There are too many meetings and conferences where people have to sit through a lot to learn a little. At too many worthy gatherings, speakers take up most of the time, and there is very little audience involvement. There is often no time to ask questions or mull things over before returning to the issue for deeper deliberation. Such events often seem designed for the benefit of the star speakers and experts rather than the participants.
To learn, think, deliberate, debate and network requires time. In Hong Kong, it is not easy to persuade people to come to events. So, we have to cram in high-profile things to get people’s attention. Participants have short attention spans, they have to take phone calls and often rush back to the office between sessions. Our experience of a gathering is often truncated. Can you imagine taking several days off to go to a faraway place to give yourself the time and space to ponder the big questions about the world? Well-heeled people do go off to retreats to relax and replenish for example, attracts a large crowd of senior businesspeople from around the world every winter in the snowcovered Swiss Alps. They pay heftily for the privilege to mix with each other while being entertained by politicians and experts invited to address them. Corporate leaders feel important when they have participated.
There is a third formula – the Tallberg Forum – held during the last few days of June at the idyllic Swedish village of Tallberg. Instead of the imposing Swiss mountains, there is the calming Lake Siljan and the long Nordic summer days most conducive to sitting out and chatting until late with the sun still shining. Here, the emphasis is on participants’ role as global citizens. This year’s topic was the track towards the UN-sponsored climate-change negotiations this December in Copenhagen. What should people do ahead of the talks?
Politicians explained the challenges of leadership – this year, the president of Micronesia talked about how climate change and sea-level rise are already affecting his people, and a Kenyan minister talked about the long journey towards forming a much needed seven-nation commission to to manage the Nile basin.
Scientists warned that the planet is warming much more quickly than they had originally estimated as a result of burning fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Solutions came from all types of experts and players, who gave their ideas about how the world could manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable. Civil society representatives spent hours, over two days, in small workshops on all sorts of initiatives, such as location-specific projects to save tropical forests – because trees absorb carbon – how to plan cities to improve energy efficiency and develop low-carbon economies, how to create jobs and reduce poverty, and more.
The non-governmental and non-business participants were, on the whole, the most energised because they were able to introduce their projects and rally support from others around the world. Groups came together to collaborate, and there were even philanthropic donors who offered financing to help these ideas come to fruition. Those who had attended the forum in previous years talked about how their collaboration had developed, and provided heartwarming updates. The businesspeople networked by introducing solutions or explaining what it would take for the corporate world to speed up the industrial transformation needed to create an environmentally sustainable world. The political participants were, on the whole, sympathetic to the climate cause and came to feel the global pulse. Conversations in attractive surroundings that are less hurried and more focused can produce impressive results, leading to multi-year action.
This is where the Tallberg Forum excels.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is the CEO of think tank Civic Exchange, and a board member of the Tallberg Foundation in Sweden
Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post, 2 July 2009