The mood at Davos

I have have attended Davos for over a decade, and over the years the most interesting of the many insights I have gathered is a sense of the overall mood of the meeting regarding the state of the world. Davos of course is much more than a gathering of CEOs and governmental ministers, for the attendees include a wide cross-section of the NGO world and a diverse selection of thinkers, scientists and activists. The result is an intellectual Global Village with one common thought above all others – where is the world headed and what are the challenges we collectively face.

In years past, Davos meetings have reflected the euphoria of the innocent dawn of globalization, the entrepreneurial (both business and social) possibilities of the digital revolution, and of course the anxiety of the changed global landscape after 9/11. Some years, Davos doesn’t reveal its mood until the meeting is almost over, but this year, I could sense the mood almost the instant I arrived in this snowy little village. It is neither wildly optimistic like the late 1990s, nor darkly anxious like the January 2002 meeting. Rather, the mood this time is a sense of vast uncertainty regarding the scale of the challenges we all face and the ability of global institutions to meet these challenges.

Ironically, this uncertainty has grown because other issues have become more clear. There is no debate about global climate change here because everyone accepts it as a fact; all the conversation is about how to respond. And there is also a clear consensus that the nation-state order is on the wane, and thus the discussion is all about what institutions will fill the void. Though — or perhaps because — the US has not had a meaningful presence here since the Clinton administration (Bush and his administration are evident only by their absence), the undertone here is that the US is caught between being too weak to really influence events, but too powerful to be completely ignored.

Perhaps there are no surprises in the foregoing, but what is a surprise is how I hear CEOs and other business executives responding. The sense here is that the weakening of traditional institutions means that the new global challenges can be overcome only if corporations throw their full effort into finding solutions. This is a sea-change that goes far beyond the traditional do-good corporate responsibility we have come to expect of public companies in the past. When CEOs talk about issues like global climate change, it is clear that they are not merely considering the impact on their companies, but also on their families and their communities. Perhaps I am allowing myself to be overly optimistic, but this gives me hope that corporations will play a sustained and creative role in meeting the challenges before us.