The world's biggest ego-system generates social insecurity

My Week in Davos

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The Independent Online

There is a natural order of things in Davos. The chief executives want to meet heads of state. The bankers want to meet chief executives. The cash-strapped charities want to meet the bankers.

Everyone else mills around the mountain resort, nodding along with World Economic Forum (WEF) policy debates or cutting a swathe through endless drinks parties.

As befits any gathering of power players, there is massive insecurity. Who is seeing the biggest names? Who is hosting tonight’s best dinner?

“Forget ecosystems, Davos is one big ego-system,” one weary chief executive told me over coffee.

Here’s a good example. The Chancellor George Osborne was a guest at the Women of Impact dinner held by the author and editor Tina Brown on Wednesday night, joining Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Sir Richard Branson, Tony Blair and the author Noreena Hertz. It was a stellar line-up, if you like that sort of thing, but one of the attendees was still keen to check with me that Barclays’ meal across town wasn’t better.

There are parallel lives: those who occupy the congress centre and those who never visit, preferring to see clients in the surrounding hotels or, even better, to  table-hop in the Belvedere.

The Duke of York popped in there again yesterday, setting up shop in a corner of the KPMG Lounge for a whirl of meetings with the likes of former BP chief executive Tony Hayward and Prudential boss Tidjane Thiam. For such a hard-to-reach location, Davos offers great access once you get there.

Despite the allegations, Prince Andrew is good for Britain 

There was a strange atmosphere at Prince Andrew’s Pitch@Palace event. Everyone was there: the Marks and Spencer boss Marc Bolland, Lord Mandelson, the BP boss Bob Dudley. Just by turning up, they were giving the prince a vote of support for all he has done for British business. Some bosses can’t speak highly enough about the help he lends as a former trade envoy; some thought the event was no place to “reiterate and reaffirm” the strong denials already issued by Buckingham Palace of underage sex allegations.

But the prince, who noticeably relaxed once he got through those two tricky sentences, appears to know his stuff. Surely British business would be better off for his initiatives on skills, science and young entrepreneurs than it would if he stepped back for a while?

His annual bash used to have a reputation for so-so hospitality, but that has been fixed. It has never garnered such attention either. Fast forward a year from now, assume he will be back. But I wonder if the TV cameras will still be stationed outside?

Can the North Sea afford to wait for Osborne to act?

George Osborne’s CBI breakfast on Thursday morning was a good-natured affair by all accounts. The Chancellor has the wind in his sails as British economic growth continues to put the troubled eurozone in the shade. He was consistent on the need to stay in Europe and push for reforms, with the feeling that Italy and France would eventually learn from better performers such as Spain. One attendee said his explanation of why he was not letting go of the purse-strings just yet had “shades of Margaret Thatcher” about it.

Mr Osborne was quizzed by Samir Brikho, boss of the engineer Amec Foster Wheeler, on what he was going to do about the North Sea now that oil prices have plummeted. Industry veteran Sir Ian Wood has called for a cut in the supplementary charge on profits from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. It may be that Mr Osborne will act in his final Budget before the election. But 18 March is a long way off for an industry that is leaking jobs.

WEF moves with the times. It still has a bit further to go

So what does Davos achieve? Delegates are guilty of inhabiting a bubble that suggests the last panel session they attended on advances in artificial intelligence should lead the news agenda. There are some big announcements, such as Al Gore and Pharrell Williams’ reunion for a second Live Earth event. But largely the world carries on regardless, as illustrated by the European Central Bank’s decision to begin quantitative easing 250 miles away in Frankfurt.

What the WEF has is great convening power. Chief executives rejoice that they can pack a dozen meetings into a day with people whose diaries would normally take months to pin down. Bankers and consultants take away enough business leads to justify the expense for another year.

For its part, the WEF has taken great care in making sure the agenda moves on. The digital debate loomed large this week: from the urgency to create a single market in Europe, to cyber security threats – under discussion in most boardrooms since the attack on Sony – and to Mark Carney’s suggestion that lightly taxed technology giants might want to act more responsibly.

Some important subjects get relegated to fringe events, however. It was surprising to see that a discussion on improving the LGBT workforce didn’t make it on to the official programme, despite being championed by Accenture’s Sander van’t Noordende and the HSBC UK chief Antonio Simoes. Maybe next time.

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