From 22-25 January in the Alpine resort town of Davos, Switzerland, thousands of business bigwigs, world leaders, celebrities and carefully dressed hangers-on will gather to propose solutions to pressing global issues, negotiate business deals on the sidelines, and hobnob at cheesy piano bars.
Founded in 1971, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual flagship conference has been the premier event for the world’s elite, and their admirers, for nearly half a century. While the event’s cause may be noble, the price to attend is so steep that critics decry it as an “overpriced, ineffective ‘talking shop.’
” There is no denying that some important breakthroughs have taken place at Davos over the years, from preventing war to increasing the availability of vaccinations across the globe. Also some really epic parties.
In some ways, the “world’s most expensive networking event” seems exactly like your run-of-the-mill conference, except for the worldchanging ideating and snow boots.
More people, than actually attend the event, show up simply to hang out on its outskirts, making the town, otherwise an upscale ski resort, “a weird mix of world leaders combined with socialites, social climbers, party crashers, paparazzi, prostitutes, and the occasional Davos local who generally finds this time of the year a complete nuisance”, in the words of Pando’s Matthew Prince.
The WEF holds its numbers pretty close to its chest, and has a dizzying array of membership categories which determine how much a company might spend and what level of access their representatives are granted in return.
But, for example: The roughly 120 organisations that pay the WEF an annual fee of 600 000 Swiss francs ($600 000) to be “strategic partners” get four all-access tickets to the forum – which cost an additional 27 000 francs ($27 000) each. Because it has had a problem growing female attendance over the years, if one of the four people an organisation brings is a woman, the WEF lets them buy a badge for a fifth delegate.
WEF’s founding father First things first:
“World Economic Forum” doesn’t refer to the conference itself, but a not-for-profit organisation founded in 1971 with the mission of “improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.”
WEF was the brainchild of Klaus Schwab, who at the time of the organisation’s founding, was a 33-year-old German business professor at the University of Geneva with five degrees in mechanical engineering and economics under his belt. He dubbed the organisation “the European Management Forum,” but intended for it to teach American-style management tactics. By 1973, world events and the political climate had changed enough that the conference shifted focus to include economics and social issues. A year later saw an influx of political attendees, and the event eventually grew to the powerhouse it is today. Schwab has since gone on to establish several other organisations and author a number of tomes, most recently his take on the current technological era, which he has dubbed “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
“I would call the phase we are in innovative destruction, or perhaps destructive innovation,” he recently told Time magazine. “When you focus on the destructive part, it can make you pessimistic. What we try to do is see the innovative part.”
Critics say Schwab sometimes fawns over problematic world leaders, and that the conference has at times avoided officially docketing discussions of topics, like LGBT rights, that make certain heads of state squeamish.
“The way the WEF works, if someone like Putin makes it clear that he doesn’t want any such panel to take place, then the panel won’t take place,” Felix Salmon wrote for Reuters in 2014. “Indeed, the WEF organisers, who constitutionally err on the side of overcaution, would probably veto any such panel just in case a powerful head of state might object.”
At 80, Schwab is still an executive chairman of the organisation – and reportedly he will ban you from the conference for an indictment, or if your company goes bankrupt, or you retire – and is apparently still no stranger to the dance floor after a long day spent solving the world’s problems.
Brief history 1988:
The Davos Declaration is signed at the conference, preventing a war between Turkey and Greece
1992: South African president F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela have a milestone sit-down meeting at Davos
1994: Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres reach a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho at the event
2000: Controversy arises over the WEF’s for-profit initiatives, but an investigation by Swiss regulators finds no improprieties. The same year, Bill Clinton becomes the first sitting US president to attend the WEF – they typically avoid it because of the public perception of elitism. (This didn’t stop Donald Trump from showing up in 2018 and planning to go in 2019 before the government shutdown).
2001: Masked anti-globalisation protesters rioted in Zurich after attempting unsuccessfully to reach Davos. The same year saw one of the first high-profile acts of “hacktivism”, when protesters broke into WEF database, stealing information (including Jeff Bezos’s home phone number), which they sent to a Swiss newspaper. 2002: Kofi Annan launches the Global Health Initiative at the WEF.
TB The Financial Times once poked fun at the unique weather patterns in Davos, reporting that the town produces extra-special conditions when the World Economic Forum convention comes to town: “Davos conferences, cynics often say, produce a very large volume of hot air that frequently hangs over the town in a cloud of smug.”
Jokes aside, the high-valley microclimate made the town of Davos famous long before it became a hub for international economic discussion. The crisp air and incredible scenery was considered one of the greatest ways to fight tuberculosis; patients began flocking to the area in the mid-19th century to take part in rigorous treatment including mountain hikes, outdoor naps, and lots of wine and milk.
Thomas Mann set his influential novel The Magic Mountain in a Davos sanatorium. Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson continued to write short stories during his TB treatments there, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle moved to town to benefit his ailing wife. Conan Doyle discovered skiing during his residency – and fell madly, headover-heels in love.
After skiing the 14-mile Maienfelder Furka Pass between Davos and nearby Arosa, he wrote an article titled “An Alpine Pass on Ski” that rhapsodised about hitting the slopes. It was the beginning of the skiing tourism boom in Switzerland, and to this day, a bronze plaque in Davos commemorates Conan Doyle’s contributions.
More recently, Steve Case, founder of AOL, said after attending the WEF: “You always feel like you are in the wrong place in Davos, like there is some better meeting going on somewhere in one of the hotels that you really ought to be at. Like the real Davos is happening in secret somewhere.”
Lord Digby Jones, a British businessman, also said about Davos attendees: “They look as if they do know what they are doing, but they don’t.”
Simply getting registered for the WEF is not enough. Official attendees are sorted into categories that determine access to various venues and events.
According to Felix Salmon’s 2012 reporting at Reuters, the colourful caste system, denoted with badges, is somewhat mysterious but not illegible. The general format, which changes subtly from year to year, involves different colours and demarcations for different types of attendees.
For example: In the past, badges with a hologram denoted access to IGWEL – the Informal Gathering of World Economic Leaders – for which you more or less have to be a head of state, finance minister, trade minister, or senior policymaker. Five hundred working journalists allowed to cover the event had orange ones, staff might wear shades of blue, and so on.
To complicate matters, there are also badges for people in town because of the conference but who are not actually attending the conference. Hotels sell their own versions to bankers and consultants who arrive in town to network outside official parameters.
Meet “Davos Man”
As the annual conferences in Davos have evolved, the type of people you find milling about town have become known worldwide by the quasi-anthropological descriptions “Davos Man,” and more recently, “Davos Woman.”
Coined by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in 2004, the term refers to a type of person who “view[s] national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.” If that gives off an air of James Bond or, more jovially, Austin Powers, Huntington clears it up with the title of his piece: “Dead Souls: The Denationalisation of the American Elite.” Another colourful phrase Huntington uses to describe the same set of people: “Gold-collar worker.”
Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham wrote after attending the WEF in 1998: “Although in many ways bountiful and in some ways benign, the colossal mechanism that generates the wealth of nations (a.k.a. “The Global Economy,” “The Invisible Hand,” “Moloch”) lacks the capacity for human speech or conscious thought, a failing that troubles those of its upper servants who wish to believe that it is they who control the machine and not the machine that controls them.” He later published The Agony of Mammon: The imperial global economy explains itself to the membership in Davos, Switzerland. – Quartz..