I’ve been wearing the same clothes for the last 72 hours. Somehow my bag didn’t make the transfer in Atlanta to my flight to Zurich. After filing a lost bag report with Delta Airlines, I headed up to Davos wearing a pair of comfy shoes, tattered jeans, and a wool sweater that is barely one step up from a hoodie. While perfectly acceptable for the San Francisco tech scene, suffice it to say that in the Davos sea of well-tailored Italian suits, I haven’t exactly fit in.
While living in San Francisco it’s easy to feel like technology forms the center of the universe. A couple days in Davos will quickly dispel you of that notion. The Euro crisis, energy policy, and global unrest are at the top of the agenda. Issues that rile up Silicon Valley like alterations to Google’s search results, the rise of Android, or SOPA/PIPA copyright legislation are not.
Earlier today, and very aware of the fact that I hadn’t changed clothes in three days, I stood in a security line behind a gaggle of men in shiny shoes as we waited to enter the conference hall. “Have you tried Facebook yet?” one of them asked the others. “I just can’t get my head around why I’d want people to know more about my life?” Robert Scoble tweeted that “only about 30% of Davos attendees are on Twitter.” If anything, I’d bet that’s far too high an estimate.
THE TECHNOLOGY OF DAVOS
While technology may not be at the top of the agenda at Davos, it certainly plays a big part of the event itself. Brian Behlendorf, the CTO of the World Economic Forum, is a good guy and a geek with serious engineering chops. He was the lead developer of the Apache Web Server and has been on the Board of the Mozilla Foundation since 2003. His pony tail and history as one of the early participants in Burning Man don’t match the tightly coiffed look of many of his Swiss colleagues. But you can see his influence throughout the event.
The conference badges are embedded with RFID chips. Entering any of the secure buildings that house Davos events involves scanning your badge. When you do, your picture appears on a large screen which is then checked by very serious looking Swiss guards.
The event venues all are lined with kiosks that, when you scan your badge, instantly bring up your agenda with all the events and meetings you have scheduled. Davos also has their own app which runs on all the major mobile platforms and allows you to check your schedule, find what events are going on, request a meeting with anyone at the event, and even schedule a room. It’s slick.
I arrived with a clear schedule that has quickly filled up with a series of short, spontaneous, preposterously named “bilateral meetings.” The whole thing makes me feel as if I’m a North Korean diplomat negotiating my country’s nuclear policy.
I will say that the WEF has been particularly great about encouraging the use of the technologies they have recognized as innovative and being an early adopter themselves. Documents are published via Scribd, everyone is encouraged to exchange files using Dropbox, and, to my delight, the WEF’s website uses CloudFlare — all startups recently recognized as Technology Pioneers.
Beyond the “bilateral meetings,” the Davos agenda is full of talks and panels. Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Germany, gave yesterday’s keynote on the future of Europe. The speech, which was impressively translated in realtime at breakneck speed into at least six languages, outlined her view on the future of the Europe. Watching it I became acutely aware I was watching the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times being written.
Later in the evening, still in the same ratty sweater, I bounced between multiple events talking with people ranging from government officials to investment bankers to venture capitalists. If growth in Europe is going to slow, does that mean pension funds and foundations will cut back on their riskier investments? Or does the low interest rate environment mean they’ll be looking more to high-risk asset classes to find a return? Over fancy Bordeaux Grande Crus and, later, mango margaritas, these questions were discussed by people whose answers will eventually turn into policy.
As a entrepreneur it’s easy to forget the complicated pipeline that helps fund our ventures. VCs don’t print money, they need to raise it from somewhere themselves. If the pension funds and foundations of the world cut back on the money they devote to high-risk investments like venture, that will inevitably ripple down into less investments in startups run by those of us in the jeans and hoodie class.
The guys in shiny shoes are well aware that the pipeline can run the other way too. “I remember when Google was here for the first time several years ago and before their IPO. Sergey Brin looked entirely out of place in jeans with messenger bag draped over his shoulder,” a banker in an Italian suit told me over drinks at the the evening’s hot party. “At the time, a lot of us didn’t take him seriously. But no one’s making that mistake again.”
Rolling back to my hotel around 3:00am, I was happy to find my wayward bag had been delivered. While I packed several suits, I think tomorrow I’ll be sporting jeans and a hoodie.