The 6 Polarities the European Forum Alpbach failed to integrate
Foto-Credit: Bernhard Reingruber
The European Forum Alpbach (EFA) is over.
3 weeks of mingling of changemakers, business people, politicians, activists, do gooders, students, and all kinds of consultants lingering on the sidelines to secure their next year’s salary worth of projects are over now.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the EFA. I really do.
It’s the highest density of actually motivated people from all across the different sectors of society in Austria and some parts of Europe I know of. It’s the place to be in late summer for all those who want to change the world but …
… it’s also the place to be for all those who simply like to pretend that they’re engaged in changing the world while actually preserving the status quo.
For 3 weeks, the little mountain village of Alpbach becomes the town of (over-)thinkers – all in an effort to solve some of the most pressing problems we’re facing in and around Europe and…
… it falls short of truly delivering on its promise.
So here’s the thing: This is not a finger-pointing, blamey article that seeks to take a stab at the EFA’s program and its proponents. Neither is it to put the organizers at fault or diminish the immensity of the task to bring together so many diverse opinions in a conference – especially during these crazy Corona times (I judge the organizers actually did an amazing job).
It’s more a pointer towards some polarities that – going forward – need to be addressed and integrated if this forum is meant to re-establish itself as a place for emergent new thought and actual change rather than an elitist summer holiday camp where the wealthy and powerful and their aspiring descendants applaud each other.
No right, no wrong, no good, no bad – just pointing out the chasms the EFA and its participants need to be aware of if we really want to make change happen. Moving forward, those issues wait for integration rather than avoidance.
I’m a firm believer in the European idea (#BelieveInEurope) and in the power of forums like the one in Alpbach for potentially bridging the gaps among us and creating a healthier, more just, and saner world.
That’s why I can’t look away.
So in the spirit of this year’s theme of “The Great Transformation” and at the risk of never getting invited again, I give you the 6 polarities the EFA and its participants (including me, really) failed to integrate.
1. Old vs. Young
In every other session at the EFA I heard someone aged 50+ who in all their wisdom shared with everyone present a version of
“We need you, young people! You have to take responsibility moving forward! You need to be the ones going to the streets / demanding changes / fighting climate change / taking a stand for equality / standing up for the rights of the not-so-privileged / educating the next generations / alter your consumer behavior / etc.!”
“I won’t be around anymore…”
“This won’t affect me as much as it will affect you”
Well, we know. You’re old (mostly white, mostly male).
And still, you’re the ones in power right now.
You’re the ones who own the world’s riches right now, investing it in all those ways that are destroying the planet.
You’re sitting on your privileges, your power, your wealth and control what’s happening in the world and what not.
There is no doubt that it will be today’s young people who need to take responsibility for the way forward from here.
We will have to take a stand for what we want to see the world become – much, much more than lots of us are doing right now but …
… we need you to do the same too!
And not excuse yourself with an eye at your likely earlier departure from this human existence.
We need you to enable young people and empower them.
We need you to create and hold spaces where you can learn about young people’s perspectives in the world and they can learn from yours (and not just create spaces where young people mingle with young people and old people mingle with old people as it sometimes seems during the forum).
We need you to take responsibility. Actual responsibility. Responsibility for what’s happening right now, not for what you wish is happening or what should happen.
And we need you to actually step back and share your power.
Picture: A powerful discussion around moving from the old to the impact economy
If we actually want to make change happen we need to work together rather than tell somebody else to take responsibility. It’s all of us who need to get up from their asses if we don’t want to end up even more divided.
How do you arrive at the conclusion that being old you don’t need to go to the streets, question your consumer behavior, or become activists?
Let’s not leave each other alone but learn from and grow alongside each other!
2. Actual involvement vs. Downloading from panels
Many of the EFA’s panels seem more like presentations of insights that happened in the past rather than discussions where new ideas emerge and each and every panelists’ and participants’ understanding as well as engagement with the topics increases.
Why so? Isn’t this the Forum of Thinkers?
Well, that may be part of the problem. – We very often stop at intellectualizing.
MIT’s Otto Scharmer offers a great methodology to locate where you are listening and engaging from in conversations:
Picture: Otto Scharmer’s Levels of Listening – Presencing Institute
And I argue that – with very few exceptions – discussions in Alpbach haven’t gone much past Level 2 (except for some late nights at Jakober and some seminars during the Seminar Week and special programs within the conference like the Alpbach-in-Motion).
Lots of them have even remained at Level 1.
And that’s not actual discussions, that’s downloads.
At the same time, for actual transformation to happen, we definitely have to hang out on Levels 3 and 4 more often and for longer amounts of time.
And… It’s possible.
What’s missing is real engagement. Making it personal for the people in the room.
Having conversations that actually move you rather than protecting yourself and your ego by demonstrating how smart you are.
The world moves when you move.
3. Being vs. Doing
What’s great about Alpbach is the intellectual stimulation, the smartness of arguments, and the lively engagement of keen minds and…
… what’s frequently missing is the depth in human connection and interaction. The kind of experiential interaction that moves insights into actual change.
For that to happen, it’s essential to engage in both, Being AND Doing.
Emotional contact AND goal-oriented thinking
Noticing what’s going on right now AND focussing on how the world could be
Brad Blanton, author of “Radical Honesty”, often jokingly quotes one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century – Frank Sinatra – who also aptly commented on this with his famous line: ”Do – Be – Do – Be – Do – Be – Do”
Yet, we live in times where – at least if you’ve spent years in your country’s respective school system and universities – we almost exclusively use our “Doing Mode” especially when engaging in a professional context.
The same holds true for Alpbach.
I call it the Town of Over-Thinkers for a reason.
Connection on a deeper level is rare (again: except for a few late nights at Jakober, some seminars during the Seminar Week and a couple of hikes).
Picture: I held 3 Radical Honesty Sessions in Alpbach with growing interest. To me, it seemed as if it was a bit like taking a breath after a long time under water for some of the participants.
It’s more like a lot of brains connecting around brainy stuff. And that’s also great!
The only thing that is missing is the depth of real connection from time to time…
… conversations that move and touch people, that fundamentally transform perspectives.
… connections that don’t allow for plausible deniability after the forum ends and keep you accountable instead.
… real encounters that leave you emotionally engaged even after the bright stage lights disappear.
And the openness of participants for such kinds of experiences.
4. Vulnerability vs. Control
The conversations that would be needed for all of that to happen require degrees of openness and vulnerability unprecedented in such professional surroundings.
Simply take an honest look at yourself when in a group setting (and not when you’re alone by yourself thinking how virtuous you are):
What is more important to you?
- Gaining new knowledge or protecting your ego?
- Adopting curiosity or being right?
- Innovation or ideology?
Well, I have my own answers.
And the reality in Alpbach is also an answer in itself.
We seem to live in times where being right or being on the right side of things is paying off more than actual progress.
Of course, if that wasn’t your main objective, you might sometimes admit something along the lines of
“I was wrong”
“I don’t know” or
“I didn’t know”
or ask somebody else
“Would you tell me more?”
“Can you explain your thinking around xyz?”
“I wonder how xyz works. What’s your perspective on that?”
I haven’t heard many people (except some moderators) say any of these phrases.
Yet, we are surrounded by challenges that most no-one can really explain in their entirety.
People who are too sure about themselves and their points of view to me are not real learners and thus not real teachers either.
A bit more (intellectual) humility would benefit us all.
Of course, I get that this is tricky. Having become an expert, speaking on a panel, or trying to prove yourself as an aspiring student new comer, the stakes of admitting ignorance often seem too high and dangerous (at least for our egos).
Still, that is what’s required for real progress and change to happen.
We are all ignorant at times and for different topics. – Vulnerability is human, even in the smartest and best educated among us, the experts, the prodigies.
So: Share it!
For the sake of our joint progress.
Picture: Club Alpbach Burgenland invited me to give a Fireside Chat about Radical Honesty for Real Change. We talked a lot about vulnerability and how usually „honest“ people are simply mean when they don’t acknowledge their own vulnerabilities.
Places and conversations where vulnerability is not mixed into what’s going on feel more like self-amplifying filter bubbles. Or like mean and tough spaces for spiky elbows…
And with Brené Brown’s words: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
We need more activists who don’t just see themselves as the summit of creation and rather sometimes bite the bullet in an effort to bridge ideological and opinionated gaps.
5. Activist vs. Traditionalist
Sitting in one of Alpbach’s restaurants, one evening I encountered a CV fraternity (CartellVerband) in their traditional robes in the process of holding a formal get-together with rituals, singing, and drinking.
At the same time, sitting near me, mostly young people around me started mockingly making fun of them, badmouthing them for their inacceptable values, and wishing them to leave or at least stop what they’re doing.
That reminded me of a time at Teach For Austria where I worked for 7 years. We had this huge falling out among our participants after one of our training camps for hosting a party at a local fraternity’s club pub (“Bude”). Among our really well educated and self-proclaimed open-minded participants, some refused to join these “evil people” whom they associated with the very-far-right “bad” side of the political spectrum. Those people “who are the problem”.
While I absolutely agree that everyone should have their own political opinions, I was disappointed back then and also now about the extremity of the divide…
How on earth will we be able to unite people behind pressing challenges and the required work we can only do together if even the young people are not able to accept “the others”.
I don’t want an amazing forum like Alpbach to serve as young people’s initiation into their predecessors’ ego trips and pretend games.
Conservatives need progressive ideas and fresh air to their beliefs just as much as progressives need conservative grounding to not fly away in daydreams of utopias.
Judgement creates distance creates misunderstanding creates fear creates anger creates…
But what is true just as much is: “If you spot it, you got it” – those judgements that you are having about others around you usually have a lot more to do with yourself than what you might think.
Maybe you don’t allow yourself to be a bit like the person(s) you judge?
Or you are actually quite like them and don’t want to see it?
Or it’s actually only you who is the problem?
Picture: Change always starts with yourself – a realization that frequently emerges if you’re getting together with people and express yourself honestly. This one was taken after co-creating such a safe brave space of honesty near the Tree of Thinkers.
Change always starts with yourself. – Even when it comes to ideological divides.
And if we young people don’t get that…
… how should politicians who depend on votes,
… managers who depend on profits,
… all those people who created the systems we live in now?
6. Sustainability vs. Comfort
There are lots and lots of discussions and conversations around climate change / catastrophe / crisis / etc., also and probably in particular in Alpbach.
- Greening the economy
- The climate opportunity
- The future of energy
- Green transformations
- Green deals
- Sustainable business models
- Climate transitions
- Sustainability goals as catalyst for innovation
That’s just a short excerpt from this year’s program.
That is amazing!
I mean not the fact that we have to deal with this huge challenge but…
… that it’s not a shadow topic at the fringes of society anymore. Obviously.
When it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, that’s sometimes a slightly different experience.
Receptions where a flying buffett is served on disposable little plastic plates with little plastic forks.
A grand firework at another reception in the midst of the Tyrolean Alps.
And those nice SUV rental cars driving around the little town of Alpbach.
Those things speak a different language.
And even more so does a story that a colleague of mine experienced after she confronted one of the managers at the reception with the flying buffett. After hearing her complaints about the plastic cutlery he replied promptly and directly with: “I don’t care” leaving her baffled and silenced.
Of course you don’t care.
You’ll be gone when the glaciers have melted.
The only thing is though: We don’t care about you being in any position of power now.
How about letting those lead who actually care?
To be fair, all those incidents had nothing to do with the organizers themselves.
However, being part of Alpbach also parties, companies, and participants have to do what they said they would do. It’s a question of integrity.
Anything else is inauthentic.
I love the European Forum Alpbach.
And I see much more potential in it for moving Europe’s most burning issues forward.
That holds true for individual participants’ experience as well as the program in general.
What is needed?
More safe brave spaces where people of all backgrounds, genders, and ages actually get in direct contact with each other and leave transformed. For a Great Transformation to work, you need lots of little transformations in the people who are concerned.
And there are more tensions that need to be taken care of.
- The discussion around “New Normal” vs. “Back to Normal” with the very real and high likelihood of actually living into a “No Normal”-future (what’s normal in the first place!?)
- Living up to ideals of diversity on panels and among participants (and eventually among decision makers)
- Reducing the elitist character of the forum with participatory structures
- Creating safe brave spaces so that connection and lively engagement emerges also outside of beer-induced states of closeness at local restaurants
The challenging thing in all of them – as in the 6 polarities presented above – is that we don’t go about it by condemning one side or the other but rather by integrating the positive AND the negative aspects of either side. It’s about both-and thinking rather than either-or.
Only then will we move, touch, and inspire more people to #BelieveInEurope
And create a future that is how we best imagine it to be.
And who will start doing that?
There’s nobody else you can wait for.
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