George Polk: Power breakfast with Musharraf

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George Polk, selected by the World Economic Forum as a technology pioneer, will be filing daily reports throughout the week.

Mr Polk is founder and CEO of The Cloud, Europe’s leading WiFi operator, which counts O2, BT, Vodafone D2, Skype, Ericsson and Intel among its clients. A graduate of Winchester College, UK, and Harvard University, Mr Polk also has a wide-ranging interest in International affairs. He is the founder of The Catalyst Group, a London-based organisation which works to educate international business leaders on major issues of public policy.

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JANUARY 27

Today started with breakfast with General Musharraf of Pakistan, after the carefully prepared and packaged presentations from other world leaders, Musharraf’s blunt and fairly unapologetic defence of his role was refreshing.

My perception may be affected by the fact that my 3* hotel, despite the SF350 a night bill for a lousy room, couldn’t muster up any hot water this morning, so I had the pleasure of starting the day with a cold shower before making my way out into the still dark freezing morning.

Or it may be the contrast between Musharraf (my second breakfast of the morning), and my first, an event sponsored by BT on the useful but far more mundane topic of driving innovation in organizations. As BT has done a surprisingly good job of turning an old monopoly into a strong, commercially driven organization (like many, I both compete with and supply BT), it was a good topic for them to sponsor, but it couldn’t compete with Musharraf for raw power.

Musharraf is a tightly coiled spring, with a rawness and immediacy that is compelling whether you like him or not. I had the feeling that at any moment his chest would begin to swell, like the Hulk, until the civilian clothes fell away and he stood tall and proud in his general’s uniform.

His speech is peppered with references to his past as a warrior – “I have killed men,” is not a phrase one imagines being used by either Bill Gates or Tom Friedman who were breakfasting next door.

He clearly enjoys the shock value of his colourful references to his bloody experiences, and he views his current role as a battle where he represents good. He is a man who is clearly in control, for better or for worse, and he cannot help but place himself in the middle of all things.

He uses the word “democracy” to describe a system where people have a say in government as long as he has the last word, arguing that the British version of the concept is not appropriate for Pakistan. As well it might not be, since (reflecting on the terrible record of first the colonial powers - and then the “elected” governments all have) has not yielded pluralism in the past.

Interestingly, the most powerful objection to his rule raised in the questioning sessions was a complaint that he had not used his undemocratic powers to introduce crucial but unpopular revisions of the country’s laws against women.

If the intention of the breakfast was to impress the audience with the power and vitality of the man, it worked. If it was to reassure investors that Pakistan was on a stable and economically dynamic path, I think it failed.

In many ways, his talk couldn’t have been further away from the technology sessions of the day before, which continued after I last wrote with a talk on the socially disruptive power of technology-enabled community applications ranging from Linux to Wikipedia.

We touched on a wide range of subjects, and we focused on what the effects will be on people and society of the shift from personal to virtual contact. The fascinating fact of the session is that it has now been discovered that when two people touch, the heartbeat of one affects the brainwaves of the other. How do you do that in cyberspace?

I’m not sure that assembled people would know, since the most popular session of all remains the one from Thursday on how to understand and sustain romantic relationships. So popular that it is being rerun on Saturday…


JANUARY 26

The enemy is exhaustion. That was the lesson of day 2. Thinking you can handle more than a day of back to back sessions and informal meetings from 7 am to 3 am is an illusion. It is a natural mistake for a first timer like me, because the day is filled with potentially exciting events and you don’t want to miss any. But if you are too tired to enjoy the ones you do, then there is little reason to be here. From now on I pace myself…

If there was an overwhelming message of the day, it was that we are in trouble. The economy is over-extended, the environment is neglected, the workforces in Europe are tired while the energetic development of China and India will create its own problems. We had a long session on how to deal with these depressing trends, and probably the most depressing thing was that no clear paths seem obvious to anyone in the room. Into this environment came Angela Merkel and Zeng Paiyan, the Vice Premier of China.

Interestingly, the things that catch the headlines are probably the least special about Davos. You don’t need to be here to know what Merkel and Zeng said. You do have to be here to see how they said it. Merkel’s message is simple – everything that seems wrong is indeed wrong, but we can overcome the problems with determination and imagination. She doesn’t deliver this message as a soothing American or British politician world – she says that she doesn’t yet know the answer, and even if she does she runs a coalition and may not be able to implement it, but what she does know is that with determination and hard work, Germany and Europe can revitalize itself. And her stance at the podium and later in the “chat” with global industrialists was a pose of quiet, uncharismatic but none the less inspiring determination. You feel that you might not like to follow her in a wild ski run down a mountain, but that if you were trying to find your way through a maze, she would be a good guide to have.

For anyone who has sat through official Chinese speeches before, Zeng’s body language was even more telling. He was easy on the stage, confident, with an open pose inviting intimacy and open to new ideas. His message was that China as a force is ready to assume its place in the world – ready not simply because it has bought that place through its financial success, but ready to continue to earn that place. He focused a significant amount of his speech on the resources that China is now devoting to mitigating the effect China’s development will have on the environment, and although one knows that much of this is marketing, it is important to know that the Chinese leaders at least know enough about what we see as problems to try to counter our fears in a speech. I was left, at least, with the feeling that both these world leaders were thinking about the problems that we face, possibly better and with more focus than many of those in the room who felt charged with shaping our future agenda.

I then spent the evening as a moderator in a session about how to work hard but retain your quality of life, attended by CEOs who have an addiction to their portable IT devices. Impressive and thoughtful people all, it was a bit sad that the session ended up being primarily about how to use the devices best rather than how to escape from their tyranny.

So day 2 ended on a down note. I’m sure that I would have felt differently had I been able to attend the sessions on the transformation effect of art on society or the session on how china is now spending lots of money to become green.

But then this morning, I joined an innovation session held for the technology pioneers. Just as Tuesday night was a humbling or at least levelling experience on the global problems, this morning was a fascinating reminder of how many clever people there are in the world building businesses that attack the details or building blocks of the global social, economic and scientific problems that we face. I like my company and in our own way we are trying to change the world, but many of these companies are creating transformational products. The big action was in biotechnology, which isn’t new, but the exciting change was how soon these things are coming to market and how quickly they can affect our lives. You left the session feeling that five years from now we won’t recognize medicine. Yesterday we were pessimistic about malaria and AIDS, but this morning we heard of emerging treatments at reasonable prices, and we felt good.

The other big area of excitement was in environmental technology. Zeng said that China would get 15% of its energy from renewables, but the technologies these companies are commercializing and others we heard about make that seem a small goal. And the shift can happen quickly – we learned that Brazil has gone from 3% to 70% in the percentage of cars that can run on mixed use fuels in the last five years as a result of focused policy and innovation. The same could happen for other segments of the energy puzzle.

And so I will close with the observation that one of the participants made about our chances of solving a particular medical problem. “Every year there is a 5% chance that someone will solve the problem.” I thought that was an excellent summary for the more complex idea that many people are working very hard to solve each of these issues, and in the end, many will be solved by a breakthrough, sometimes hard and tangible and sometimes more subtle (such as Merkel’s determination to change the attitude her country takes towards its problems). While that breakthrough may be hard to predict, a 5% chance every year suggests some degree of inevitability. And it says to everyone in the room that its worth trying. I suppose its not surprising that the phrase came from an entrepreneur.


JANUARY 25

The voyage began with a stereotype. At Heathrow, the elegant grey haired man next to me flashed his BA Black card to the ticket agent (you have to be a real corporate titan to get a black card) and then, overhearing that I was going to Zurich, turned to me, “Are you going to Davos?” We chatted. He runs a billion dollar company. He had been going for many years, but this year had decided not to. “It’s not like it was ten years ago - now there are just too many people.” Instead he was off to a board meeting in the US. And yet his voice had an undertone of regret, and I was left with the distinct impression that if he wasn’t otherwise committed, he would not have been able to resist the temptation to join me.

You don’t have to be in Davos long to understand why it holds its allure. Somehow, everyone wants to come. And so those who do are pretty unusual. Of course, there is a program, some provocative sessions, and a real opportunity to learn from some of the leading lights of our time. And that will no doubt be exciting and interesting. But the real excitement is in meeting the others who come to meet all the others who come.

I arrived last night, and nothing official has happened yet. But I am richer for the evening. So far, Davos is a world of casual encounters with people who are indeed shaping the world. This is a world of primary knowledge - someone in the room really knows more than you do about almost everything that lies outside your direct expertise. Personal questions, mundane questions, are not the order of the day. Instead one dives right into the deep end, with the small talk being about the evolution of societies, worrying trends, exciting developments, but all deeply informed. You are not discussing the rise of China with a friend who went once or a journalist who knows a bit about it, but with a Chinese person who is in the vanguard of the new elite and knows that China has already risen. And the mobility of the group is amazing - everyone was everywhere just last week, from Seoul to Sao Paulo to the explosive rural provinces of Nigeria. And everyone has a point of view that teaches you something.

I’m a technology entrepreneur, but I went to Harvard, trained as a historian and specialised in central Asia, am deeply interested in social and environmental issues and come from a political family where the dinner conversation is about making a difference. I like my business and I find it intellectually fascinating - we broaden the internet revolution every day - but I hunger for the days when I used to spend most of my time with people whose range of interests was even broader than my own. And so Davos is heaven-sent. And a place that keeps you on your toes. Used to offering up my “learned” opinion on a wide range of subjects, the intellectual debate is exciting and even intimidating - you learn quickly to listen more than you talk, since you already know what you think and the real exciting is in hearing how others, often with a totally different range of experience, see things differently.

The real peril of Davos also became evident last night and it is that there is always one more interesting person to talk to, one more debate to have. Everyone here feels that this is a precious time and they want to take full advantage of it, so it wasn’t until 3 am that I found myself heading home, and then one was back up at 7 am to prepare for the morning’s sessions.

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