What Happened (and Didn’t) When Davos Disappeared

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In recent years, questioning the ongoing existence of the World Economic Forum’s annual confab in Davos became almost as much of a ritual as the event itself. Each January, mainstream media outlets would publish headlines like “Does Davos still matter?”, “Is the World Economic Forum in Davos still relevant?” and “Does the world need Davos?”, even as those same publications sent their correspondents to report on all the hot air being spewed in the Alps.

Now, finally, the naysayers have a chance to test their thesis. For the second year in a row, the annual in-person meeting in Davos was scrapped because of the pandemic. An IRL gathering was announced for late May, but the relatively last-minute cancellation makes it easier to assess what has until recently been a hypothetical debate: Would it matter if Davos just went away?

In the immediate term, the answer seems to be: Not all that much.

Davos’s defenders over the years have argued that the conference, with so much global media in attendance, is a singular place to advance the conversation about how to improve the state of the world. This is where the stakeholder capitalism movement — which urges companies to look beyond the bottom line — gained traction, where globalization found its most ardent champions and where grandiose documents like the “Davos Manifesto,” which calls on companies to be more responsible, debuted.

Yet even without the usual press breakfasts and cocktail receptions, many of the newsmaking events that are traditionally timed to coincide with Davos still happened this year. Edelman, the public relations firm, still released its Trust Barometer. (Spoiler alert: The public doesn’t trust anyone, these days.) The BlackRock chief executive, Larry Fink, still released his annual letter. (Stakeholder capitalism still matters, he claims, but so do profits!) And the World Economic Forum itself decided to forge ahead with an abbreviated virtual program featuring a collection of heads of state and executives.

An empty meeting space at Davos Congress Center in January.Credit…Clara Tuma for The New York Times

Others have held up Davos as one of the few places where governments, companies and nonprofits come together to address climate change and global health issues. The World Economic Forum hosts the Tropical Forest Alliance, a collaborative effort to prevent deforestation. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, was created at the forum’s meeting in 2000 and has been instrumental in bringing vaccines to poor countries. And in 2020, the World Economic Forum announced an initiative aimed at restoring and growing one trillion trees by 2030.

Davos, however, is not the only forum for making ambitious commitments to pressing causes, and these sorts of pledges have not disappeared with the in-person event. For two weeks in November, in temperatures almost as low as those in the Alps, thousands of politicians, executives and charitable types gathered in Glasgow for COP 26, the United Nations Climate Change conference, and hashed out climate policy. Many nations and companies announced ambitious pledges to reduce their emissions.

Still others making the case for Davos point to its history as a forum for high-stakes diplomacy. In 1988, it was where Greek-Turkish relations were normalized. A year later, representatives from East and West Germany discussed reunification, and a few years after that, Nelson Mandela first appeared at an international gathering with the South African president, F.W. de Klerk.

But diplomacy didn’t die this January, it just moved down the road. Russians, Americans and Ukrainians were indeed in Switzerland this month for talks aimed at avoiding war, but the setting was Geneva, not Davos.

And if one purpose of Davos is simply to talk about Davos and fret about income inequality, that still happened, too. My colleague Peter Goodman published “Davos Man,” a critique of the business and political leaders, such as the Salesforce co-chief executive Marc Benioff, who frequent the annual meeting. A satirist going by Davos Deville produced a sendup musical video of the week that wasn’t. And the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy people who want to pay more taxes, used Davos as its boogeyman in a new campaign calling for higher taxes.

What didn’t happen this month was the actual coming together of 10,000 or more movers and shakers, crowded together in the Alps for a week of networking, bluster, idea-swapping, skiing, parties and schmoozing. What looks like superfluous socializing, Mr. Benioff said, can be a productive exercise.

The Promenade, the main shopping street in Davos, without the usual throng of visitors.Credit…Clara Tuma for The New York Times

“You can say it’s a conference of the elites, that nothing gets done, that it’s just a bunch of parties,” Mr. Benioff said. “But you have to look at all the good things that have come out of it. There just aren’t that many places where business leaders and government and religious and cultural and nonprofits and media all get together and have a true multistakeholder dialogue.”

It is that mix of private and public sector leadership, big money and big ambition, idealism and capitalism, that makes Davos Davos, and which, depending on who you ask, is either the problem with the whole affair, or the very point of it.

At the very least, it’s the part that has proved hardest to replicate via Zoom.

What do you think? Are conferences like Davos productive forums for world-changing ideas? Or a waste of resources? Let us know: [email protected].

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