Intergenerational Governance: When Cool Ideas Clash With Reality

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Why are big airplanes like “Boing 747” not solar powered like the one by the Swiss innovators Bertrand Picard and André Borschberg? Can the ozone layer be repaired? What is the policy of a big player like Hewlet-Packard (HP) when it comes to the durability of their products?

Intergenerational exchange is not thad easy these days.

Bettina Benzinger

Intergenerational exchange is not that easy these days.

These were questions pupils asked at the World Resource Forum 2013. The session entitled “Kids meet experts” gave pupils the opportunity to exchange with experts. The idea behind the initiative: Important intergenerational questions on environmental sustainability and resources have to be tackled in dialogue between generations. However, these much needed idea clashed with reality.

“Kids and teens have great ideas we adults do not think of”, Eric Fehr explains. He is the project associate of the WRF Secretariat and responsible for organizing the youth program. Among other things, the youth program offers intergenerational dialogue sessions where scientific experts and teens exchange. Fehr sent out invitations to 22 selected conference speakers – and got quite some positive replies instantly: “I thought it would be more difficult, especially as I approached plenary speakers who usually are very occupied”.

The schools he contacted also liked the idea. However: “For the pupils it is holiday time”. The returns were correspondingly low. Seven teenagers attended the program. Some of them even arrived from the Valais region of Switzerland that is a five hours drive away from Davos. “This year’s youth program is a pilot project”, he tells and describes ideas of developing youth participation. The youth program could become a real youth conference: “Something like a daughter of WRF”, he tells. A systematic approach is important to Fehr: His idea is to network with stakeholders like teachers and experts. He even thinks that environmental sustainability and resource topics should be part of school curricula.

Limited available resources, storage of energy, fascination for one’s ideas, self-healing powers of nature and recycling programs where part of the experts answers to the youth’s questions above. However, these were not the most important lessons to be learned: The session showed that experts have difficulties in giving away control over steering the future environmental course. As a bystander commented during the session: The dialogue, facilitated by WRF founder and president Xaver Edelmann, was very adult-biased. The teens shyly threw in a few questions, which again provoked a discussion among the adults.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker trying to talk to the teens.

Bettina Benzinger

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker trying to talk to the teens.

Entering the dialogue with the older generations demands youth to behave in a way they are not used to at the moment where a culture of intergenerational dialogue and resource governance does not yet exist. After some guiding words, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, the co-President of the global think tank “Club of Rome”, asked the seven youngsters: “Do you have dreams? Do you have fears?” Full of expectations, Weizsäcker watched them. An awkward silence followed. Instead of hope to find inspirations, ideas and perspectives that have the potential to turn rigid structures of thinking upside down, there was a big question mark. The session did not fulfill Weizsäcker´s expectation “to hear what young people are concerned with”.

And indeed, if they are given the right supporting environment young people have this potential: In the drawing competition by the “Swiss Association for Quality and Management Systems” (SQS), the youngsters expressed their thoughts on the scarce resource water. Ruth Zeiter, former arts teacher, accompanied some of the young participants at the forum and helped to develop the youth program. Among her arts students, she chose some who distinguished themselves in the competition and who showed interest and motivation. However, drawing skills and verbal skills do not necessarily go hand in hand, she explains regarding the little interaction observed.

Armin Reller, Professor at the University of Augsburg, was one of the six experts who joined the intergenerational dialogue session. After the session, he demands for a “concrete, do or die dialogue” that does not only involve youths from the close cultural environment. The experiences of WRF 2013 give a clear take-away message: an intergenerational partnership to govern resources and make important decisions demands for a dialogue culture to be established and for a broader and more systematic approach than a one-time conference encounter.

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