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Davos Day 1: Rethink, Redesign, and Rebuild

Technology Review’s editor in chief is attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.
January 27, 2010

I am in Davos, Switzerland, attending the World Economic Forum, the annual, invitation-only meeting of executives, bankers, venture capitalists, politicians, and a handful of media leaders, high in the snowy Alps.

Invitations to the event are sought-after, but participants who are not academics, editors, or otherwise penurious pay up to $30,000 for the privilege of attending the gathering. The wealth and the seniority of the cast of characters who travel to Davos, plus the titles of the event’s sessions (some samples from this year: “Rethinking Systemic Financial Risk”; “Rebuilding Fragile States”; “Securing CyberSpace”) have created a myth around the event and its supposed, typical attendee, often called “Davos Man.” At Davos, the myth goes, our secret governors meet in a shadowy cabal to strenuously discuss the fate of the world.

In truth, it is an invitation-only event like others–distinguished mostly by the social seriousness of the programming, overseen by the Forum’s founder, Dr. Klaus Schwab, by the intelligence and authority of the participants and the high intellectual theater of the panels, and by the assumption, common to all the attendees, that entrepreneurial capitalism, appropriately regulated, is the greatest imaginable force for expanding human possibilities.

I used to go to Davos every year when I was editor of Red Herring magazine, but it was only this year that the Forum’s organizers felt that Technology Review was sufficiently influential that I should be asked back. I am told that after 2002, the last year I attended, triumphalist bankers dominated the event. But they are not notably numerous this year, and the general tone of the meeting is muted, and, if not quite apologetic, earnestly determined.

The theme of this year’s meeting is “Rethink, Redesign, and Rebuild.” Dr. Schwab surely intended us to think of how we might repair the global financial system and renew the social contracts that bind us all, but at least some of the attendees were looking elsewhere for the global renaissance.

Last night I hosted the awards dinner for the 2010 Technology Pioneers, the 26 startups which the Forum and its advisors think are the most innovative companies in the world. Predictably, Ev Williams of Twitter was there. More unexpectedly, so was Ory Okolloh, cofounder and executive director of Ushahidi, an African startup that mashes-up maps and crowd-sourced information to follow developing events such as elections in Kenya or earthquake relief in Haiti. There were biotechnology and health-care companies like Pacific Biosciences, and energy and materials companies like Metabolix, too. (I was happy to see that Technology Review had written about almost all of the 24 companies.)

I told the assembled guests that the planet urgently needs another surge in technology entrepreneurialism and wealth creation to rival the booms of the PC revolution and the early days of the Web. We have pressing problems that only technology can solve; and we desperately need new jobs in new fields, and economic growth. I said that while the innovation economy had its own structural problems (an oversupply of venture capital; an absence of incentivizing public offerings on the stock market), entrepreneurialism was nonetheless alive and well and sitting in the room.

Last night at the Technology Pioneers awards dinner, while other attendees of the World Economic Forum were fretting about how they could restore public trust in discredited credit markets, the technologists and venture capitalists here permitted themselves to relax, just a little, in a warm glow of optimism.

I’ll be twittering from Davos @jason_pontin.

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