It is surreal. I feel I am inside a TV channel. People I have only seen on the small screen are right here in flesh and blood. Bill Clinton, and the other Bill, Gates. And his wife Melinda—I love her, she has this amazing glow as she speaks about vaccines and disease eradication with such passion, clarity and intimate knowledge of the poorer corners of our world. There’s Bono and A.R. Rahman. President Medvedev, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, the Japanese Prime Minister, it’s like a mini-G8 walking around. Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan. President Zuma and several other African heads of state. Mike Duke of Walmart, which is bigger than any African economy. Indra Nooyi. Michael Porter. Nitin Nohria. Thomas Friedman. P. Chidambaram. Sunil Mittal. Mukesh Ambani.
You get the drift—the world’s most influential people are packed in close proximity for five days at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the isolated alpine town of Davos, and like a round of speed dating, you are bound to interact with a fair number of the 2,500 people assembled here. At the panel discussions, at your dinner table, at small private meetings, at 7am breakfasts and 11pm drinks, at the India Adda over masala chai and hot samosas.
Tribesmen :Bill and Melinda Gates with David Cameron (right) at the WEF.
While the stated purpose of this high-powered meet is to discuss ideas that shape the world—this year’s theme was Shared Norms for the New Reality, referring to the post-globalized, hyper-connected, uber-complex world we now live in—I got the distinct sense it was more about the people who shape the world. Simply put, this is an elite global tribe, and the annual conference is where existing bonds are reinforced (some have attended 30 conferences in a row) and new members are initiated into the fold. Klaus Schwab, the founder of WEF, presides over the gathering like a chieftain. Instead of grass skirts and sharp arrows, the Davos Tribe’s dress code is sharp suits accessorized with iPads—even BlackBerrys look hopelessly last season in the new reality—and the unifying war cry is “improving the state of the world”.
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As a Davos newbie (I got lucky, went along on a spouse invitation), and as a person who studies the elite, I have been wondering what is the glue that holds the Davos Tribe together? My take: It is a combination of WEF-specific rituals and a rich collective learning experience. All staged in an utterly down-to-earth atmosphere—surprising, given the celebrity-and-power mega-wattage under one roof.
Let me explain what I mean by WEF rituals. For example, even before you catch the plane to Davos, you have an inch-thick bunch of papers to go through—the programme and the participant list, both will leave you gasping. This is the first time that I have spent serious hours trying to figure out which sessions to book—the options are so many and so mouth-watering that I always wanted to be in three places at the same time. Then there’s your ID badge, which you place regularly before a hi-tech green symbol—very Starship Enterprise—that allows you entry into each hall. Congress Center, the main conference venue, is dotted with sleek computer kiosks and you will find yourself in front of one every now and then—changing your session, communicating with other delegates, printing your personal schedule. Every day, you head out to one of the hotels for your chosen lunch and dinner sessions. The meals have a set format—at each table there is an eminent speaker followed by a table discussion on the topic. By Day 2 of these oft-repeated acts, some very mundane, become shared rituals. Even checking your coat in every morning—and swapping snowshoes for formal ones—becomes a bonding ritual.
There is nothing mundane about the collective learning experience though—I found it intense, exhilarating, linking ideas from one field into another, stretching your mind to the brink of new possibilities. Business, politics, health, technology, environment, values, food, arts—there is an expansive intellectual buffet to choose from. I specially appreciated the opportunity to learn about topics I didn’t know a thing about. For example, the session Digital Art blew my mind away—the 20-something artist, Aaron Koblin, who heads Google’s “Data Art” team, showed how collaborating with thousands of Internet users can yield stunning artworks. Sure, there were eminent speakers that didn’t live up to your expectation, who batted away legitimate questions, padded the truth, refused to touch the elephant in the room, or demonstrated how out of touch they were with the new reality—but this was still invaluable, giving you an insight into the minds of the people who influence our lives.
Interestingly, India was a Davos Tribe binding factor too. Under the theme India Inclusive the government and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) put up quite a show. Billboards all over town. A packed India-focused programme with breakfasts, lunches, cocktails, receptions, nightcaps. A hefty presence of 100-plus Indian participants. Two things in particular stood out for me: the Indian Art Exhibition and the India Soiree. A stunning collection of contemporary art took over the walls of the Congress Center. It was thoughtfully curated—the artworks collectively exuded a sense of internationalism and confidence that I had not experienced before. As for the India Soiree, it was a class act. The food alone was to die for. The décor, the music, the entertainment, the gift of the Indian shawl—everything was beautifully done.
But it was the enthusiastic response of the Davos Tribe that intrigued me. The massive Congress Hall was jam-packed, and the entertainment venue set up by the poolside was overflowing. People of various nationalities climbed onstage to dance to Bollywood tunes. And that’s when it struck me—India’s colourful joie de vivre could be a universal balm for the stressed out Davos Tribe dealing with the grim complexities of a post-globalized world.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at email@example.com