Voices From the Fringe at the WEF – The Faith of Monsieur Fleur

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As we waited for the official inauguration of the 2013 Open Forum Davos, a quirky, but memorable-looking man placed a small flowerpot in my hands. The finely crafted hand-made bouquet was decorated with a tiny blinking centime (French term for one-cent coins), which symbolizes serendipity for the receiver. Looking as if he had just descended from the surrounding Alps, he asked me to present the gift to Dr. Gilbert Probst, a World Economic Forum (WEF) managing director and in charge of the Open Forum, after his speech.

He disappeared from the front row just as quickly as he had appeared, possibly being a shy soul. As I sat there puzzling over this man, a photographer whispered over my shoulder, “he comes every year to the Open Forum and gives flowers to the moderators.” On the fourth and final day of the Open Forum, I spoke with this unpretentious man – Urs Heinz – who turned out to be an influential man with a distinct voice. He has been engaged with the WEF since 1975, and in particular with its founder Klaus Schwab, recently described by Forbes Magazine as “indisputably the most powerful connector in the world.”

Le Matin, a French-speaking Swiss newspaper, featured Monsieur Fleur in 2009; Source: montreuxjazzfestival2009.com

Mr. Heinz is known in French-speaking Switzerland under the phrase “La Foi de Monsieur Fleur”, or in English, “The Faith of Mr. Flower.” Indeed, although he seems to be a very ‘simple’ man among the sea of formal, grey, and pinstriped Davos Men, his remarkable honesty seemed to have made an impression on Mr. Schwab himself.

It began in 1975 when Mr. Heinz heard about this business meeting taking place in Davos. He reached out to Mr. Schwab (which might have been much easier back then compared to today) and asked him to invite a friend, Garth Hewitt, a musician and advocate for justice and peace, to perform at the meeting. “A friend of Cliff Richard,” he added, clearly familiar with the name-dropping game. Mr. Hewitt got his slot between lunch and dessert, and left with a handful of centimes in his pockets from the audience to further his purpose. Even today, grateful as he is, Mr. Heinz still prepares his bouquets for Mr. Schwab and even once brought one at the WEF headquarters in Cologny, on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland.

He is also full of suggestions, many that could be of great use to Dr. Probst’s team of organizers. In Mr. Heinz´s eyes, the Open Forum needs better female representation on the panels, the revival of the daily WEF newspaper (I suppose he meant a print version for those who are not regularly checking their smartphones), and a people’s festival with world musicians where the proceedings go toward fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals.

An advocate of peace and keeping the faith, Mr. Heinz believes that “we need to enjoy one another”, and what matters in the end are the basics of relationships and “not only religion.” It comes as no surprise then that the violent anti-capitalist protests against WEF in the late 90s were thus a source of major anxiety to him. Not only did he start sharing chocolate marshmallows with the protesters and soldiers, but he also gave roses to the girls, effectively “disarming those full of hate,” as he put it.

Driven by his anxiety, Mr. Heinz drafted a letter in 2001 with six or so provisions on how to achieve peace at the conference; he then copied it 20 times and gave it to the town leaders and Mr. Schwab. He suggested starting a public forum in order to address the concerns of the demonstrators. Two years later the WEF, in cooperation with the Swiss Evangelical Church, launched the first Open Forum Davos in 2003 (in 2002 the WEF was held in New York City). According to Dr. Probst, the Open Forum is the reason why protests have waned.

The church decided to end its engagement in 2011 due to the financial costs, says Mr. Heinz. (They are today represented on the advisory board.) Since then, Mr. Heinz laments over the fact that there have been fewer flowers and women on the panels – there were even two panels without a single woman this year. However, what surprised him this year was the performance of Chris Washburne´s Jazz Band during the session on Improvisation. A special highlight for him was the performance of the young lady, Linda Lee, who was invited at the last second to climb onto the stage with her trumpet to perform with the band (learn more about jazz and improvisation by watching the broadcasted educative and interactive session here).

Mr. Washburne´s performance seemed to have had such a strong impression on Mr. Heinz that he made a call for the revival of the earlier mentioned people’s festival. I believe that he would proudly partake in the WEF´s claim for “improving the state of the world”. This may be his own contribution to bettering the lives of others.

It seems that together, both Mr. Heinz and Mr. Schwab have successfully addressed the protests; the former by using flowers and the latter by setting up the Open Forum. Thank you for my centime, Monsieur Fleur. Let´s hope that Mr. Schwab listens to your call once again and that we will have a more well-balanced gender representation; not only on the panels in the Open Forum but also in the Annual Meeting, and lastly, a festival where talented musicians, and men and women like Mr. Heinz, celebrate with CEOs and heads of states.

What an interesting bouquet of people that would be.

Listen to the full conversation with Urs Heinz.

Feature Image: Urs Heinz and Business Angel Esther Dyson exchanging thoughts; Source: openforum.ch.

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