Chicago-based executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International has been a sponsor of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for seven years.
But Jory Marino became interim chief executive in July, making last week's conference his first. Heidrick, a forum "strategic partner," recommends which "Young Global Leaders" should be invited to the event. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan chairs the panel that makes the final picks, which says something about the caliber of people who attend the conference.
Here are edited excerpts of my post-trip conversation with Marino.
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Q: When was the first time you felt like you were having an out-of-body experience?
A: If you think security at our airports is interesting, imagine walking a quarter of a mile or half a mile and have to go through two screening devices, and every time you walk in and out of a venue, you take your jacket off, your watch off, you go through a massive amount of security. What certainly happens then is you just know you're surrounded by important people, because you got all of this security.
Q: You hoped to meet Al Gore. Did you?
A: No. But I did meet Christine Lagarde (head of the International Monetary Fund) and shook her hand and turned around and met (Yahoo CEO) Marissa Mayer and shook her hand. And I met the prime ministers of Peru and Liechtenstein and the deputy prime minister of Iraq, and many, many CEOs. My own schedule had just about 70-plus individual interactions with people, ranging from scheduled meetings of 30 minutes in duration up to and including the occasional meetings, spending 15 to 20 minutes just talking to people impromptu.
Q: Did you ever stop and wonder how much you were spending to participate? And think, gosh, is this really worth it? (The New York Times reported that the price in 2011 to be a "strategic partner" was $527,000, which entitled a company to an annual membership and up to five invitations. Each invitation was an additional $19,000 that year.)
A: No. The (return on investment) is priceless. We're in the business of building relationships. It is the ultimate neutral zone of building those relationships. … You have chance encounters in what's called the "strategic partners lounge." You're sipping a soda and somebody says, "Do you mind if I sit down next to you?" And one conversation leads to another, and you find out he's the special adviser to the ministry of education, culture, science and technology in Japan. And, oh, by the way, he says, "When you come to Tokyo next year, please let me know so I can have you meet the minister." How do you measure that?
John Tolva, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's former top technology aide, has joined PositivEnergy Practice, an engineering firm that designs the guts of hyperadvanced buildings and urban infrastructure. Its owners are the architects Adrian Smith, Gordon Gill and Robert Forest.
One of the firm's newest assignments is in Astana, Kazakhstan, the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Last year Smith and Gill's architecture firm won the competition to design a 1-square-kilometer addition to the capital city for the 2017 World Expo. Among the architect's goals is that the campus will be energy-positive and water-neutral, meaning it will generate more energy than it uses and recycle rainwater, condensation and wastewater.
"The goal is to rethink cities as power plants," said Tolva, PositivEnergy's president. "Think of buildings as machines for affecting their environment — every building affects the environment, but it's generally not a positive effect."
One difficulty posed by Astana is that it is the second-coldest capital city in the world, which results in high energy demand during winter. (Tolva checked his iPhone Monday afternoon; it was minus 18 degrees in Astana.)
The solution, Tolva said, is a combination of solar power, wind power and bioenergy, which involves converting gases emitted from food and human waste into energy. Any excess energy could be shipped back to the grid for use in other parts of the city or stored for use on days when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing enough to meet demand. Energy storage is the most challenging aspect of the Astana project; one planned method involves technology so advanced it was used on the space shuttle, and the other involves shoving the energy deep into the ground using geothermal technology.
Tolva's expertise is designing the simulation software used to ensure that these plans will work. And then hopefully that software will be used by the campus' engineers to monitor everything from water use to smog levels outside in real time.
"You have the opportunity to build these buildings so that every object that draws power has an Internet presence," Tolva said. "You'll definitely be able to know the energy profile down to the outlet."
The project is government-funded; the country is undertaking a massive "greening" campaign expected to cost $3.2 billion annually until 2050, according to Reuters. After the expo is finished, the goal is to convert the main pavilion into a mall and office space, and the surrounding buildings into residences with as few modifications as possible.
"The real goal here is to set an example for how a smart city can be managed," Tolva said. "If you can do it in Kazakhstan. ..."
Tolva didn't finish the sentence. But I will. If it can be done in Kazakhstan, it can be done in America.