Report from Tällberg Forum 2012

Jun 17

The Tällberg Forum is an annual event, with a history of over 30 years, organised by the eponymous foundation based in Stockholm, the activities of which are guided by the question ‘How on Earth can we live together?’. Key in Tällberg Foundation’s work is the hosting of an ongoing series of conversations on topics that connect to that leading question. The Forum is the annual culmination point of that continuous debate. About 300 people from all parts of the globe and various walks of life are invited to convene for four days in Tällberg, a small village picturesquely nestled on the shores of Lake Siljan, in Dalarna county, about 300 km north of the Swedish capital. The village consists of a sprinkle of houses and boasts 8 hotels and a railway station with a direct connection to Stockholm. The plenary sessions of the Forum are held in a large tent high upon a hill from which one has a captivating view over the magnificent lake. 

I was in Tällberg in 2008, as invited participant to a ‘New Leaders’ development programme and subsequently as a participant to the Forum. This year I was invited back, particularly in conjunction with one of the large sessions organised at the forum on issues surrounding the global food system. The overall shape of the Forum was very similar to the 2008 edition, with plenary sessions, discussion panels, small group conversations, artistic (music, dance, poetry) intermezzos and even a nature walk acting in sequence to create an engaging whole. The Forum is not designed to get to a particular ‘end product’. There is no real sense of terraced design that inexorably leads to a higher vantage point or an action plan. It’s about mostly about being part of inspiring stories, letting uneasy questions germinate in one’s subconscious and making connections with other participants. The opportunity to mingle with people like renowned author Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost), epigeneticist Moishe Szyf (McGill University) or film maker Nora Bateson (daughter of the great systems thinker) is tantalizing. Some people may be a little uncomfortable with the explicitly ‘humanist’ undertone of the many testimonials but that’s just part of the Forum’s DNA.

The mood this year was different from 2008, however. The specific theme for this forum was the role of technology in shaping our future. But there was very little techno-optimism to be picked up at this gathering. I felt the overall ambience was rather grim and anxious. There seemed to be a genuine feeling that the kitchen is on fire and the chefs are on the run. WorldChanging founder Alex Steffen captured the mood very well when he observed that we seemed to be in a state of perpetual ‘future shock’. There were some compelling contributions on the power of nanotech, social media, and data mining and visualization but participants were often suspicious about the intentions behind their deployment. Social media were criticized for ‘being stuck between a public service and a source of private profit’. Others thought the abundance of data made us less rather than more strategic, not to mention the problem of de-skilling with the division of labour between men and machine progressively shifting to the latter (Nayan Chanda, from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, evoked the dystopian image of a Japanese plant he visited in which robots were producing other robots in pitch darkness). What with a data driven society that would lead to undesireable patterns of stigmatisation and exclusion? Furthermore, even the most elaborate databases and most sophisticated data mining routines are not able to shed light on the ‘unknown unknowns’. At best they help us to get to the known unknowns a little faster.

So, despite the Forum organisers’ assertion that ‘technology shapes the present and the future more profoundly than, say, economic policy’ the consensus seemed to be that technology will be of little use in dealing with our predicament if the persistent governance problems that are plaguing the world are not resolved. To use another image proffered by Alex Steffen: the challenge is not to design a better power drill, but to find ways to use existing power drills - that are used on average between 6 and 20 minutes in their whole lifetime – in a more socially and environmentally equitable way. The feeling was that the current powers-that-be (governments, multilateral institutions) were failing to step up to the challenge in a big way. The inimitable Jack Sim, President of the World Toilet Organisation (yes, you are reading correctly), spoke of the desparate need to dismantle ‘bureaucrazy’, a system of which the sole purpose is to avoid people making mistakes rather than to serve citizens. “How can we build incentive systems to make them again mission-driven?”, Jack asked in his typically disarming way. I heard several people declare the United Nations moribund. Will the corporate world fill the governance vacuum then? There were some interesting examples of companies expanding the boundaries of their businesses, embracing ever more aspects of their customers’ lives (say, a food company worrying about households’ energy use). And in a way Italy’s current government of ‘technocrats’ could be considered a thinly disguised working group of people with strong and powerful connections with the corporate world. But the question remains whether the profit motive could ever be an adequate basis for an equitable and sustainable society. 

For me personally, the most positive vibes at this gathering came from social entrepreneurs who showed inspiring ingenuinity in dealing with intractable societal problems. Jack Sim is a case in point. He has embraced the mission to provide every single person on this planet access to proper sanitation. I heard a South African entrepreneur who led a ‘fly farm’ producing 100 tons per day of high quality protein in the form of, indeed, flies as chicken and fish feed. An anecdotal but captivating example of how these people learn and deal with complexity came in the form of a story of how one day in a clothing store this entrepreneur decided to track the clothing hanger that carried the shirt he had just bought. It led him to a triage company that employed disadvantaged people to clean and sort the hangers, to subsequently sell them back to the stores cheaper than they could be imported from China.

The key questions swirling around the Forum can be nicely captured by the archetype of Ashby’s Law of Requisity Variety. The basic problem we are facing is how to balance the increasing turbulence of the world with our capacity to absorb and learn from complexity. New forms of governance to address the yawning trust deficit (amongst citizens, between citizens and institutions, and amongst nation states) are urgently needed. They need to be guided by new narratives of co-responsibility and well-being (beyond GDP). We’ll know soon enough whether humanity will be able to make the leap. The Tällberg Foundation is to be commended for their tireless efforts to keep these important discussions alive.

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