Davos Diary: The Scene in Switzerland

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon attends a session during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 21. Ruben Sprich/Reuters

It's not easy to reach Davos. It's a small village in the eastern Swiss Alps not far from Klosters, the former choice for skiing holidays of the British royal family and their friends. It takes three train changes from my home in Paris, and once you arrive the checkpoints and security barriers are seemingly more stringent than crossing the border between Turkey and Syria.

But every year at the end of January, Davos becomes, in a sense, the center of the world. That's when the great and the good, the very wealthy and the talented, old school and young innovators all come together for the World Economic Forum. The motto of the WEF—now a middle-aged 45 this year—is: "Committed to improving the state of the world."

The philosophy behind Davos—one that is implemented by the executive chairman, Klaus Schwab—is for the political elite, world leaders, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and billionaires to meet in this icy place to try to brainstorm solutions to make the world better. Can the very rich bring philanthropy to the rest of the world?

It's a lofty vision, but one that Schwab and his team, over the years, have honed to perfection. For the past decade, a few carefully vetted "smart" celebrities—the Kardashians, for instance, would never make the cut—like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Emma Watson, Sharon Stone and, this year, Leonardo di Caprio show up to sprinkle some magic, and highlight key issues.

Thus, you will find the oddest conglomeration of people who would never stand together in real life at a cocktail party: Ban Ki-moon and Bono; John Kerry; Sheryl Sandberg; Melinda Gates; Tony Blair; Jack Wa from the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba; George Osborne. The list goes on to the point where you don't stare at anyone because, suddenly, Leonardo di Caprio passes by but looks like a normal person. Everyone jostles for position, and everyone has to more or less wear ugly snow boots and carry their shoes in a bag.

This year, Davos opened to a report by Oxfam announcing that 1% of the world's population had as much wealth as the remaining 99%, which brings to mind some of the bad news that 2016 has so far given us: refugees rising, stock market plummeting, wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, David Bowie and Glenn Frey of the Eagles dying far too young.

Davos 2016 focused on the world's "megacrisis," as well as feminism and the "toddler wage gap." (That was from Sheryl Sandberg, who else?) This is the serious part. At night, there are endless parties and gatherings, for Davos is also the great social leveler.

Aside from the highest-level VIPS, everyone has to skid on the frozen ice, wait in line for the security checks and ride the shuttle bus to the center where the events are held. The shuttle is the great equalizer: You find yourself next to astrophysicists and billionaires from China.

The unspoken rule at Davos is that everyone has to talk to everyone. That's how ideas get shaped and policies get carried out.

On Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a cold snap that saw the temperature drop to -13, the U.N. secretary general gathered his new Sustainable Development Goal Advocates together in a high school auditorium. SDGs are the international community's plan to protect the environment, give rights to women, provide clean water and basically save the world. It's a big mandate.

The U.N. chief, who will finish his term at the end of 2016, warmly introduced the advocates, which included the prime minister of Norway, the president of Ghana, the economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the film maker Richard Curtis and a regal looking Queen Mathilde. Forest Whitaker, the actor, could not make it but sent a recorded message that unfortunately did not play because of a technical glitch.

Paul Polman, the powerful chief of Unilever, who has led industry in terms of sustainable development, spoke about how to inspire CEOs. "My vision is that every business would run their business plans in line with the GlobalGoals," he said.

Curtis, the director of Notting Hill and who had run the U.K. charity Red Nose Day for 25 years, talked about why the SDGs mattered. An articulate and earnest 17-year old Ethiopian, Hannah Godefa, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, stressed that young people, especially women, needed to study.

Ban, who is believed to aspire to be the next president of Korea, made some jokes about how much livelier it was to be in a high-school auditorium—the room was packed with "ordinary" people, as it was an open meeting—as opposed to a "closed" forum. The secretary general said we need "all hands on deck" to implement the goals.

It's easy for cynics—myself included—to scoff at mechanisms such as SDGs. The goals are grand. But the buzz of Davos is that great ideas come about, are shared and are brought about, so that in a sense, anything can happen.

It's easy to feel jaded here, with the glut of fur coats and Hermes bags on display, and it's easy to talk about dire poverty when we do have electricity, heating and running water. But it's equally impressive to see Yunus, Sachs, Ban and the other advocates shuffle into a high school classroom and sit on those uncomfortable wooden chairs where we once sat and learned algebra, and after the event to talk amongst themselves about how they were going to make it happen.

That's the Davos magic. It is a place where small ideas grow into big reality. Even amid the whir of helicopters dropping off their most revered guests at the heliopads, there are plenty of truth-tellers.

Correction: The spelling of the name of the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.