A surge of private jets—roughly 200—converged on Switzerland’s airports this week. The Swiss Armed Forces even had to open up a military base to accommodate the air traffic jam. That’s because, as is tradition, the global elite have gathered together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the big global economic, political, and social issues—as far away from the rest of society as possible. Business juggernauts, prime ministers and presidents, academics, and entertainers are cloistered away in Davos, Switzerland, a small ski-town nestled in a valley in the Alps.*
The forum, also informally called Davos, after the host city, is a many-headed monster. It’s the flagship meeting of the non-profit of the same name, created by Klaus Schwab in 1971. In that time, it has ballooned from a few hundred attendees to nearly 3,000. The media has called the conference a “Super Bowl of schmoozing,” where industry leaders will pay hefty ticket prices—estimated to be around $71,000, and that’s not including the cost of chartering a private jet—to rub shoulders with other industry leaders. But no one can just buy their way in. The meeting is invite only; color-coded badges reinforce the hierarchy. “So frequently did gazes slip to re-examine my badge that I came to know what it must be like to have cleavage,” wrote Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker in 2012.
In spite of the endless caviar and the altogether obnoxious loftiness, new research shows that this meeting for the one percent may actually impact the rest of us.
The non-profit behind the World Economic Forum would have you believe that the meeting is more than just a place for titans of industry to vacation together in the Swiss Alps. It’s as much a party and networking event as any other conference, and it’s got something for every intellectual. The program themes are broad enough to encompass sessions on nearly any topic. (This year is “The New Global Context,” which means absolutely nothing.) But in spite of the endless caviar and the altogether obnoxious loftiness, new research shows that this meeting for the one percent may actually impact the rest of us.
“The forum shifts its focus in accordance to whichever issue is prominent in society,” says Markus Giesler, an associate professor of marketing at York University and the author of a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research on the impact of the forum on consumers. “The WEF claims that it is working to solve problems like poverty and global warming, but those are bold claims.” Rather than solving the major issues society faces today, Giesler argues, they’re re-framing them—an area where the non-profit has had success in the past.
“There has always been a history of unrest directed toward the World Economic Forum and one way they’ve addressed this is inclusiveness,” Giesler says. Previously, organizations like Greenpeace and anti-poverty charity Oxfam International spoke out against the forum, according to Giesler. But such organizations can make a difference from inside the conference center; this year, Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima is a co-chair of the meeting.
“The range of people who are here is quite unique,” says John McArthur, slightly out of breath as he walks briskly through the streets of Davos, between meetings with development ministers, World Bank officials, and social entrepreneurs. McArthur, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, is returning to Davos for the seventh time. In addition to the big name business leaders and entertainers that draw media attention, the meeting attracts civil society leaders, government officials—people like John McArthur. In his line of work—sustainable global development—this meeting of the minds is invaluable; Davos is a place to float new ideas, to get people to commit to projects that are taking shape, to build coalitions. Meeting attendees with similar goals band together to try to figure out how to finance international infrastructure projects, or how to leverage social media platforms to create a truly global conversation.
Since the meeting always takes place in January, those coalitions have 12 months to see how projects take shape over the course of the year. The biggest challenge, according to McArthur, is how to link those ideas to action: “How do you frame a question so that is has a follow through?”
The answer depends entirely on the industry and the players involved, but Davos has served as a platform for discussions that eventually launched real-world initiatives in the past. Perhaps the best example is the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI). “GAVI was launched 15 years ago and really helped to spearhead the global vaccine effort, both in delivery and in research and development, and has been central to the reduction of child deaths around the world,” McArthur says.
“The forum itself puts on a very good program intellectually,” says Steven Strauss, visiting professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. But, despite the seemingly endless sessions and speakers that attendees can choose from, often it’s the informal conversations in the hallways, so to speak, that move solutions forward.
“There is a tremendous advantage to people being able to meet privately, confidentially, to discuss matters,” Strauss says. “Despite all the media coverage, once you’re in the conference center, Davos is one of the most private places on planet Earth.”
Despite the secluded nature of the conference, Giesler’s study shows that what happens at the meeting can eventually trickle down to individual consumers. The researchers conducted an eight-year study of the forum that involved interviewing participants and combing through published materials from the World Economic Forum, including annual reports, task force recommendations, statistical analyses, agenda council reports, case studies, press releases, and videos. They found that the forum has promoted the emergence of four new brands of responsible consumers, or consumers who are aware of the impact of their consumption decisions on the environment, their own health, and society in general: environmentally-conscious consumers, financially-literate consumers, health-conscious consumers, and responsible consumers below the poverty line.
By shifting the focus of environmental and financial responsibility from government and corporate level regulations to consumer decisions, Davos “provided an institutional framework for these consumer types to emerge,” Giesler says. These environmentally and health-conscious consumers are relatively new, according to Giesler, but the crunchy, sustainable living enthusiast has already become a cliché. The study's authors suggest that the notion that consumers have a moral responsibility to protect and improve their own health, along with the environment, and society in general, actually originated in Davos. They found that the meeting attendees they interviewed believed that individual morals would be more effective than political reforms to bring about positive changes. This attitude was reflected in the materials produced by the forum, which eventually led to policy changes in governments, according to the study authors.
"The danger to a place like the forum is you’ve got the CEOs of some of the worlds most important banks co-located with some of the worlds most important politicians."
So it seems the forum does have an impact on policy, which in turn has an impact on individual consumers. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is less clear.
“The danger to a place like the forum is you’ve got the CEOs of some of the worlds most important banks co-located with some of the worlds most important politicians,” says Strauss, the Princeton professor, “and the people who aren’t in the room are regulators and civil servants who might be able to provide some perspective on these issues.” This is all a nice way of saying that the forum members and attendees are often knocked for being out of touch. Just before the meeting, an Oxfam report showed that the gap between the rich and the poor around the world continues to widen. (And who doesn’t feel a touch of schadenfreude at the fact that the greatest financial minds in the world missed all the signs for the 2008 global financial meltdown?)
In the end, the responsibility for the state of society should be shared by individuals, their governments, and corporations—even if 99 percent of those individuals aren’t invited to Davos. It’s is just one meeting; it can’t solve all the major issues facing society today, but it may be a good place to start.
“[Davos] is obviously an exclusive environment in many ways, given that it is ultimately a small meeting,” McArthur adds. “This is a few thousand people convening in a small town. This is not seven billion people coming together.”
*UPDATE — February 04, 2015: We originally wrote that 1,700 private jets converged on Switzerland’s airports for the World Economic Forum. That number is in fact closer to 200.