Q&A: World Economic Forum Davos 2012

Image caption The Swiss ski resort prepares for the annual influx of political and business leaders

Once again the rich and powerful are congregating in Davos in the Swiss mountains for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) - but does the forum still have a purpose?

What is the World Economic Forum?

The WEF is a talking shop. Arguably, though, it's the best of its kind in the world.

The concept dates back to the early 1970s, and is very simple: Take top business leaders out of the pressure cooker of their job and bring them together in a remote valley in the Swiss mountains. Removed from daily routine they can freely exchange ideas, broaden horizons - and break the ground for a deal or two.

Professor Klaus Schwab, who invented and still runs the event, calls it "a platform for collaborative thinking and searching for solutions, not for making decisions."

Over the years it's evolved, taking in artists, politicians of all stripes, activists from trade unions and campaign groups, social entrepreneurs, inventors, all sorts of clever people from universities and think tanks, and - the most recent addition to the mix of ideas, some 70 very young entrepreneurs.

That doesn't sound like a small event anymore...

Image caption World leaders mingle with top bosses at the forum

What started as a cosy chat around the log fire in a mountain chalet is now a huge event: more than 2,600 participants from nearly 100 countries, hundreds of journalists, nearly 40 heads of state or government, more than 80 government ministers and numerous politicians.

The key ingredient, though, is the 1,600 bosses of many of the world's top companies - not just from the West, but from emerging economies as well.

And this is just the annual meeting, traditionally held in the Swiss mountain village of Davos.

The once-a-year event has evolved into a year-round succession of regional forums in all corners of the world, plus a bevy of working groups bringing together key decision makers on global issues like cyber security, global risk, and fighting corruption and poverty.

All these activities are supposed to underpin the forum's official motto: "Committed to improving the state of the world".

And I thought it was just a bunch of capitalists having a good time in the mountains...

Image caption There's more to Davos than just the winter sports on offer

Well, that's one way to see it. Yes, Davos is about the rich and the powerful having a good time. The parties and exclusive dinners, the deal making and schmoozing - and the skiing - are legendary.

And the exclusivity of the event has been a fertile ground for plenty of conspiracy theories. But Davos is decidedly not a place from which the world is run.

Still, with so many powerful people in one place, Davos is expected to become a big target for the Occupy movement, following in the footsteps of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London Stock Exchange.

But you have to give the forum's organisers some credit: every year they are trying hard to put tough topics on the agenda and add inconvenient voices to the mix. Fighting poverty, climate change and the shortcomings of banks and companies are always big themes here.

Also remember that the forum often provided the cover for political enemies to meet, gain mutual understanding, and even strike a peace deal.

And then there is the fabled "Davos consensus", when a common theme emerges that sets the global agenda for the month to come.

What are this year's big topics?

China, China and China. And probably even more so the crisis of the eurozone.

And most importantly nothing less than the future of capitalism itself. Sprinkled throughout the week there are sessions discussing whether capitalism as we know it is fit for the 21st Century.

Davos founder Prof Klaus Schwab, who is fond of mighty phrases, calls it a look at "the great transformation" and the "shaping of new models".

How does it work?

Image caption Germany's Angela Merkel will give this year's keynote speech

It's obviously big, and in a strange way it is both free-flowing and utterly regimented. The fairly rigid framework is provided by more than 280 official sessions - panels, speeches and workshops - ranging from a keynote speech from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to top leaders discussing the state of the eurozone economy, from cutting edge scientific discoveries to the musings of artists on the secret of creativity.

The free-flowing is everything in between. There are numerous private sessions and bilateral meetings. The corridors of the concrete-and-wood confection of a conference centre are host to constant networking and schmoozing.

Here you can hear financial regulators harangue top bankers, trade unionists challenge the bosses of the world's biggest multinationals, and the finest minds in economics discuss the finer points of quantitative easing.

And what will be the outcome?

Don't expect any. Not even the organisers do. They say that's not the forum's purpose.

But if participants go away with new ideas, new connections, a better awareness of the world around them, and fresh ideas on how to tackle its problems, Davos may well have served its purpose once again.

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