By Philippe Mottaz and Vincent Landon
Thursday, September 30, 2021
This post is an on-site edited version of The Geneva Observer Briefing, our newsletter, September 30, 2021 edition. To receive the Briefing directly in your inbox, register here. By registering you are supporting independent journalism and The G|O.
The Geneva Science and Diplomatic Anticipator (GESDA) is a project of staggering ambition. It has the potential to transform International Geneva and to shape the future of modern multilateralism as science and technology assume an ever more important role in determining mankind’s future. If successful, it could reinforce and cement, for the foreseeable future, International Geneva as the center of global governance and multilateralism. “Potential” is the operative word here, but a week short of its official launch GESDA’s aims undeniably appear to be groundbreaking in their scope and vision.
Now, a project not yet publicly unveiled, faced with a massive communication challenge given its nature, is bound to elicit questions and even criticism. Inserting such an innovative object in the Geneva international ecosystem has not gone without friction. Since the announcement of its creation two years ago by the Swiss Government and the Canton of Geneva, GESDA has ruffled feathers, bruised egos, laid bare the depth of some turf wars among some of International Geneva’s private local players. Parochialism has sometimes surfaced as action and ambition rather than continuity are the new project’s main driver. It is telling for instance that the fact that GESDA’s leadership in the hands of Patrick Aebischer, former president of EPFL, the Swiss Technology Institute in Lausanne, and Peter Brabeck, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, remains today an object of suspicion for some of the people we spoke to; the two men are still perceived as “outsiders” with “no knowledge of International Geneva,” a perception that over many months slowed down the onboarding of some local stakeholders, a matter now solved by a hefty amount of fence-mending and …traditional diplomacy.
This article is based on interviews conducted with about a dozen people. Most of them have accepted to talk to The G|O under a strict condition of anonymity.
Several Swiss players and International Geneva stakeholders outside of GESDA seem to be hedging their bets as the launch approaches. Doubts and criticism about the project itself and the way it has been run so far are expressed in private. “I don’t want anything on tape”, one knowledgeable source in the scientific research community told us. The level at which GESDA aims to operate is unusual for Geneva, and that alone might explain the wait-and-see attitude of some people we talked to.
There also is a fear: research and projects must be funded. Will GESDA become a powerhouse, massively funded, and thus compromise the ability of smaller players to fund their own projects?
“I am not surprised that people outside of the GESDA community, composed today of more than 4000 scientists around the world do not really understand what GESDA will do, because the summit will be the first time the GESDA really goes public and I am confident a lot of the questions that are being asked today will be answered,” GESDA ‘s Foundation President Peter Brabeck-Letmathe tells The Geneva Observer.
If there is one agreement among all, it is that next week’s Summit could be a make or break event.
World, discover a new Radar!
And so, next week, more than 500 academics and diplomats, UN officials and NGO representatives will meet in Geneva to discuss the scientific breakthroughs of the future and how we can best exploit them. The two-day event, which will take place at the Campus Biotech, will be organised around and fueled by what lies at the core of GESDA, the Science Breakthrough Radar, an interactive platform to help the global community to continuously monitor and assess the advancement of scientific inventions in the hope to steer it towards positive outcomes. In Aebischer’s words, the Radar will offer a comprehensive look at “what’s cooking in the labs” on a 5-, 10- and 25-year horizon. What makes GESDA’s Radar different from other attempts at mapping the future, however, is that this expert-based platform is “meant to operate as an honest and neutral broker across the different disciplines and issues,” stresses Stéphane Decoutère, GESDA Secretary-General. As science and technology are being increasingly politicised – mastery of technology will soon be as important as GDP as an index of power and influence – GESDA’s stated position is to a large extent, unique.
“To present ourselves as an honest and neutral broker is extremely important to us,” comfirms Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, GESDA's President of the Board of Directors. “We have no political agenda. We want to tell the world what is going on in the science world and we want to make sure these scientific achievements do not end up benefiting one laboratory or one university or one country. Technological independence is going to be one of the major diplomatic issues of the future and we know that nationalism might prevent these scientific breakthroughs to be shared. We think they should be inclusive and aligned with the 17 SDGs.”
Equally, the Radar won’t, initially at least, make choices and recommendations about which scientific development should be endorsed. Instead, explains Decoutère “the Radar aims to initiate a global conversation by opening a space for public debate” around the science and technology developments that are already happening in Switzerland and in the world.
A tall order granted for what is still a 24-months old start-up with relatively limited financial resources.
Anticipation also poses another challenge in a world, where short-term thinking regularly prevails.
“It is already challenging to solve today’s problems with the tools we have let alone the problems of the future,” recognises Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, whom the Swiss government named in February as the first special representative for science diplomacy in Geneva.
“Here we come with a radically different approach which is one of anticipation. The idea is to bring together different communities and be more knowledgeable about what is coming so that we can benefit from opportunities and find innovative ways to solve issues.”
Anticipation’s biggest booster as GESDA goes public might well turn out to be the COVID-19 pandemic. One of its lessons is that looking into the future and trying to predict outcomes has become indispensable. If the political response to the predicted pandemic has been criticised as a “collective political failure,” on the scientific side however, several vaccines have been developed in record time. And today, predictive models powered by big data can help us develop immediate responses to major challenges.
Months of distillation have pushed GESDA and more than 500 researchers here and abroad to orient their radar on four major areas: the quantum revolution and advanced artificial intelligence; human augmentation; eco-regeneration and geoengineering; and science and diplomacy.
These fields will be examined against the framework of three meta questions explains Peter Brabeck:
1. Who are we? What does it mean to be human in the age of robots, gene editing and augmented reality?
2. How are we going to live together? Which deployment of technology can help reduce inequality and foster inclusive development and well-being?
3. How can we assure humanity’s well-being while also sustaining the health of our planet?
The question is what happens next because GESDA aspires to be more than just a talking shop.
Indeed the doing has become imperative if GESDA is to survive beyond 2022. Public and private funders will want to see some bang for their buck after investing CHF 3.6 million and CHF 8 million respectively during this initial three-year phase.
“We have to show that what we are doing is useful and makes sense,” says Stéphane Decoutère, GESDA’s Secretary-General. "Like a start-up, we release our first products just before we start talking to our Founders about the future."
Success is never guaranteed
GESDA’s hopes of converting the uninitiated are clearly pinned on the Breakthrough Radar, but for all the hype, it’s impossible at this point to know if GESDA will succeed in ushering in a new era of science and diplomacy working hand in hand in a novel way.
With hindsight, it’s phenomenally easy to see which trends and predictions we should have spotted and committed resources to.
Who wouldn’t prioritise new technologies to help us develop future vaccines knowing what we do today? Meanwhile, the history of invention is littered with the “next big thing” that wasn’t. What makes GESDA so sure that it can get it right?
The apparent mismatch between the scale of the ambition and the lack of clearly defined measures of success and performance leaves some observers sceptical.
“We usually say too big to fail,” says Xavier Comtesse. Comtesse is widely credited as being the father of Swiss scientific diplomacy when he created a Swiss scientific consulate on the edge of the MIT campus in Boston more than 20 years ago. “Unfortunately, this is too ambitious and they will fail.”
“GESDA’s identity is really weak because we don’t know what they want to do. There are too many topics and you need a huge amount of money to be a Do Tank. They simply don’t have the power, the background, the money or the network.”
Others, however, say there’s method in the “madness” and that the unrestrained discussion is in fact a stroke of genius. If consensus develops around any of these initiatives, support and money will likely follow. As diplomatic, scientific and financial actors coalesce around a promising project, it will develop a life of its own.
Indeed market forces may ultimately decide the direction GESDA takes.
Positioning International Geneva as the place to discuss global challenges is a pillar of Swiss foreign policy. The seed-funding of GESDA fits into that narrative.
“We are small enough as a country that we see that our security, ability, stability is rooted in the global commons working well,” says Fasel.
Prof. Paul Arthur Berkman, Associated Fellow of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and 2021 Fulbright Arctic Chair awarded by the United States Department of State with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes Switzerland should be lauded for such efforts.
“Science diplomacy is a language of hope,” he says. “There’s far too much doom and gloom in the world, that is polarised and paralysed largely because of short-term thinking.
“The challenge we have right now is to recognise that short-term thinking is related to self-interests. The primary responsibility of science diplomats is to build common interests, which means operating short-to-long term across a continuum of urgencies.”
Diplomacy, the D, in GESDA’ acronym, however, will have to wait before sharing center stage with science. First, the results and the feedback of the Summit will be analysed and discussed, including with civil society, before imagining how to integrate science into the multilateral regime.
Scientific diplomacy, a fairly new field, is articulated around three dimensions, according to a 2010 Royal Scociety report : informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice (science in diplomacy) facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science) and using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy).
The stakes are high: “We strongly believe that if we leave scientific breakthroughs in the hand of three private companies, and three or four countries, then we will be living in a dangerous world. I believe that it is the task of GESDA to prove that, to discuss it with the diplomats of the world and to propose innovative solutions to govern science in a multilateral context. CERN is a good example,” says Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.
If excitement lies in anticipation, GESDA has certainly come out firing on all cylinders. Whether or not it delivers on all or any fronts, time will tell. The first answers will start coming in next week.