Why Davos? Because apparently in Davos, according to the founder and executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Klaus Schwab “people are moved out of ze daily patterns”. But are they, now? This year’s 43rd Annual Meeting was dedicated to the theme of “Resilient Dynamics” which seems to imply adherence to the conventional practice or “pattern”, rather than the beginning of a new one.

The Guest List

This year, Davos hosted over 250 podium discussions between January 23rd and January 27th. Discussion topics ranged from “Leading through Adversity” to “Secrets of Success,” and included, perhaps most ambitiously, a discussion on “The Past and Future of the Universe.” The guest list – you cannot go to Davos uninvited – included 2,500 names this year. Davos is the time and place where central bankers, industrial tycoons, hedge-fund managers, university professors, monks, rabbis, bloggers, and journalists exchange experiences, insights, and business cards.

Most prominently, this year’s guest list featured: Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. Mario Draghi, Mario Monti, Dimitri Medwedew, the King of Jordan, Shimon Peres, and Jim Yong Kim were also among the regulars. The Obama administration and the Chinese government were notably absent, as was the French president François Hollande. It appears they were not to be moved out of their habitual pattern; not even to improve the state of the world.

Image courtesy of the Russian Government, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the Russian Government, © 2013, some rights reserved.

“Committed to Improving the State of the World”

For such is the slogan of the World Economic Forum. Apart from organizing the Annual Meeting in Davos, the WEF convenes conferences all over the globe throughout the year and churns out a regular stream of reports on the most current and pressing issues facing governments, businesses, and individuals across the globe.

Committed to improving the state of the world, it would appear fitting that the WEF is a non-profit organization. Yet in fact, figures attest to the organization having earned £157 million in 2011.

Most of this money comes from the organization’s members, who are required to be among the world’s top 1000 companies in terms of revenue. Basic WEF membership costs $55,000, and dispatching a delegation to Davos costs an extra $27,000. Further, the WEF enjoys the support of approximately 100 Strategic Partners; corporate members who pay dues in excess of $500,000 per year.

Thus it appears, at least in terms of their financial commitments, that all of its members must be seriously committed to improving the state of the world. But how far has the Forum progressed in achieving its commitments and in “moving out of conventional patterns”?

Resilient Dynamics

Last year’s Annual Meeting branded itself as “The Great Transformation.” Its optimism certainly stood out against a backdrop of global trends marked by economic instability, widening income disparities, rising unemployment, climate change, and growing political instability in the Arab world.

This year’s list of concerns has hardly changed. This is paradoxically why this year’s theme “Resilient Dynamics” is strangely appropriate. The state of the world has not changed so much since last year, at least not due to the Forum. One might interject that the IMF’s Christine Lagarde did speak of “fragile and timid recovery” this year, but then again that rings of caution and uncertainty a lot more than it implies confidence and dynamism.

To better catch the mood of this year’s conference, the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel suggested that a more appropriate theme would have been, “Great! Everyone’s still alive!”

System Recovery and System Design

The problem with the World Economic Forum and its Annual Meeting in Davos was perhaps best captured by Kumi Naidoo, a South African human rights activist and Davos regular, in conversation with Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker at Davos 2012: “The problem here is the preference for incremental thinking – baby steps,” he said. “They talk more about system recovery than about system design.”

Since its inception in in 1987, having been founded as the European Management Forum in 1971, the WEF has prized itself as an informal workshop of ideas among global leaders in business, politics, and society. However, those ideas, as Naidoo argues, have scarcely had a widespread impact. Allowedly, the WEF may take credit for the Davos Declaration of 1988, which prevented Greece and Turkey from going to war, and for hosting the first ministerial meeting between North and South Korean officials in 1989. Yet the “Great Transformation” heralded in 2012 was perhaps a bit of an overstatement.

The theme of “Resilient Dynamics” is more modest and hence more appropriate. At the same time, it gave credence to Naidoo’s argument. It reflected an environment of on-going political and economic uncertainty and widespread hesitation to depart from established “patterns” and practices.

It will be interesting to see what sort of theme Klaus Schwab and his staff will devise for 2014. Chances are good that it will be more interesting. After all, it can’t get much more obscure than “Resilient Dynamics.”