Securing a highly prized invitation to participate in the World Economic Forum’s summer conference in Dalian, China, is only the first step. You have to have the goods—thorough expertise and an original way of looking at things. On those counts, the Carnegie Mellon contingent at Summer Davos was an unequivocal success.
Erica Fuchs is exhausted. The Carnegie Mellon professor is traveling with her family—her husband, David Andersen, also a CMU professor, and their 14-month daughter, Aria. After one re-routing and two unexpected plane changes, the family has been traveling for nearly 30 hours. Although Aria continues to toddle happily down the airplane’s aisle, weathering the trip just fine, her parents can’t wait until the landing gear touches ground. Without mechanical difficulties, their journey to Beijing would have taken nearly half the time. Once the flight is over, they’ll have to scramble to catch a few hours of sleep before their meetings in the morning at one of China’s elite institutions, Tsinghua University.
Although Fuchs, associate professor of engineering and public policy, and Andersen, associate professor of computer science, are looking forward to conferring with their Beijing colleagues, there’s a larger reason for this trek. The family will continue to Dalian, a burgeoning city to the east of Beijing across the Bohai Sea. There, Fuchs will join Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh and Professor Justine Cassell as participants in the World Economic Forum’s summer conference. The Forum, a prestigious international non-profit organization, holds its flagship conference in Davos, Switzerland, each January and this accompanying event in Dalian each September.
After fruitful Sunday meetings, Fuchs—her ready smile and headful of dark brown curls restored—boards another plane with her family Monday night for the short trip to Dalian. This is the third year that CMU faculty members have been invited to the Forum’s Seventh Annual Meeting of the New Champions, casually referred to as Summer Davos.
Involvement in the World Economic Forum is, in itself, noteworthy. Forum participants are hand-selected, and CMU is one of only 25 universities in the world—11 in the United States—invited to join the Forum’s community of higher education leaders, known as the Global University Leaders Forum.
For Summer Davos, they’ll gather for three days with more than 1,500 other participants who specialize in business, government, academia, religion, media, and the arts in 90 countries. They’ll present, debate, and strategize in organized sessions and workshops. (This year the topic is Meeting the Innovation Imperative.) And they’ll talk—in both scheduled and impromptu meetings, in pairs and groups, in hallways, cafés, receptions, and more.
The World Economic Forum, headquartered in Geneva, was established in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German-born business policy professor at the University of Geneva, with the aim of helping European firms catch up with U.S. management practices. Schwab gathered 400 European leaders that year in the small town of Davos, earning the soon-to-become-annual meeting the simple moniker “Davos.” Over the years, the symposium expanded, along with the organization and its mission, now no less than “to improve the state of the world.” The annual meeting today attracts more than 2,500 attendees, bringing together, as the Forum states, the very best minds to consider major global issues and brainstorm solutions.
The organization itself employs more than 400 and had revenues of nearly $200 million last year. Dues-paying members consist of the top 1,000 global companies, as well as 200 influential, new, and growing firms. These members work closely with leaders from academia to the arts. The various groups are categorized into a Venn diagram of intersecting circles graced with high-powered capitalized names, such as Global Growth Companies, Technology Pioneers, and Global Shapers.
The Forum has played an integral role in international conflict resolution, including North and South Korea’s first ministerial-level meetings in 1989, discussions by East and West German leaders on reunification that same year, and the 1992 meeting between the South African president and Nelson Mandela. Initiatives currently under way address Indian health and African hunger.
Fuchs and her family touch down in Dalian after midnight. Tired but excited, she’s up early Tuesday. She heads out of the hotel and takes in the ocean, boats bobbing, cranes and construction along the beachfront as far as the eye can see. She gazes up at the new convention center across the street, where Summer Davos will begin the next day. The shining, asymmetrically curved structure is vast, its aluminum skin stretching like foil over the indoor city it encloses. Small electric vehicles dressed as Model Ts zip down the street, shuttling people between hotels and the center.
Fuchs is due at a nearby hotel for the beginning of a special, pre-conference program. She’s been selected as a Young Scientist—one of only 40 diverse researchers younger than 40 chosen from worldwide nominations annually for their contributions to cutting-edge knowledge. At just 35, Fuchs is a pioneer of how national differences influence the rate and direction of innovation, and how countries can leverage these differences to advance innovation and social welfare both locally and globally.
As part of the day’s program, Fuchs and her group board a bus that ferries them around to Dalian University, emerging technology companies, and lunch. That afternoon, the bus arrives back at the conference center. After a full security pat-down, they get their first glimpse of the inside. The ceiling soars overhead; bridges and stairwells are tangled in the cavernous space. At a private brainstorming session, the Young Scientists are grouped in four intimate circles to discuss major issues facing scientific research. Later, at dinner, each scientist summarizes how they’re “impacting the world.”
When Wednesday and the conference commence, it’s time for another Carnegie Mellon professor’s first session. Justine Cassell, involved in Forum activities since 2011, is moderating “Strategic Shifts in the Digital Ecosystem.” As director of CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, she develops trailblazing technologies with conversational and social intelligence, such as virtual “children” who can interact with autistic youngsters. She boasts an interdisciplinary background that includes expertise in literature, linguistics, psychology, and computer science.
Cassell was part of the first CMU group to present at Summer Davos when the university was initially invited. Soon after her talk, she was asked to join a Global Agenda Council, one of more than 80 groups of 10-or-so experts each, in fields from academia to government.
While meeting that summer with her Robotics and Smart Devices Council members, Cassell rounded up the other members to spearhead writing a white paper. Almost immediately afterward, she was asked to chair the council and was invited to Davos in January.
Here, glancing out at the packed audience of more than 100, she addresses the first panelist. The session runs without a hitch. It’s a private gathering, like many of the sessions and workshops. Media are welcomed, but the Chatham House Rule applies, meaning that unless otherwise specified, a speaker’s identity and affiliation can’t be published, ostensibly encouraging open, unfettered conversation. At her session’s close, Cassell hurries to the door to make one of several meetings she’s set up with academic and business contacts. It’s something the Forum fosters, encouraging participants to scan the list of attendees for just that purpose.
As she leaves, she says a quick hello to Fuchs, just entering as a panelist for her own first session, “Strategic Shifts in Manufacturing Ecosystems.” The room fills to standing-room-only. Fuchs’ presentation goes well—enough so that a Forum senior director stops her at the end to discuss her thoughts on potential Global Agenda Council topics. Midway through the engrossing conversation, Fuchs must excuse herself. She’s almost late for the “Driving Smart Development” session at which Subra Suresh will speak, and that precedes her own Young Scientist award ceremony.
The director effortlessly escorts her down the maze of hallways to the session room. They arrive backstage where the panelists are lined up awaiting the beginning of the session. One problem. They are in the wrong place. Fuchs and the CMU president smile quick greetings before the director assists Fuchs in joining the other Young Scientists at their specially assigned seats in the audience.
During this open webcast session exploring science’s role in addressing global issues, participants in addition to Suresh include, among others, Ellen Kullman, Chair of the Board and CEO of DuPont. One of Suresh’s comments is later listed in the Forum’s Top 10 conference quotes: “There is a lack of resources for highly talented young people to get to the destinations where talent can be put to use.”
As the session closes, the award ceremony begins. Klaus Schwab himself welcomes the new Young Scientists. “You are at the core of the ‘New Champions,’” he says, “because if I look at innovation as a chain, you are at the very first stage, developing all the fundamental knowledge in so many areas.” Fuchs accepts her award, then moves on to a workspace on emerging technologies, while Cassell and Suresh spend the rest of the whirlwind day in private meetings. Late that evening, the three gather in the lobby for a CMU reception where attendees with ties to the university have been invited, such as Lan Xue (E’89,’91), dean of Tsinghua University’s policy management school; Eric Giler (E’77), CMU trustee and CEO of WiTricity; Michael McQuade (S’77,’78,’83), CMU trustee and Senior VP of Research of United Technology Corp.; and C.V. Ramachandran (E’80), President of the Asia Business Unit of AlixPartners. At one point, Fuchs—absorbed in discussion with CMU trustees and corporate leaders regarding her research—notices Cassell and Suresh also involved in substantive conversations.
Thursday begins with Fuchs ready to speak with a host of new connections. Apparently, her Wednesday session made an impression—researchers, publishers, and industry leaders had approached her throughout that day, even as she was stepping out of a cab. Cassell and Suresh arrive for more high-level conversations. They and nearly 40 other academic and business leaders have been asked to discuss the “Future of Universities.”
Gathered at four round tables, participants begin to speak and the exchange is cordial but spirited as opinions bounce around the room. Cassell injects her views into the dialogue multiple times.
Later Cassell will say, “The most important event I attended was the ‘Future of Universities,’ which was primarily about online education. It was amazing. I was able to demonstrate that CMU has been a pioneer in educational technology and that we take a scientific approach—we think first and then build. We center our work on humans.”
When the meeting ends, Cassell evidently made an impression as several conference-goers give her their business cards. There is no time to reflect; she and Suresh head out to their next round of meetings.
Friday brings new sessions, workspaces, meetings, and more. Fuchs ends her day of back-to-back meetings with a Young Scientists final brainstorming session. Summer Davos comes to a close.
Fuchs and Andersen are up early Monday after a wee-hours arrival in Pittsburgh, ready to face their classrooms. Cassell also hits the campus early after a late-night arrival. In her whimsical office populated by colorful knickknacks and a six-foot potted plant fanning out its massive leaves to eavesdrop, she navigates continual meetings while considering new corporate opportunities she’s established for the HCII faculty and students. Fuchs also considers new connections, relationships that could lead to joint research as well as scientific articles. Within the week, she’s scheduled preliminary talks with two distinguished journals.
“CMU had a clear presence at the conference, and that’s significant,” notes Fuchs. “The university is able to have an impact, to influence the direction of these conversations on the future of our world. Personally, I had the phenomenal opportunity to have not just conversations on how global manufacturing decisions are changing the future of technology, but to really start to engage with leaders both on ways our research can influence their decisions and how their experiences can change our research and deepen its impact.”
Looks like Fuchs is on her way to changing the world for her daughter, Aria.>
The World Economic Forum’s 2014 Annual Meeting will take place January 22-25 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Politics, Business and Society” will be the thematic focus, with an aim to “develop the insights, initiatives, and actions necessary to respond to current and emerging challenges.”