The future is looking backward, at least according to Davos

Getting it off her chest: a protester reinforces her message at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. AAP

When the great and the good dutifully traipsed to the Swiss Alps for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January, they were equally dutifully followed by hordes of media and an odd assortment of protesters, some even willing to disrobe in the snowy conditions to garner attention.

Given the wonders of the modern media, we mere mortals could follow along, taking in Twitter updates and watching pontification and prediction in real time.

But as I read the updates and watch the videos I was impressed, not by the pertinence of the discussion, but by its sheer lack of relevance and the degree to which the debate on world problems is reduced to superficialities.

French Finance Minister Francois Baroin, with Luis de Guindos Jurado, Spanish Economic Minister at Davos. AAP

No doubt the problems being faced by business and government are daunting and would be unfair to believe that normal human beings - even those as well paid and articulate as Davos Man - possess any degree of omnipotence about how to solve them.

But was anything gained by this activity? Are we any more confident in corporate, social and political leaders because of it? Do we take a smug satisfaction that they, too, may be just as clueless as the man on the street? Are they any more capable of dealing with current and future problems because they have debated the issues in a panel? Are they able to use the forum provided as a truly shaping a future or helping us understand what crisis and issues we need to address today AND tomorrow?

This got me thinking. Maybe this is the way it always has been and we simply have not been able to see it revealed so starkly. After all we can now almost be there, sans the dinners. So I decided to do a little research and spent some time examining the last decade or so of WEF themes and their meaning.

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon speaks at the WEF this year. AAP

What I found was enlightening. The Davos meetings are surprising not in that they reveal what many believe they reveal – a picture of what the great and the good believe is in our future – but that they reveal exactly the opposite – a distinctly backward looking orientation that implies that much of the discussion is irrelevant to the future.

It is well known that great armies have a tendency to be well adapted to fight the last war. They are excellent at building Maginot Lines to stop yesterday’s armies. We see this in the corporate and social elite as well and the history of Davos seems to confirm this rather startingly.

Going back to 2002 what was the theme at Davos? “Leadership in Fragile Times” a theme following on from the terrible events of 11 September 2011.

This quickly morphed in 2003 to “Building Trust”, which was little more than a reaction to the various corporate scandals and bankruptcies of the prior year and the host of reports on corporate executive malfeasance. Gone were the “fragile times”

This concern was just as quickly forgotten as 2003 saw the beginning, and supposed “end”, of the Iraq war and the theme did a 240 degree to “Partnering for Security and Prosperity”.

This pattern continued with each meeting looking backward for inspiration, only to solidify its irrelevance for the future as reality provided yet another unforeseen crisis or surprise to which corporate and political leaders needed to respond.

The year 2000 saw the theme “New Century – New Reality” but nothing about that theme or that meeting predicted any of the future financial, environmental, social or political crises with which the first decade of the 21st Century presented us.

Looking back again: WEF’s 2009 post-crisis theme failed to grapple with a worsening outlook. AAP

2006 through 2007 were the eye of the hurricane and Davos became distinctly upbeat with two themes on innovation – “The Creative Imperative” in 2006 and “The Power of Collaborative Innovation” in 2008 – sandwiching a theme related to emerging markets – “The Changing Power Equation” in 2007.

Then 2008 arrived. While Davos Men and Women were discussing “The Power of Collaborative Innovation”, stock markets tumbled and the “New Reality” of the 21st Century hit home.

What happened in 2009? They looked back again; with the Theme “Shaping the Post Crisis World”. It is ironic that in 2009 they believed they were dealing with a “Post Crisis World” rather than a world facing a continuing and worsening crisis. What they failed to see was not only the continuing economic crisis but the potential for that crisis and other socio political pressures to erupt into the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Kyoto agreements, a rising and militant Iran destabilizing the geo-political structure of the Middle East, and the potential of a disestablishment of the Eurozone.

This year’s theme, “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models” along with those of 2010 and 2011 (“Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild” and “Shared Norms for the New Reality”) does not instill us followers with hope that our leadership has the capability of proactively creating structures that can resiliently adapt.

Post crisis, or just post? The 2010 WEF mops up. AAP

If anything, the 2010 theme revealed that a continuing mistaken belief that we were “post crisis” and the 2011 theme highlighted a “new” “New Reality”, since it is pretty clear that that the New Reality Davos Man believed was coming in 2000 never appeared.

In many ways, listening to the Davos updates reminded me of Harold Camping. Mr. Camping was the individual who kept predicting the end of the world in 2011. But the world kept ticking along. Mr. Camping professed that he was “a little bewildered” when the world did not come to a screeching halt as all the signs he was reading said it had to be so.

Like Mr. Camping, we have to ask whether Davos is relevant given it has proven so poor in providing future orientated outcomes. The PR is no doubt impressive and it provides a not insignificant volume of content to blogs, newspapers, magazines, and the Twittersphere every January. Even protesters believe it is relevant because it provides a focal point where they can be heard to be screaming from outside the barriers.

But where, ultimately, are the results from Davos? Did 2002 lead to better “Leadership in Fragile Times”? After 2006 and 2008 have we been able to “collaboratively manage innovation” more effectively? And how has that “rethinking, redesigning and rebuilding” been going since 2010? From this perspective, I would argue not only is Davos irrelevant but that Davos Man has no clothes.