BUILDING BRIDGES: Where finance meets the SDGs

“All the bridges that have been built to connect our societies are now being taken down,” Canadian “geofuturist” Abishur Prashak recently declared in The G|O. Well, new ones are also being built right here. The second “Building Bridges” summit will open on Monday. A joint initiative between the Geneva finance community, the Swiss government, the United Nations, and other international partners, “Building Bridges” is a perfect example of how Geneva’s rich ecosystem can be leveraged: in this instance to accelerate the transition to a global economic model aligned with the SDGs. A tall order, granted, cut out for realist utopians—which is exactly how Fabio Sofia (one of the Building Bridges initiators) describes himself as he shares his vision with The G|O.

For Tatiana Valovaya (Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva), “Switzerland—with its multilateral hub and world-renowned financial center—is the perfect ecosystem to connect finance and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

“We aim to build a bridge from an economic system that has damaged the planet to one that sustains and regenerates it,” says Patrick Odier, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Bank Lombard Odier. Next Monday (November 29), both he and Valovaya will be sharing the stage at the opening of the second edition of Building Bridges. Besides the UN, several other Geneva-based organizations are involved, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Financial Center for Sustainability (FC4S). The Swiss Government is also a full partner.

Stating the evidence of the richness and importance of International Geneva, does not, however, guarantee recognition and legitimacy on the ultracompetitive global scene of sustainable finance. If the transformation to a green economy is underway today in the US and elsewhere (and will now be officially on the agenda of the new German government), the stars might not be equally aligned in Switzerland, where finance still operates with a relatively traditional mindset. The second edition of Building Bridges will thus probably be more an exercise in pedagogy and awareness-raising than an event that will move the needle. “We are not naïve,” admits Fabio Sofia, but “the challenges should not deter us from acting.”

Fabio Sofia, President of Sustainable Finance Geneva (SFG) and one of the people primarily responsible for having conceived the event, comes back to the origin of the gathering for The G|O. The bridge is local, as he explains in his manifesto, but the ambitions are truly global.

“If we want sustainable finance to succeed, we need to work together to accelerate change. We need to break down silos, think differently, and build bridges if we want to change the paradigm. The first bridge must be built here, across Geneva’s vibrant ecosystem—which has not always been good at fostering communication between its two shores; the right bank, home to ‘International Geneva’ and the left bank, financial and commercial. As a result of this divide, the conversation about the most pressing challenges of the moment—the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity, and social equity—has been hampered. That is what prompted Sustainable Finance Geneva, founded in 2008, to act.

“The landscape was also changing: The end of banking secrecy and the automatic exchange of data implied a repositioning of the financial center; sustainable finance was becoming increasingly important, especially abroad; the European Commission started its action plan to promote and regulate sustainable finance in line with Europe's 2050 carbon reduction commitments; and the Swiss financial center is increasingly dependent on the European market.

“This offered SFG the opportunity to imagine an unprecedented redeployment of the financial sector. Switzerland’s unique ecosystem represented a huge potential opportunity to position Geneva, at the global level, as the place where sustainability should be discussed. In February 2019, with the bringing together of many partners, Building Bridges was born, and a movement started.

“Building Bridges is not organized as a simple summit or conference, but as a week of community-driven events. As its latest edition is about to open, the most important things to have in mind are that:
a) Building Bridges is first and foremost a state of mind; open, collaborative, and participative.
b) Building Bridges is also about mobilizing an entire community, first its individuals, then the institutions they represent.
c) Building Bridges does not want to be just Geneva-based, but Swiss and international. It must become the hub of projects and discussions around the common goals of decarbonizing our economies, protecting our natural ecosystems, and developing more inclusive and equitable societies. In addition, it should help set the global agenda for sustainable finance.
d) Building Bridges must allow the community to innovate without restriction.

“We are realistic utopians, aware of the difficulties but also the opportunities. So, collaborate, and encourage the sharing of experience and knowledge because it is together that we will find the solutions. That's Building Bridges too.”