Stimulating Talk

Christine Loh reflects on the Tällberg conversation in the January 24, 2008 South China Morning Post.

“Do we know what to do? Probably, yes. Will we do it? Probably not.” These were the pessimistic closing remarks after several days of intense discussion at the Tallberg Forum last June on climate change, sustainable development and the necessary transitions that societies must make to restore the ecological balance and preserve life as we know it.

Tallberg is a small, idyllic village in Sweden, about three hours by train from Stockholm, that makes urbanites feel rural life is not only charming but efficient. Everything works well there and the village seems well connected to the world, even though it is very far from the concrete jungle of modern cities, particularly those in our neighbourhood, Asia.

Unlike Davos, the famous Swiss ski resort where the World Economic Forum hosts its major annual event, Tallberg has no mountains. It does, however, face the large and amazing Lake Siljan, which has a calming and uplifting effect on all who see it.

Tallberg comes alive in the summer, when the sun hardly sets. For several days at the end of June, the village becomes populated by several hundred visitors from around the world. They go there to meet interesting people and have great, no-preset-agenda conversations about the big issues.

Unlike Davos, with its main emphasis on economic matters and most of its participants from the business sector, Tallberg examines issues affecting humanity, economics, politics, ecology and social systems. Conversations are designed to reflect the multiple dimensions of problems, challenges and opportunities. Attendees come from all sectors and regions of the world, and the organisers also try to maintain a gender balance. While the most influential leaders are invariably older, there is also an attempt to include young leaders, so there is a diversity of age.

There is one more aspect of Tallberg that is highly attractive. It recognises humans as whole beings and, thus, non-rational and non-intellectual stimuli are very much part and parcel of the whole experience. Music, poetry and the arts are skilfully integrated into the programme, designed to remind participants of our common humanity.

I spent the past few days at Tallberg helping to plan the 2008 Tallberg Forum programme. How can we design this year’s gathering of politicians, businessmen and activists so they can deepen the conversation about doing what they know to be necessary?

Cynical observers might say that conversation is just hot air. Having been involved in helping to structure the Tallberg event for several years, I know that good conversation is, in fact, a reminder of the human ability to learn, listen and reflect with others. The stimulation propels individual energy to a higher level and we go away feeling strengthened to get on with whatever we are doing. Moreover, meeting others who are doing innovative and important things in other parts of the world is inspiring. Learning from top presenters and experts deepens our understanding and, with that, it reminds us of our priorities and stimulates creativity.

That is why hundreds of people keep going back to Tallberg for that “fix”. It is one of the world’s better-kept secrets, although it has become famous in Europe and is now a sought-after event.

We in Asia can learn something from it. We, too, can have good and satisfying conversations. Conferences, seminars and forums, where we are being talked to, can be redesigned to focus more on encouraging richer dialogue. We can return to an issue that seems initially daunting to explore and re-explore its boundaries. Through deep conversation, we can gain perspective and insight, and new ideas on how to move forward with challenges.

Most of the time, we do know what needs to be done. We don’t think it will get done because we, alone, are not empowered enough. We feel debilitated, so we believe things won’t get done. The remedy is to re-examine things with a diverse group in a stimulating setting. It works.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange and a director of the Tallberg Foundation in Sweden

Copyright (c) 2008. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author.