How to name a conference like Davos

En route to Davos today


I used to think that the toughest, most exacting job in the field of English language was to be a headline-writer at The Sun – after all, anyone who’s worked in journalism knows that snappy, witty, memorable headlines are a real artform. But recently I’ve changed my mind: the toughest job in the field of language is to be the man or woman who comes up with the official conference slogan for Davos.

How, after all, does one manage to encapsulate the World Economic Forum in a few choice words? Words that are pregnant with meaning and yet, when you really examine them, mean absolutely nothing at all. Words that inspire and yet confound. That involve more abstract nouns crammed into one sentence than ought to be possible in English.

And yet the people behind the WEF manage to do it year-in-year-out. And this year, I think it’s fair to say, they’ve outdone themselves.

“Resilient Dynamism” is 2013’s buzzphrase.

Stop; don’t try to scrutinise what it means. Just roll it around your mouth for a moment, mutter it like a mantra. Imagine it spilling out of the mouth of a mid-Atlantic chief executive or management guru. It’s brilliant. Poetic, even.

Consider the language. Consider the absence of a verb. The WEF did, it should be acknowledged, experiment with verbs a bit in the wake of the crisis (who could forget 2010’s “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”?). However, the problem with action words was that they gave the impression that someone was about to do something to sort things out, which, in retrospect, was over-egging it a little. So, sensibly, no verbs this year.

Consider the meaning. No: “meaning” is too crude a term. Consider the feeling: hopeful and yet tentative. Encouraging and yet cautionary. Neither hubristic nor doom-laden.

It has been said that the perfect Davos title needs to encapsulate the mood of the meeting, needs to provide a banner under which the great and the good of the world can work together, can strive and network and power breakfast their way to a solution for the world’s economic woes. This is, of course, utter rot. Not because the meeting isn’t about all of that, but because, looking back, the titles rarely actually sum up the mood.

Take for instance, two WEF titles from recent years: “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models” and “The Changing Power Equation”. They seem almost interchangeable. And yet the latter of them was the official title of the 2007 conference, before the crisis erupted, when the air in Davos was moist with optimism. The former came from last year’s conference, at which point it really was conceivable that the euro could collapse within a matter of months.

The key to a brilliant WEF buzzphrase is to avoid crassly referring to anything specific at all. After all, the more specific you are, the more likely you’ll be to be proven wrong. Consider 2009’s “Shaping the Post-Crisis World”, which happened just before the financial crisis and great recession gave way to yet another crisis.

The more specific you are, the more misleading you’ll be. After all – and this is a serious point – there is no easy encapsulation for an event like the World Economic Forum.

It is an event where nothing happens (it’s not a summit with an outcome), and yet much happens, except usually this means private agreements, made out of plain sight, which only latterly become public. It is excessive, with thousands of francs, euros and dollars spent entertaining, and yet the parties are far less lavish this time around.*

And for every session where panellists exchange meaningless platitudes there is a session about, for instance, neuroscience, music or econometrics, which will change the way you look at the world forever. The problem is there’s never enough time to do everything, which is why everyone’s account of Davos is always so different. It’s easy to scoff but difficult to ignore.

So when it comes to the conference title, the vaguer the better.

I like to think that we’ll know when we’ve reached Utopia – the uttermost point of human evolution – because by then we’ll have the perfect WEF title. Concise and yet considerate, significant and yet banal, confusing and yet clear-sighted. A single word, perhaps. Something like: “Yes”, or maybe “No”. Or possibly just silence.

Until that moment, the good men and women of WEF will continue to spend most of their year striving towards the ideal phatic utterance, the end point for the English language.

* The famous Google party on Friday night won’t be happening this time around, nor will the Accel party, with its famously-extravagant wine list. However, I hear that Sean Parker, the Napster founder and Facebook investor, will be throwing an extremely-exclusive bash in town that night. They’re sending out invites to 400 VVIPs; apparently they’ve made special badges to give to the heads of state.

Note: In the initial version of this post I wrongly called this year’s Davos official theme “Dynamic Resilience”. I was wrong: it’s “Resilient Dynamism”. I think, on balance, this may well reinforce my argument.


Davos titles of yore

2006 – The Creative Imperative

2007 – The Changing Power Equation

2008 – The Power of Collaborative Innovation’

2009 – Shaping the Post-Crisis World

2010 – Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild

2011 – Shared Norms for the New Reality

2012 – The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models

2013 – Resilient Dynamism