Saturday, April 20, 2024

Davos Retrospective: Still a Good Time to Be Alive

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I’ve now had some time to reflect on my first World Economic Forum, and I am already looking forward to returning to Davos next year. I wonder if that makes me a “Davos Man?” Regardless, I can say that my overarching emotion about the conference has been one of frustration. Not with the event’s likelihood to “improve the state of the world;” actually, not that at all. My frustration stems from how many great sessions were running concurrently. How am I expected to choose between “Faith in Religion” moderated by Tony Blair and “Cloud Computing” with Marc Benioff? Or “Managing Complex Systems” and “The Politics and Economics of Water”? And what does one do when they need to decide between spending time speaking to the BBC or attending “A conversation with [my hero] Bill Clinton.”

I went with the BBC in the end (and fortunately was able to catch-up on the Clinton speech on YouTube later.) After all, I am keen to do my bit and try to promote and accelerate a positive outcome to the current crisis. (See “Davos: Let’s hear it for the optimists”) This brings me to one of my major observations from Davos: It was an incredible catalyst for me (and countless others) to experiment with Twitter, blogging and other forms of social computing. It enabled me to share how I felt about a number of intriguing sessions in real-time, and how they relate to some of the IT management issues I see our customers facing.

It was also interesting to note how the onslaught of social media triggered a number of questions around privacy; risks to the Internet, risks to social computing, risks to Davos itself.

Apparently, it has always required a judgment call to appropriately interpret the ‘on the record/off the record’ rules at Davos. This is more the case than ever with Tweeters, bloggers and brandishers of Flip or Kodak HD video devices lurking in every session, coffee stop or shuttle bus. I must admit I’m not sure if I was part of the problem or the solution myself, but I will say I heard a great deal of positive feedback about the “openness” of Davos this year.

Non-attendees who wanted to follow the action could easily do so, which I think led to great dialogue between attendees and non-attendees alike. This was just one of the many positive themes that ensured I left Davos with my optimism intact.

Values-Based Leadership

As expected, there was a great deal of drama in the Gaza session, and the typical avoidance of blame and/or critical questioning from various politicians was a thread throughout many sessions.

For me, one of the most important topics was around leadership and tools that will help us shape the post crisis world. Specifically, how can we demonstrate the values of leadership and perseverance that will help us emerge on the other side of the financial, poverty and (eventually) environmental crises stronger and more principled than before? The resounding answer was that the Internet, social computing, technology innovation and boldness will have a key part to play as we work toward a model of transparency, collaboration and trust. (See “Building a Values-Driven Organization: A Whole-System Approach to Cultural Transformation,” by Richard Barrett).

Happily, there was a notable confluence of activities from Social Entrepreneurs and World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers and Young Global Leaders. Perhaps these innovators had already realized it is both good for your venture and good for the world you live in to incorporate social components into your technology startup, and leverage innovative technology for your social projects.

I was lucky enough to run into Cameron Sinclair, WEF 2008 Young Global Leader of Architecture for Humanity fame. Cameron has focused on getting more efficient, human designs for homes into the lives of the developing world -and doing it with a couple of laptops and a website, plus sourcing the designs from a crowd of architects and designers across the Internet! The lesson here: When we look at the core units of society and the amazing work that’s being done around the world, notice how all of these are now being empowered by social computing and the Internet.

Our Future in the Cloud

According to an article in Virtualization Journal, an HP executive reported from Davos that “HP Thinks Cloud Computing Means Selling Ink on the Web.” Much of the technology industry has a slightly different handle on the subject of cloud. They understand that the movement towards cloud computing is an opportunity for greater efficiency and has the potential to unlock the stranglehold on computing power that is still held by government and large corporates. Call it the democratization of server-side computing or whatever you like; it was a hot topic at Davos.

Like all movements towards freedom and openness, it is going to come with its own management and control challenges. This article in IT Week on Compliance in the Cloud highlights some of the issues that we’ve seen in the field with our customers and prospects, and Search For The Data Center
is a good webinar that touches on the challenges we’ve seen when customers try to migrate IT infrastructure and applications into the cloud.

Moving to the cloud can present a number of IT management challenges, and we need to be prepared to meet them before we jump in. At the end of the day, we would be foolish not to heed the advice of Bruce Golden: “Hope is not a business model.”

The Government, the Financial System and the Green Impact

In the US, investment in green technologies is being promoted by the new administration as a key part of the response to the financial crisis. In the United Kingdom, renewable energy hopes to create at least 160,000 new jobs. Yet as countries around the world look to stimulate economic growth and employment, what green initiatives and technologies should be prioritized?

One way to think about it is in terms of the current financial crisis and proposed solutions. During his session, Mr. Clinton noted that bank lending is more of a concern than stimulus spending at the moment. It might be difficult to compare $880 billion in stimulus versus theoretical lending capacity of $6 trillion, but designing a way to get banks lending again is key to recovery – for a number of reasons. Clinton was very much in favor of the idea of a “bad bank.” This institution would exist “for the orderly re-pricing and selling of the assets that are causing the seizure of the credit markets.”

As he and Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, noted, perhaps “Intensive Care Unit / Rescue Bank” would be a better name for it. Regardless, it’s important to remember that it’s not just the standard business issues that are being affected by the dearth of bank lending. Without bank lending, there will be bigger problems confronting us – all of us.

As Clinton discussed, a recent report from an international panel (see National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) pointed out that even if we cut greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050, it will take 1000 years for the world to cool back to its historical average. Suppressing global economic growth and technical innovation is not the answer to reversing this trend. From the poorest to the richest companies and countries, we need to establish economically beneficial ways to dramatically change the energy use and patterns of the world. If we can get bank-lending going again, there will be more jobs per dollar in energy efficiency related projects than any others by far – and more technology innovations to support them.

We can’t ignore energy efficiency issues and environmental impact related to IT. A recent McKinsey report indicates that, left unchecked, the carbon footprint of the world’s data centers will exceed that of the aviation industry – and indeed that of the entire country of Brazil – by 2020. The way to address these issues is not to stop IT in its tracks; rather, it is to acknowledge the power for good IT can represent, better understand the purpose and applications it has in both society and business, and invest in innovation. Only then can we optimize the hardware, software, power and people in our growing, merging and incredibly complex data centers to deliver these applications.

Despite the sobering sessions and sometimes air of gloom and doom, I still most certainly left my first World Economic Forum as an optimist. The US has a new president, a great support in the Clintons, and the force of change behind him, which gives me hope that we optimists will be able to meet the global and burgeoning economic, environmental and social challenges that face us. I am inclined to take heed of Mr. Clinton’s final words: “Don’t bet against yourself, don’t bet against your country, don’t bet against humanity’s future. It’s still a good time to be alive.”

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