A pre-Davos primerJanuary 20, 2011: 1:16 PM ET
There are several reasons why the World Economic Forum's annual conference in Davos merits the attention it receives. Here's what to look for at this year's event.
The World Economic Forum, the stunningly successful gathering of global business and non-governmental leaders and heads of state, popularized the notion of "pillars," or themes around which a chin-scratching conference is organized. Fortune.com Managing Editor Daniel Roth ably describes one of the pillars of next week's conference in Davos, Switzerland: "Building a Risk Response Network." The other pillars that stand up the sturdy structure that is the WEF's annual meeting have to do with "supporting the G20 agenda," "responding to the new reality," and "inclusive growth."
Unsure what "inclusive growth" means or how the "new reality" affects you? Don't worry. The truly important, self-important and other assorted strivers who descend on the charming -- and damn expensive -- Swiss ski town next week won't have terribly much more of a clue themselves.
You see, pillars are a fine way to focus. Yet what you really need to know about Davos is this: Many, though not all, of the world's most influential leaders will in fact trudge through the snow, meet together on panels, dance and drink at parties, ponder deep thoughts at breakfast and most certainly discuss many of the planet's most pressing problems. They will consider weighty, if self-serving topics, from the state of the energy markets and the financial system to more esoteric fare such as the "architecture of inclusivism" and the "politics of slower growth."
There are many reasons to attend the meeting and to pay attention to its proceedings. Russian President Medvedev undoubtedly will use his keynote address to position his country as an adherent to the rule of law and the model of a balanced economy, two notions Russia's critics are certain to dispute. Companies with business in multiple parts of the world will find the gathering genuinely useful to set up meetings with customers and partners that otherwise would require multiple trips. (Here is an admittedly "abridged" list of business leaders who plan to be in Davos.)
Consultants of every stripe pay vast sums of money to non-profit World Economic Forum organization to plug their wares in Davos. Some even add value. Richard Edelman, for example, the publicity poo-bah from New York, presents his firm's estimable Trust Barometer each year in Davos, a veritable finger-on-the-pulse of the perception of the business community in the world.
For others, the forum is an opportunity to stretch. Though the many private events throughout the four main days and nights of the conference often are the most enriching, the general sessions offer an array of topics that ordinarily would take several semesters at a major university to cover. (Major universities, from the University of Chicago to the London School of Economics, come out in force in Davos.)
Then, of course, there are the journalists, all rather pleased with themselves and each other at having been invited, ensuring that any tree that falls in this forest most certainly makes a sound. (Last year Scott Pelley did a fine '60 Minutes' segment on the mysteries of Davos.)
Did I mention, ahem, that I will be in Davos? I will. I'll be moderating a panel on "Creating a Digital Nervous System" that features the MIT professor Alex Pentland and Didier Lombard, the chairman of France Telecom. I also have high hopes to attend panels on energy, economics, mobility, design, science, finance, commodities, and, if I can swing it, one on "Shakespearean Leadership," which promises a "unique perspective on effective approaches for motivation, persuasion and engagement."
If this isn't the vaunted "spirit of Davos," then I don't know what is.