Last bank holiday I was lucky enough to escape the downpour in London and bask in the sunshine and serenity of the mountains surrounding Austria’s prettiest village, Alpbach, home to prestigious European Forum Alpbach (EFA). EFA is a fascinating feat – a month long platform of discussions, debates, panels and workshops that gather the great and the good of Austrian and central European political society – young and old.
Celebrating its 70th birthday, EFA first took place in August 1945 and is heralded as one of the earliest international political and intellectual events in post Second World War Europe. Its aim? To foster a greater sense of understanding, collaboration and shared heritage across Europe.
Each year a theme is selected and this year it was the mammoth topic of Inequality, addressed through various symposia from technology and health, to politics, higher education and economics.
The RSA was invited to curate a session as part of the Political Symposium: How Much Inequality Can Europe Bear? Opened by the Presidents of the Republics of Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, the Political Symposium embraced bold debates ranging from European integration to the rise of authoritarianism, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the refugee and migrant crisis (the latter all the more poignant due to recent events in Austria and the migrant and refugee crisis growing in Europe).
Parallel discussions about how to get more citizens involved in public policy making and how to achieve change making in Europe added a positive, hopeful and innovative element to the event. One of the a sessions in which I contributed, on innovation in governance through participatory methods and the art of hosting, gave examples of programmes with structured participatory involvement of citizens in decision making and deliberation that, ultimately, strengthen democracy and citizen engagement. One example is the Austrian region of Vorarlberg, which has even established its own office for future affairs as a competence and training centre for citizen participation through the successful pilot of a Wisdom Council.
In the RSA session, entitled, The Unequal State: How Inequality Blocks Society’s Creativity and How to Achieve Radical Change, we wanted to foster creative thinking about alternative approaches to tackling inequality that did not rely solely on government intervention. We had the pleasure of inviting four speakers to co-curate a highly provocative discussion:
However, in the run up to our session we started to feel nervous.
Having arrived a day or so beforehand and attended other sessions it dawned on us that, as Brits, we had a vastly different perspective of the potential of the EU, and of the state, to have the political will and practical ability to intervene in improving inequality, compared to our European counterparts. Most of us were left surprised by the direction of other debates, and I personally have never felt so British (which is pretty ironic because I’m half Belgian and have always prized myself on having a European outlook).
On the day of our session we talked about toning down the context, and decided against it. We were here to provoke and stimulate a creative discussion – we would work with the energy of the participants but would not make major assumptions.
As it happened, something very different to our fears took place. Our participants, who were mostly students from across Europe, embraced the world café-themed format on how to unlock creativity in civil society, the state, the market and systemic issues across different stages of the life course: childhood, youth, adulthood and seniority.
They received some tough challenges from our speakers: How to reduce inequality through the state when redistribution through tax is not an option? How to design an economy that is more equal from the outset? How to use alternative models, such as social enterprise, to effectively galvanise the power of civil society?
They seemed to relish the opportunity to engage in deep discussion with our speakers, to throw ideas around and to learn from each other about the feasibility of implementing them. But most of all, these young, passionate Europeans valued the opportunity to be heard. Despite our initial nervousness, we were delighted with both the content and feedback from our session. Some of the big ideas included:
- Creating a wealth fund funded from housing values of seniors to the state in exchange for more social care. The money would be used to fund housing and skills development for young people;
- Introducing a three or four day weekend to counter the potential falling number of jobs (due to automation/outsourcing etc.). Alongside spreading resources more equally this would also provide a greater balance between work and home life.
- Creating a platform for young people and retired citizens to regularly interact and learn from each other - and combat the social isolation of some who are retired in the process. This would involve younger people agreeing to a set number of hours to volunteer either as part of their national service, some tax concessions, or a reduction in tuition fees. Retired citizens would also volunteers. Each would contribute their knowledge, skills and time to foster a much greater sense of mutual engagement. The idea was based very much on the idea of a more networked form of social support and was very much between generations with each benefiting from the other.
A few participants told me that our session had been the best in the programme so far – because we had facilitated a two-way dialogue. We curated a session that allowed people to have the power to create, because we believe that every person regardless of age, gender and background, has the potential to have great ideas and put them into action. It was also notable that this younger generation were fizzing with ideas when our politics often seems so lacking.
EFA is an impressive platform for European-level debate that fosters understanding. It was a privilege to participate, and a good ‘test’ of the applicability of the RSA’s worldview outside of the UK.