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Layar’s Claire Boonstra Reflects on the World Economic Forum in Davos: Moving Towards the New Reality

Claire Boonstra February 14, 2011

Every year in Davos, Switzerland, the world’s leaders gather to talk about ‘improving the state of the world’ at the World Economic Forum - which interestingly was themed “The New Reality” this year. Layar, being nominated as a Tech Pioneer, was invited to join in the discussions. I had the honor of representing our company to meet, converse with and inspire the world’s leaders, and, of course, be inspired by them. It was an unforgettable experience; a unique possibility to peek into the world’s decision making and an amazing chance to talk about Layar and Augmented Reality with the key decision makers in our industry.

I got to spend an hour in a small group with Bill Gates, shake the hand of Bill Clinton, sit next to the president of Chile at dinner, brainstorm real solutions for the World Food Program, have all the CEO’s in the media and IT industry listen to me while I spoke to them at an invitation-only dinner, and simply bump into the most amazing and inspiring people from all across the globe.

The setting for all this was almost surreal: a cosy Swiss mountain village covered by a layer of fresh snow, clear blue skies, skiers and boarders walking around, but also security everywhere, cars in sizes: large, very large and ridiculously large, and very efficient organization.

For those who followed my twitterstream during the conference, you could already feel my excitement. Here are my reflections after 10 days of digesting…

Warning: long blogpost up ahead. Management summary is in the titles of the subsections :-)

Davos: not one single event

There are many parallel ‘Davoses’ taking place - next to the main program there are the of ‘Governors meetings’ with leaders of the various groups of industries, cross-disciplinary sessions and of course many private meetings. Everybody experiences his or her own ‘Davos’ - no two stories will be the same. And as there’s so much going on, there’s simply no way you won’t miss anything, so it is a question of setting your own priorities.

My program was fully focused on my three public speaking opportunities, the specific events I was invited to participate in, and my business-related one-on-one meetings. Next to that, I had to manage my own energy well, since I am also pregnant with my second child (during the Davos meeting, nearly halfway the pregnancy). And still, every day, I found my head dizzying from all the impressions and didn’t get the chance to sleep before 1am or 2am.

Layar, a 2011 WEF Tech Pioneer

The World Economic Forum has historically grown into the yearly gathering of decision makers in politics and industry. The WEF organization recently started to invite other groups of leaders to deepen the discussion and to inspire the ‘traditional’ and the ‘new’ leaders both ways. Next to the Social Entrepreneurs and the Young Global Leaders, there are also Technology Pioneers. This is a group of 25 companies, from all technology sectors, selected by a committee of industry advisors and experts.

In line with the foundation’s commitment to improving the state of the world, the Tech Pioneers are integrated into its activities with the objective to identify and address future-oriented issues on the global agenda in proactive, innovative and entrepreneurial ways. By bringing these executives together with scientists, academics, NGOs, and foundation members and partners, the foundation’s goal is to shed new light on how technology can be used to, for example, find new vaccines, create economic growth and enhance global communication.

This year’s group of Tech Pioneers included companies producing plastics from mushroom, producers of CO2 neutral cement, many biotech companies on top of breakthrough innovations in pharma, and of course IT companies in for example mobile banking and social sharing. All pioneers were incredibly inspiring in the way they are dealing with disrupting their industries, and it was nice to discuss the challenges we are all facing in setting your priorities right, getting funding, managing growing teams etc.

The program for Tech Pioneers consisted of a workshop and dinner to which also many journalists and industry CEO’s participate. Highlight was an intimate session of only the Tech Pioneers with Bill Gates on Saturday morning. He spoke to us in a very relaxed and insightful manner on his lessons learned, good advise and took a lot of time to answer our questions.

I asked him, as a key person in creating the previous mass medium of the internet, if he believes that AR will become the next mass medium. And if so, if he had some good advice for us. He confirmed the statement of AR as the next mass medium (‘there’s no way this is not going to happen’), and he had good advice on patents, timing and quickly reaching critical mass. He also stated: “You are in a good position.” That was good to hear!

Sharing our vision: AR to become the next mass medium

One of the sesions on the main program was that of ‘Digital Convergence’, facilitated by David Kirkpatrick and with panelists Prof Inakage, Rob Tarkoff of Adobe, Loic le Meur of Seesmic/ Le Web and me.

Even though I’m generally not a big fan of (being on) panels, I liked this one a lot. We all got to present our story in 6 mins, the crowd was very energetic and the moderation was of extremely high quality. Unfortunately the session itself was ‘off the record’ so no public sharing of its contents, but I was allowed to share the video of my presentation (recorded by Robert Scoble and uploaded by Loic le Meur).

The Governor’s session of the Media, Entertainment and Information industry (with CEO’s of about 50 companies such as Time Warner, Google, Washington Post, JC Decaux, WPP, McKinsey, Forbes, plus regulators such as Mrs. Neelie Kroes (of the European Committee), took place all day on Thursday. It was a great opportunity for me to participate in this session and hear what issues are being discussed.

The program for this Governors session ended with a dinner, themed “Augmented Reality/Mixed Reality.” I had the honor of talking to all these CEOs about the long-term vision for AR and how this is impacting their and our business. It was quite challenging to talk about AR without the opportunity to use visual support - so I did a spoken visualization exercise which was well received.

In between, I was also asked to participate in a table discussion during another Governor’s session, that of the Travel Industry. Together with Padmasree Warrior of Cisco and Nikesh Arora of Google, we discussed how the ‘new consumer’ is changing the industry with the CEOs from hotels, airlines and hospitality.

All three sessions resonated really well - all my main messages were being tweeted and re-tweeted by the audience. I got many positive reactions and good discussions going, and lots of business requests based on them. Mission accomplished :-)

Media Madness

At some moments, I had the impression there were as many journalists as ‘normal’ attendees. Everywhere you looked in the Conference Center, there were camera crews reporting and interviewing. CNN, CNBC and Reuters were reporting full-time and had their own fully equipped studios on top of the conference hall.

I also couldn’t avoid the media circus and found myself being interviewed on various channels, ranging from the Polish CNBC to the Spanish TVE evening news!
(Yes, they really insisted on my doing the interview in Spanish - I had to laugh at myself and my “lively hand movements to cover up for my lack of Spanish vocabulary” too…)

Funnily enough, there was almost no reporting from my home country, the Netherlands, except for a few print journalists and a slightly strange and very short radio interview with me.
(which was almost the only coverage of the entire WEF!) - but nothing on TV. Too bad the Dutch missed out on all the fun and excitement…

Tunisia & Egypt: feeling the power of the people

Just before the WEF, the people of Tunisia had managed to shift power in their country by organizing massive demonstrations, making use of social media. The situation was discussed a lot during many WEF sessions - from what I could follow on Twitter.

The protests in Egypt started during the WEF. It was odd and interesting to experience reactions on this from decision makers, from very nearby.

On Tuesday afternoon, when the world (at least I) was not yet aware of the heating situation in Egypt, I was sitting in the lounge area, waiting for my next appointment. A gentleman sat down next to me (but facing backwards, I couldn’t see who he was) and was immediately being approached by a bunch of journalists, asking him questions about the situation in Egypt. They asked him what was happening in his country, and if it was just a minor ‘nuisance’ or something bigger. The gentleman (I suppose he was a minister but am not sure) confirmed this was just a minor uproar - and shouted out ‘Hello Kofi!’. I turned around and saw him shake the hand of Kofi Annan.

There's Kofi Annan #wef #davosA few days later on Friday, the CEO of Vodafone who was also speaking at one of the lunches I attended, talked about having had a sleepless night because of the situation in Egypt. He hinted at having to take very tough decisions and trying to balance everything, and acting within the law. The next day, Vodafone submitted an official press statement on being put under pressure by the Egyptian government to close down all telecommunications.

It was quite interesting to hear from so close what major decision makers are going through - it is hard to imagine having to stand in their shoes having to decide on this level about human rights, the safety of your employees, your own integrity and business.

It also demystifies decision makers. In the end, they are all human.

Shifting powers: from West to East/ Evenly spread

The WEF started out as a European initiative in the 70’s, quickly followed by many USA leaders. I was warned upfront that the WEF is quite ‘West/USA- focused,’ but this is not really what I experienced. I felt the shifting powers and the enormous potential ánd challenges of countries such as China and India were being discussed very frequently. India had a massive presence in Davos and some Indian companies were the most enthousiastic and actionable about doing things with Layar and AR.

Many billion dollar companies indicated that their major R&D centers are now in China and India, away from (or next to) Silicon Valley and other traditional tech centers. Their main challenges are on how to make these all work well together.

To me, it is very clear that ‘the new world’ is not being led by one major power (the USA and to lesser extent the EU) anymore, but has very strong powers almost equally spread across the globe.

The world is changing: female/ feminine leadership needed

There was much ado about “women” at this year’s WEF…

For the ‘strategic partners’ (the large companies participating in the WEF), there was a quota in place: every 5th attendee had to be a woman and this apparently caused a lot of discussion.

There were some ridiculous articles in the press on women at the WEF (especially this one was totally besides the reality as I perceived it), and my interview on the Spanish TVE interview was not at all about my company or the content of my story, but mainly on the fact that I was one of the only (business) women in Davos.

On Friday, there were some women-only events - and I was quite hesitant on what to expect. I have always had a love-hate relationship with women-only events as well as with ‘women leadership’ issues and articles. I don’t like the ‘us women are/do…’ talk and usually don’t recognize myself at all in all the ‘problems’ women are facing - but I also recognize that there are simply too few women in leadership positions.

Much to my own surprise, these “women-events” were highlights of my entire Davos experience. By far. Why? The energy, passion, level of conversations, sharpness, engagement and drive to change the world, plus the type of conversations were totally unlike the other meetings I had attended or participated in during the preceding days in Davos.

I attended a women-only discussion with 18 female leaders (incl those of Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nielsen, the European Commission, plus Mrs. Chery Blair) and in only 1.5 hours we managed to achieve some truly usable and amazing results, which will be taken on board by the WFP.

It was in such contrast to the other meetings, lunches and dinners with the ‘traditional’ leaders - which were quite low on energy, with lots of men in grey suits - all very kind, interesting and engaging in personal talks but in the group interaction not much happened. I didn’t have the feeling that these unique gatherings (how often do you have all the decision makers in your industry together in one room?) lead to any big steps or changes, which started to feel a bit frustrating after a couple of days. There are so many challenges in this world and in our industry and the discussions didn’t feel to go any deeper than ‘passing on the microphone’. The world around is is screaming and shouting for a different kind of leadership.

But the good news is: change is up ahead! To my (and Layar’s) opinion, modern leadership has a lot of feminine elements. It is not so much about power, control, top-down thinking and ego, but much more about inclusiveness, intuition, the will to move ahead, looking for win-win (for both parties) rather than ‘I win, you loose’. Today’s society is changing and moving so quickly - top-down thinking and leadership based purely on ratio is not sustainable. Organizations sticking to old principles and old styles of leadership will simply be bypassed by fast movers and disruptors

The WEF itself also takes the subject very seriously and launched the ‘Gender Equality Project,’ which provides guidelines for companies on this subject.

The best we can do ourselves is to set the right example. At Layar, we already have > 40% women (Amsterdam office) - not because we have a pro-women policy, but somehow they simply knocked on our doors. My male co-founders Raimo and Maarten, as well as the rest of the MT are ‘real men’ but all with lots of the ‘female’ qualities I mentioned above. Whether we will be successful at Layar, it is still way too early to tell. But it feels good - let’s see how far this will take us!

To conclude, Davos was an unforgettable experience and it was great to be able to participate on this level. I look forward to more…

Claire Boonstra

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