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Saturday January 27
I found myself on Friday looking at the official Davos handbook with the “shifting power equation” boldly written across its top. And I thought of all the debate that must have gone into those three simple words – committee meetings, memos, perhaps even the input of a strategic communications consultant or two. And of course there has been a lot of discussion in the congress centre about new forms of communication, changing patterns of media consumption and the explosion in user generated content. But in reality there’s been only one issue here on the agenda in Davos – global warming. It just goes to show that at the end of the day you cannot control the human mind.
I’ve been paying particular attention to this debate because my daughter and wife both accuse me of being woefully ignorant on the subject. It’s clear from my three days in Davos that public pressure – coupled with hard science – has forced the world’s political leaders to start taking this issue seriously. The more progressive are now actively looking at how to shift taxes from the “good” (job creation, investment and savings) to the “bad” (pollution). Enlightened businesses are responding too – looking at how to reduce their power consumption and switch to renewable sources of energy. But I was surprised to find that there are still quite a few climate change deniers in the corporate community. Late last night I overheard one business mogul proclaiming loudly to another that global warming was all a load of nonsense put about by the green lobby.
On a more parochial note, Google held a “meet the founders press briefing” on Friday afternoon with Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Interestingly enough the journalists asked almost as many questions about the future of the newspaper industry as they did about our business or the Internet. Faced with the double whammy of declining sales (circulation is on the slide across Western Europe) and pressure on ad revenues they seemed to be looking to our founders for a solution to their plight. The advice they got was pretty simple – you guys have got great content it’s just a question of figuring out how to distribute and generate cash from it effectively online. And the key to that is partnership.
In fact Friday turned out to be a pretty busy day for Google, what with our press briefing and party in the evening. Parties always make me nervous – are people going to turn up? In the end we faced a rather different kind of problem – too much demand. The place was absolutely heaving – everyone wanting to let their hair down after a long day in the Congress Centre. But that’s the beauty of Davos – people think hard and party hard. And at altitude that’s a pretty potent combination.
Friday, January 26
I must be the only person in Davos who has been to two different conferences in two different Alpine resorts this week. On Tuesday I left London for Google’s internal European get together in Courmayeur, Italy. The World Economic Forum in Davos may have perfected the art of holding conferences on mountains, but for Google this was a first. The convention centre was the local ice rink – the only venue in town capable of accommodating our growing number of European employees (2,000 at the last count). Our guest speaker - Joe Simpson of Touching the Void – even seemed to fit into the mountain theme. However while Google may have figured out how to deliver search results to millions of people globally within a fraction of a second we haven’t yet cracked heating a sports centre in the middle of winter. Everyone was forced to sit with their hats, gloves, scarves and ski coats in a bid to keep warm – at least no one fell asleep during the presentations.
So it was with some enthusiasm that I left Courmayeur early on Thursday for the relative luxury of Davos and its purpose built Congress Centre. I’m always struck when I arrive here by the fleets of German cars crawling round town at roughly the same pace as handsome cabs in central London a hundred years ago. That’s progress for you I guess.
The value of Davos lies not just in the debates that are held in the Congress Centre but the discussions that take place in hallways between meetings. The place looks busier than last year, but the official sessions are definitely less subscribed. Perhaps more people have figured out that the unplanned, rather than the planned, are what make this place so exciting.
Thankfully this year’s conference theme - the “shifting power equation” - is something I know a bit about. At Google we’ve witnessed first hand how the internet has democratized access to human knowledge, transferring power from established institutions to people. Today you don’t have to take what politicians, the media or indeed big business say at face value. By typing just a few words into a computer you can and go search for the truth yourself. As I pass politicians like Shimon Perez, Ehud Olmert and Ken Livingstone in the corridors here I cannot help thinking how much more accountable technology has made today’s leaders. Their predecessors might have got away with calling someone macaca as George Allen did during last year’s mid term elections. But thanks to the internet people get to know about slurs like that today and so get the chance to voice their disapproval at the ballot box. There’s a word for it: transparency.
Globalisation is the other big theme running through the Davos agenda. The internet is the ultimate globalising force and companies that operate on the web frequently face one of the challenges being debated here on Thursday at the World Economic Forum: what are the rules for a global neighbourhood in a multicultural world? This tension is very real and was brought home to me early in the year when Saddam Hussein was executed. Many people were horrified by the uploading of illicit footage onto the web which clearly showed that Saddam had been taunted and abused seconds before his death. Others argued that if it had not been for the internet, no one would have known exactly what happened that morning in Baghdad.
As the web grows – with more people and more content coming online - these debates are only going to intensify, just as they have here in Davos. So watch this space.