As it does each year at this time, the World Economic Forum is happening in Switzerland, holds its annual intellectual funfest for the high and the mighty. The WEF, a nonprofit institute officially dedicated to “improving the state of the world” -- and funded accordingly -- stages this annual meeting, more commonly known as the “Davos Conference,” for the city where this event takes place. Attending Davos costs tens of thousands of dollars -- and you have to be invited. In evidence are CEOs and investors (first and foremost), political leaders (including Presidents and Prime Ministers), and cultural leaders (ranging from the Pope to Bono). In short, Davos is a temporary global country club, with skiing takes the place of golf or sailing mega-yachts. In WEF's defense, it does host a whole lot of interesting sessions at Davos, with titles that wet one's whistle -- but for the 99.9999999% of us without invitations, they hardly matter. Just a lot of fizz and fizzle.
Davos' theme this year is “The Power of Global Collaboration” (described in a “We Are the World”-like video), in this case as applied to solving the world's problems and not just building better mousetraps or Internet social networks. Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week's Design Editor, sagely reports this week that Davos 2008 is really about three things: officially, innovation as a source of solutions (to what seem to me puny problems, when seen against a backdrop of environmental catastrophe); unofficially, heading off the coming “world economic recession” (which, should it be truly on that scale, will probably rate being called a “depression”), a feat that Davos' PR terms “ensuring growth in 2008”; and most importantly, reaffirming the attendees' co-membership in Davos' exclusive global country club. Side issues that will be discussed, but predictably not solved, will include terrorism, climate change, and water scarcity. How statesmanlike. How safe. How status quo.
What's fascinating to me, and what prompted me to blog about Davos -- which otherwise merits the attention paid to the Cannes Film Festival, which it resembles -- is the juxtaposition of collaborative innovation, a process of management, with world economic recession and a massively messed-up global ecosystem -- graphic testimonials to how badly things have been managed so far and continue to be, Davos notwithstanding. Is collaborative innovation (which I teach) up to solving the world economic crisis? Only if the right conditions for innovation to take place are met.
The first of those conditions is to eliminate all mental constraints at the get-go and allow creativity free reign, at least during the run up to developing concrete solutions. It's important (a) not to set one's future event horizon too short, lest you merely reify the present; and (b) consider every possibility, lest an unexpected solution escape notice. The second of these conditions is to include all stakeholders in the innovation process, and not merely CEOs, political leaders, and Popes.
So how real is the Davos commitment to innovation?
First, what options and alternative are permitted to be discussed at Davos? Is creating and funding a global economic safety net, as the UN has proposed, on the table? What about a more equitable distribution of global wealth? How about rich nations taxing themselves for their disproportionately enormous economic and environmental demands on already terrifically strained physical and social environments, then putting the revenues in a global fund to deal with real global problem-solving? Is unbridled immigration from poor nations to rich an open option? A world government? A universal social democracy? Corporations devoting 25% of their income (not just five percent of their profits) to fighting climate change? Not surprisingly, these options are non-starters at Davos.
Second, who gets to participate? Is the Davos collaborative innovation space full of people including representatives of the global population that this collaborative innovation is out to effect? Are you kidding?
Collaborative innovation, as its described in Davos own PR and as represented by the speakers invited to discuss innovation, looks a lot like innovation talked about in corporate boardrooms, political smoke-filled rooms, and media situation rooms: how to get out a better product, a more compelling service, make people work harder but happier, etc., etc.
Not that global crises are going unnoticed. In addition to many, many niche meetups on the pressing sidebar topics mentioned above (terrorism, water, how we understand our bodies, dealing with global poverty, etc.) which the avant-garde can attend, if you're at Davos you can buy offsets and drive hybrids, thus salving your conscience after traveling first class by air (a huge CO2, ozone-killing activity) and while being waited upon like a modern mogul, eating as perhaps 1% of the world population does regularly, and if you're an expert guest, sit at the feet of economic and political satraps like intellectual court jesters.
(Image: Global Warming, Climate Change, Greenhouse Warning)