World Economic Forum — Davos

Are we nothing more than tagged wolves set loose in the wild whose behavior is tracked and recorded…in order to what?

This was a thread of discussion, in a session on data privacy, which I participated in last week at the World Economic Forum – better known by its location – Davos.

While you might think the question – asked by a very prominent business person – academic, theoretical, philosophical or perhaps tongue in cheek…let me assure you that it was asked in seriousness after we saw a visualization of cell phone traffic mapped to a 12-hour period in a major world city based on individual user location and usage.

The discussion that ensued was far from hypothetical – how could it be? – we had just seen the reality of the issue – it was grounded, realistic and facilitated by design to get to a set of action ideas that individuals, organizations, governments or others could use as a road map as they themselves struggled with the issue of privacy and the distinctions…the real distinctions by the way…between right to own and right to use when it relates to what you or I believe is our personal data – given that every minute of every day we leave a trail behind us like Hansel and Gretel dropping bread crumbs.

In the room were renowned academics; a world-famous musician; the most senior representatives of some of the largest data collectors in the world (you can only imagine whom); government regulatory types; business leaders and well-known entrepreneurs who rely on data for the operations and profitability of their business; and serious tech types who dream up the usage scenarios and collection mechanisms that make our businesses work.

So again I ask you, are we wolves? – now follow the conversation in your own minds eye.

Coming out of a session like that – where you work in smaller work groups and then build on the total is energizing, motivating and often inspirational – not to mention challenging and tiring – and the day is long.

Look – let’s be clear – a lot has been written about Davos in the past two weeks – much of it reporting on the sessions and such but some of it negative as it criticized the Forum for being an elitist, head in the cloud, out of touch, ego trip for the rich and famous.

Truth – from my perspective? The air is rarified – physically (it is in the mountains after all), spiritually and intellectually – no question. It is elitist – in that you have to be a sponsor or are invited to attend. And it does often fly at high altitudes where problems and solutions seem so distant.

But here is the thing – the sessions that need to get to a resolution do – with the full understanding that you are not there to solve the problem but rather to set up road signs for those who might; for those who will take it further.

The secret to Davos is in the random, serendipitous encounters you have; the chance meeting; the stumbled upon conversation you join in on with the people in the seat next to you at breakfast, lunch or dinner or on the shuttle as you go back and forth or in a session on a specific topic.

The secret is in asking anyone you meet who they are and what they do – despite the nametags and striking it up. Even Bill Clinton plays the role. And that secret is what you leave with. Not that you solved the world’s problems – but that your own POV has been altered, added to, changed on a variety of subjects, and as you become an evangelist, you are helping spread a broader view that in itself will change as the next person and the next get a hold of it.

Personally – I participated in sessions on sustainability and how it affects and shapes the entire value chain from design to purchase and then around again; Mobile Commerce and specifically Microcredit and as I learned from the Gates Foundation – savings as well; and Privacy as I mentioned above. The aggregation of minds, views, ideas and sheer creative thinking in all of those sessions could not happen anywhere else.

Take Mobile, for example – in one session was a representative from the World Bank, some of the world’s largest telecoms, commercial banks and credit companies, major platform owners and important NGOs.

But those are only some of the sessions. The key is to also go broad and see how ideas and concepts link to form solutions in ways you would have never thought of before.

I went to a session on Digital Design and saw how data collected from sensors is beginning to shape urban architecture and listened as the designer linked it all back to the design of an iconic chair that is so famous in Scandinavia that there is a refurbishing industry flourishing because of it.

I went to another on visual illusions and heard an amazing artist describe her use of negative space to influence thinking.

I listened to 4 entrepreneurs describe their latest ideas as they asked for help in the one area that each thought they needed for success.

And I heard Captain Chesley Sullenberger of US Airways fame describe his now-famous landing in the Hudson and relate it to lessons of Leadership under Pressure – an amazing talk and let me tell you that Teamwork is one of the key reasons all those folks lived.

And there were more.

I went to learn about Bridges to Justice and left a convert; I discussed new ways to deliver vaccines in poor countries with a former Wall Street type who is now running a unique NGO with a solution;  I discussed the Middle East with a mixed group of Israelis and Arabs in an open and frank conversation and I saw the head of a major communication company walk out of a closed session to take a call to return a moment later ashen faced – he reported that Egypt had just taken down the entire net – reality burst in and fueled the rest of our discussion.

I saw Observant Jews and Muslims taking turns using the same narrow prayer space and wherever I went I saw the respect that everyone had for open thinking and candid discussion.

For me, one discussion sums up a lot of the conference and puts the world in perspective. I had the occasion to meet and talk with the head of China Mobile – arguably the largest telecom in the world. He has 600 million subscribers in China. Facebook has 600 million members and that doesn’t include China and most people I know go on about the sheer size of Facebook…

And there you have it – Davos is about perspective. Rather than jade you – it can be humbling if you are big and arrogant, and empowering if you are small and not. It can wake you up to ideas and developments you might never have thought about or if you had – just in passing. And it’s a place where the original idea of the UN really works because closed minds are not allowed or tolerated if they manage to sneak in.

Is it elitist? Maybe – but then again – so what – ideas belong to all…and that is the point of the Forum

Another way to look at it is that the answers are less important than the questions – at least to begin with – because if you don’t ask – you don’t get…anywhere.

I even went to a session that was about that – the premise being that we don’t spend enough time on the questions – we run right to the answers – but if we had spent just a little more time thinking it through, we might have had better solutions – I can name any number of situations like that myself – you?

SO here is a thought…listen:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

And there you have it – as I experienced it, Davos is about trying to face the issues. And I can tell you that my dialogues continue with a host of new contacts and sources of inspiration and thinking.

Bottom line, it was a privilege.

And I ask you again – Are we wolves?…face the issue…

So I ask again, Are We Wolves….?

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