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Davos 2008: Networking on the slopes

  • Story Highlights
  • World Economic Forum brings business and political leaders to Davos, Switzerland
  • Five-day event will host discussions that hope to shape global agenda
  • Now in its 37th year, some question whether it achieves anything
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By Dean Irvine
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- From January 23 to 27 the sleepy Swiss town of Davos will be overrun with some of the biggest names in business and politics for five days of talking, networking, schmoozing and skiing.

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Both former UK prime minister Tony Blair and musician Bono will be at this year's event.

They're gathering for the annual World Economic Forum, an event that has become a highlight in the business calendar. Set up in 1971 by business management guru and philanthropist, Professor Klaus Schwab, what began as a symposium on management techniques has evolved into an annual event funded by 1,000 of the world's biggest corporations that aims to "make the world a better place."

It's a measure of the importance ascribed to the World Economic Forum among world leaders that it can regularly attract the biggest names in business and economics, plus some of the world's political heavyweights, but in previous years there's also been something of a celebrity factor with Angelina Jolie rubbing shoulders with CEOs in 2006 and Bono attracting the paparazzi in 2007.

It might have added some glitz to the occasion, but led to accusations that it discredited it as a serious event. Perhaps aware of the criticism, there aren't too many celebrities on this year's list of notable attendees, although Bono will be there again.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attend a number of sessions, with his predecessor Tony Blair one of this year's co-chairs along with Henry Kissinger. Other notable confirmed attendees include Al Gore, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, heads of state from Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as representatives from Iran, the WTO and EU.

Professor Schwab describes the event at Davos as "bringing together the key decision makers from all walks of life to address the challenges on the global agenda," and each year the event has a broad theme within which to frame the sessions.

In 2007 it was the "shifting power equation," and this year it is the "power of collaborative innovation" looking at how to develop a common agenda in a time of rapid innovation and change.

While the main themes and the discussion around them will focus on the economic, speakers and thinkers from the world of science, technology and even the arts will also be Davos-bound.

"The focus is economic, but everything today, fortunately, or unfortunately, is related to economics. We want to make sure that life is not forgotten -- and life is values, its culture and its societal engagement," says Schwab.

The intellectual scope is just as large as the size of the event. Among the 235 sessions at this year's forum on business and economics are a number of seminars touching on greater human issues, including ones entitled "The Science of Love" and "Defining Human Greatness: Why Culture Matters."

What does Davos achieve?

While the motto of the World Economic Forum is "making the world a better place," many question whether it actually achieves anything.

Some commentators have criticized the annual event as nothing more than an elitist talking shop for the rich and powerful -- an alternative event focusing in on global society rather than business, the World Social Forum, was set up in opposition in 2001.

From its modest beginnings the WEF has turned into an annual jamboree for business leaders in a chocolate box setting, which many openly admit is as much an opportunity to network on the ski slopes and maybe get ahead in business as it is to share ideas and make efforts to uphold the event's worthy aim.

As a discussion forum rather than a summit, it's hard to quantify whether it does go some way to improving the state of the world, working more in the realm of influence rather than real change.

However the World Economic Forum points to a number of initiatives announced at previous forums as successes, including a program to combat HIV in Africa backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that has seen some real achievements, and a global greenhouse gas register was set up to promote transparency on how companies contribute to climate change.

But as all activities initiated at Davos are voluntary there is a lack of accountability, which make some critics doubt that even the most earnest promises by CEO's will be kept.

The event can seem like a closed shop with heavy security in attendance, but the event is actually open to the public with a number of open sessions -- although with the town's hotels booked months in advance by attendees and the world's media, few people outside of business or politics travel to the small Swiss town.

This year the World Economic Forum has tried to address that by encouraging public participation through The Davos Question and setting up a YouTube booth in the town where those attending can record their comments and thoughts at the event. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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