January 17, 2023
There are always a few moans and groans about aspects of organization at the World Economic Forum in Davos — traffic in the small town, the availability of transport from neighboring places like Klosters (where yours truly usually chooses to stay), and general complaints about logistics.
But, given the constraints imposed by the chosen venue, it all actually works out pretty well.
You might wait a few minutes for one of the shuttles that brings delegates to the Congress Center, and those few minutes might be pretty unpleasant in minus 10 conditions, but people generally get to where they want on time.
But there is one aspect of Davos showmanship in which the WEF is the undisputed world champion — the organization of the big set-piece plenary sessions that provide most of the headlines from an annual meeting.
The formula is tried and tested. A cavernous hall with a stage lit by bright spotlights, against the backdrop of the aquamarine blue the WEF has made its trademark, and which seems somehow to suggest cerebral activity. Other forum organizers have tried to copy it, but failed.
It is not just the setting. For the big set-piece plenaries, WEF has got it off to a tee.
In other parts of the annual meeting, you may find rap stars, Hollywood celebrities or artists on the stage, but for a full-blown plenary the WEF knows its audience, and without doubt delivers the gravitas and newsworthiness that they demand.
Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman of WEF, is the baton-wielding conductor for these symphonic events, and so it was at the formal opening and welcome addresses that kicked off WEF 2023.
As is traditional, Schwab invited the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, to welcome delegates, and set the tone of the next hour.
In a nod to the next speaker, Berset managed to combine themes — war in Ukraine with the need for social equality and social reform — in a short speech that ticked all the WEF boxes.
It was left to Borge Brende, WEF president, to introduce Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine. She was met by enthusiastic applause — and a mad scramble for translation gear when she launched into Ukrainian for her special address.
There is one aspect of Davos showmanship in which the WEF is the undisputed world champion — the organization of the big set-piece plenary sessions
Zelenska’s performance was a tour de force, regularly interrupted by long applause. She admonished some WEF delegates for dragging their feet over support for her country, saying: “You have such influence, but not all of you are using this influence.”
She cited a long litany of alleged Russian crimes from Bucha to Mariupol, down to the attack on Dnipro a few days ago, and she revealed tantalizingly that she was carrying a letter from her husband to the Chinese President Xi Jinping, without revealing the contents.
Called next on stage by Schwab was President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in many ways the archetypal WEF stage star.
Sophisticated, articulate and European, she carried on the Zelenska theme with a strong statement of support for Ukraine (“We are in it for as long as it takes and will always stand by our Ukrainian friends”), and a recital of the success Europe has had in blunting the Russian energy weapon this winter. Again, more warm applause.
But like a good conductor, Schwab knows when to change pace, and followed that heady speech with a more down-to-earth Q&A session about European energy policy. “Progress in visionary initiatives” was declared by Schwab, with no noticeable hint of hyperbole.
The final movement of the performance was more prosaic and worthy, but again oozed WEF gravitas. Liu He, vice premier of China and a leading economic policymaker, was asked to add some flesh to the skeleton of economic policy unveiled at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
He did so in a speech that had all the serious China watchers frantically scribbling down every word he said.
Maybe anticlimactic, but that was probably how the baton-wielding Schwab planned it — always leave your audience wanting more.
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