The Future of Davos: Is a Hipper World Forum on Its Way?

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People stand in the Swiss resort at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos, Jan. 26, 2013.

If Davos is getting old, as I speculated on this blog earlier this week, the question is, What will take its place? I spent my final hours at the World Economic Forum trying to suss that out.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who was not invited to Davos this year, posits that the WEF is a positional good — one whose value “is mostly a function of its desirability to others.” If so, the naysayers who pooh-pooh the event and wish it would go away “have the power to make it do precisely that — by ignoring it,” muses the Financial Times’ John McDermott. Another of the many media savants left off Klaus Schwab’s invitation list this year, McDermott farcically proposed organizing his own version of Davos in his backyard in London.

(MORE: Davos Wisdom, 2013: Five Lessons from the Global Forum)

McDermott may be on to something. All along the famed promenade that runs through town and into the WEF’s central Congress Center, globally minded organizations have been chipping away at the official WEF itinerary, setting up shop in empty retail spaces and dormant art galleries to host their own events and encourage high-minded side dealings.

For example, for several years, the social-networking group Hub Culture has set up camp in an airy meeting space across the street from the WEF beehive to host brainstorming and dealmaking sessions between executives of companies like Nissan and Hertz. One of Hub Culture’s missions is to bring the backroom dealmaking Davos is known for into the open. For more on what that means, watch this video. The social network is also an evangelist for peer-to-peer finance, which allows individuals and companies to trade outside the erratic global monetary system through virtual currencies (kooky, yes, but even the European Central Bank has paid this some attention). So while global political leaders and hedge-funders sat inside the WEF fretting about the threats of competitive currency devaluations and big banks’ unwillingness to lend, Hub Culture was across the street extolling the virtues of buying into its virtual currency, Ven, to major corporations like BlackBerry and GE.

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Other would-be disruptors skulking on the sidelines were delegates from the clan of 20-something hotshots running Summit Series, a five-year-old entrepreneur conference angling to overtake Davos as the official playground of elite thinkers. The high-net-worth group, dubbed by one Forbes writer as the hipper Davos, recently shelled out $40 million to buy Utah’s Powder Mountain, one of the largest ski mountains in North America. They’re looking to turn what has been their annual event (with attendees and speakers including Bill Clinton, Ted Turner, Virgin’s Richard Branson and PayPal’s Peter Thiel) into a year-round country club that hosts like-minded A-list entrepreneurs committed to social impact. Its organizers spent the week angling to recruit megastar Davos attendees like Marissa Mayer and potential investors like Bain Capital’s Steve Pagliuca.

Their message to Klaus Schwab and the old guard of the financial and business worlds was simple: You’ve had your chance to reform from within. Prepare to be disrupted.

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