Trends and Trendiness at Davos

The annual World Economic Forum is rightly perceived as a global “barometer.” But the superb sunshine in Davos these days cannot avoid the shadows of the financial crisis that have enveloped the world, casting an atmosphere of gloom and doom on this year’s meeting. Today, more than ever, the Forum’s proud motto, “Committed to the improvement of the world,” seems disconnected from reality. It is not confidence that dominates Davos 2008, but rather a sense of impotence, if not bewilderment, at the world’s growing complexity.

In fact, Davos is less a barometer that helps us to understand the deep trends that are shaping the world than a mirror that reflects trendy ideas, worries, and perhaps gossip. From formal debates and informal schmoozing with fellow members of the Davos crowd, one gets a sense of who the American establishment favors to win the next presidential election (Hillary Clinton), predictions for the upcoming referendum in Ireland on the European “simplified” treaty (it will be very close), and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s international image (not good).

You do not need to go to Davos for this, but in the Swiss mountains these ideas acquire an aura of legitimacy – call it the “I was told in Davos” imprimatur – which explains why political and economic analysts and commentators keep coming back, despite the Forum’s combination of pomposity and intellectual vacuity. The eminent people who pass through are given opportunities only for sound bites, developed thoughts.

As for business leaders, despite the hefty fees they must pay to become members of the “Davos Family,” they, too, keep coming because for them the Forum ultimately represents a time- and money-saving investment. Where else in the world could they meet so many of their potential partners or customers, including heads of emerging states, in one place?