Davos Summers in Dalian, China

Tim Brown, chief executive of IDEO, takes a design-focused look at the goings-on at the World Economic Forum's summer session

This September, for the first time, the World Economic Forum held a summer version of its Davos conference, the ultimate networking event for global executives, government leaders, academics, and social entrepreneurs held in January each year. What was different about Summer Davos was, first, it was held in the bustling coastal city of Dalian, China, rather than in the ski resort of Davos, Switzerland. Second, it was aimed at what the WEF calls the "global growth companies"—not the top global 1,000 companies with revenues in the billions of dollars.

These companies are the next division of global corporations. They are the ones just emerging as global players, with revenues in the hundreds of millions to low billions, and, unlike the more recognized global companies, are much more evenly spread out geographically, with 40% coming from Asia, 26% from Europe, 20% from the Americas, and 14% from Africa and the Middle East. This melting pot of company executives (over 1,700 from more than 90 countries) spent three days discussing all aspects of business and the economy in the normal Davos mix of panel sessions, interactive workshops, and one-to-one networking.

A China Focus

The first thing you notice about Davos in Dalian is the space. The truly enormous expo center that houses the event is many times the size of its Swiss counterpart. This leaves lots of space for a host of rooms set up for different types of sessions, in addition to the "Village," a football-field-size networking area full of lounges and booths for the many sponsoring companies and organizations.

Out front, leading to Dalian's oceanfront, is what is claimed to be the biggest square in China, supposedly even bigger than the famed Tiananmen Square in Beijing. While in no position to judge the accuracy of this claim, I can say the distance was far too intimidating to encourage many attendees to stroll out to the scenic seaside outlook that was apparently waiting at the far side.

Of course, basing this conference for emerging global leaders in China was no accident. Much of the focus was on China itself, both as an emerging market and as a player in the international business scene. In his opening plenary speech, Premier Wen Jiabao touched on all the subjects one would expect, including product safety, the deficit with the U.S., the current financial crisis, and global warming.

Innovation Ambition

What was surprising was he brought up the subject of innovation three times in his 10-minute talk. He spoke about China's determination to build its own innovation capability, the need for sustainable growth based on innovation, and the importance of science-based research and development. Innovation then reappeared in a number of subsequent sessions as business leaders grappled with issues of growth and differentiation.

So far, Chinese companies and political leaders have had a relatively narrow view of innovation, with the major focus on technically driven R&D. Service innovation is only just beginning to emerge as a concept, and thinking about brands is still restricted to product design and advertising, with little exploration of the potential for brands to build value through experiences.

Despite this, the idea that China is merely a place for low-cost manufacturing and that the innovation will happen in the U.S. or Europe is an idea the Chinese government and Chinese companies plan to turn on its head. They have the ambition—and the resources—to make China every bit as much of a center for innovation as Silicon Valley, Route 128, Munich, or Bangalore.

'Converting Need into Demand'

As in Davos, it was a hopeless task to attempt to attend more than a small portion of the various sessions on offer. The best one can hope for is a personal snapshot with a few useful insights rising to the surface. My favorite three insights from the many sessions all came from people involved in the creative process in some way.

The first came from social entrepreneur David Green. David was responsible for creating the amazing Aurolab at the Aravind Eye Institute in Madurai, India.

There, he brought the cost of intraocular lenses for cataract surgery down from hundreds of dollars a pair to $4, creating the ability for Aravind to carry out more than a quarter of a million cataract operations a year, many of them for free.

Green, in his talk about the business of social entrepreneurship, gave what I believe is one of the best definitions of what design does: converting need into demand. Embedded in those four words is everything about understanding human need, creating functional solutions, having emotional appeal, and communicating in an engaging way.

Global Warming: Democracy's Challenge

Head of advertising conglomerate WPP (WPPGY), Martin Sorrell is a giant of brand-building. In the closing panel, talking about the DNA required in a global growth company, Sorrell spent some time talking about the challenge of building global brands. He gave us two choices. Take the WPP approach and build a multibrand organization quickly (much of it through acquisition), or take much longer to build a deeper, more consistent uni-brand organization. The trade-off is that the multibrand approach is much harder to sustain and has a much harder time building an integrated culture. This is a tough dilemma for all these fast-growing companies and poses the question: Do design and innovation offer any insights about how to resolve this?

The final insight came from a discussion with Chris Luebkeman of Arup Associates, the engineering company responsible for much of the great architecture that is built in the world today. In a session on eco-cities—in particular, the wonderful project Arup is doing in Dongtan outside Shanghai—the conversation got around to which countries are best equipped to tackle sustainability and global warming.

Many attendees had been impressed with some of the decisions made by the centralized Chinese government to legislate certain global warming issues. The U.S. and other democracies are struggling to make the tough decisions about sustainability, and the outcome of this conversation was a perspective, apparently also voiced by Tom Friedman (The World Is Flat) in another session, that democracy will have a hard time surviving global warming. It was a weighty reminder of what is at stake as we grapple with the single biggest design challenge of our time.

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