The World Economic Forum in Davos opens next week and will host a stellar gathering of people who go to Switzerland annually to be depressed, and inspired, by high-octane panels and experts in everything.
The theme is "Resilient Dynamism," something that business and government leaders certainly need as the global churn quickens. In fact, attendance this year reflects the fact that corporations, brands and even nations, do not last forever.
Politicians from France, Greece and elsewhere who attended last year lost re-election and Arab dictators lost power.
Business casualties include superstars like Research in Motion, Cirque du Soleil or Rio Tinto's CEO Tom Albanese who was just bounced this week but is still featured on the website as a speaker next week in Davos.
Traditional forecasters are missing too, discredited like the Mayans. Dr. Doom, Nouriel Roubini, is not on the list of speakers, but there will be plenty of prognostications, and doom, flung around.
The Forum's annual Big Global Risk survey contains a few doozies, based on an annual survey of more than 1,000 experts from industry, government, academia and civil society.
The biggest risk would be a "perfect global storm" or simultaneous economic and environmental shocks in the distant future.
But a new one raised, worthy of a Hollywood script, is the possibility of a digital version of the radio hoax, The War of the Worlds, that created panic in the United States in 1938. The Forum report asked, could there be a "digital sandstorm" that would create planetary panic and are there brakes to prevent that?
Of course, such mini "panics" afflict stock markets in real time 24/7 these days, but the good news is that the same technology that instantly disseminates bogus information is also instantly disseminating accurate info or skepticism. But Forum sessions will still address whether this will always be the case.
The Forum also identified several "X Factors" in coming years, in collaboration with the editors of scientific journal Nature: runaway climate change; the possibility of rogue geo-engineering to manipulate the environment; longevity and its costs and discovery of alien life elsewhere.
Meanwhile, life here on Earth may be threatened too as the report mentions that the use of antibiotics may be outpaced by bacterial mutation in a few years. "Are there ways to stimulate the development of new antibiotics as well as align incentives to prevent their overuse, or are we in danger of returning to a pre-antibiotic era in which a scratch could be potentially fatal?"
Then there is the ultimate existential issue that "globally, there is a need to create 600 million productive jobs over the next decade to ensure sustainable growth and preserve social cohesion. While the youth is protesting in masses and the number of university graduates is higher than ever before, businesses are struggling to find skilled talent to hire. Where is the gap? - Is the unemployment problem a structural or systemic problem? - Are the unemployed or the education system at fault? - Is unemployment high because of economic policy?"
Obviously, unemployment is due to excessive birthrates and technological advances. But over-population is not on this year's agenda and is politically perilous. So is the fact that technology equals unemployment.
Fortunately, this menu of woe is palatable because it's accompanied by plenty of rich Swiss food, wine and desserts served in splendid Alpine surroundings.
What's interesting about Davos is that it has spawned many imitators. Bill Clinton, for years a fixture here, is missing in action, likely saving Haiti, designing his wife's presidential bid and organizing his own "Clinton Global Initiative" in New York as he does every June. There are also thought leaders and big shots who speak at prestigious conferences elsewhere that have sprung up on the Davos model, such as Mike Milken's annual confab or the TED conference.
But the two men who put Davos on the map will again be on hand this year to speak and recruit for their philanthropic causes. George Soros and Bill Gates will be here, cruising the corridors and relatively accessible.
And this is the magic of Davos. Participants find themselves seated beside a tycoon at breakfast, a Nobel Prize winner at lunch and a President, potentate or a future crook at dinner.
Heads of state are featured at plenary sessions or in off-grid meetings and sessions restricted to business leaders held in the town's overheated hotels.
This year's roster is a tad light on heads of state compared to other years. For instance, Germany's Angela Merkel, now CEO of Europe, sent her lieutenant in her place: the blunt and engaging Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. The only notable heads of state are Britain's David Cameron; Italy's Mario Monti; Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine (the man whom the Orange Revolution unseated for a few years) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
China Inc. will be there in force even though Davos does a regional conference in Tianjing. Beijing's acquisitions spree, as Canada well knows, remains unabated and in 2013 will lead to more buyouts in Canada and possibly a return to trying to capture a weakened Rio Tinto after being repelled a few years ago.
The variety of people, and agendas, that will converge is the secret of Davos, which happens to be where the famous "Magic Mountain" made famous by German writer Thomas Mann, is located. His novel was set at a sanatorium in Davos before the Second World War; the well-heeled protagonist comes to two realizations there: How flawed the world and humanity are, and why there are likely to be no cures for these ills.
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