Many of the IT world’s most visible leaders will be in New York for the next several days, participating in the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of several thousand executives, politicians, academics and gadflies.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future” – a topic chosen before the events of Sept. 11. That day’s terrorist attacks prompted a change of venue for the forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, for the past three decades but moved to Manhattan following the attacks. A desire to bring the meeting’s participants to a city at the crux of the issues they’re discussing — and to bolster New York’s sagging tourism trade – prompted the move, according to WEF officials. Next year, it will return to Davos.
The annual meeting traditionally attracts a glittering array of movers and shakers, including heads of state and top executives from major corporations around the world. The gathering isn’t a policy-making meeting; rather, it’s a chance for the rich, famous and influential to network and swap ideas. (Naturally, the conference’s schedule is studded with lavish parties.)
The WEF’s specialty is mixing speakers from divergent fields; Among the eyebrow-raising pairings is Saturday’s scheduled chat between Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates and U2 frontman Bono on public support and debt relief for developing nations. Other executives taking part in the event are Oracle Corp. chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Larry Ellison, Hewlett-Packard Co. chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina, Dell Computer Corp. chairman and CEO Michael Dell and Compaq Computer Corp. chairman and CEO Michael Capellas.
The WEF meeting opened Thursday with gray, drizzly weather and a massive police presence around the Waldorf-Astoria, the meeting’s main venue. More than a dozen police on horseback promenaded across 48th Street shortly before 11 a.m., while bomb squad vehicles, ambulances and officers in riot gear filled midtown streets near the hotel.
Several thousand protestors are expected to turn out for scheduled (and permit-bearing) demonstrations throughout the weekend. On Thursday, however, the streets were quiet. The only large demonstration was an extremely tranquil Falun Gong exercise and meditation session held one block away. One man wandered around near the police barricades carrying a handwritten sign announcing his protest of the lack of protestors.
The IT leaders participating in the WEF meeting will mostly be involved in sessions addressing issues not directly related to technology. Ellison will take part Friday in discussions on civil liberties and how the concept of vulnerability has changed in the current political and business climate, while Fiorina grapples with the particularly apt topic “Rethinking risk: What is business as usual now?”
Gates will follow his conversation with Bono with a press conference Saturday on the same theme. Capellas and Dell, along with Bain & Co. Inc. chairman Orit Gadiesh, will hold a conference later that afternoon addressing “leadership in fragile times.” Gates will take the podium again Sunday for a session on the extent to which business leaders are also global leaders.
Several sessions from the WEF meeting are being broadcast to the WEF’s Web site at http://www.weforum.org/. However, most of the meeting’s discussions will not be transmitted to the Web – or to journalists, who are confined to a media centre two blocks away – because few rooms at the Waldorf are wired for broadcasts, according to meeting organizers.
The World Economic Forum, located in Geneva, Switzerland, is at http://www.weforum.org/.