faculty & experts
04 October 2022

Platforms and International Geneva: Finding the Courage to Remain Relevant

As a long-time observer of diplomacy, policy and practice in Geneva, Dr Achim Wennmann, the Director for Strategic Partnerships of the Geneva Graduate Institute, proposes a vision of International Geneva powered by platforms to shape networked multilateralism. He points out that Geneva’s history as a global hub has always been linked to finding responses to a changing world, and that in order to confront the new set of challenges, Geneva should stay global and connected, embrace conflict, moderate complexity, prepare for speed and scale, and find the courage for change.  

‘What brought us here won’t bring us there’ is the starting point for the following reflections about the future of International Geneva. Geneva’s institutional footprint is connected to the evolution of the American Century and this history might not necessarily ensure Geneva’s relevance as a global hub moving forward. Faced with strategic shifts, International Geneva has to innovate to remain relevant for people worldwide. What I propose is a vision and a set of enablers to help Geneva stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.

From the history of pioneering to the need to act to remain relevant

Geneva has a strong record of responding to global change, and in fact much of what it is today is a result of this innovative capacity. A sketch of this history sees humanitarianism develop in response to the horrors of warfare in the 19th century, symbolised by the Battle of Solferino and what it meant for the initiation of the humanitarian movement. Likewise, Geneva saw the League of Nations develop – as a result of the even greater horrors of the industrial warfare of the First World War, and then the United Nations (UN) system after the Second World War – as a means to uphold a rule-based order between states as enshrined in the UN Charter. After the Cold War, Geneva became the capital of private diplomacy to deal with violent conflict, which refers to the practice of discreet dialogue and negotiation to remove specific political obstacles to peace, as most recently exemplified by the Black Sea grain deal.

As Geneva adapted to the world ‘out there’ it has demonstrated an incredibly pioneering spirit. The radical ideas that wars should have laws, or that wars should be outlawed altogether are just two examples of this spirit. Much idealism has turned into pragmatism that has shaped Geneva’s unique connectedness for discreet diplomacy. This pioneering energy and sense of pragmatism provides a strong foundation for for Geneva’s role in a rapidly changing world.

Federal, cantonal and municipal authorities clearly understand the need to act to keep Geneva relevant, despite the fact that the institutional representation in international Geneva is generally very positive, counting 39 international organisations, 178 government representations and 432 non-governmental organisations. Switzerland’s Host State Dispatch 2020-2023 recognised the need to complement the traditional focus on ‘hardware’ – buildings and infrastructure – with new focus on the ‘software’ – platforms and networks. Within this dynamic ecosystem, this software represents a source of entrepreneurial energy to shape Geneva’s future as a global hub.

International Geneva – powered by platforms

The prevailing image of International Geneva is one of institutions and themes, amplified by the formal processes they advance. It is the image of a capital for humanitarian assistance and health diplomacy, or a UN that works on ‘peace, rights and well-being’, as captured by the United Nations Office at Geneva's slogan. 

The image of Geneva as a hub of institutions and themes is further reinforced by spatial constellations: International Geneva is its own district within the urban City of Geneva. This hardware of buildings and the associated infrastructure has traditionally been the focus of Switzerland’s Host State approach. 

When emphasising Geneva’s software of platforms and networks, we can discern a different image of International Geneva that emphasises interactions over institutions. It captures Geneva’s attribute of being one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, where people from all over the world live, meet and exchange. It emphasises Geneva as a hub of strategic expertise and know-how, and as a place to form cross-sector partnerships based on its unique actor density and diversity. It is embedded in a certain ‘Swissness’ associated with elements like competence, discretion, reliability, quality and financial resources. 

By emphasising platforms in its future evolution, Geneva can draw on the experience of how platforms are transforming economies. What companies like eBay, Alibaba, Airbnb or YouTube have in common is that they create value by acting as catalysts between different communities that need each other in some way but cannot capture the value of their interaction on their own. Economists have described business platforms as responses to opportunities from working within multi-sided markets in which platforms provide a common physical or virtual place to facilitate interaction between market participants minimising transaction costs. 

The tangible manifestations of platforms that build on a similar rationale are initiatives such as Building Bridges, or the multiplications of ‘Geneva Weeks’ – such as Geneva Peace Week, Geneva Trade Week or Geneva Health Week organised by many of the 19 Geneva Platforms. These conferences work at the nexus of different institutions and themes and across sectors, thereby responding to the realities of finding responses to the interdependent and systemic challenges of the global commons. 

A new vision for International Geneva builds on the quality of interactions and partnerships that happen in and via Geneva. It does not wish to make away with institutions – hierarchical management systems that create isolated impact. Platforms are a strategic accelerator for institutions in a changing world, and could become the inseparable component of Geneva’s yin and yang – its dynamic dualism between institutions and platforms that harnesses Geneva’s unique energy. 

In this way, platforms and networks could become the new face of International Geneva. They are the agile, bold, and crosscutting spaces that shape innovation and partnerships, and connect those communities leading change around the world. “La Genève internationale – powered by platforms” might become a slogan that captures Geneva’s ambition within the coming era of networked multilateralism – a form of global governance that recognises the connections between the UN family, and new forms of multilateralism and multi-stakeholder cooperation.

Enabling the relevance of Geneva in a rapidly changing world

In a similar way that business platforms are transforming economies, platforms could shape the role of Geneva within networked multilateralism and an ever more polycentric world. But what should be prioritised in an International Geneva powered by platforms in order to maintain its relevance in a rapidly changing world? The following points aim at stimulating reflections about how Geneva can bolster its relevance. 

Be global: Geneva should stay true to its global identity as a hub for the world. This means that it should keep the openness to be a platform for exchange and cooperation on all views and perspectives. It means being open to listen to the world. As a new cold war shapes zones of influence and competition, Geneva could position itself as the platform to facilitate interaction on global commons issues, from weapons of mass destruction and climate change to global trade, pandemics, and the coming technological revolution. It should remain a global city in the heart of Europe, and not become just another city in the Global North.

Stay connected: Geneva should stay connected to the rest of the world. A key priority therefore lies in nurturing quality relationships that Geneva-based actors have around the world. Platforms and networks can play a significant role in this relationship building. They could serve as the ‘fibre cable’ for information exchange between the world ‘out-there’ and what happens in Geneva. In this way, platforms can become a trusted space for information exchange – spaces that prioritise listening over speaking and that help nurture joint understanding between sectors and initiations on global commons challenges. Using the image of ‘building bridges’, platforms can become the bridge heads, acting as a foundation for connectedness to and exchange with the world.

Embrace conflict: With the world facing multiple mega risks, conflict and strategic competition is the new normal. Geneva could increase its relevance by positioning itself as a diplomatic battlefield to manage these new conflicts. Already now, Geneva is a front in the conflicts around norms, global trade and pandemics. As battles range, the spaces outside formal settings could become more important for consensus building and for anchoring diplomatic exchanges in grounded knowledge, scientific research and the needs of multiple communities.

Moderate complexity: International relations have long stopped being the exclusive purview of states. Many large companies now maintain their own ‘foreign affairs’ and many cities engage globally on the issues that are important to them. At the same time, global movements coalesce around special interests to shape global agendas. This global constellation constitutes what Amitav Acharya calls a ‘multiplex world order’, in which a multitude of actors cooperate or compete with each other in multiple systems. From this perspective, the UN family is one of multiple global systems. As orders multiply it will require a ‘systems of systems’ to moderate the interaction between these globalisms and the different set of values that holds each of them together.

Prepare for scale and speed: We have never known more about global challenges than today, and what this knowledge tells us is that the responses to them should have certain scale and speed. It also means that Geneva should become more confident to anticipate, rather than respond. We currently know that unchecked climate change will disrupt political, economic and social systems, and that the coming technological change will transform the way the world works. Geneva should leverage its actor density and diversity even more deliberately to position itself as the global hub for proactive anticipation and cooperation to counter global commons challenges. The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator is a manifestation of this effort, yet more can be done by applying Geneva’s private diplomacy spirit to scaling and speeding up responses to global commons challenges.

Shaping the future of an International Geneva that is relevant for the world will require finding the courage for change. ‘What brought us here won’t bring us there’ was the starting point for this analysis and courage might be the main enabler for walking the talk of change. It is the form of courage of a ‘can-do’ entrepreneurial mentality that gets things done and is grounded in humanity, humility, pragmatism, connectedness and subsidiarity. In a town where everyone is always too busy, let’s make time to find courage and help prepare Geneva for the next generation of global challenges.