Thoughts and Recollections from the World Economic Forum

Travel

Getting from Cleveland to Davos was pretty straight forward: Flight from Cleveland to Dulles, Dulles to Zurich and then hop a couple of trains until you end up at Davos Dorf high in the mountains.  It certainly sounds easy enough, but I was sure glad to be in a group.  Especially, since that group had as seasoned a traveler as Mark who, not only speaks fluent German but always seemed to know exactly where to go and what we needed to do.  What really stood out to me though was the trains.  Back here in Cleveland, I have become used to taking the RTA train from the west side over to Case’s campus; but, when the train from the Zurich train station first pulled out I was amazed by how incredibly smooth and quiet the ride was.  It nearly felt like the train was floating on a cushion of air even as we were making all the twists and turns up the mountain to our Davos destination.

Davos (the town)

Davos, Switzerland is a small ski resort town high up in the Swiss mountains.  When we first arrived we were quickly greeted by the team that were in charge of getting us to our apartments and checking in.  Jeff, Henry and I were in an apartment on the opposite side of town from the station and on the drive over, the thing that I noticed most was the snow.  It had been snowing there at least that whole day, and who knows how many days leading up; but everyone was prepared.  Snow plows were out on the roads, even smaller plows doing the sidewalks.  I saw plenty of cars with snow chains on their tires.  It really made me wonder if a town like this so far up in the mountains is simply always covered in a layer of the powdery white stuff.  Also, it was cold.  Living most of my life in Northeast Ohio I’m no stranger to cold weather but this was a cold that went straight to the bone.

After spending a few minutes settling into the apartment, we got our first chance (of many) to accidentally explore the city.  The first challenge was trying to figure out the bus system.  Our goal was to meet up with the rest of the team at the WEF Registration tent that was back near the train station.  The fastest way to get around Davos is by bus, that is, if you know where the bus stations are, the schedule, and how to make sure you are going in the right direction.  The three of us gave it a good try, but after being misdirected by the concierge and getting a little impatient waiting in locations we weren’t even sure were bus stops, we decided just to walk. 

The simplest way to get around Davos is to walk, and everybody in Davos walks.  Up and down the sidewalks you would see kids and adults alike walking with skis or sleds in hand.  Parents would be walking around pushing baby strollers.  Old and young alike, people were walking and so were we.  After nearly an hour of walking, stopping to ask people if they knew where the registration tent was, trying to use Bing Maps on Jeff’s phone and texting with the rest of the group we finally made it to registration, and a chance to sit down and get warm.  It wasn’t too long before the last of our group found the tent, we all got our WEF Badges, tested them to make sure they worked with the security system and we were ready for the next adventure, dinner.

One of the recurring thoughts I had during our week in Davos was about language.  Even though I’ve described Davos as a ski resort town, I would not consider it to be geared toward tourists, certainly nothing like the Beach resort kind of places I’ve visited in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.  Everything in the town from the street signs to the bus schedules, with the exception of WEF specific signage, was exclusively in German.  Not being able to read or speak German, the difficulty this presented gave me a much better understanding for the struggles that non-English speakers go through here in the United States where everything is only in English.  This included at the restaurants where the menus were of course all written in German.  Fortunately for our group Mark, who had spent years living in Germany, was able to translate anything we needed for us.

I honestly don’t remember much specifically about what I ate while we were in Switzerland.  Of course, I don’t recall ever being disappointed with a meal either.  I’m sure there was a lot of meat and cheeses, I do remember having a very rich piece of lasagna at one dinner.

The Apartment

Looking back, I feel like we hardly spent any time in our apartment.  “No shoes” was the rule, and it was posted multiple times on the door and the front hallway.  The place was pretty nice, three bedrooms, two baths. A small kitchen with a breakfast table next to a good sized living room with a large sectional pointed towards a TV.  Mostly though, the apartment was used only for sleeping, bathing and breakfast.  I do recall one evening before dinner the three of us had a chance to spend maybe an hour in the apartment just relaxing and watching The Simpsons, in German.

The Mixed Reality Space

Our first full day in Davos was getting to our space in the Conference Center, unpacking the lenses and getting everything set up.  The space was on the main floor of the conference center in the corner of a somewhat main thoroughfare.  Right next door was another popular booth presenting discussions on The Fourth Industrial Revolution, so we fit right in.  Looking at the booth was amazing.  The main portion was almost cave like, with black canvas walls printed with giant models taken right out of the demo.  Circular windows were cut into the wall so that passersby could peek in and see that there was something really cool happening inside.  Just outside the booth’s entrance was a hospitality desk and some bench seating where the next group could sit and wait their turn.  Right inside the entrance was a desk that we could use to keep and set the lenses up, including a beautiful cabinet with a cubby for each lens.

Once we got our crates which had been shipped weeks earlier, we started unpacking the lenses (22 in total) and started mapping out the space.  We quickly found that there were some issues with some of the furniture and the way the space was laid out that the lenses didn’t like, and would cause the holograms to start to wiggle and float.  After working with the wonderful facilities team at the conference center we were finally able to get a good configuration of chairs, tables and especially carpets that would work reliably with the lens.  Unfortunately, facilities had not had a chance to put locks on the cabinet the lenses would be stored in, so we had to pack them back up and put them back into the crates so they could get locked back up in storage overnight.

The Conference

Finally, it was time for the conference to begin.  The first thing that I noticed was security. A secure zone had been set up around the conference center with armed security personnel at checkpoints.  Getting through was simple enough, you had to have a badge and go through a metal detector and x-ray machine, and the lines were never too long.  Once through the secure zone checkpoint each location around the conference had RFID readers that you would have to tap your badge to in order to be allowed in.

The conference center was abuzz with people. Lots of attendees, staff and also the press.  Badges are color coded and someone from our team had found a nice blog post explaining in simple terms what each of the different colors means, and what they really mean.  It was interesting hearing people interact.  At times it was almost like the WEF Annual Meeting was like a summer camp where people reunite year after year. Mostly though, people seemed to have their agenda and were just heading from meeting to meeting.

It was a very strange feeling, knowing how important or wealthy (or both) people needed to be in order to attend or be invited to the meeting.  I knew for sure that I was among world leaders, heads of state and business; but, I would not have been able to recognize anyone (save for pop culture celebrities like George Clooney, Matt Damon, Forest Whittaker or Shakira, none of which I actually got to see.)  Even though I know that a lot of the topics being discussed were rather serious and solemn subjects like global warming, refugees, and the rise of nationalism; it did not seem like the attendees had a grim attitude, it was more of a spirit of let’s get together and share ideas.

One of the things that I didn’t expect was how great of an attitude everybody that came into our booth had.  It really felt like they were excited to try out this new technology and see where the future of education may be headed.  Some groups that came through were very animated and clearly excited.  I saw at least one person who was literally moved to tears, thinking about the possibilities mixed reality could bring to education.  Even though not all the groups were quite as boisterous, everyone that I interacted with was definitely impressed and enjoyed themselves.  There was one gentleman in particular that seemed content to just stay in the demo at the end and marvel at the simulation of the solar system with which we finish each demo.  Unfortunately, there were people waiting for the next session to start and I had to politely ask him to give it up.

Each day we would work in shifts a few hours at a time to be sure that we actually got to experience some of the conference.  In some of that time off I was able to explore some of the other locations outside the conference center.  Across the street, Microsoft had set up a Café where attendees could visit and have a cup of coffee or a snack while trying out and learning about some of the latest Microsoft technologies.  This was a favorite place of mine to head over and hang out for a little bit while playing around with the new Surface Studio or talking with the Microsoft folks about what we’re doing with the HoloLens or what is coming up next for Microsoft’s AI initiative.  There was also a space that I visited a few times called The Loft which was run by some folks that did science based interactives targeted toward people in their late teens and twenties.  They even had a device that would measure brain waves which you could wear as you toured the space and learned about the different subjects.  The device would measure your Interest, Engagement, Relaxation as well as a few other metrics.  One of the experiences that I did not get to see due to time and schedule was called “A Day in the Life of a Refugee” which I heard was exceptional.

Finally

After a hectic week of walking through the snow and giving demos it was finally time to leave Davos.  We packed up our things, said goodbye to the apartments and headed to the train station for the last time.  Took the train back down the mountain into Zurich and flew off into warm (comparatively) Venice, Italy for a well-deserved couple of days off.

Rob Gotschall