THE BLOG

The Tribes of Davos

24/01/2014 12:03 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

This week, Davos is host to the World Economic Forum's main annual shindig - an event portrayed in the press as either a useless confab of self-important gasbags, or a shadowy stronghold for the world's elite powerbrokers. Either way, when the invitation arrived to talk about our book Everybody's Business, together with my co-author Lucy, we were both intrigued to see for ourselves.

People sometimes talk about "Davos Man" - a creature of our globalized age, spinning supra-national webs of power. But we found Davos is a little messier than that. Outside of the official panels and plenaries, the hotel bars and lobbies buzz with alpha-networkers. Every available corner is filled with huddled clusters and intent-looking conclaves. Everybody seems absorbed in the trading of access or the trafficking of ideas. Soon you realize that Davos is more like a gathering of different tribes, each in search of like-minds and shared agendas. In fact, you could think of them as the following clans:

The Good-Doers Tribe

These are public-spirited souls, usually members of what has become known as CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) - such as the World Wildlife Fund, or the Gates Foundation. They act as a sort of barometer for society's concerns, and as agents of change. As WWF vice president Jason Clay explained to us when we interviewed him for our book, 'WWF has a clear goal: we need to figure out how to produce more with less land, less water and less pollution' - and to do this, he told us, they need to be in the room with the people who have their hands on the levers. For example, WWF calculates that are just one hundred companies who control 25 per cent of all commodities - everything from cotton and copper to rare earth minerals. 'We can get our arms around that,' he said. And plenty of these companies come to Davos each year.

Organisations like WWF want to change the system from the inside - but that doesn't mean giving an easy ride to those in positions of power. 'It's important to have NGOs that are very critical of businesses,' Jason told us. 'That's what gets companies to take it seriously, it puts the issue on the agenda. It shows them that people really do care, that people are watching'. It's as if WWF is good cop, whilst campaigners like Greenpeace play rough, attacking companies on specific issues: 'These campaigns push them to us, and we can help them understand what's important, why these issues matter and what they can do about them'.

The Good-Doers Tribe is thin on the ground here - it's one of the most expensive places on earth - but still it plays a crucial role in setting the agenda for discussion - everything from resource scarcity to ethical supply chains and women's empowerment. But it's the next tribe where the real action happens.

The Big Business Tribe

This is a tribe that can be counted on to turn out in force at Davos: around 70 billionaires are at the World Economic Forum this year, together with a couple of hundred CEOs. These are the lords of the corporate universe, each with a retinue of minders, advisors and attendants. In Everybody's Business, we look at how big businesses can be powerful engines of positive social change - and these are the guys who can make it happen.

At the heart of this tribe is McKinsey, the firm of management consultants known as 'the Jesuits of Capitalism'. As Dominic Barton, its managing director, told us: 'We are a hard core business, we want people to make money'. But he told us that for too long the world of business has been obsessed with delivering profits to shareholders: 'I don't think you are going to have a sustainable business if you are not thinking about the stakeholders with which you operate because they can destroy your business very quickly.'

Events like Davos are part of a re-balancing taking place in the world of business. Dominic sees a shift towards companies driven by purpose. 'If your only purpose is to make as much money as possible then I don't believe you'll be as successful in the long-term. I'm not saying you won't make money, but you won't sustainably do that unless you make a contribution to the broader good.' If McKinsey are the Jesuits of capitalism, then this is a striking thing to hear from its high priest.

The Government Tribe

If the black Mercedes choking the streets of Davos aren't shuttling around corporate chieftains, they'll be carrying government ministers and assorted heads of state from all corners of the globe. They'll be busy pushing their own national agendas - but even some of these guys acknowledge that the real energy is with the Big Business tribe. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon puts it, business is often the primary driver of change: 'Government leadership will be crucial,' he told the General Assembly, 'But more than ever before, we depend on the resources and capacities of the private sector to make things happen'.

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, gave us a perspective on this: The world has become very interdependent, there's no doubt about that, but the political system hasn't adjusted'. The result, according to Polman, is a lack of leadership on the global stage. 'Politicians have become shorter and shorter term. So the role of business - where you are global, where you are a bit more long-term - is to anticipate the issues and lead the initiatives.'

As we see in our book, today's big businesses are on the front line of some of the world's most pressing challenges, such as water scarcity or food security. Usually, when we hear from CEOs it's because they are defending what they deliver to shareholders; Davos seems to be the place they come to compete for plaudits on what they contribute to society. And that's a competition worth watching.

The Culture Tribe

Finally, a constellation of filmmakers, artists, actors and novelists are invited to bring a sense of cultural zeitgeist to the event. Goldie Hawn is giving a talk on neuroscience and mindfulness. Damien Hirst can be found wondering about like a fish out of formaldehyde. The explorer Céline Cousteau and novelist Elif Shafak are on the bill. Musicians and dancers with miscellaneous ethnic roots bring a patina of global village to this exclusive ski resort. It may all seem a little stagey, but it's a refreshing complement to the intense discussions of global challenges.

Critics of Davos portray it as a talking shop at best; at worst, it's seen as an opportunity for the entrenched elites to consolidate their interests. There may be an element of truth to this - deals done quietly in bilateral meetings - but any gathering of these tribes is surely a good thing. The problems we face today are complex and global - and can only be tackled by trying new ways of working across sectors. Most of all, it's business that has the scale, resources and expertise to really make a difference: any opportunity to harness that power is surely worthwhile.