The annual Alpine burlesque of some 2,630 global economic and political leaders billed as the World Economic Forum raises the curtain on its 43rd performance this week in Davos, Switzerland. Choreographed by German marketing impresario Klaus Schwab, the show-in-the-snow “committed to improving the state of the world” will once again display the precision of Harry Houdini’s observation that “an old trick well done is far better than a new trick with no effect.”
WEF veteran and master architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. says all the ususal suspects—who too frequently gather atop the mountain to schmooze, negotiate and, ultimately, broadcast their talking points through an exuberantly accommodating media—have for decades either missed or ignored the true knowledge of Davos. (You can see Quartz’s analysis of the full list of elite attendees here.)
“There’s always been a very small group of Davosians who call WEF ‘Snowy University,’” says Jones, whose Palo Alto, California-based firm concentrates on emerging market real estate investments in China, the Middle East and Latin America. “It’s best to avoid the main attractions and go for the sideshow seminars on science and technology. The investment bankers and businessmen rarely do this. They’re too busy counting their money, and the politicians and none too few tyrants find Davos a convenient soapbox.”
As Jones says, the science on display at Davos has always been first rate and far ahead of any conventional wisdom. Several years ago, for instance, Jones punted on what his colleagues assured him was an essential standing-room-only main-event seminar on “Rethinking Market Capitalism” hosted by one of the multiple Crown Princes of Bahrain. Instead, he attend a coffee klatch on the Higgs boson: “I went because I had absolutely no idea what the seminar was about,” he says.
“Astonishing,” is how Jones recalls his hour spent with Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of Large Hadron Collider, which last year and with much media fanfare isolated the elementary God Particle. “I learned something new,” Jones says.
So, as a public service to all rookies heading up the mountain for Davos 2013, just say “no” to WEF sessions on why centrist political parties fail to unite moderates on both sides of the ideological divide; avoid all seminars that promise to explore the biggest problems of the Russian economy and reject any assembly that retreads the theme of how to get people to view sustainability as a benefit rather than a sacrifice.
Here’s your dance card on where to go and what to do instead:
- Physicist Geoffrey West’s seminar on the mathematical rules that govern cities. Remarkable.
- BrainGate discussions moderated by Dr. John Donoghue, a pioneer in developing microchips that allow the paralyzed to move again with the power of their thoughts. Outstanding.
- Any panel or party with Katy Borner, director of the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Institute at Indiana University. Singular.
- And make it a priority to find Johns Hopkins Professor of Biomedical Engineering Jennifer Elisseeff and, for those interested in meeting the real-life Commander Montgomery Scott, chief engineer aboard the USS Enterprise, follow all sessions attended or moderated by Ray Johnson, Chief Technical Officer at Lockheed Martin Corp.