The Blog

Inside the World Economic Forum: Five Reflections on a Surreal Experience

Safely if surreally back at home, I'm making sense of what I now see as being where we find ourselves as a society, and have formed it into the following five reflections. This won't reflect everyone's experience of Davos, but if I have learned anything, it is that Davos, like all of us, contains multitudes.

It sounds trite to say it, but it's very hard to describe the experience of being in Davos unless you have been. From the outside, it's portrayed as a kind of mass love-in of the global elite, getting together in a posh ski resort to laugh at everyone else's misfortune. And I guess it is like that in part - stories of Russian oligarch parties certainly linger near the surface, and the overall demographic statistic of 82% male betrays a reality that is some way from the image that the founder Klaus Schwab would like to portray.

But. If you wanted to (and I did), you could experience something very different. I would describe what I was able to find as the ultimate conference experience: every subject of contemporary importance under the sun, with the best qualified speakers in the world; a meal-time programme of Chatham House rules debates and conversations that enabled serious engagement with the biggest issues you can imagine; and a participant group that spanned a wide range of gender, ethnicity, and worldview. While holding a background sense of discomfort at the very concept of where I was, I learned, connected, and saw the world differently at a level and with an intensity that I cannot imagine would be possible anywhere else.

Safely if surreally back at home, I'm making sense of what I now see as being where we find ourselves as a society, and have formed it into the following five reflections. This won't reflect everyone's experience of Davos, but if I have learned anything, it is that Davos, like all of us, contains multitudes.

#1 The story is broken - and pretty much everyone knows it

The two most compelling experiences of my week were poles apart in manner of experience, but almost identical in what I learnt from them.

The first was an immersive theatre experience run by the Hong Kong based Crossroads Foundation, entitled A Day In The Life Of A Refugee. It lasted 75 minutes. Within 20 I could not have told you my name or where I was. When the facilitator called out "the simulation is over", and I sat with CEOs and politicians to reflect and hear from those who have lived for real and for years what we had merely tasted for a matter of moments in the basement of the Davos Hilton, I cried in a way I haven't for nearly 30 years.

The second was an afternoon consisting of two panel sessions, one on fossil fuel futures, the other on the governance of the internet. In both, small group conversation revealed a total dissatisfaction with the status quo. The software giants - or at least some of them - actually seem to know full well that private ownership of platforms which have become key public infrastructure (facebook, google, and so on) can only be a bad idea; but they also quite rightly reflect that the obvious alternative, of public ownership through states, is hardly better. Likewise senior individuals from fossil fuel companies will quietly confirm they know they need to transform their businesses; but as soon as a bigger group comes together, they declare 'the future is gas'. They have to, of course: say anything else and a global economy that is deeply dependent on their share prices shakes at its core.

What these two sessions and the intense experience of the refugee run add up to in my mind is this: we are stuck. Very badly stuck. The story we have been living in may have worked for a long time, but there is now extremely widespread recognition that it has itself created monsters that we cannot deal with from within its structures. At the very highest levels and with the most serious consequences, the story is now so clearly broken there are very few who claim otherwise - at least in private.

#2 A new story is rising - and a small but growing number of people get it

This breakage was the big and near-universal backdrop, and for most, the idea that something might be rising to replace it seems to remain invisible. But there was a new story that seemed to be growing in volume and momentum through the week, perhaps building through whispers in bars and hotels and in the lounges where time passed between sessions. This was the story of New Power, the framework that Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms first put out into the world in the pages of the Harvard Business Review just over a year ago.

I may well be biased, as the New Power hypothesis is clearly very closely related to our own work on the Citizen Shift. But one key aspect of Davos seems to be that it represents an opportunity for those who never truly have (or take) time to reflect and digest new ideas and their significance to do just that. And my sense was of a buzz of near-tangible energy and intrigue around the sessions where the idea of New Power made an appearance, whether explicitly, as in a Mastercard-sponsored dinner on the Friday evening, or implicitly, as in the panel on Modern Faith where the very new-power presence of young Frank Fredericks totally stole the stage from figures as august as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the illustrious Buddhist Mathieu Ricard. This idea of New Power offers us, at least in potential, a different way to think about how we might organise and indeed who we are - something that makes the unmistakeable crisis feel at least a little bit like an opportunity. It is a story which recognises that the changing media landscape of our lives does more than just offer us new tools with which to do the things we did before, but in doing so massively democratises access, voice and agency. While it can, as Heimans recognises, be co-opted, it is a story of great hope. I strongly recommend everyone check it out.

#3 The biggest thing we have to fear is fear itself

As this story of New Power rises though, Old Power is reacting with anger and fear, perceiving the new as a threat. Against the backdrop of the broken story, and as all people claim new levels of agency to organise in ways that disrupt the old order, there are manifestations which are deeply threatening to all of us - the most obvious example being IS - and there are many more manifestations which are threatening to the dominant story. The WEF themselves reported this in the form of a global risk analysis which cites "world protest intensity" as having returned in the last five years to levels not seen since the 1980s (think poll tax, Tiananmen Square, etc).

The reaction is a pervasive clampdown, restricting freedoms and compromising human rights at an almost unprecedented rate. The annual CIVICUS State Of Civil Society Report, also launched in Davos, contained evidence that in the previous year "there were serious threats to civic freedoms in at least 96 countries around the world." The list of countries included the UK, France, and the USA. As one Tunisian activist put it, "What hope do we have of pushing our government to maintain human rights when yours, which you push us to see as models, are abandoning them?"

The compelling case that was made in several places in Davos (perhaps most eloquently by Amnesty International's Secretary General Salil Shetty) is that the core problem is that we are not even shooting the messenger; we are shooting the medium. By clamping down on freedoms, and on the digital technology which underpins them in the 21st century, rather than embracing them, finding ways to integrate them and the constructive voices behind them into global governance, and ultimately using them better and more creatively than people like IS, we are driving more people into their arms.

#4 Some (Canadians) are making a stand for hope and openness

For all this doom and gloom, and for all that, Leonardo di Caprio, and others were present in Davos, the most sought after selfie partner was definitely Justin Trudeau (no, I didn't get one).

The newly elected Canadian Prime Minister and his delegation all but turned up with boxes of immigration forms, on an implicit recruitment drive to bring the smartest brains in Davos to Canada to be part of the project to show that a progressive nation can succeed in the 21st century - embracing diversity, accepting and responding to climate change, and revelling in the reclamation of Canada's global role as everybody's friend.

My personal favourite moment of Davos came at a 'What next for Canada?' lunch, at which I couldn't get a seat, but stood and listened as the five ministers in the room gave their opening remarks. The Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland, went last, and picking up a key WEF theme of diversity as driver of economic growth: "I want to apologise," she said, "as I have realised there is one significant demographic group not represented among the five ministers before you: straight white men."

I for one hope their honeymoon continues.

#5 Culture and creativity matter deeply

The final reflection I came away with is reflected in this Canadian optimism. Trudeau, in his platform speech to the Congress Hall, talked of Canadian culture as having been critical factor in his election: the idea that Canadians wanted to be again - and be spontaneously known again, as I remember being the case when I was at school - a positive, welcoming, optimistic nation. As he put it, "My predecessor wanted Canada to be known for its resources; I want Canadians to be known for their resourcefulness."

This idea of the importance of culture and personal identity came through in what you might call the under-programme, a series of Arts and Culture sessions featuring names like Icelandic/Danish/German public artist Oliafur Eliasson and Turkish novelist Elif Safak, alongside academics like UCL's Beau Lotto, and key culture sector players like Martin Roth, Director of the V&A in London.

The very presence of such people at Davos was deeply interesting, their message even more so. Culture, they were saying, is a fundamental human need, a root source of the creativity and imagination we will need to get through this deeply difficult period of human history, to redesign every system we have, from health to education, and to embrace the opportunities that await us if we can get through to the other side. In a time when so much culture is being destroyed, ignored in the priority funding or action list as mere stones, it was a powerful message.

In that spirit, I'll leave the last word to Lotto's 2012 TED talk - co-delivered with 12 year old Amy O'Toole who, inspired by Lotto, and alongside 25 of her schoolmates, is the youngest person ever to publish a peer-reviewed science paper. It's decent proof of the point, and the potential.