By John Rossant In the first day or two of the World Economic Forum every year, one question crops up more than any other when participants meet in the corridors of the Congress Center in Davos. It's the "so-what's-the-big-theme-this year" question. It's a way of sussing out the mood of the house -- the house being what some might call the global ruling class.
Back in 2000 it was pretty obvious that the Internet and the New Economy -- and how to make extraordinary amounts of money from them -- were the big themes. In 2002, when the WEF held the annual meeting in New York just three and a half months after the 9/11 attacks, the mood was clearly how to rally international support for the fight against terrorism. By 2003, the annual meeting had become something of an anti-American slugfest.
What's the prevailing mood this year? While conversations often turn to China this year (see BW Online, 1/26/05, "Talking Chinese at Davos"), the WEF wanted to answer that question with a little more accuracy in 2005. So, it's enlisting the help of a small Washington (D.C.)-based nonprofit group called AmericaSpeaks. Founded in a 1995 by Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer as a way of getting Americans to participate more directly in local and state politics through the use of highly networked citizen town hall meetings, the group gained fame when it organized 5,000 New Yorkers in a July, 2002, gathering at Manhattan's Javits Center to evaluate various ways to rebuild Ground Zero.
LIKE A BINGO HALL. By early last year, the WEF decided that Lukensmeyer's highly organized and computerized methods would be ideal for taking the temperature at Davos. "The Forum people were really interested in how to get more interactivity in the sessions, how to get people involved," says Lukensmeyer.
Hence the first "Global Town Hall Meeting," organized Jan. 26, the first day of Davos. Forum participants -- from CEOs of multinationals to Hong Kong trade unionists, from the head of the Arab League to a bemused Hollywood actress (Sharon Stone) -- were given handheld devices and asked to vote on which of 12 issues needed most attention. They ranged from broad themes like "global governance" to "poverty," "the Middle East," "Islam," "equitable globalization," and "climate change."
As close to 1,000 people tapped away on their handhelds at scores of round tables, it created all the hushed and decorous excitement of a bingo evening.
POST-TSUNAMI COMPASSION? In the end, the results were surprising for a group whose largest single component is businessmen. The "winner" was "poverty" -- 64.4% of the participants in Davos seem to think global poverty is the top issue world leaders must tackle. It was followed closely by "equitable globalization," though there were multiple views on what that meant exactly.
Climate change came third, "which is a pity, since it's the one issue these people could probably start to do something about," says John M. Neill, CEO of British automotive-parts group Unipart. "Everything else is arranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
This new compassionate face of Davos could be a reaction to the current global mobilization of governments, business, and populations in the wake of Southern Asia's tsunami disaster. However, a poll of 2,000 global leaders conducted by London-based public relations firm Weber Shandwick for the WEF had much more hard-nosed results. The top concerns: Overwhelmingly terrorism, war, and the direction of U.S. policy.
So maybe in 2005, the answer to the "so-what's-the-big-theme-this year" question is: It depends on whom you ask. Rossant is European regional editor for BusinessWeek