t able to win. Gotta love a room full of Type A personalities. Anyhow, this provoked a fun conversation and my table got to talking about the status structures of badges (not unlike those at tech companies where there are permanents and contractors and temps and whatnot).
I attended two dinners and one lunch (in addition to the dinner that I helped moderate). These sessions are structured around tables where a moderator leads a discussion and then, at dessert time, everything switches to more lecture-style. Both these and the workshops are really great to get to know folks who are also interested in the topic, even if that’s not what they actually do. At the one on technology and education, I sat at Negroponte’s table. At one on spreadable chronic diseases, I sat with a guy from Kaiser Permanente. At the cultural leaders dinner, I sat with Yo-Yo Ma and Homi Bhabha. Each sessions proved to be utterly fascinating and a great opportunity to get to see issues from a different perspective. I was completely blown away by some of the amazing people at these sessions, both at my table and those moderating other tables. At the cultural leaders dinner, Emma Thompson showed a new short movie on sex trafficking which really blew me away. (Her PSA called I Am Elana is also mind-opening.)
Of the private events I went to, the best was a small discussion with Yo-Yo Ma where he talked about how successful people have fears and how challenging it is to be so successful so young. This was for the Young Global Leaders and so it turned into a fantastic discussion about issues related to being young and successful. I’ve decided that Yo-Yo Ma is a god – he is extremely playful and equally present and engaged. I found talking to him to be soul-enhancing.
On top of these structured events, there were also all sorts of different kinds of schmooze receptions and parties. I found that I was dreadful at these. I’m not so good about wandering around schmoozing people, although it was astonishing to watch some people who were tremendously good at it. I did OK at the parties where I knew folks (and there were a decent number of tech folks there), but otherwise… eventually I decided that I would be better off focusing on the small things involving intimate interactions with new people or friends of friends. I got to attend two non-structured dinners which were really great for getting to know new people and diving deep. Because Davos is cold and slippery, there are all of these shuttle buses that go everywhere. I found that I had many fun conversations sitting in those shuttle buses. This was much more up my style than the schmooze affairs so I decided to do some extra rounds on the buses a couple of nights.
At Davos, I was not a VIP by any stretch of one’s imagination. In fact, I was pretty close to the bottom of the attendee pecking order. It was pretty entertaining to see how people’s eyes would gaze over when they looked at my tag – politicians and heads of very important companies are significant; researchers.. not so much. Those who did want to engage me on my work usually wanted to get advice about their kids; I did a lot of parent therapy at Davos which was fine by me. But it really was weird to watch the hierarchies operate there. All the same, folks were relatively down-to-earth.
Another thing about Davos was that it became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system. The conversations of the conference were heavily focused on environmentalism, inequality, terrorism, and doing good to solve the world’s problems. What I found was that many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills. It was weird… I couldn’t tell if such folks were clueless or delusional. I still need to chew on this a bit more. But it was fascinating to see that most businesspeople at Davos genuinely believed that they could help the world.
Many people at Davos wanted to know who I was going to vote for – our election is extremely interesting to non-US folks and I was completely shocked to find that most non-US business people that I met at Davos strongly preferred Barack to Hillary. I wasn’t expecting that. As for the U.S. Republicans… they too preferred Barack if they had to choose a Dem. Even though we weren’t in the U.S., the U.S. was overly present there. Our economy, our elections, our politics… all of these were front and central from the global audience. Very strange.
All and all, I got little sleep but had a fantastic time meeting interesting people and talking about ideas and watching how some of the most powerful people in the world network. It really was just downright absurd and I still can’t get it through my head that they allowed me in. ::laugh:: Now I must process what to do with what I learned there.