The sense of importance in the tiny village of Davos is hard to miss. If it isn’t a throng of bodyguards escorting Henry Kissinger back to his hotel, it’s the gymnastics that must be performed to get past barriers and the Swiss police to gain access to the Congress Centre where the main action of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting is taking place. The message is clear and it is loud – if you’re not one of the chosen, you are not welcome.
The Open Forum at the WEF is thus a refreshing change of pace. Meeting at the Swiss Alpine School some ten minutes’ walk away, this Forum runs parallel to that Forum with one crucial difference – you don’t need a personal invitation to attend. Currently at the helm are Dr Gilbert Probst, WEF Managing Director and Dean of the Leadership Office and Academic Affairs, and a team of dedicated young professionals. They work tirelessly to hammer together a programme that brings politicians, theologians, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and artists to a platform that can be reached by the “global public”. Whether a local resident or someone coming from half the world away, anyone is welcome to listen, participate, or generally observe on the proceedings.
Obviously, it’s unlikely that you’ll run into Messrs Merkel or Gates here. That isn’t to say that the Open Forum doesn’t come with its fair share of notables from all fields – this year included OECD Secretary-General Angel Guerria; German Foreign Affairs Minister Guido Westerwelle; Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke; current President of the Swiss confederation Ueli Maurer; Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition David Nabarro; and physicist Dr Lawrence Krauss.
The Open Forum, however, shouldn’t be seen as a substitute, but rather as a more progressive and accessible complement to the main event. To start with, let’s examine the session themes. While there is some crossover with the Annual Meeting, the seven sessions at the Open Forum are chosen keeping in mind the concerns of the 99 percent. Unemployment, austerity measures in Europe, and the relevance of religion in the 21st century weigh far more heavily on minds than some of the more amorphous topics at the WEF (e.g., experiencing mindful leadership). Then there are the attendees. Though there is a healthy smattering of WEF badge holders at the Forum sessions, the crowd here is removed by quite some degree from the bankers and consultants on the other side of the barrier. Suffice it to say that you wouldn’t normally find a man from Guatemala, who moved to Spain (via India) with his family, within the Congress Centre, questioning ministers on employment opportunities for the youth. Yet, it is such elements that help humanise the whole event, moving it away from the abstraction present at the Annual Meeting to the reality present at the Open Forum.
Nor is it an easy task for the panellists, who must connect with a mixed audience – entrepreneurs, locals, NGO representatives, and a few hecklers – in a way that engages them without alienating or patronising them on some pretty hefty subjects. To some extent, Oscar Wilde’s words – “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you” – express my feelings on this exercise rather well, and I don’t need to look much further beyond the Eurozone panel and its collection of ministerial figures for evidence. From a non-European’s point of view, if one were to rely solely on the media reports, it would seem as if the Eurozone is in imminent danger of breaking apart. Ministers and heads of state are frustrated, the public is tired of the word “austerity”, and the “will they, won’t they?” saga of possible exits has been analysed to death. But through a mixture of wit and humour (intentional or otherwise), the panellists present played with stereotypes and hard data to infuse a serious topic with some much-needed light heartedness. The message is clear – the Eurozone isn’t going to go anywhere. For even the most hardened cynic, the sight of ministers whose duty it is to tow Europe out of its river of fiscal debt making it obvious that they’re all in it together, despite their differences, did more to calm jittery nerves than a sudden upswing in the stock market.
Behind the closed doors of the Annual Meeting, the discussions hardly reach the world at large in anything but a highly filtered form. The Open Forum thus serves as the arm of the WEF that tries – and succeeds rather well – to ground the whole meeting to the real world. Of course, with room for only 300 people plus an overflow room, it can be argued that the Open Forum doesn’t really reach the “global public”. Beyond the inherent space and time limitations of the event (one can only ask so many questions within the allotted time), Davos is also not exactly the most accessible mountain town. But the Open Forum does go some distance in adding a degree of transparency to WEF. And given a world of social media and increasing connection, the available options of live streaming sessions, Twitter, and Facebook mean that the Open Forum is accessible to anyone who does want to get involved.
The Open Forum allows for a two way exchange. On one hand, many ideas being considered by the Davos elite become accessible to the rest of the world. On the other, it is hoped that some of the questions and concerns being raised by those who are affected most by the actions of these six-figured salaried men and women make it beyond the heavily policed barriers. Of course, there’s still room for a few topless protesters. Without them, Davos could never be complete.