Davos 2.0

January 30, 2009

Can Davos save us? Most of us consume this bizarre annual ritual through journalists’ lens, and we’re as human as they are, distracted by the bright and shiny A List. There are fewer supercelebrities in attendance this year. Like the rest of the world, they seem to be focused on earning a living in their primary occupations right now. Bono is promoting an album. Brad and Angie are reproducing. The bankers have lost their swagger, and everyone’s uncomfortable with the event’s historic excesses.

Davos Men and Women argue that the discussion has always been substantive, but it seems the press has nothing else to cover this year but the substance of the discussions.

The high-calorie conversations of years past didn’t save us from an economic meltdown, and so it’s a fair question to ask whether they’ll do us any good now. There are some discouraging signs, like standing-room-only sessions on what the capitalists can teach the bleeding-hearts about accountability. Presumably, these proceed without irony in this year of Madoffs and Thains and rogue employees who casually bankrupted the world without oversight from from their C-suite managers.

There are also some hopeful developments. The quotes and observations leaking out from the Swiss resort town are marked by an unprecedented degree of humility. This year’s crop of elite decision makers and thought leaders seem to agree on one thing – we don’t know enough about what’s happened, and that can’t be our resting state.

The most encouraging language I’ve heard came from Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard – in full disclosure, the CID is a client of ours – who argued that the answer must include improving our capacity to learn. “What’s endemic to financial crises,” he argued in a session on Global Imbalances, “is that the rate at which we innovate is greater than the rate at which we learn from them.”

The New York Times picked up this discussion, a sign that the Davos story has not just shifted from style to substance, but all the way over to redefining substance. We’re less focused on what we know – or in the Davos tradition of academic bluster, who knows what — and more interested in mapping the territory of what we don’t know. It’s an encouraging development.