Lessons from the World Economic Forum in Davos – Cloud Computing’s Global Impact

January 31, 2012 Appirio

By Chris Barbin

Last week I had the honor to attend my first World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos as a representative of 2012’s class of WEF Technology Pioneers.  I made my first trip to Switzerland twenty years ago when I was traversing across Europe on a Eurorail Pass armed only with a backpack and $1,500 for the duration. That visit to Switzerland and Europe changed my perspective on life forever by completely opening up the world to me. While the lodging and food were a bit better last week, my Davos experience opened up another chapter for me and an even broader personal perspective.  This time not just a global awareness, but how cloud computing (and hopefully young companies like Appirio) can really make a difference and a global impact in the coming decades.

The conversations in Davos were far reaching, from gender equality to social unrest to (of course) today’s economic challenges, and it was amazing to hear how often technology was brought up in these topics.  As Nick Bilton from the New York Times said in his recent blog, “Even the 102-page program guide made more references to technology and social media than any of the nerdiest Silicon Valley blogs I read daily.”

However, what I found even more surprising was how little true understanding there was around cloud computing. Granted, its still only 4-5% of a $1.5T IT industry, and as CEO of a cloud computing company, I eat, sleep, and breathe that world.  However, it was surprising at a time when CEOs, reporters and investors alike are talking about how “the cloud” will transform IT and even create jobs. I had a number of conversations in Davos with business executives who were already using or exploring cloud computing, but even they were still thinking about it from the private cloud perspective as a way to streamline costs – not a way to do things differently.

The shift to Internet-centric, public cloud technologies has the potential to not only reshape a new generation of industry giants (including Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg was co-chair and one of the hottest tickets in town), it’s one of the “new models” that will impact the world’s economy in the future which was a major theme of the conference.

Here are two more areas where I think cloud computing could make a huge global impact:

The crowd’s ability to stimulate a new workforce (and economies).  
While cloud computing was less understood, crowdsourcing was a significant topic of discussion. One of my favorite conversations was with the founder and CEO of the Hult Global Case Challenge – a crowdsourcing platform and event that brings together students from around the globe to solve complex social issues.  The cloud is enabling this move to crowdsourcing ideas.

I was also lucky enough to participate in a brainstorming session with Italy’s Minister of Economic Development, Corrado Passera, on bringing technology and innovation to Italy.  With 6 million businesses in the country and 15-24 year olds there facing a 30% unemployment rate, he was looking for creative, disruptive concepts to help stimulate the economy.  We talked about using platforms like our CloudSpokes crowdsourcing development community as an on-ramp for jobs and new skill development.  It was an idea that intrigued Mr. Passera enough to ask us to stay in touch as part of a technology-working group to stimulate innovation in his country, and made me realize the impact that can be had when you combine the power of the cloud AND crowd.

The Millenial’s ability to solve problems in new and innovative ways.  
This year the WEF introduced a new program called The Global Shapers, which includes a group of nearly 100 twenty-to-thirty year olds that have an entrepreneurial track record and are contributing to serving society at large. This is a generation that grew up living “in the cloud”. They tweet rather than email. They live on their phones not their computers. They established organizations like DropBox that serve 50 million people without building out huge workforces like in days past.

I won’t lie. Listening to these edgy and fearless leaders speak at times made me feel like the skeptical and pragmatic old guy, but they are incredibly strong, outspoken and have a unique perspective on the world. They will be able to apply the Internet, social technologies and networked cloud systems in ways that we haven’t even imagined yet.  You only have to look at the Arab Spring to get a glimpse of what’s possible.

Sure, there are a lot of open questions around the cloud’s impact on the global economy – many of which came up in my one-on-one discussions.  Things like what role government regulation will (and should) play in helping or hindering cloud adoption.  Or where the cloud fits within the various security models across the world. Or how local infrastructure and business environments in emerging nations can adapt and mature to support this new way of doing business.

But that’s part of what excites me about this space – it’s still early and we’re still pioneering. There is no question that in our $1.5T industry, there are hundreds of billions of dollars of waste annually – failed projects, under-utilized hardware and software, corporate data centers draining excessive power, and bloated maintenance and services contracts required to make it all work together.  As one C-level tech executive said during one of my industry roundtables “if we don’t innovate with things like the cloud and new business models, we’ll be faced with a crisis similar to what the financial services industry has been through.”  I know personally, I’ll fight incredibly hard with industry partners, governments and forums like the WEF to prevent that from happening.

Davos and the World Economic Forum exceeded all my expectations and I could not be more thankful and feel more fortunate to have been able to attend on behalf of the team at Appirio.

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