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Live from Davos: the global shapers, the digital context, and technologists dominate the agenda

January 24th, 2014 |  Published in World Economic Forum 2014


WEF logo for post

By: Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq.

24 January 2014 The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The talking-shop of the world for global-leader types. Normally a chic but sleepy resort it becomes the world’s hub of business, politics, and intellectual idea-swapping.

I was here as the guest of a long-standing IP client. Call it my own version of an “alternate fee arrangement”. I do a fair amount of pro bono work for them, often hire their family or friends as summer interns, pump for their charities, etc. Every few years I secure a Davos ticket although I stay for only 2 days.  In 2011 I hit the jackpot because the theme at Davos was “Data: the new asset class”.

The obvious wealth and power is in your face almost everywhere. Wealth. Or euphemisms for it. My favorite phrase this year? “Is he wealthy? Well, suffice it to say he has a non-trivial sum”.

Whether you think the World Economic Forum is a worthy enterprise or a bunch of baloney, it’s an extraordinary creation. As one person noted “It is fluid, it is defined. Forty-four years ago Klaus Schwab pretty much willed it into being”. But I’ll spare you the history. Nick Paumgarten of New Yorker magazine calls Davos “an onion, a layer cake, a Russian doll”. You never feel that you’re out of the loop, because the loop is you. Meaning Davos is whatever experience you are having there. And you get easily sidetracked walking across the lounge areas by conversations that all seem interesting but that you are not part of, between/among people that would be in a name-dropper’s paradise: central bankers, industrial chiefs, hedge-fund titans, astrophysicists, tech wizards, etc.

The advance teams for corporations, media pundits, etc. have trawled the area, staking claims on rented buildings and transforming them into mini-business lounges emblazoned with logos and window clings.  My favorite? Thomson Reuters takes over the Davos Library:

WEF 2014 Thomson Reuters takes over the Davos Library

They removed all the books (locals tell me they had “an assembly-line” of Swiss labor and off-duty ski instructors) and filled it chock a block with a TV studio, journalists, a planning team and meeting rooms.  (And a personal thanks to Robi at Thomson Reuters for making those introductions.  I owe you a dinner next time I am in London).

New this year is the preponderance of “pop-up” reception spaces mushrooming across the main street, the Promenade, in every possible prime real estate location.  One thing you will not want from this week is food and drink, of all kinds, as Bloomberg will attest.

WEF Bloomberg

This mammoth event is nothing short of a logistical nightmare. No one has counted the number of cables needed, or the number of satellite dishes and Internet connections to be established. Checkpoints have been set up a long way from the Congress Center. Only accredited people stand a chance of getting anywhere near the conference venue.

And security is all over, and very visible.

WEF 2014 security 1

WEF 2014 security helicopter

WEF more security

WEF 2014 security 2

Last year the annual meeting became known as the first “Digital Davos” because an unprecedented number of sessions were streamed live over the Internet across four channels, offering continuous live broadcasts of the meeting’s main events – from plenaries and special messages in the Congress Hall, to televised debates. Plus “Insight”, a kind of ideas sessions where one presenter (usually a political leader) presents one idea and others riff off.

That format continued this year with scores of interviews with the event’s headliners, “Strategic Partners” (read: the folks that pay the Big Bucks to attend, sponsor  and show-off), and all those “global shapers” and “social entrepreneurs” we read about in the Financial Times and elsewhere. (No “thought leaders” around here. We’re talking “shapers”. The Big Dogs). All of these open session videos being streamed are then available on demand on the World Economic Forum website. So you can be attending a private session/event that is not being streamed (there are over 70 such sessions; I was able to snag a few which I will report on below) and follow the ones being streamed, via your iPad.

Side note: internet connections are lightning fast. And based on an entirely random, unscientific poll of people plus some observation it’s predominantly an Apple mobile technology product crowd. And Fitbits are everywhere (more details later in this post). In fact, you can get a wearable health tracker by signing-up at the event health kiosk (the tracker is provided by Jawbone) that will track your activity and sleep while at the event. But the coolest thing I saw was the Marceau t-shirt which measures your heart rate, breathing and electrocardiogram readings as well as count the number of steps you’ve walked and calories you’ve burnt (a kind of a cross between a Fitbit and the Scanadu Scout) and sends the data to your iPhone. The t-shirt is embedded with a silver thread to conduct information from your body to a small, removable unit that contains a battery, a chipset and a bluetooth chip.

There is a huge screen in the middle of the main hall that keeps kept participants up to date:

WEF 2014 huge screen in the middle of the Congress Hall

It has the entire program, plus information on sessions, photographs, participants’ quotes and social media commentary from around the world.

Oh, and the screen’s Twitter leader board is a biggie. Participants follow the number of Tweets published and the number of Retweets in which they are named:

WEF Twitter board

Now, to some of the events:

My focus this trip was on two areas, albeit one that is all encompassing (digital context), and the second neuroscience.

Over the past 10 years we have seen the greatest expansion of information since the dawn of civilization. We’ve all heard the now ringing phrase of Eric Schmidt “human beings create every two days as much information as we did since the birth of humanity”. The reports, comments, analysis, and general reactions are myriad. Today two-thirds of human beings are connected to the Internet and there are more mobile phones than people on the planet. At the same time, computing power doubles every 18 months and in the next decade we will most likely see a machine with the processing power of a human brain, or pretty close to it.

We have never experienced so many dramatic changes that are disrupting social relationships, transport, education, economics, commerce, privacy and knowledge at the same time. However, politics have stayed basically the same for the past 100 years. And company management, some wags would say. “We are 21st-century citizens, trying to communicate with 20th-century institutions that are underpinned by 19th-century processes and ideas”.

So I was very pleased when the kick-off session (live streamed and thousands tuned in) was The New Digital Context which was a very lively, engaging discussion about the societal, economic and technological forces reshaping the digital landscape. Infrastructure expansion, the mass customization of goods and services, sensory technologies and the “Internet of things”. The moderator asked tough questions: how is the technology really changing our lives? How are your companies adapting to these new disruptive innovations? Will social media and big data really make our lives better?

The debate participants were an all-star cast. The moderator was George Colony, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Forrester Research and the panelists were:

*John Chambers, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Cisco

*Marc Benioff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,

*Randall Stephenson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, AT&T

*Marissa Mayer, Chief Executive Officer, Yahoo

*Gavin Patterson, Chief Executive Officer, BT Group

I have embedded the full video presentation below but here are a few of my Tweets and expanded Google+ posts to give you a flavor of the chat. I had to ignore the admonition of Jaron Lanier who says you should never Tweet these kinds of events. He says we need to listen/live the moment/suck it all in, and then give yourself the time and space to think and feel and reflect on what you’ve heard. But alas, part of my “deal” was to Tweet this particular session:

Colony: “Disruption is everyone’s favorite word, usually coupled with the word digital.”

Colony: “Technology moves 5x faster than management adapts”

Benioff: “Technology is personalizing things like we have not had before. Especially health”. NOTE: funniest bit. Benioff showed off his Fitbit and then relayed this story: “I got a call from Michael Dell. He asked if I’m feeling okay. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘I’m worried about you,’ he said, ‘because I’m your friend on the Fitbit network and noticed you hadn’t worked out in the last 3 days and wanted to make sure you’re okay.’

Jacobs: “Wearable technology: Digital innovation/disruption. That is where we are seeing the future/the real innovation”

Jacobs: “Guys like Steve Jobs saw what was there, saw how to be different. We actually invented the mobile phone first but we did not have the vision”

Levy: “I only met Steve Jobs once. He had obsession and focus. Few, few of us have that today. Innovation is so hard without that”

Levy: “Legacy companies have so much trouble with innovation. They have this baggage, thousands of employees they are responsible to”

Levy: “Our young ‘kids’ challenge our ‘oldsters’ and that must be the way. That is how we grow”. NOTE: my niece works for Razorfish, a full-service digital marketing/ad agency, owned by Publicis Group. She tells me it’s true. They have 20 somethings as directors because they “get it”, and many of the ‘olderster’ work alongside them. It is the same at all the Publicis companies. If a “kid” can prove his mettle, he moves up.

Levy: “40% of our business last quarter was digital”. NOTE: if you know the history of Publicis Group that is an enormous transition.

Colony: “Acquisitions for technology/innovation only work if your company has organic development/adaption in its DNA”

Levy: “In fact, the use of smartphones in developing market is better than our use. Lacking real infrasructure, they are using smartphones much smarter than the developed market”

Levy: “We are discounting the adaption of tech by society. It is much bigger than reported. Have a much bigger confidence in people”

Colony: “Has digital lost the human in all this tracking, loss of privacy?”

Levy: “Innovation is on everything we do and creativity is in everything we think about.”

Chambers: “After the internet of everything, security will be the fastest growing segment.” NOTE: Cisco has scooped up several security firms, and as I noted on Wednesday the acquisition of AirWatch by VMware was announced. That was a biggie. I will have more in my Mobile World Congress (MWC) “warm up” next month.

Chambers: “Competition will not be between countries. It will be between cities” NOTE: Barcelona is the most connected, most digital “smart city” in the world, much due to the Cisco initiative plus companies like Schneider Electric, and Telefónica. It’s all run by this high-speed connectivity computer cluster. I will have more next month when I interview some folks from Cisco at MWC.

Mayer: “The average person checks their smartphone 150 times per day and I’m at the high end of that. Mobile is setting the trend in our business. Everything, every industry is going/will be going mobile”. NOTE: she mentioned later that 2014 is the tipping point for Yahoo, when its mobile traffic will cross over and exceed traffic from the PC.

For the full presentation click below:




Following that was a sign-up session that was not on video and it was led by Erik Brynjolfsson … which we all know as one of the authors of Race Against The Machine … who spoke about applying empirical techniques to reveal the intangible benefits of technology via business-process improvements, the innovations he sees which are really driving productivity and wealth creation and disrupting economies, etc. Later in the day was a session on hyperconnectivity which examined how hyperconnectivity affecting individual and societal norms and behaviors, understanding its impact on brain and decision-making, etc. plus other sessions on digital context.

Much, much too much to write a full review for this post but just some points from these sessions:

1. The reason disruptive technologies are very important to all leaders be they CEOs or politicos is because for the first time we now have technology affecting every single sector of the economy. Every sector. Retail, financial services, shipping, manufacturing, agriculture. Plus the law and accounting.

2. As the media “shapers” told us, the average consumer has been most affected/has most experience with digitized text, digitized audio, and digital video. In fact, it appears ALL information is being digitized.

3. And our social interactions are being digitized, largely thanks to all the different social networks and social media that we have. The attributes of the physical world are being digitized, thanks to all of these sensors that we have for pressure, temperature, force, stress, strain, you name it. Our whereabouts are being digitized, thanks to GPS systems and smartphones.

4. Encroachment. A word I kept hearing. And, of course … as in everything … there is The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. The good news is that the variety and volume and quality of things that we’ll be able to consume will go up, and the prices will go down. But this encroachment is happening quicker, more broadly, and deeper than before. The phenomenon is that technology is going to race ahead, and it will leave a lot of people behind in the capacity of folks who want to offer their labor to the economy. It will affect generations. The U.S. has lost something like 5.8 million jobs in manufacturing in the last 10 years. According to a McKinsey presentation, only at most 20 percent of them were due to what you might call globalization, so offshoring and outsourcing. Whereas that 80 percent was the effects of technology which has slaked off demand.

5. Says Bill Gates … I simply had to quote him someplace … and Kenneth Rogoff,  over the longer term we can’t rely exclusively on economic growth alone to solve all of our employment problems. Yes, in the short term, economic growth is absolutely the best way to get the hiring engine kicked in again. All those robots, the androids, the artificial intelligence can’t do everyone’s job yet. But …  over the longer term you will have a situation where enterprises can grow and thrive and not need as much labor as before.

6. Education. Ok. Enormous challenge. You simply are not going to have people who have produced cars suddenly become software programmers. So you will need to turn to business models like Airbnb where people can then use assets that they have, like their houses or their flats, as ways to generate income. But the whole income-generation question is complex and beyond the scope of this post.

7. Roll out your data tech geeks! Get somebody who’s a little bit more comfortable working with data, who’s got a team of geeks that are part of their team. Become more data driven in forecasting, in market analysis, in product design, in human-capital management, in law, in accounting, in overall development. Favorite quote: “Physical products and goods continue to be quite physical but are coming wrapped in data.”

Other notes:

The raging riots in the Ukraine this week brought to everybody’s mind social media and political upheavel, the dark side of tech, etc. There were also a lot of presentations/sessions on technology for “smart cities”, better managed cities, green cities, etc. A few addressed the tech available. And there were a lot of sessions on neuroscience. Just a few closing personal notes.

Social media HAS changed the world

Earlier this week I wrote about the “Orwellian” text messages sent to Ukrainian protesters warning them that they were “participants in a mass disturbance” and noting the technology used by the government. For an overview with links click here and click here. There were a number of sessions on social media’s political effect so the Ukrainian story was rocketing around the event.

Nobody has a better feel for all of this than Greg Satell who now contributes to Forbes. He spent 15 years running media businesses in Eastern Europe before joining the Publicis Groupe in Strategy and Innovation roles.

Malcolm Gladwell downplaying the effect of social media? He lost the plot on this one. For a brilliant piece by Greg that put’s this all in perspective … “If You Doubt That Social Media Has Changed The World, Take A Look At Ukraine”click here.

Those damn connected cars

It seems we have been inundated with stories about today’s new cars loaded with sensors and powerful computer processors. That’s the high-tech pathway to turning our vehicles into super-efficient, semi-autonomous or even self-driving “transportation devices” (new word I heard this week. I thought I drove just a car). But as I wrote two years ago, this was all (somewhat) foretold when the Chairman of Ford Motors .. for the first time … skipped the major European auto show so as not to miss a big mobile technology conference because “tech is where the auto industry needs to be”.

But at the MIT Labs folks told me … is there anything these guys are NOT working on??!! … the roads we drive are well, dumb. Come on. Admit it. You experience the pain of this problem every time you senselessly wait for an extra couple minutes at a red light, when there are no other cars in sight from any direction.

So ….. artificial intelligence and game theory to the rescue! Most traffic lights at intersections operate based on pre-programmed repeated cycles that run with little or no input from fluctuations in traffic. Yes, there are sensors in pavements along major arteries, but those inputs into centralized systems might only be able to extend a green light for a few seconds.

So now we can count on an AI powered system that uses video cameras, other vehicle data inputs, processing power, and routers to analyze how many drivers are zipping through the intersection and how many are simmering with road rage for wasting countless minutes at a red light. Cameras are aimed at all four approaches, and the system is distributed throughout a region rather than just on main streets. The intelligence or math to assign the greens is done on the fly at each intersection. They’ll be at MWC. I will have more.

Eventually, all worlds will connect

As most of my readers know I spend a lot of time studying neuroscience, working through a program sponsored by Cambridge. My real day-to-day interests are mobile technology, and artificial intelligence. Sometimes those worlds combine.

Miniaturization of optoelectronic components has driven many advances in computers and communications, especially mobile. However it is in bridging those fields to the mature technologies of life itself that the greatest reward will be gained. That is ocurring with the development of injectable, cellular-scale optoelectronics.

In brief, researchers have been working on some novel ways to probe neural tissue. One pioneering area is dissolvable electronics. Also flexible electronic tattoos to apply sensors and communications directly to the skin.

The real market however, is the brain. Injectable devices can delve beneath that cortical surface, at least without digging through it, and light is the medium of choice. Rather than just looking at inert neurons, optogenetics gives you the ability to control them, and watch their resulting activity. What has been developed is the ability to put arrays of semiconductor photodiodes, temperature probes, heating elements, microelectrodes, and LED lights of not-inconsiderable power, on a device that can fit through the eye of a needle. This is truly the WOW factor because the device is not injected into the bloodstream, and does not home to the brain in science fiction fashion. Rather the probe is mounted to a rigid injector with degradable components that can later release the probe. It remains tethered to the wireless transmitter which is not integral to the probe itself (that will be the next great feat of miniaturization). Having all that sensing and control technology on a single probe tip gives a lot of diagnostic power.

Think of it this way: just as you combine Google with GPS on a cell phone to find that bar or get gas for your “transportation device”, here you can suddenly measure things like PH, blood oxygenation, glucose levels, and other chemical changes associated with cellular activity.

For instance, the technology could be used to systematically pinpoint the exact region of cells responsible for a specific behavior, or to create randomly generated patterns to study their effect.

The end run should be obvious: to understand the specific sequences of brain activity that underlie disease processes or the brain’s response to therapies. These patterns could then be used as a way to test the efficacy of a drug, or to develop better interventions for disease.

So, so, so much more to write about. But, alas, time to pack.


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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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