Davos Meetings Reflect Uncertainty

by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

As I browsed the World Economic Forum program book on my flight across the Atlantic, a classic British poem sprang to mind:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin — his control
Stops with the shore…

Like Lord Byron's ocean, the global economy rolls on. Can leaders whose control stops at their countries' or companies' shores steer their fleets wisely? That's the Davos question.

At my first WEF meeting 15 years ago, global capitalism's proponents, thinking history was on their side, exuded moral superiority. Today — sobered by protesters, terrorists, wars, clashes of civilizations and forces of nature — they manifest moral earnestness. The expressed desire is to repair, not ruin, the earth.

Business is still the WEF's bread and butter. Davos is thick with purveyors of airplanes, software, management consulting and investment banking — and companies cementing or rehabilitating their reputations. Buses, bodyguards and barriers dot miles of town streets, facilitating behind-the-scenes gatherings for diplomacy or deal-making at dozens of hotels.

Speeches by heads of state — presidents of France, Brazil, Poland; the British prime minister and Iraq's interim prime minister — get international attention. So do comments of celebrity CEOs (Bill Gates, Carly Fiorina, Ted Turner); officials such as SEC Chairman William Donaldson; and a bi-partisan bunch of U.S. senators. Buzz surrounds Hollywood luminaries promoting social change: Angelina Jolie, starring as U.N. refugee commission goodwill ambassador, and Richard Gere, president of his own foundation.

But formal meetings are not the real story. The message of Davos 2005 lies in subtle shifts of emphasis.

  • Less U.S.A., more China. American multinational companies host most parties, and America's role in the world is a major preoccupation. Still, China is the first topic on the forum's agenda — how China's growth can generate the fewest shocks and greatest worldwide benefits. The range of Chinese leaders in attendance is telling: government officials, airline and television executives, scientists, entrepreneurs (the head of Alibaba.com Technology Corporation) and the director of Rural Women Knowing All Magazine. We'd better know them all.
  • Less government, more grass-roots social change. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization get attention, but so does the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Central bankers mingle with social activists from Teach for America and City Year (U.S.), Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment (Ghana), National Slum Dwellers Federation (India), Youth Network for Development (Senegal), Association of Craft Producers (Nepal), Committee for Democracy in IT (Brazil), Seeds of Peace (Middle East youth). The mainstream agenda now includes women's empowerment and citizen peace-makers.
  • Less economics, more religion. Economic development officials seem outnumbered by clergy. Value systems get equal time with financial systems. Among Davos participants: a California Islamic Society director, the Russian Federation's chief rabbi, head minister of Manhattan's Won Buddhist Temple and the former archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Less "what's good for business," more "what's good for people." The forum's advice sessions cover business growth strategies, marketing tactics and profitability, but the impact of business is also debated. Leaders of consumer federations and trade unions (John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO and counterparts from Norway, the UK, Barbados and Australia) challenge global capitalists to their faces. Critics are at the table to stay.
  • Fewer answers, more questions. Experts still prognosticate, but at large town-hall meetings, all views count. Session descriptions reflect uncertainty: What is the weak link in global networks? Will income disparity always be with us? Is religious tolerance possible? Such questions acknowledge globalization's downsides and tradeoffs and limits to elite power.

The message of this year's forum fits Lord Byron's poetic ocean, which is bounded by decayed civilizations:

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee —
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?…

Empires rise and fall; the ocean rolls on.

Globalization requires leadership with people-centered values and humility about how much central governments and large corporations can accomplish by themselves.

This article originally appeared in Rosabeth Moss Kanter's biweekly column "The Business of America" in the Miami Herald on January 27, 2005, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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is Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, and author of many books including Many Globalizations.

is Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She's the author of World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy.