In the modern digital age, the value of any “ideas conference” should be measured not only by the quality of its participants, but also by its ability to transmit its ideas to a global audience. As the World Economic Forum kicks off its annual meeting in Davos this week with the theme
“The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models,” it must counter popular perception that it is largely an event for an out-of-touch global elite and assorted celebrities to determine the fates of the other 99%. Even with political and economic rock stars flying in for the week, what ability will Davos really have to define the global agenda in 2012?
As part of the World Economic Forum’s efforts to become more relevant for the other 99%, this year’s participants include a host of new voices from the Arab world as well as energetic "Global Shapers" between the ages of 20 and 30 who can inject new energy into finding a solution to the world’s most critical issues. The conference also is more attuned to the power of the Web than ever before, with an online presence covering everything from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter. The key is to transform the intimate conversations that take place at Davos into meaningful conversations about innovation.
However, just because you build a social presence online doesn’t mean that your ideas will resonate with the Web. As if to underscore this point, this year’s event includes the presence of the first-ever Occupy-style igloo protest against crony capitalism.
In many ways, the development of Davos into an event with global accountability has followed the trajectory of other popular “ideas conferences” for the elite, such as TED, which have focused heavily on transmitting their ideas to a wider audience. Not only are the TED speaker videos distributed virally around the world on a daily basis, but the very concept of the TED event has been franchised out, with hundreds of affiliated TEDx events taking place around the world each year - even in far-flung locations such as Baghdad - that were formerly left out of the global ideas conversation.
To define the global agenda in 2012, though, Davos doesn’t need to become another TED, complete with viral videos and intellectual mixtape DVDs. People with ideas are not necessarily also the best entertainers and performers. (In fact, sometimes they’re not even performers at all.) In a telling criticism, one of the original visionaries behind TED, Richard Saul Wurman, now plans to roll out a new conference this year, WWW, as a sort of anti-TED. According to Wurman, “we’ve lost the art of conversation” at TED-style confabs. His WWW will be an entirely new way of experiencing events that puts a premium on watching unscripted one-on-one conversations, without agendas and without schedules.
Which brings us back to Davos, which has always focused on having meaningful, one-on-one conversations between top thinkers - although not necessarily ones that are open to a voyeuristic public. The need for these meaningful conversations is especially relevant during a period of unprecedented political volatility. A majority of participants in a recent World Economic Forum fear a majority global geopolitical disruption in 2012, making the ability to establish relationships with other top decision-makers on a one-on-one basis especially important. When the phone rings at 3 am in the morning, it is these personal relationships that matter.
In an era where the all-wise Hive Mind of the Internet seems to move in lockstep around certain issues, when the pressure to embrace the next big social networking innovation is intense, and when the Filter Bubble may lull you into a false belief that you are ahead of the idea curve, the concept of the world’s 1% gathering in one place for a period of several days may be unpopular. However, getting off the grid and breathing in some fresh alpine air, free from the prying eyes of the Web, might just do wonders for unlocking the world’s next great transformations. The secluded Swiss ski resort makes it possible to debate ideas free from the constraints of being on stage and to develop the types of real-world friendships that could prove to be more valuable than virtual Facebook friendships.
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