Place, People, Ideas: The SGS Experience

By-  PAOLOREGEL B. Samonte (UNU-IAS M.Sc Student)

Loud, buzzing sounds of people chitchatting could still be heard across the huge symposium hall when Jason George, three-time winner of the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award, stepped onto the stage. Commanding the whole room with his outstanding stage presence and eloquence, the hall was suddenly quiet; the 48th St. Gallen Symposium (SGS) has officially begun. Seated at a convenient location somewhere in the middle of the gathered crowd, I looked around. As I tried to get a nice look of the faces of the inspiring young people I will be with for the next three days—some familiar and some yet unknown—I was amazed by how one can be surrounded with so much promise and talent. Yesterday, I was stuffing myself to death with Swiss chocolate at the Maestrani’s Chocolarium. Today, May 2, I am with all these amazing young leaders, and tomorrow I will be meeting the Leaders of Today—some of the most accomplished individuals in their respective fields. My heart was instantly filled with overwhelming joy; I am now, indeed, in Switzerland, attending the 48th SGS which, a few months ago, was only an aspiration.

The Symposium. The St. Gallen Symposium is an annual gathering that aims to foster intergenerational and intercultural dialogue between present and future leaders about topics ranging from management to politics to civil society. Held at the University of St. Gallen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the symposium is run by the International Students Committee (ISC)—an organization that is fully student-led.

This year, the debate revolved around the topic Beyond the End of Work. The major questions the event aimed to ask and address were these: In an era where robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) threatens to replace humans in the workforce, how do we stay economically-relevant? How should the society react in the face of such threat? What does a future without work look like, and how will our purpose as human beings evolve over time? Such complicated questions were debated upon with the beautiful town of St. Gallen as the backdrop.

The Place. Situated at the northeast of Switzerland, the small, sparsely populated town of St. Gallen is largely known as home to the prestigious University of St. Gallen. Every year in May, the town welcomes hundreds of people coming from all over the world to attend the highly sought-after symposium, with the ISC regularly organizing a day-long touristic program that enables the participants to explore the quiet town’s wonders. This year, we were taken to Maestrani’s Chocolarium—a chocolate factory cum interactive museum reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We were then brought to Mount Santis, the highest mountain in northeastern Switzerland, which was an exhilarating, out-of-this-world experience especially for a tropical Filipino boy such as myself. The brief tour also allowed the younger batch of participants—the Leaders of Tomorrow (LoTs)—to get to know each other better. After all, the highlight of the symposium is still its inspiring set of people.

The People. The symposium attendees can basically be classified into two groups: the Leaders of Today—the successful and highly-influential decision-makers of this generation—and the Leaders of Tomorrow (LoTs), the promising young talents aspiring to take over the role of the Leaders of Today, someday. The LoTs, in order to qualify for the symposium, have to either be nominated for a slot or vie for it through the essay writing competition, where 100 finalists shall be selected and one shall be awarded the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award. This year saw the largest essay applications so far, with more than 1,200 graduate student applicants from 420 universities in 80 countries. Yours truly qualified through the essay component as a Masters student at the United Nations University in Japan.

Then there are the Leaders of Today—some of the most accomplished decision-makers and global influencers of this generation. Some of the notable Leaders of Today present at the symposium include Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach from Goldman Sachs International; Denis McDonough, former White House Chief of Staff for Ex-Pres. Obama; Michael Moller, Director-General of the United Nations Geneva Office; and Dirk Ahlborn of the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc., among many others. The symposium, thus, is where the insights of the two distinct but complementary groups converge.

The Ideas. The symposium oozed with so many valuable insights—it attempted to explore the future of our society in the age of AI through various lenses, such as business, military, politics, and gender, to name a few. While the most critical debates were conducted in large plenary sessions, there were also a number of work sessions that enabled the participants to mingle in smaller groups. I attended the ones about how AI affects ageing societies, and how humaFns can gain an advantage over AI through learning, which are extremely relevant issues for someone like me living in Japan and who aspires to become an educator someday.  But what I personally found most exciting was the presentations of a select few LoTs regarding their essays. It is fascinating to learn about some of the best ideas of the youth in terms of competing against—or collaborating with—AI in a technological future. One memorable concept that was presented advocated for the utilization of robots in food self-sufficiency. In an era where work is dominated by AI and job availability for the human workforce is scarce, the idea suggests that we may survive the “end of work” by employing agri-bots and other AI technology in our own backyards. This creates a picture of self-sufficiency that complements the strengths of AI rather than attempt to beat them out of the job market, which is practically futile.

Another one talked about the use of AI in enhancing human empathy—a creative yet highly controversial idea that sparked quite a lengthy debate. The basic idea was that humans could cooperate with AI in technologically enhancing what exactly makes us competitive against them—the innate, unique ability of humans to feel and empathize. While commendable for its originality, one criticism of the idea was how it “corrupts” genuine human emotions and further purports the blurring of the boundary between what makes humans human.
Apart from these two, there are truly a plethora of imaginative concepts from the LoTs that were presented during the symposium, such as the concepts of inclusive automation and augmented human diplomacy, to name a few more. It is quite impressive how the diversity of ideas and people were at all weaved together to create one grand, coherent symposium.

Bringing Them All Together.  All the credit goes to the organizers—the ISC and other student volunteers. One would simply be amazed by how the work of 35 committed undergraduate students—through the support of over 350 sponsors—created this huge, timely dialogue that is more than one year in the making. All their efforts have, without doubt, paid off as they brought to the table a well-organized, world-class symposium that is carefully planned down to the smallest detail.

As I look back at the whole experience now—the place, the people, the ideas—all I can feel in my heart is gratitude. That very first day—May 2, to be exact—that I sat inside that huge symposium hall, with hundreds of great young minds from all over the world alongside myself and the confident Jason George up on stage, I knew this is something I will always remember and gladly do over again.