Next week, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting begins. The unique event brings together an eclectic mix of the world’s most influential people—from politicians and heads of state to private sector executives and philanthropists. They attend to discuss the biggest issues of our time and push forward with the WEF’s mission of improving the state of humanity.
It’s an event of magnitude and great importance. So why does it take place in Davos-Klosters— a small town nestled in the Swiss Alps—in the middle of winter?
It’s a question many have asked, and the answer lies in the establishment of the event. Let’s take a quick look at how Davos ended up in Davos.
There’s magic in the mountains
The origins of Davos—as the WEF Annual Meeting is informally known—trace back to 1971 when Professor Klaus Schwab founded the European Management Forum. Schwab established the group, headquartered in the Swiss town of Chur, to focus on how European firms could catch up with US management practices and become more competitive.
The European Management Forum held its first event that same year. Some 450 participants from 31 countries attended the two-week meeting. And rather than holding the meeting in Chur, Schwab set up shop 40km away in Davos.
At first, you might think Schwab picked Davos because of its exceptional scenery and skiing—he was trying to attract Europe’s top business executives to his event. And while this may have played a part in his decision-making, there’s a deeper meaning behind the choice of location.
According to the WEF’s official history, Thomas Mann’s novel, “The Magic Mountain,” inspired Schwab. In the novel, Davos is a place of recreation and relaxation. People go there to take in the clean mountain air, restore their health, and recharge their minds. It’s also a place populated by people of diverse nationalities and beliefs that live together in harmony—something the WEF is keen to promote.
Schwab believed Davos could inspire similar magic at his meeting—unlike those held in the hustle and bustle of the world’s major cities where distractions are never far away. He hoped hosting the event in Davos would inspire people to feel relaxed and speak freely. He also believed the isolation would build camaraderie founded on purpose and mutual respect—something that would later become known as the ‘Davos Spirit.’ All this would also make it easier to find compromises and solutions that would have been unimaginable elsewhere.
Triumph of an idea
While the ‘Davos Spirit’ endures, the event is no longer a humdrum management conference. Instability in the 1970s kick-started its evolution. Major events such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate mechanism and the Arab-Israeli War refocused the minds of business leaders. They wanted to talk about the economic and social issues impacting their business over management practices and Schwab obliged, widening the scope of the conference.
The event quickly gained acceptance at the highest levels of business and government. And by the mid-1970s, world leaders, CEOs of the world’s largest companies and technology visionaries were making the annual pilgrimage to Davos to talk through the world’s biggest issues.
As the meeting evolved, so did its mission. Schwab opted for a rebrand, and in 1987 the European Management Forum became the World Economic Forum that we know today.
Making a difference
The rest is history. Davos has become the place where leaders meet and the site of many notable agreements. These include conversations that led to the creation of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) and the BRICS Development Bank. It’s also where Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W De Klerk first met to discuss the ending of apartheid.
While these notable meetings capture the headlines, Davos is also the site of hundreds of business deals and thousands of moments of inspiration. And while some are critical about the event, arguing that it provides a chance for the 1% to further their agenda, the fact is what happens in Davos impacts us all. It’s a place where connections are made, networks are built, and the foundations for the future are laid. And where better for this to happen than at the top of the ‘Magic Mountain.’
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