The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum meeting at Davos was “rethink, redesign, rebuild.” When a friend recited that list for me, I responded that given the institutions there, the more appropriate slogan is “replace.”
Last year when I arrived at Davos, I wondered whether we were among the problem or the solution. This year, I wondered whether we were among the future or the past. Well, actually, I don’t wonder.
We were among the disrupted. The only distinction among them is that some know it, some don’t. At Davos, I fear, most don’t.
I ran a session with international organizations about transparency and new ways they can govern themselves. I didn’t get far. “Oh, yes, we understand Twitter and all that,’ they said. “We have people who do that for us.” Don’t you want to read what your constituents and the world are saying about you? “We don’t have time.” Oy. I invited a young disrupter into the room who talked about his ability to organize efforts to help people quickly — not so much breaking rules but discovering new ones — but he didn’t get far either.
I sat in a session about the future of journalism that was set in the past. No fault of the moderator, the panel pretty much issued the same old saws: The internet is filled with trivia, sniffed one: “The stuff that goes on the web is just suffocating.” The free market will not support a free press, declared another. (How do we know that already?) Thus their conclusion: The only hope for journalism is state and foundation support, said a few. Oy again.
At the end of the week, I sat in on a session trying to brainstorm under WEF’s theme of the three re’s. They said the point of the exercise was to get soundbites (as they used to be known; tweets as they are now known) and that’s what they got: PowerPoint (actually, Tumblr) platitudes. There were good points: We need to change what we measure, said one table, for now we get what we measure (true from media to economies). But there was also insipidness: “We are what we allow to happen.” And: “Ecology means caring. Equity means sharing.” Put that on your T-shirt and wash it.
Then a 17-year-old from Iraq scolded the entire room, telling them that these were just sayings. Where’s the action, he asked? Where are the specifics? That moment gave me hope: another disrupter, this one from the future.
The World Economic Forum actually does an admirable job trying to push its members into that future. I got involved — and got my ticket into Davos — because I helped them venture into blogging to show institutions by example how to benefit from social media; that effort continues in video (YouTube is there) and Twitter (so is Ev Williams)
But one must wonder whether they can go fast enough — given this crowd’s resistance to change — and thus whether they are helping the right people. That’s why I didn’t blog during this meeting (my fourth): I simply didn’t hear much new. WEF does try to bring in new voices: its young global leaders and tech pioneers, but they are viewed by the entrenched powers as curiosities — sideshows — when they should be seen as the new bosses.
After one SOS (same old…) session, I told a WEF person that I dreamed of a new organization and event, a stepchild: the World Entrepreneurs Forum. Let’s bring together only the disrupters, only the people building the future rather than trying (desperately) to protect the past. Just as the old WEF forces its members to at least ask questions about their impact — on environment, values, trust, foresight — so should this new WEF push its participants to make sure they use their power of change responsibly, strategically, openly.
I have said of journalism that its future is entrepreneurial (not institutional). At this Davos, I come to sese the same is true of much of our world. The shift from the industrial economy to whatever follows is well underway, only the leaders of the old order are largely blind to it and in that willful ignorance, there is great risk.
Entire industries are in various stages of disruption and destruction: news, media, entertainment, advertising, automotive, manufacturing, retail, real estate, telecommunications, transportation, health care…. The same will come to institutions, including government, nongovernmental and international organizations, and the academy. One university president fretted at Davos: “Just think what the world would be like if we left what universities to the free market.” Well, yes, many companies are doing more than thinking about just that; they are building, a new and needed future for education.
The disruption is everywhere. What makes technology a model is that it is in a state of constant disruption; it disrupts and deflates and rethinks and rebuilds itself constantly. But that 1000-r.p.m. Great Mandala is now buzz-sawing through the rest of society. Only the rest of society isn’t built for change. Neither is WEF — though it tries — because the change is too profound and too fast.
There’s a clear dividing line here: Do you fear and resist this change (WEF I) or do you create and enable it (WEF II… and note that I didn’t use “2.0″!)? That’s why I think there’s a need for a new WEF. I wouldn’t suggest transforming the first into the second. I’ve learned from a decade and a half of trying — naively, I now see — to do that with newspapers that it’s rarely if ever going to succeed and for understandable reasons (the cost — in money, pain, and culture — is just too great). It is easier to build up than tear down.
We are seeing parallel worlds emerge: the disrupted and the disrupters and they are not meant to share a fondue pot. So let’s pull together the disrupters and challenge them — as WEF has its institutions — to more fully understand the impact of their work, to use their power of change to solve problems, to collaborate (as is their reflex already). Let’s encourage them to look forward, not back, and let’s support their needs (in education, governance, infrastructure). Let’s rethink our priorities around those needs (in media, for example, let’s stop defaulting to government subsidies of dying institutions and instead encourage government to provide ubiquitous broadband to enable a new future; let’s start with the market).
Is WEF the organization to bring this together? Is there a need for an organization at all? When I pulled together a conference (call) of people planning to teach entrepreneurial journalism from around the world, one participant suggested creating a body but Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia protested: “We have enough organizations.” Right. So what structure would support the disrupters? If it’s a meeting, don’t hold it in the high mountains of Switzerland or the low valley of Silicon. Hold it in a place awaiting progress. Or just hold it online. Make it open. As Dave Winer says, the people who should be there are there.
I see the value in Davos: smart people with the power to get things done (well, once upon a time) able to mix and meet and sometimes learn and even act. I see similar benefit for the people are indeed are rethinking, redesigning, and rebuilding by replacing.
Next year in India or Africa or Brazil or at an IP address to be named…