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Davos for beginners

Evan Davis | 07:33 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Davos village

This is my fourth trip to the World Economic Forum and the trek here is becoming all too familiar - a plane to Zurich, followed by a three hour train journey into the Swiss mountains (on three different trains, each smaller than the one before).

The Davos elite get cars direct from the airport, but I'm told the road has been blocked by an accident and the journey is taking about as long as ours.

Whatever mode of transport one takes though, the journey is a visually stunning one but is sufficiently circuitous to make one wonder if it will ever arrive anywhere - which nicely symbolises the World Economic Forum itself.

Because what will occur over the next five days is not a very focused event at all. It is a festival of debates, dinners and drinks parties - private meetings and whimsical talks, all spread across a medium-sized secure ski resort. Like the journey up here, it is well worth viewing if you get the chance.

But beginners to the World Economics Forum have to understand there is no single Davos experience, and there is no single Davos community either. There are numerous tribes who interact only at a minimal level.

Preparations for the World Economic ForumThere are the bankers and economists (in greater abundance than last year); the foreign policy wonks; the NGOs and social entrepreneurs (the WEF is big on doing good); there are the big corporations (whose subs pay for the event) and there are always a few presidents and prime ministers. (I won't refer to them as politicians; when they arrive in Davos, they are all treated as global statesmen.)

The great thing about the event is that by holding it in this location, one of the coldest and most slippery places on the planet, everyone is forced to wear big boots and bulky coats that make them look like the Michelin man. The event thus strips the most portentous people of their dignity.

The theme of the forum this year is "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild". Rebuild what you might ask? Well, it's the world that the conference organisers have in mind. The forum never lacks ambition.

However, for the Today programme the biggest theme of the week is probably that of rebuilding the global financial system.

It had seemed possible that the world was succumbing to the temptation to engage in very little reform of banking on the dubious grounds that you do nothing during a crisis as the system is too fragile. And you do nothing after the crisis as the system seems to work.

The WEF Congress CentreIn fact though, President Obama's announcement last week on banking has put radical reform back up the agenda. Regulators and bankers will meet across the atrium here and ideas will undoubtedly be exchanged.

A second theme is the world economy after "The Great Recession" (the phrase being used by the conference organisers). Since this time last year, extreme measures have been taken by governments and central banks and the treatment has worked; the world economy has stabilised and things have gone rather better than many feared.

Alas, now we have to work out how to cure the world economy of the treatment - in particular the fiscal policies that have left embarrassing deficits.

Indeed, one might argue that if the original problem in the world economy was that jobs and output were underpinned by unsustainable private borrowing and spending, we have only improved things with unsustainable government borrowing and spending. It's as though we've cured ourselves of heroin addiction by weaning ourselves onto methadone.

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The policy challenges created by government deficits and loose monetary policy will be much talked about here.

Needless to say, there are many other themes too.

In the wake of the Port au Prince earthquake, I'll be interested in a session here on making humanitarian assistance more effective. Surely we can prepare for events better than we have done. The only problem for the forum is that many of the people you would want to hear from on this issue are probably still busy working out how to help Haiti.

Finally, aside from the serious issues here, there is a pretty well-constructed programme of scientific and artistic activity. There are expert-led sessions on everything from alzheimers to extra-terrestrials to viruses. Psychology and neuroscience have had a presence here for many years and 2010 is no exception, with lectures on imagination and perception among other topics.

And cultural figures are always a big feature too. We will be interviewing the charismatic Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Margaret Atwood who are both in town for the week.

There's certainly a lot to do in five days and a lot to talk about.

It is of course easy to be cynical about this event. It can be seen as a junket. And this year in particular, it can be seen as a forum where the people who got the world into trouble have the temerity to think they can plot a way of it.

Of course it is both these things.

But it's still very interesting.


  • Comment number 1.

    Excerpt from Felix Salmon's blog on Reuters.

    Is anybody here seriously examining the idea that Davos was institutionally responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008? I’ll be on the lookout for that over the next few days. But I suspect that the preening potentates will be far too busy giving themselves the job of rebuilding the world to stop and ask where they went wrong in building the last one, and whether they might actually owe the rest of us a large collective apology.

    Felix Salmon, Reuters

    Fellow cynic?

  • Comment number 2.

    The world food situation is inching up the agenda, and I notice a growing enthusiasm for GM technology. And why not, if it increases food supply. Two major GM issues, however, remain unanswered. What is the business model of the major player - the mind-set of its directors? We've seen the results of ambition and excess in the financial world - is it not conceivable the same might happen to the world of food supply? GM provides a handful of companies the opportunity to control the supply of seed across the world, turning over the millenia old system of keeping some of this year's crop to plant next year. The second is risk assessment. Are we happy to rely on the companies to largely regulate themselves in the vital business of food supply? Okay, GM cuts spray costs and increases production for farmers today - but are there longer term consequences that companies would rather not think about too hard?? Is there not an argument for greater multi-national controls, as in weaponry and other major global issues? 01994 240978

  • Comment number 3.

    The Bottom Line and PR:
    Interesting programme. The thing you didnt cover that seems to have hit Toyota and Mclaran (the childs buggy manufacturer) is the strange idea company PR firms have that they can manage the PR impact in one country without touching another.
    When they recall all buggies in the USA and not the same ones in the UK what does that say out the company. Its clear, its says that the company only recalls at the last possible legal moment, and its the legal aspect that worries them not safety. It says that they worry about being sued in the USA so do something about it, but not so worried in the UK so leave the dangerous product out there.

    At least toyota (after a measured but rather too long investigation and suggesting at one point it was only US cars being recalled when they must have known different) recalled in every country. They didnt ultimately leave the public to form the impression that they care more about being sued (in the USA) than customer safety. You also have to question why a company like toyota having identified an accelerator unit fault started by saying RAV4 2005 on was at risk in the UK then took it completely off the list. You would think their tracking would be better than that.

    Though most organisations get a paralysis of say nothing in a crisis due to the huge impact of saying something, nobody wants to stick their neck out until everybody realises its inevitable. The more people you need in the decision (larger companies but in particular japanese style concensus management) the poorer the response is going to be.



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