The Foundation aims, in favour of multilateralism, to leverage the International Geneva ecosystem to anticipate, accelerate and translate into concrete actions the use of emerging science-driven topics.
To this end, the Swiss Government and the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva approved the statutes establishing GESDA as an independent foundation in 2019.
These statutes entrust GESDA with developing “an instrument of anticipation and action, giving priority to public-private partnerships on an international scale and to projects capable of providing solutions to current and future technological challenges, turning them into opportunities and broadening the circle of beneficiaries of scientific and technological advances.”
Opening a new chapter of Science and Diplomacy
The Swiss and Geneva governments founded GESDA on 20 February 2019 as an independent foundation to leverage the anticipative power of science with diplomacy organizations and citizens working in Geneva and around the world. The Foundation began operating in January 2020.
They created it based on the growing awareness among people familiar with both science and geopolitics:
- That the world is experiencing breakthrough science and technological discoveries at an unprecedented speed;
- That these breakthroughs will reshape how we view ourselves as humans, how we relate to each other in society and how we care for our environment;
- That humanity, especially people living in less-advanced or emerging countries, cannot afford to miss the potential of those science and technology advances for global well-being and inclusive development.
Why in Geneva?
The decision to create GESDA in Switzerland, and specifically in Geneva, has two complementary origins.
Switzerland, a small country of 8 million inhabitants at the heart of Europe, relies on a long tradition of disruptive research in science and technology, on neutrality-driven renowned diplomacy, on a vibrant direct democracy as well as on innovative global companies and people interested in the world affairs.
Geneva has all the attributes needed to support the global reach and ambitions of GESDA in science and diplomacy.
- Known as the City of Peace, Rights and Well-Being, Geneva is the place where the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) were created.
The Red Cross, founded in 1863 by Henri Dunant, has become the largest humanitarian network in the world bringing medicine and care to the battlefields and to any population facing emergency situations.
CERN was created in 1954 and is now the world’s largest physics laboratory where scientists work to uncover the origins of the universe, a task for which two of them – Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau – invented the World Wide Web. It also served as a forum for dialogue and trust-building among countries when political relations were either tense or non-existent. CERN was where the first post- World War II contacts were made between German and Israeli scientists, and where Eastern and Western European nations first worked together before expanding their collaboration to other areas.
- Since then, Geneva has become the operational hub of the international systemacting through nearly 100 international organizations, over 700 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), 180 representations of states, over 1,600 multinational businesses and several world-class academic institutions.
- This Geneva-based international ecosystem is working to implement, worldwide, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.Their lead principle “Leaving no-one behind” and the “Right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Art. 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) build the foundational stones of GESDA’s actions.
Scaling-up the rise of science diplomacy in the early 21st century
The rise of science diplomacy as a practice in international policy and as a discipline in human science, reflects the increasing central role that scientific discoveries and technological developments are playing in shaping our world.
The idea is old but has gained further traction on the global agenda from 2010 onwards as the concept of science diplomacy has become increasingly important in international relations.
A 2010 report by the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) titled New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy gave science diplomacy its first formal definition and established a widely accepted three-pillar taxonomy:
- Science for diplomacy, or using science as a soft power tool to improve international relations;
- Science in diplomacy, or using scientific evidence to inform foreign policy;
- Diplomacy for science, or using the diplomatic apparatus to support and promote international scientific collaboration.*
Since 2020, science diplomacy is facing a new endeavour. It needs to adapt to both the speed of scientific progress and shifts in international relations and, therefore, to work at the crossroads of scientific advancement and diplomacy, balancing three factors:
- The unprecedented pace of scientific and technological progress;
- The urgency with which global challenges must be addressed;
- The complexity of global geopolitics.
*New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy, The Royal Society and AAAS
Pursuing the Swiss way in science and diplomacy
Meanwhile, the idea of science diplomacy in Switzerland matured with the rise of efforts to make Geneva the headquarters of internet and digital governance – efforts that recently led to major initiatives such as the Geneva Internet Platform, the CyberPeace Institute, the Swiss Digital Initiative or the Geneva Digital Atlas.
- Since 2000, Swiss diplomacy has successively relied on a growing inter-ministerial network of scientific and technological advisors, on Swissnex scientific consulates and on Swiss business hubs.
- After 2010, Swiss diplomats and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) stepped up their efforts to support science and diplomacy initiatives, such as the MOOCs for Africa programme launched by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) in 2012 to promote the early development of digital education in the French-speaking world.
- Switzerland also played a growing role in large-scale international polar research programmes, including through the creation of the Swiss Polar Institute in April 2016.
- At the same time, Swiss diplomatic institutions substantially increased their support for International Geneva by providing infrastructure as well as substance; one example is their support for the SDG Lab to work to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Last but not least, it was during this decade that the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme gave rise to long negotiations in Lausanne in the spring of 2015, with Switzerland acting as the host country.
- The negotiations led to a first breakthrough announced to the international press at EPFL’s Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne on 2 April 2015.
- The breakthrough was highly complex and politically sensitive, with seven countries or blocs of countries participating.
The main negotiators, Federica Mogherini, John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, were assisted by a group of top scientists. In particular, two physicists who had worked at MIT – US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iran’s atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi – were credited with unlocking the stalled arms-control negotiations that led to the historic Iran agreement, which was finalized and signed in Vienna one year later. Although called into question since then, the agreement nevertheless marks a pivotal moment and still serves as an important basis for further negotiations.
The role of the Geneva+ working group (2015-2018)
The concrete work on GESDA as a new type of science and diplomacy organization in Geneva started with the creation in Spring 2015 by Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Burkhalter of an international working group called “Geneva+”.
The working group floated GESDA as a proposal in 2018 to the new Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ignazio Cassis. The President and Vice President of the Geneva+ working group then finalized it with Cassis and the ministry. The Swiss and Geneva authorities then endorsed the final proposal in February 2019.
Initially, this Geneva+ working group had been set up to bring together the UN in Geneva, local government representatives as well as Swiss and foreign thought leaders interested in the future of the International Geneva ecosystem. Its intermediate report released in January 2017 concluded that Geneva needed to cope with several new multilateralism challenges:
- Respond to the accelerating pace of technological development and its consequences on our daily lives and on national and international governance.
- Go beyond the silo thinking that often characterizes international organizations by adopting innovative working methods based on new technology.
- Form new partnerships to:
- Incorporate International Geneva into the academic world, with a view to conceptualizing new approaches to today’s global governance challenges;
- Expand patronage and funding activities;
- Improve communication with the Swiss and global populations;
- Forge ties between Geneva and other UN host cities;
- Position International Geneva on new, cross-cutting issues such as human mobility, the future of employment, internet governance or new weapons.
Leveraging experience gained with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Based on this, former EPFL President Patrick Aebischer and two of his colleagues, Stéphane Decoutère and Gérard Escher, submitted in June 2017 a proposal to the Geneva+ working group to create a Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator: a concrete initiative that would help meet these newly identified needs.
In drafting their proposal, they drew on their prior experience with the ICRC, the oldest of Geneva’s international organizations and the origin of the city’s tradition of multilateralism. Professor Aebischer’s experience with the ICRC on this topic dates back to June 2015, when ICRC President Peter Maurer – who was already an active advocate of science diplomacy when he served as the Swiss Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (after representing Switzerland at the UN in New York) – asked Professor Aebischer, then the President of EPFL, to speak at a meeting in Geneva gathering all the 400 ICRC field delegates.
- The idea was for Professor Aebischer to give the delegates an overview of the major disruptions that were likely to take place over the next ten years in the fields of digital technology, robotics, healthcare, the environment and resource management.
- Delegates were then asked to think about what these disruptions could mean for their work in the field and more specifically the practical challenges that could arise or had already started to transform their work.
- Based on these two types of inputs, the ICRC would develop and fund targeted initiatives to respond to those challenges.
The proposal to the Geneva+ working group was conceived to scale up this experience. Actually, the Foundation’s three main commissions replicate the three-step organization used for the ICRC event, with the Academic Forum (scientific anticipation), the Diplomacy Forum (diplomacy acceleration) and the Impact Fund (translation into concrete initiatives).
Use the Future to Build the Present
In 2018, the Geneva+ working group presented its final report written and signed by Fulvio Pelli (President), Patrick Aebischer (Vice President), Rolf Soiron, Michael Møller, François Longchamp, Sandrine Salerno, Janet Voûte, Jakob Kellenberger, Carlos Lopès, Frédérique Reeb-Landry, Linh Ramirez, Doris Schopper, Mirjana Spoljaric, Alexandre Fasel, and Valentin Zellweger, with contributions from Stéphane Decoutère, Gérard Escher, Philippe Gillet and Samir Yeddes. The report proposed to the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs to create an independent foundation working as an anticipatory think-tank and do-tank. It called policymakers to use it:
- As a tool to anticipate the expected benefits of science and technology (opportunities) while avoiding its potential misuse (threats) thanks to an early understanding of the disruptive work of the scientists developing throughout the world. One recent example is the CRISPR-Cas 9 genome editing technique. Its inventors, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, just eight years after making their discovery. Their technology has been adopted widely since it was developed in 2012, even though there are still no international guidelines on how to use it, despite a series of preliminary discussions between scientists and regulators – mostly initiated by the scientists themselves;
- As a tool to adapt to our world which becomes at once more interconnected and more fragmented – as illustrated since then by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report argued that in this context neither scientists, nor governments acting alone can keep pace with the political, economic and social consequences of scientific and technological transformations of the 21st century. Local players, such as municipal governments, businesses, universities and NGOs, are increasingly influencing global issues and thus becoming geopolitical forces in their own right. That’s why GESDA was expected from the onset to carry out its mission by bringing together citizens and thought leaders from scientific, diplomatic and impact-oriented communities in order to form creative coalitions.
The 2018 vision is coming true
So far, as of December 2020, GESDA’s Academic Forum and Diplomacy Forum chairs, Joël Mesot (President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich – ETHZ), Martin Vetterli (President of EPFL), Michael Møller (former Director General of the UN Office in Geneva and former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations) along with GESDA’s Executive team have brought together a first international panel of about 100 global players from different communities in order to produce GESDA’s initial 12 Scientific Anticipatory Briefs (in-depth reports on selected emerging scientific topics) and to discuss their potential for impactful multilateral initiatives.
They will now start gathering in an Anticipatory Situation Room thanks to a related specific methodology, the goal of which is to use their different mindsets and perspectives to anticipate the technological developments of the next 5, 10 and 25 years and come up with new solutions to tackle existing and emerging global challenges.