DAVOS, Switzerland – In the first week of October, experts from around the world met at the third World Resources Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where they discussed issues regarding sustainability and resource efficiency. The WRF, according to the organizer, is a science-based platform to “promote innovations and build bridges among researchers, policymakers, business, SMEs, NGOs and the public.”
What was most striking about the conference’s participants, however, was the absence of politicians, entrepreneurs, women and students. Overall, there was much talk but no concrete decision making. Instead, there were cuddly stuffed animals resembling the marmot, a type of ground squirrel native to the Davos region.
At one point, Bas de Leeuw, the WRF’s managing director, threw a stuffed animal to a gray-haired man. “Now you have Marmi, the marmot,” de Leeuw said, adding, “Please introduce yourself.” As he held Marmi high up in the air for all to see, the man introduced himself as a Finnish engineer. On this first day of the conference, Marmi flew through the air at least 10 more times, “so that we can get to know each other better,” explained de Leeuw, before he announced the “parade of workshop leaders.” Lit up by colorful disco lights, the 20 leaders made their way through the crowd toward the stage, while the audience members clapped to the sounds of Midnight Oil. “How can we dance when our earth is turning,” boomed the loudspeakers.
Scientists, scientists and more scientists
With the parade and Marmi, conference organizer de Leeuw wanted to emphasize “the humanity” of the participants to open up the dialogue. The strategy paid off: After just a few minutes, the ice was broken and laughter could be heard. But was there any ice to break in the first place? This year’s WRF attracted a rather homogenous crowd. Scientists were meeting among themselves. Politicians, entrepreneurs, women and students were all missing.
Werner Bosmans, a member of the European Commission, was one of the few politicians present. He observed that there was “broad support for mandatory, international requirements for the use of land, water and coal” among the conference participants. Yet there was no agreement on how this goal should be achieved, and with so few politicians and entrepreneurs present, a group needed to implement such change was missing.
Preaching to the converted
English sustainability expert Roland Clift would have liked to have seen more politicians at the WRF. “Industry has the technologies to enable sustainable living globally,” he said. “Now politics and entrepreneurs need to implement them.” Markus Reuter, product manager at Outotec, a firm specializing in technology and services for the metal and mineral industries, said, “At the WRF we are preaching to the converted.” It isn’t enough to talk with scientists and engineers, he added. “We also have to discuss with young people.” In other words, Marmi wants to reach everyone.
Where were the students?
Besides the lack of politicians, entrepreneurs and concrete measures, there was also a conspicuous absence of students, despite the fact that de Leeuw repeatedly mentioned “the importance of the next generation, our future.” Efforts were made to attract more students to the WRF, he said. But collaborations with Oikos Consulting, a student consultancy for sustainability startups, and Student Reporter, which provided media coverage and offered student discounts, did not succeed in bringing more students to the event. De Leeuw said the WRF wants to work with interested students, noting he was glad to see that the few students who attended the conference “actively participated in the debates.”
25-year-old ETH student Hari Chithambaram offered an explanation for why students stayed away: Despite the playful marmot activity, the conference was “too repetitive.” Many of the speakers “presented nearly the same thing as last year.” In addition, the presentations were too theoretical, and there was a lack of concrete measures, Chithambaram said . “The young generation calls for action,” he added.
“Gender balance fail”
Marmi could also not conceal the fact that so few of the presenters were women. Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a human rights activist and adviser to President Barack Obama, was the only woman to share the stage with seven men on the first day. This inspired participants to blast out tweets, such as “Gender balance fail.”
“That was unfortunate,” said de Leeuw about the gender imbalance. “We had invited more women, but for different reasons they had to cancel shortly before the conference.” The main focus of the WRF was “to find qualified speakers,” he said. “Gender is irrelevant.”
The message goes unheard
The WRF organizers chose for its location the Davos Congress Center, casually referred to as the World Economic Forum conference center, where the WEF hosts its annual meeting every January. A provocation? “The message is, sustainability is just as important as economy,” said Harry Lehmann, who is with Germany’s Federal Environment Agency. “The time has come to say fair’s fair,” sang Midnight Oil in the tune played at the beginning of the conference. Sadly, the message wasn’t heard outside of the prestigious conference center’s halls.