Davos gets a conscience

The most fascinating session at this year's meeting of the World Economic Forum, which took place at the end of January in Davos, Switzerland, was a masterclass on quantum physics which discussed multiple universes, teleportation and time travel. And the most astounding discovery (bearing in mind that quantum mechanics is for now more speculation than theory, let alone a technology) was that a significant fraction of those attending that session were venture capitalists. What does it all mean?

The Davos gathering is largely regarded - even by the anti-globalisation protesters who caught the media's attention over the week - as a high-powered event. It is also seen as a Petri dish which exhibits the hidden currents of the economy and society, a magnifying lens that reveals such oddities as the VCs' interest in teleportation.

So, here are the trends from this year's speeches and informal discussions.

1. Uncool is cool. Last year's fusion of "new politics" and "new economy" - epitomised by a one-on-one session with British prime minister Tony Blair and computer billionaire Michael Dell swapping success tips - gave way this year to panels with "real economy" players such as the Chief Executive Officer of Enron Corp., Kenneth Lay, pondering the lessons of the dotcom collapse.

The Internet was still considered crucial, but when talking about it everybody used the word "enabler" - the buzzwords "revolution" or "paradigm shift" seem to have fallen out of favour. While poster-entrepre-neur Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. didn't show up, others have been murmuring their mea culpa.

Hasso Plattner, the chairman of German software powerhouse SAP AG, lamented a US$250 million (265 million euros) loss on a recent Web joint venture based on "a business model taken from utopia". Meanwhile, Spanish entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky said of the billions paid by operators for third-generation telephony licences that: "We've been paying for our own hype." (His firm, Jazztel, bid but didn't win a licence.)There was an air of fatigue with the superficiality of the last 30 months - for example with the assumption that every great idea can be explained in "a two-minute elevator pitch" (the words of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the insulin pump). Fatigue was also evident at technology invading every corner of our lives, making them more complicated.

The general mood distilled into: does anybody see a light at the end of the technology tunnel?

2. Values matter. The Davos gathering, often derided by critics as the shadow government of bloodless globalisation, opened with a short film by Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer better known for the Benetton ads, and his film featured contrasting images of high-technology and of poverty and suffering. Mexico's charismatic new president Vicente Fox (a former Coca-Cola executive) echoed Toscani's tone, saying: "Everybody is trying to see the birth of a new era. We see throughout the world a rising rejection of crass materialism and a desire for spiritual and moral rebirth."

Top executives expressed the same feelings, and looked sincere at least. "Let's be clear here: I'm the corporate chief value manager," said Douglas Warner, the chairman of JP Morgan Chase. Similar statements came from the heads of Vivendi, Monsanto, and many others.

In a session about financial markets, with David Pottruck from the discount broker Charles Schwab and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, among others, the words "transparency" and "fairness" popped up continually. And topics such as sustainable development, corporate responsibility, the rising influence of non-governmental organisations and venture philanthropy peppered the 330-session agenda.

3. There is hope for Africa. Powered by a new class of highly educated and unorthodox politicians and managers, the continent that was left on the sidelines of economic globalisation is becoming much more assertive and self-confident. At the end of most sessions, somebody from Africa stood up to say: "What was discussed was great, but let me tell you how this issue looks from the south side of the Sahara." A panel - comprising the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania and Senegal - announced a recovery plan for Africa, based on the idea that "peace, stability, health, democracy and growth are common African challenges that we need to address together as Africans". The plan they introduced follows a pragmatic path, having nothing to do with utopian cyberprojects of the recent past, such as Malaysia's failing "supercorridor".

Bruno Giussani is the European editor of The Industry Standard Europe and was previously the World Economic Forum's director of Internet strategy

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