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Notable in Their Absence From Davos

Thais Alencar

Reprinted from the NY Times - by Andrew Ross Sorkin

The annual parade of boldface names at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is always striking. This year’s attendees at the meeting, which begins Wednesday, will include Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe; the billionaire Bill Gates; JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon; and the movie star-philanthropist Matt Damon.

But just as notable are the luminaries who consistently avoid Davos, despite repeated invitations.

The billionaire Warren E. Buffett has never attended. Neither has Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, the world’s largest company by market value. (His predecessor, Steve Jobs, never went, either.) The founders of Google,Larry Page and Sergey Brin, stopped going a couple of years ago, as did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman. Both companies do send other executives, though.

The leaders of General Electric and IBM, Jeffrey R. Immelt and Virginia M. Rometty, are not attendees either. “I don’t go to Davos and places like that,” Mr. Immelt once said dismissively.

The World Economic Forum, for which the cost of membership and a ticket to the annual meeting is more than $70,000, is both admired and derided as a velvet-rope club for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The mayor of London,Boris Johnson, once attended Davos only to dismiss it as “a constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation.”

Whatever their reasons for staying away, the leaders of some of the largest and most transformative companies are demonstrating, with their absence, the difficulty of convening a global conversation with all the main stakeholders. Given that one of the themes this year is how to address economic inequality, it would be helpful to have the world’s largest employers participate in that discussion, not to mention a sampling of rank-and-file workers, who never receive an invitation.

Over the last few weeks, I called more than a dozen A-list names (or their handlers) who either regularly go to Davos or who make a point of staying away. I was intrigued by the reasons some people turn down an invitation coveted by so many others.

Those who attend said most frequently that they did so less for the high-minded panel discussions and more for the sheer efficiency of meeting with so many peers, clients, regulators and politicians at one time. “It would take me an entire year, and I don’t know how many flights, to see the number of people I can in three days at Davos,” one top bank chief executive told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Davos attendance can be a polarizing issue.

In the avoider camp is Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief of Pimco, one of the largest bond investors in the world, and someone who given his background would seem like the perfect Davos man — an Egyptian-raised, Oxford-educated global investor. He has rejected repeated invitations to Davos, skeptical of the value of speed-dating with so many clients in the Alps.

“For me, it has been and remains an issue of efficient time management,” he told me in an email. “Our general preference is for more focused and less rushed meetings.” Mr. El-Erian is so anti-Davos he once wrote an article for a magazine distributed at the forum called “Why I Won’t Go to Davos.”

“Over the years, and in the context of an increasingly unsettled and uncertain world,” Mr. El-Erian wrote, “Davos has not had much impact.”

Mr. El-Erian’s rival, Laurence D. Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, which manages more than $4 trillion, had been a skeptic, too — until this year. With such a large global business, he has become almost a head of state himself or, more precisely, as important as the head of a central bank, judging by the panel he is speaking on. Mr. Fink is the only business executive on an economic panel that includes Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank; Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan; Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister; and Christine Lagarde, managing director of theInternational Monetary Fund.

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale School of Management, who counts many Davos attendees as former students of his executive management program, said that many C.E.O.’s attended every couple of years to “meet new heads of state.” But he said many executives “complain that significant decision-makers are too diluted in number by the tidal waves of aspiring consultants and other wannabes.” (Mr. Sonnenfeld does not attend.)

Others don’t go simply for practical reasons. “It’s inconvenient to get to. There’s a lot of friction. It’s cold. There are a lot of people there. The logistics of just going down the street can be very daunting,” John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a longtime attendee, told Bloomberg News last year.

To be sure, this year’s event will not lack for big names. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain will be there, as will President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. So will Jacob J. Lew, the United States Treasury secretary.

The progress they make — or try to make — may be praiseworthy. But at a time when globalization has so transformed business and economics, and at an event that bills itself as drawing the top stakeholders, it easy to understand why it is so difficult to make progress on the big issues when so many key people are not in the room.

The Innovation "Frame"

Thais Alencar

Huffington Post

Professional circumstances have given me a monster backstage pass to

see how innovation really works in many countries around the world,

as well as in our own. I want to bring this knowledge home to fuel a

national conversation on these important issues. And so with these

words I am pleased to launch "Innovation Nation" as my offering to

the blogosphere. I begin my first HuffPost with some puzzlement. It is January 18, 2008, the presidential campaign has been in full swing for longer than

most of us would like to admit, and the "innovation" issue is still

conspicuously MIA from discourse and debate.

We've had the Iraq "frame," and now the recession and change

"frames." But what about the Innovation "frame?" Are we just not

getting the importance of innovation? Vannevar Bush, presidential

science advisor, said it best in 1947, "A nation that loses its science and

technology will lose control of its destiny." More recently the National

Academy of Science referred to the problem as a "gathering storm."

And in my own recent book, Innovation Nation, I state that America is

losing its innovation edge with profound implications for our security

and prosperity as a nation.

Is anybody listening out there in leader-land?

History will show America's current innovation melt-down to have

been an egregious self-inflicted wound. I would need ten times this

space just to recite a list of dismal facts about how poorly our national

innovation system is performing. Some headlines: our young scientists

are abandoning their careers with increasing frequency, talent is

increasingly not coming to our storied shores, our public education

and R & D are showing significant erosion, we're strapped for cash,

other countries are leading us in a growing number of scientific fields, and nobody seems to care.

The innovation frame in national politics has been conspicuous by its

absence. Instead, we have heard increasingly frequent (and tedious)

calls for change. But change is driven by innovation, which is the

wellspring of progress. Change has to be about something or it is just

novelty. In other words, if change is the answer we seek, what is the

question? And, it is a multitude of changes - driven by innovation

capability and harnessed to a compelling national idea - that leads to

transformation. Otherwise, change is just...change.

Wise corporate leaders have always known that change is galvanized

in the presence of a set of big ideas that set the vector and allow

countless instances of innovation to drive it. We need to have a sense

of where we are going if we are to arrive at a meaningful destination.

I have three hypotheses about why we haven't heard more about


1) It's hard to define. True enough - most people still have a hard

enough time distinguishing between creativity and innovation, let

alone defining the role of entrepreneurship in innovation. Many policy

makers will make the elementary mistake of equating innovation with

science and high tech, when it fact it has to do with a broader array of

business model and process innovation that can be driven by design

and the arts.

2) It's hard to talk about. If we can't define it, how can we hope to have

a meaningful conversation about it?

3) We don't have the right national narrative for innovation. This gets

to the heart of the matter. Talking about innovation feels a little like

talking about preventive medicine: we know it's important, but it

never seems to reach the highest priority level. On the other hand,

throw in a little chest pain and it's time to call 911. That's why I have

called our present situation a Silent Sputnik. Unlike the original

Sputnik in 1957 that galvanized our country into action with its first

(and sadly last) national innovation drive, our present situation lacks

urgency and therefore it's no surprise that we're not taking needed


Which brings us to the presidential election. Whether the agenda is

innovation or change - it must start at the top. There is no company

that has succeeded at a large-scale change or innovation effort without

involvement and advocacy from the CEO. Well, we are voting for the

equivalent of a CEO of this country in November and I think we

deserve to hear from the candidates as to how they view innovation in

much greater detail. We need answers from them to such questions as:

What they plan to do about our innovation "problem" in all its

many-headed glory: from science policy to education, strategic

investment and the formation of new kinds of global alliances.

How they see the process of developing a meaningful national

strategy for innovation. How they plan to allocate stewardship and responsibility for

executing that strategy. What kind of metrics they plan to use and how they will define success.

What they plan to invest in. Perhaps most importantly, what is their point of view. How do

they connect the dots into a diagnosis of our innovation

"problem" is and how do they frame our innovation challenge in

light of a larger national narrative? We urgently need a robust national conversation on these issues. As a nation, we deserve it. And if I have anything to do about it, we will get one.

In posts to come, I'm going to cover such topics as how innovation

"works" in other countries such as Finland and China that are racing

for a new innovation high ground. I'm going to document what's going

on in this country - both the hopeful signs as well as the dismal facts.

And in doing so, I hope to enlist you in helping to build Innovation

Nation right here in the United States of America.

Davos' Biggest Irony

Thais Alencar

The Daily Beast


It’s not just the bumper-to-bumper

Mercedes-Benzes at an event preaching

energy efficiency, writes John Kao from the

World Economic Forum’s annual meeting—

it’s the elites hell-bent on social innovation.

Davos is where the utopian and the dystopian come

together to produce an experience unlike any other.

And this year is certainly no exception.

The mission of the World Economic Forum, and its

Annual Meeting in Davos, is to improve the state of the

world. This is where political elites rub elbows with

business elites who rub elbows with techno-elites who

rub elbows with entertainment elites. Even the social

innovation and economic development communities

are represented by their elites. And the aura of

exclusivity flows everywhere. Sorry, you can’t come in

right now, the prime minister of (pick your country) is

just leaving. You didn’t hear about the (fill in the

blank) party? Sorry, we have to wait for the

motorcade to pass. Sorry, this is a private meeting.

You mean you didn’t know where the Google party


Davos is fun! The parties and perks are too numerous

to mention. In my own modest corner, I got an iPod,

boxes of chocolate, technical winter gear, a coffee table

book of photographs of India, and every imaginable

form of information goodie, from a memory stick

infused with CEO monographs to white papers whose

graphic design rivaled that of any luxury product


At the Forum, it is possible to party and network from

morning until dawn. If the stack of business cards

you’ve acquired in the process doesn’t at least match

your shoe size, then you’re simply not trying hard


It’s not just high school with more money; it’s high

school with countries, governments, corporations, and

big sectors of the innovation economy.

And there are ironies, if your eyes are open. At a

meeting concerned with the green economy, gourmet

food fills the tables. In a world concerned with energy

efficiency, the quaint little streets of this Alpine town

are clogged with late-model Audis and MercedesBenzes

sitting bumper-to-bumper in heavy traffic. And

in a world that is trying to conserve trees, there are

overflowing stacks of every imaginable newspaper,

magazine, print report, and monograph, as countries

and companies vie for mindshare in perhaps the

ultimate environment of high-quality information glut.

There are ironies, if your eyes are open. At a meeting

concerned with the green economy, gourmet food fills

the tables.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the conversations,

understandings, and agreements that come out of

Davos, which is perhaps the ultimate platform for

business oriented global connections. Nothing else

comes close. Business and government need a certain

amount of theater to enable the kind of strategic

discussion that makes things happen. I’m simply

observing that Davos also mirrors some of the

contradictions that characterize our world as we all

work toward a better one.

The Middle East's Other Boom: Entrepreneurship

Thais Alencar

The Daily Beast


Just as 1960s counterculture was responsible

for the '80s high-tech explosion, the

revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle

East will trigger a boom in entrepreneurship

—but this time the change will be measured

in months, not decades.

Like many people, I have been watching the events

unfolding in the Middle East with a jaw hovering

somewhere near the floor. And curiously enough, many

of the thoughts the revolutionary wave has inspired in

me involve 1960s counterculture and the birth of '80s

high tech in the United States.

Let me explain. A couple of decades back, I received a

bit of notoriety for one widely quoted comment,

"Money is the long hair of the '80s." I had intended to

show that at least some of the seeds of

entrepreneurship in the '80s—the flowering of personal

computers, gaming, digital media, and so much more—

had been sown in the counterculture of the '60s. I was

convinced that much of the '60s experience of living

according to social values, creating nontraditional

organizations, the power of networks, grassroots

organizing, and the general antiestablishment flavor of

what I called the "corporate new wave" had been

translated into the startups of the '80s. When the young

reject the establishment, develop confidence in

different ways of doing things, and, most important,

find cultural and communications bridges to link them

together, the stage is set for large scale social change.

What we have seen in the recent Middle East

"awakening" is the power of shared experience,

primarily among the young, and the use of new social

media tools to organize, coordinate, generate content,

and affirm a shared culture of protest. The jungle

drums of the '60s that brought people together came

from rock ‘n' roll. The cultural catalysts of 2011 in the

Middle East are popular songs of protest posted on


Time will tell, but I believe these events have set the

stage for an explosion of entrepreneurial energy in the

Middle East, especially in the Internet and related tech

sectors. I see the emergence of a new socially minded

entrepreneur in this part of the world—one willing to

challenge the status quo, speak out, eschew the

trappings of establishment career paths for something

new, and take risks. Little of this has been possible,

except with difficulty, in most of the Middle East until

now. When repressive forces—direct or subtle—guide

the young in the direction of conformity, compliance

and conservatism, entrepreneurship may be thwarted.

But it doesn't die; it only sleeps.

Now we see a massive outpouring of self-organized

social entrepreneurship and activism, using technology

as the medium of exchange. What will follow almost

inevitably, I believe, is a similar tidal wave of business

entrepreneurship and innovation as those radicalized

by recent events and exposed to the power of new

technologies quickly find ways to adopt them in every

niche of a newly fluid society. The freedom that is on

everyone's mind in that part of the world is the freedom

to be one's own person—and also the freedom to be

entrepreneurial in challenging conventional wisdom

and established ways of doing things.

More than 300 million people live in the region and

speak Arabic as their primary language; this is one of

the last underserved, language-defined markets.

What also will fuel this boom is the size of the

opportunity space. There is so much to be done in the

Middle East, particularly in the social and Internet

media fields. Right now, there are no dominant brands.

The region is still culturally isolated, with a miniscule

number of international books translated into Arabic

each year. However, more than 300 million people live

in the region and speak Arabic as their primary

language; this is one of the last underserved, languagedefined

markets. And to date, the kind of exchange

across national borders in the region that could

generate larger market dynamics has been limited by

the frictional forces of politics and aging infrastructure.

All of this is now poised to change, and dramatically. In

the U.S., it took more than a decade for the lessons to

percolate from the teach-ins to the startups. In the

Middle East, the time frame will likely be measured in

months, not years, owing to the ability of today's

technology to decrease the cost structure of innovation

and speed up its cycle time.

And the region already has the beginnings of an

entrepreneurial culture. Late last year, I spoke at the

Celebration of Entrepreneurship Conference in Dubai.

Hundreds of young entrepreneurs from the Middle East

gathered together to share experiences, attend

workshops, and network. The links, forged from mindset

and purpose, between this community and the one

taking the streets from Cairo to Tunis could not, in my

view, be clearer.

Tom Clancy Got it Right

Thais Alencar

Huffington Post !

When I learned about Tom Clancy's death, I remembered back to 1984, when a successful browse at a local bookstore yielded a copy of The Hunt for Red October published by, of all things, the Naval Institute Press. We've had a long technothriller romance since then, all the way up to yesterday when I put in my Amazon pre-order for his latest -- Command Decision.

So it is worth reflecting on Clancy's legacy, not only as the provider of a certain genre of entertainment, but as a testament to the power of the imagination in preparing for an uncertain future. I will never forget the conversation I had with a "figure" in the national security community who remarked that no one could have foreseen hijacked passenger jets being flown -- kamikaze-style -- into buildings.

Well, Tom Clancy did. In 1994, a full 17 years before 9/11, Clancy's novel Debt of Honor described how a deranged commercial airline pilot plowed his plane into the Capitol building. Or consider recent and horrific massacre at the Westfield Mall in Kenya. Again it was Clancy who in 2003 wrote Teeth of the Tiger, documenting in detail the gory details of multiple mall invasions -- in the United States -- by determined terrorist groups.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but yesterday's fiction also has a habit of becoming today's facts. In the 1980's, when I did some advisory work for the strategy team at Royal Dutch Shell, I found them all immersed in William Gibson's visionary cyberpunk sci-fi masterpiece Neuromancer. Shell was a company obsessed with the future, given the fact that even small changes in the social and political climate could affect the price of oil and therefore their core business model. Reading science fiction for them was simply one facet in their overall approach to sense-making and "future-proofing" themselves. 

So, when I imagine national security strategists sitting around trying to figure out what lies around the next corner, I hope they will spend at least part of their time reading Tom Clancy and the Tom Clancys to come. I hope they will acknowledge the power of imagination and intuition that can come out in the best, and most prophetic, fiction.

Latin America Comes to the Innovation Party

Thais Alencar

Huffington Post


Innovation is sweeping the world like a public policy version of

gangnam style. By my count, there are more than fifty countries

around the world that have national innovation strategies, chief

innovation officers and budgets. The old saying "no bucks, no Buck

Rogers" is apt here as one country after another announces ambitious

programs. China, for example, has announced a $500 billion

innovation budget. Chile is another country with big innovation

ambitions; the Chilean government declared 2013 to be its Year of

Innovation under the headline Imagina Chile (imagine Chile).

Thus it is a matter of no small significance that last week, on July 30

and 31, a group of innovation leaders from 18 countries, including 12

Latin American countries, gathered in Santiago, Chile for the first ever

pan Latin American innovation summit. As a self-appointed "Johnny

Appleseed" of innovation for the past two decades, it fell to me to

design and facilitate the summit in partnership with the government

of Chile. As evidence of the weight given to this event, the kick-off was

provided by S.E. Sebastian Piñera, President of Chile and Félix de

Vicente, Minister of Economic Affairs.

Why bother to look at Latin American innovation, you might ask? Isn't

this just a land of intractable poverty and insurmountable

development obstacles, teeming with drug lords and corrupt

government officials, while sweetened by the occasional and festive

all-night party set to the sounds of salsa, tango or bossa nova? Doesn't

the old saying about Brazil -- that it is the country of the future and

always will be -- also apply to the region as a whole?

Absolutely not.

Here are a few snapshots: Medellin, once a notorious hot spot for the

drug trade, was just voted the most innovative city in the world, by no

less an authority than the Urban Land Institute. Corporación Ruta N

there is turning the city's drug lord reputation into a entrepreneurship

city by creating a new environment for innovation, education and

entrepreneurship. Uruguay has supplied a laptop for every child in the

country, with other countries in the region beginning to follow suit.

Movistar Innova, a venture incubator in downtown Santiago, is the

registered address for no fewer than 600 startups.

In Chile, The Economist named Santiago "Chilecon Valley," the Silicon

Valley of Latin America, much thanks to programs like Startup Chile

and the friendly entrepreneurial ecosystem established by the Chilean

government. Startup Chile just accepted its seventh cohort of

entrepreneurs from a pool of 1,386 applications from 63 countries.

Entrepreneurs receive $40,000, mentorship and office space for six

months to launch their ventures from Santiago. And Chile, with a

population of 17 million, has announced a national budget for

innovation of $1 billion, while Brazil's innovation agency, FINEP, has

just put forward a request for over $18 billion to support innovation

initiatives in business, education and research. Meanwhile, the pace of

change is exemplified by Mexico, which jumped 16 places on the latest

global innovation index announced in June 2013 by a consortium of

Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO.

And the overall trends are no less striking. Latin America is projected

to have a mid-century population of 800 million people, notable for

their diversity, and with an economy rivaling the US and European

economies in size. Achievement of market integration will be a

powerful engine for economic development as innovations of all kinds

are able to achieve scale.

While there may never be a United States of Latin America,

integration is advancing at flank speed and in so doing is redrawing

the global economic map. The latest sign is the formation of the Pacific

Alliance in June 2012. The brainchild of the presidents of Chile and

Mexico, the Pacific Alliance is a bloc of countries consisting of Chile,

Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru that intends a new economic

alliance leveraging its 36% of Latin American GDP. The organization's

goals include free trade and deep economic integration of services,

capital, investment and movement of people. To get an idea of its

significance, the Pacific Alliance if fully integrated would be the 9th

largest economy in the world, surpassing that of India. The inaugural

meeting of the Pacific Alliance will occur in November of this year. As

a mark of how seriously the Pacific Alliance is being taken, some 19

countries requested observer status, including Australia, China,

Canada, France, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

So old stereotypes of no longer apply regarding Latin America. What is

needed now is a re-perception of Latin America's opportunity horizon.

Our summit enabled spirited dialogue among leaders of countries

whose similarities vastly outweigh their differences. It enabled

participants to look closely at the reinvention of education, innovation

policy, entrepreneurship development, design policy and cities

through the lens of an innovation society. Most importantly it created

a community of interest around innovation as a regional agenda with

significance for the global economy.

We should therefore all applaud the fact that the summit concluded

with the intention to hold a second summit in 2014.

For more information, please go to: for information about the summit for information about the Institute

for Large Scale Innovation for information about Chile's year of innovation