Richard Quest, Anchor & Business Editor-At-Large, CNN
If you need a measure of just how bad inflation has become, the World Economic Forum in Davos can provide it. Want a hotel room in this Swiss mountain town next week? Get ready to part with around $1,200 per night (or much, much more). The WEF may have tried hard to throw off the image of Davos elitism, but it doesn’t stop them slapping an eye-watering surcharge on the accommodation it offers up to delegates. Money talks, especially in these straitened times, and opportunity knocks.
On the flipside of this, the other traditional criticism levelled at Davos is that talk is cheap (even when it’s offensively expensive) and that the Forum generates plenty of words, but very few actions; yet last year’s trip up into the Alps felt unusually substantive.
Covid restrictions meant fewer delegates, and as a result there were fewer hangers-on, less hoopla, and a welcome lack of nonsense. It was a leaner, nimbler, more focused affair, with a notably scaled back ‘circus’ surrounding the main event. Even the absence of snow removed a traditional distraction. Those who came had come to engage. As a result, even though these things are hard to measure, it felt like stuff might actually be getting done.
The tide of global problems has not receded in the eight months since the WEF last convened. China is once more overwhelmed by new Covid cases; the war in Ukraine, despite Russia’s preposterous offers of ceasefires, feels as entrenched as ever; the cost of living continues to soar; hard right politics is taking root in Sweden, Israel, and Italy; the U.S. House of Representatives has descended into farce; Iran is executing protestors; Brazil has just experienced its own January 6th moment; the list goes on.
Wherever you look, dialogue is in short supply – even Prince Harry is an impasse with his family. When the spirit of compromise appears to have evaporated, the theme of this year’s meeting – Cooperation in a Fragmented World – seems Panglossian, especially when even Davos itself has gradually become more fragmented.
There has long been a notion that two Davoses exist side by side. Now I’m not talking about the frivolous world of parties attended by drunken bankers and spruced up by the addition of the occasional celebrity. While these once threatened to overwhelm the main event, they have – mercifully – faded into the background in recent years. This is more a division in the way the Forum itself functions. There is the ‘big Davos’ and its high-minded, somewhat abstract chin stroking involving presidents, finance ministers, and CEOs. Then there is another, more complex, but no less important side.
Over the last few weeks, I have been overwhelmed by invitations to panels and gatherings of all stripes at Davos – often interesting and all well-intentioned. These are smaller meetings where one can learn about the latest thinking on matters such as artificial intelligence, agriculture, healthcare, or mobility. They are the micro-issues that underpin the macro issues being dealt with at the other, ‘big Davos’ – recession, climate change, food security, and so on.
In a way, Davos is rather like a large container ship. Up on the bridge there are the big decisions being pondered and courses being charted. Down below deck you’ll find the many disparate parts that make up the whole, and an army of people whose objective is simply to get on with the task at hand and stay afloat. When big solutions appear so hard to find, that ‘below deck’ world, where stuff is just getting done, has become just as important as that above.
I’ve always been something of a Davos sceptic, but this year I will head up the mountain with an open mind and renewed vigour. In a world of high stakes and low expectations, perhaps the two sides of Davos – the high-minded thinkers and the pragmatic doers – can offer a chance for both big and small steps.
For me personally, the true value of the WEF is the chance to have a meal and a drink with people I might not agree with. Even if my mind isn’t changed as a result, at least I might better understand the other point of view, and they mine. In a world starved of dialogue, the expensive conversations taking place in Davos may just be worth the bill.
Follow CNN’s coverage of the Davos all next week on CNN International and at cnn.com/davos