Davos 2011: The World’s grandest focus group?

Lord Malloch-Brown

Davos watchers look for two things.

First, the big trends that become conventional wisdom as they get repeated at seminars and cocktail parties over the course of the meetings.

Second, the occasional canary in the mine-shaft or flash of light when somebody either sounds an alarm, or identifies an imminent breakthrough that is not yet orthodoxy.

The difficulty with the second is often just that.

Which of the many academics, entrepreneurs, IT executives, emerging market leaders and others straining to catch the attention of the world's powerful have really latched onto something new and which are just trying to get noticed?

Zeitgeist

Nouriel Roubini, the New York-based economist, was a bear at Davos well before most others noticed the looming 2008 financial crisis.

Yet his warnings went largely unnoticed because, well, he is a bear and Davos-goers were making too much money to want to hear that the party was over.

So the Davos focus group of several thousand teeming party-goers and seminar attendees tend to stick to the middle-brow Zeitgeist.

And this year again it is the rise of Asia and the broader apparent power shift away from the US and Europe to a fast expanding club of emerging economies.

This year, 19 of the G-20 countries, the successor to the old western-heavy G-8, will be at Davos at the head of government or senior ministerial level.

Asia up, US down?
Ideaslab at the WEF Who'll have the best ideas in Davos?

Strikingly, the Chinese and Indian delegations will be the biggest ever from those countries.

The number of Chinese delegates has gone up five-fold over the past decade and that of the Indians four-fold.

Public relations concerns about high-living at a Swiss resort while there are unemployment lines back home may depress the number of American politicians and bankers who show up.

All of this will feed a simple Davos paradigm of Asia up, the US down.

Thrice-burned

Beyond the country stakes, issues will, as always, get a look-in in between the frenetic networking of a global elite for whom Davos has become a strange village commons.

The conference-opener, President Medvedev of Russia, is likely to be pressed by anxious investors on why, now that Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos has been given a further jail sentence, they should trust the rule of law in Russia.

The BP attendees, who have just paired up with Rosneft to drill in the Arctic, are likely to be similarly pressed in corridors and industry gatherings on why they think they won't get burned a third time by Russian partners.

Beating the drum

Beyond whether the world is safe for business, a perennial anxiety of Davos-goers, Davos has become adept at providing a platform for a global social and health agenda to balance out its business role.

This year, the rumours are Bill Gates, perhaps together with David Cameron, may have something to announce on public health. Bono will be back beating the drum for education in poor countries, an expansion of his traditional health and poverty concerns.

And Professor Klaus Schwab, the host, and his team will be promoting a new Risk Register Network which reduces their guests' anxieties about 37 global risks and promises to keep an eye on them between meetings - so extending the hand wringing about who's up and who's down and what's really new and what isn't, as they scour their iPads and Blackberries on the other 360 days of the year for news of the new Zeitgeist from the makers of Davos.

The writer is chairman of global affairs at FTI Consulting and author of The Unfinished Global Revolution. He is a former UN deputy secretary-general, vice president of the World Bank and vice chairman of the World Economic Forum.

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