The Odder Side of the WEF

When World Economic Forum bigwigs aren't debating the fate of the planet, they can see a magic show or find out How to Be Hip

The agenda of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, which is being held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos Jan. 21-25, is dominated by weighty topics such as the state of the global economy, prospects for peace in the Middle East, and whether the world is heading for a growth-crushing currency crisis. But the 2,200 business executives, academics, and policymakers attending the event also get a chance to discuss a range of more offbeat topics.

For instance, Jacques Attali, president of PlaNet Finance, a French venture-finance operation, and Muzammil H. Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in the U.S., will be among eight luminaries leading a debate entitled "Shame as a Policy Tool." At the national and individual levels, shame can play a significant role in influencing and shaping behavior, the program says. A key topic to be addressed: How shame is used and abused in business and politics to influence the actions of employees or opponents.


  Attali's take should be fascinating. He was, after all, ousted as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development in 1993 because his lavish spending and grandiose style irritated many of the bank's shareholders, including the U.S. government.

Or how about a session about technology and the arts that asks whether the great French artist Monet would approve of modems? Lorna L. Abungu, executive director of the International Councils of African Museums, is one of six cultural experts who will discuss whether the increasing use of technology -- especially the Internet -- by museums makes exposure to art more widespread or more random and alienating.

Another question is whether the Internet will eventually make museums unnecessary. "We'll be discussing whether there's a need for physical museums if complete collections are available on the Web," Abungu says. Let's hope she's not worried about her job.

Some items on the agenda seem decidedly weird. The renowned magicians Peter Marvey from Switzerland and Herve Le Marchand from France -- who is better known under his stage name Mimosa -- will be introducing delegates "to a magical world where dreams and reality are blurred." Their session -- expected to be very popular -- will be held on two days in succession.


  The talk most likely to attract this correspondent is the one being led by Patricia Szarvas, the anchorwoman from CNBC Europe, who will be asking -- and hopefully answering -- "How to be Hip?" Among her panelists are Yossi Vardi, founding investor of Israeli high-tech outfit International Technologies, and Eva Biaudet, a member of the Finnish Parliament. "Leaders -- most often middle-aged or elderly -- are not necessarily in touch with the youth culture," the program states. "What does it mean to be cool, hip or in?"

Your aging correspondent will be there to find out.

By David Fairlamb in Davos

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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