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Bad Coffee, Great Science and Everywhere a Spirit of Curiosity

Reflections on the Alpbach Forum Seminar Week 2019

Philippe Narval, Secretary General European Forum Alpbach

Do you feel that everything you learned at school has allowed you to thrive in your private and professional life? My guess is that this is probably not the case. Our traditional school system has been slow to adapt to the way society has changed, and the need for different skillsets to those for which our school system was originally conceived in the 19th century. Today, we seek literacy in science, languages and numeracy as before, but also proficiency in critical thinking, creativity and personality traits like persistence, social and cultural awareness and leadership.  These are not even my own categories, but some of the key “21-century skills” that the World Economic Forum in Davos, not a body traditionally identified for its revolutionary zeal, has developed in recent years.

While the stunning Alpine views, the friendly welcome from one of Europe’s most beautiful villages and the intensely stimulating company of peers and teachers are incredible assets to our Seminar week, we do understand the availability of first-class coffee is in short supply. But while we are a long way from metropolitan hipster baristas making expert flat whites, we hope you can get your kicks from the heady atmosphere instead!

We Walk the Talk: Reinventing Our Seminar Week

Others continue to talk about what should be done in education. We at the Alpbach Forum decided to walk the talk and transform our traditional scientific seminar week. After a couple of years of preparation and experimentation, we are launching a new type of educational programme at the Alpbach Forum this summer and we are very excited about it. So much so that I would be desperate to apply as a scholarship holder myself, if I weren’t so old.

And I’m not the only one who is enthused about breaking new ground in Alpbach this summer. My colleagues Bernadette and Clara, as well as our board members Caspar, Franz, Howard and the many others who are involved in the preparations feel the same way. We all see Alpbach as a place of curious enquiry where change is welcome and not seen as a threat. If systems, communities and organisations want to thrive and live up to their mission, they need to be willing to continuously question their relevance and methods. Nothing is set in stone: if you have an idea, try to make it happen!

What Art Is Teaching Us

To learn to embrace this entrepreneurial way of life, you need to practice, fall over and practice some more, just like a little child learning to walk. You need to learn how to deal with insecurities and the unexpected. We believe the creative arts can offer wonderful opportunities for experimenting with insecurities in a safe environment.

It is for this reason that we collaborate with the world’s best acting school and are proud to have RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) actors and director Nona Shepphard back for the 7th year in a row. Equally, we are proud to have Erwin Ortner with us, the founder and director of the world-renowned Arnold Schönberg Choir, and many other great artists and scientists. Besides being great fun, we believe that the tradition of choral singing can teach social skills (sometimes far more effectively than in theory), such as critical reflection and the ability to compromise. The arts are also a fantastic way to connect to your intuitive mind. We see intuition as a valuable tool on equal pairing with our rational mind, and an aspect of ourselves which we have come to neglect. As Albert Einstein once wrote “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten about the gift’.

Just like the science seminars, the artistic and skills-based seminars are firmly based on our belief in excellence. Excellence is what we expect from our participants as well. Good enough is not enough for Alpbach! If you compete, compete with yourself or the self you were yesterday, thriving to become better with every attempt.

Science – the DNA of the European Forum Alpbach

Striving towards excellence is also fundamental to science, which has been in the DNA of Alpbach since its foundation in 1945. So the mornings in Alpbach begin with great science, but (unfortunately) bad coffee. Whether you want to investigate the state of Quantum physics; the potentials and pitfalls of CRISPR/Cas9; or learning about the historic relationship between history and religion, we encourage you to dig into fields you know less and want to know more. The seminars are also an invitation to develop a better understanding of the scientific method of critical enquiry. In a world where everyone seems to have an opinion, but few have the facts, we believe this understanding of the basic principles of scientific method and analysis is absolutely paramount.

Thinking in silos is the downside of the 19th century version of scientific enquiry, and one which came to embed itself in our universities and institutions. All over the world these silos are breaking up: in Alpbach we want to encourage the flourishing of this exchange across disciplines. To give this more structure and depth, we have created special seminars. The Alpbach Learning Missions will explore in depth questions of relevance, and are based on a project-based learning and interdisciplinary enquiry. Topic in this year’s mission include climate change, water resource management, non-communicable diseases like diabetes and obesity, as well as digital activism in the defence of democracy and exploring other methods of critical inquiry. Participants will first work on the fundamentals in each field and then commit to work together and to tackle challenging questions of relevance in the days that follow. The results and findings of the groups will take centre stage at the Alpbach Political and Legal Symposium, one of our flagship international events. They will also feed back into the networks of our science partners who co-programme our learning missions. Teamwork, a systemic approach and creativity will all be utterly crucial for success!

So this is how science, the arts and applied problem-oriented thinking will be core components of the Alpbach programme this summer. We are convinced that our programme will contribute to the rethinking of education in the 21st century. We are creating an open space where you can challenge the status quo in a constructive way. Nothing harms us more in times of change and transformation than a lack of perspective, the dominance of fear and a monotony of thinking that have become all too familiar in the past. The more diverse the ideas that can be generated by Alpbach the better. And enduring slightly less than excellent coffee for a few days is a price worth paying.