The disrupted of Davos

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…

  • Thanks, Jeff. I had (and have) a simpler question, though I think yours are right on. Did anyone at Davos feel like apologizing? Why shouldn’t Davos claim its share of responsibility for the global meltdown? I was expecting sessions like, “should we go out of business?” Did that happen?

    For the global financial elite, these are the shame years. Was there even a glimmer of recognition of this? Felix Salmon’s post, Looking for contrition in Davos, captures my mood. Were you looking for contrition at all? Did you find any?

    Davos was supposed to be about responsible stewardship of the global economy. News flash: There ain’t any! The Davos idea has failed. I can’t believe there weren’t smart people there who knew that. Please advise.

    • Jay,
      That is indeed the question I asked last year and when I did, I met hostility: ‘Why would I apologize?’

  • Great Jeff, and proud you sat through most of that…

    I agree with you that we don’t need to tear apart, even worse maybe: if we don’t start building now from scratch some of these institutions might just slowly fall over and drop dead

    I’m all in for it, when and where do we start?

  • Bummer. I have long wished for the opportunity to attend Davos. Do you think people are just tired from 2009, or that they are trying to find a new sandbox to put things in as opposed to rethinking the purpose and benefit of preexisting processes and institutions in the first place?
    I appreciated your post. Sabrina

  • The issue is that entrepreneurs usually lack ressources including the more successful ones. What little ressources we have we use 100% for whatever it is we are disrupting at the moment. So its quite hard to make this fit into real global change in an organised way, unless of course the goal is to help entrepreneurs achieve the disruption they are seeking.

  • Jeff,

    I enjoyed your take on WEF.

    There already is a “WEF II” as you referred to it.

    It’s called EO, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and it has more than 7,300 members in 43 countries. It was founded in 1987, and its vision is to build the world’s most influential community of entrepreneurs.

    I am a member of the UK chapter. At Davos you may have run into Lars Hinrichs, founder of Xing, and one of the most active EO leaders in Europe. There probably were a handful of other EO members there.

    EO members work in their local communities to promote the interests of entrepreneurs and to broaden learning and opportunities for success. Regular global “universities” bring entrepreneurs together in what perhaps could be described as a Davos-like environment of learning and idea exchange.

    The website is

    Kind regards,

  • Sundog

    “Thus their conclusion: The only hope for journalism is state and foundation support, said a few.”

    Hope? State support will be suicide for the journalistic profession. The credibility of the Dinosaur Media is eroding rapidly as it it, but the moment they start taking payments directly from the government, that credibility drops to zero.

    A media organization that is financially supported by the government is not a journalistic enterprise of any sort. It is a Ministry of Propaganda.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Thus their conclusion: The only hope for journalism is state and foundation support, said a few.”

      > Hope? State support will be suicide for the journalistic profession.

      By “journalism”, they don’t actually mean what you think of as journalism. They mean “jobs”, and they’re perfectly happy with phony, baloney jobs.

      Think Blazing Saddles.

      • Getulio Bastos

        There are 2 kinds of people on earth. Entrepreneurs and indolents. Entrepreneurs need freedom to create and prosper, indolents need jobs, either provided by entrepreneurs or government.

        From time to time one group seem to overpower the other.

        Capitalism is the victory of the entrepreneur. The indolent has to work more than he wishes. But brings prosperity.

        Comunism was the victory of the indolent (it is easier to have good paying jobs if the government owns everything). But, since nobody actually owns the money, it leads to ruin.

        People get tired of both once in a while. The Russian revolution of 1917 was the indolent’s victory. The Russian revolution of 1989 was the entrepreneur’s victory.

        It does not matter what kind of business we are talking about. Journalism or construction or retail or industry.

        What we need to find out now is who’ll win this time. In the US the indolent seem to be winning now.

  • You make some excellent points. The capitalists (and socialists) from last
    century want to hold on to their positions, at all cost. They apparently
    like going to Davos, in the Winter, with the Ski scene & the other world

    Many of the people have long documented histories of having endless
    appetites for self-importance. Davos feeds that, not the disrupters.

    There are also likely a few people at Davos who have the economic
    means to derail, disrupt, or destroy anyone that challenges their deity.
    Maybe they should have a badge, “I play for keeps” ? “Winner take all”?

    As for the “Disrupters” there is one small problem, FRICTION. IF the
    world were allowed to move in the way you seem to propose, as soon
    as one person or group came to power they would be knocked off
    the hill by the next empowered “disrupter”. It is too easy to do. There
    is some FRICTION built into all systems to prevent total chaos.

    To use Twitter as an example, it seemed odd that their management
    would be a Davos. That must be some sign that Twitter has made it
    to the TOP. King of the Hill. In a disrupter world, there would now be
    10 challengers for that top spot. Instead, the Davos Community likes
    to choose who they want to allow to be on top. They therefore do not
    want a vote, a competition, a disrupter. It is a showcase of their
    “World Economic” prowess.

    You may want to dig deeper into how Davos Divas & Deity are made.

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  • Jeff,
    I enjoyed your take on Davos. However I think the disrupted and the disrupters must share the same fondue pot. That’s precisely the spirit of Davos!

    • Right, Matthias, they must share in the end but perhaps the disruptors need their own space to meet and then come together in a different balance of power.

  • Jeff,

    To continue on you “fondue pot” argument

    WEF I = “fondue pot” in Davos
    WEF II = Ferran Adria in Spain

    And yes, we will meet in India or Africa or Brazil or at an IP address to be named…


  • Eric Gauvin

    Hi Jeff,

    “Where’s the action, he asked? Where are the specifics?”

    I and other detractors have asked you the same question — only to have our comments deleted.

    You don’t seem to like disruptors who challenge your ideas.

    Seems like you’re just whining about having to participate in the WEF.

    (resisting all temptation to “disrupt” you about how your cherished “link economy” factors in to this)

    • Eric,
      Here we go again. you don’t like me. That much is quite clear. You’ve made that point again and again and again. May I suggest a life?
      You’re referring to Levine. I warned him that one more personal attack and he was gone and I meant it. Try discussing the issues and ideas rather than merely insulting. It’s tiring. Disagree with me all you want but note that in the comment above there is nothing specific, just a complaint. Pot, meet kettle.

  • Jeff

    Meet JP Rangaswami

    Exclusive? Elitist? I think not.

    So I’m at the end of my first Davos. I hope to be back. The theme was Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild. And I fully expect to see a lot of that over the next year. Not just in big monolithic projects (of which there will be some) but, far more importantly, in a whole swathe of small pieces loosely joined, individual and cottage industry projects that make material differences to the lives of the people they touch.

    Of course Davos is about world leaders meeting to discuss things of world import. Of course Davos is about the world economy and politics and climate change. Of course business people the world over gather here and talk shop. Of course business is transacted here, a lot of business is transacted here.

    But that’s not all that happens.

    Don’t judge the Davos book by the covers that others may use.

    Our next meeting is in Cartagena, Colombia. It’s a disruptive old world…


  • Dear Jeff!
    You’ve said:

    “I have said of journalism that its future is entrepreneurial (not institutional).”
    “Entire industries are in various stages of disruption and destruction: news, media, […] institutions, including government, nongovernmental and international organizations, and the academy.”

    and I totally agree with that.
    The best sign for me have been my experiences with the occupations of Austrian Universities last fall (
    Everyone was disrupted: The politicians, the police, the media, and even the ÖH, the official interest group for students didn’t know how to deal with it.
    It was a movement protesting for better circumstances in universities and against the bologna-process(

    The interesting thing was, that the movement didn’t have leaders, like previous movements had. In former movements there was one leader speaking for the whole group. When you chopped off his head, the movement was dead. This time it was different, because no one, or better: everyone was responsible and someone you could talk to. Coordination took place over SMS, Twitter, Facebook, et al.
    Officials couldn’t deal with it and were always looking for a leader, which just wasn’t there.

    One example, how institutions like the ÖH can get useless over night and how the new technologies may change the way we govern ourselfs.

    Best regards,

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  • Rick

    Only slightly facetiously I suggest a venue in Petaluma, CA – the TWiT Cottage. Seriously, it is the people who Leo LaPorte speaks with who are more likely to disrupt and move forward than anyone in thousand dollar suits.

  • Luis Gustavo Moratto

    Mr Jeff, hello. I just read his latest book, translated into Portuguese, O que a Google Faria ?. Lacked attention to one detail: with the arrival of digital readers, begins a new era: the era of pirated books. Your book costs thirty-eight U.S. dollars, a real fortune.

    Porto Alegre

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  • Great post, But just get all the disrupters together and you get a different groupthink (Valley style). WEF sounds like 90% old guard, 10% new. Ideal mix IMHO is 75% new, 25% old. Sharing fondue please. Change comes when old guard change. Engage.

  • Jeff,
    I view myself as both a disrupter and a disrupted. Is it possible that this scales out to include all entities. Is anybody really either/or.
    Also, please ponder the benefit of drawing extremely heavily from the past (actually, I’m kinda sure you do)in order to plot a desirable course into the future. I’m finding out that there are some important clues, such as in the writings of the great philosophers that are as relevant for today and tomorrow as they were when they were first written. Librivox has a great collection of freely downloadable audiobooks which is in itself a great example of this mixing of the past and technology. Heck, I’m almost at the point where I am ready to take on Einstein’s theory that the separation between the past, the present and the future is an illusion.

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