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“It is our responsibility to make people stick together when times are getting tough.”

We don’t want to lie to you. Planning a European Forum Alpbach (EFA) in the middle of the Corona chaos is absolutely insane. When you read this, we will not only have lists of what is happening when and where and who is going to be there, but there will be lists of all the lists we have to organize this year’s conference. We will have spent weeks on the phone and in video calls with each other, our partners, speakers and the many friends and supporters of the EFA all around the globe. There were days during this time that our team will be happy to forget and never think of again. However, there are also parts of this wild journey that we want to remember. One of them is how we got here. EFA Secretary General Philippe Narval and Sonja Jöchtl, Director of the EFA Foundation, share their thoughts on how we ended up planning the first EFA online conference. A story of confusion, doubt, courage and idealism.

(c) Luiza Puiu

Philippe: First of all, it’s important to state that it took enormous effort for all of us to manage the reorganization while working from home. Remote work is fine for standard processes, but really challenging when major change happens in an organization and when creativity is needed.  In any case, planning the EFA 2020 was not just crisis and its mitigation. It was a complete reinvention of what we do. Normally, organisations need twelve months’ time to do such a thing, it took us two months to lay the tracks. From one day to the next we decided to completely rethink our concept. This was and still is exhausting for the organization as a whole. But we owe it to our 75-year-tradition to make this effort. Kudos, Sonja! A lot of this was you!

Sonja: It was never an option to completely cancel the Forum. If our founders were capable of holding a Forum only months after World War II, it is clear, that we must be capable as well. Our responsibility is making people stick together when times are getting tough. When we started imagining the world in August – when the Forum is supposed to take place – it was only mid-March.

Philippe: Back then, Franz Fischler, President of the Forum, predicted that the world will experience the highest unemployment rates it had ever seen. He said, the economy will suffer immensely and many will not make it until the end of the year. He was absolutely right.

Sonja: If we had decided to skip a year and let someone else deal with the pressing questions resulting from this situation, we would have forfeited our whole purpose.

Philippe: I agree, giving up and canceling the Forum Alpbach in 2020 was not an option.

Sonja: While this was clear from the start, it took quite some time to switch from the manifold problems and how to solve them, to being able to see the potential that this situation offered. When I first talked to our Forum Alpbach Network – the young alumni members – there was still a lot of doubt. We weren’t sure if we have the guts to try something so new. Some said: “Why not focus on the things we know we can do, no matter what happens in August?”. They wanted to focus on a minimalistic version with the least risk involved. At the time I still felt a strong resistance within myself.

Philippe: Did you? I thought you had this vision all along and it was just me who didn’t feel it right away.

Sonja: No. It took me quite some time until I thought: “Let’s not just try to compromise, let’s do everything we can.”.

Philippe: One of the main things we’re trying out this year, is to further democratize the programming process and this is where the crisis becomes an opportunity for us. We wanted to include the young people in the Forum Alpbach community more in the programme process for a long time already – on eye level! But somehow this always turned out to be very for us due to manifold reasons. We needed a framework first, which we created this year. All of a sudden, we got 150 submissions from members of the Forum Alpbach Network (FAN) all over the world. They sent us suggestions for sessions that make me ask myself: “Wow. Why didn’t we think of that before?”, and I believe, we should find a way to continue with this path after the Corona crisis. It is an opportunity to allow for many more people to contribute to the Forum than who can actually participate physically in the village of Alpbach normally. We couldn’t bring all of our awesome alumni to Alpbach every year if we wanted. But we can bring a bit of Alpbach to them wherever they are. Also, the way we work with the FAN now would not have been possible 10 years ago, because the Forum was not that international back then, now there are alumni all over Africa and Asia for example who are contributing.

Sonja: Without the coronavirus, this would never have been possible now either. We would never have been able to convince everybody of how important this inclusive approach is. Even though, we wanted to achieve something like this for a long time. Another thing we thought about for years was: How can we get as many people of the Alpbach community to Alpbach without actually putting them on a flight to come to Alpbach? The implications on our climate with flying in speakers for two days for a panel discussion are always on our minds! At the moment there is huge potential to solve this.

Philippe: Also, because the expectations of the audience changed with Corona. I believe, next year there will be a higher acceptance within a live audience if a keynote speaker is involved in via remote video. We can give people a voice within the Forum now without having to fly each and everyone around the world at the cost of the environment.

Sonja: Basically, this year’s conference is going to be special for many reasons. It is a unique chance for everyone who always wished to check out the Forum but couldn’t due to travelling, financial or other reasons. It is a great opportunity to access all of this super know-how, the knowledge pool the Forum has, at a much lower hurdle than usual.

Philippe: I can only decide to buy a ticket after I saw the programme. I would advise everyone to look through all the topics and speakers we offer on our homepage. If someone is interested in global affairs, the future of democracy, Europe and sustainability issues, you will find it very exciting. Also, in terms of making sense and understanding a complex global crisis our conference will offer clarity and orientation. The thing that makes Alpbach online different from e.g. a TED Talk is, that you can really interact, ask questions, discuss in a live setting. I believe, that this is rather unique in an event quite as long and with such an extensive programme.

Sonja: However, I still think it is not an event for everyone.

Philippe: Of course not, you gotta be a bit of a nerd to join…


European Forum Alpbach 2020, Programme: