Jovan Kurbalija   28 Sep 2017   Internet Governance

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Bay area and Geneva lake

Bay AreaGeneva Lake Area

 

This week, I am at Swissnex in San Francisco (26-27 September) discussing the interplay between the digital and humanitarian realms. The Bay Area (and Silicon Valley) is what comes to mind when we think of digital. Geneva, as the birthplace of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is what comes to mind when we mention humanitarian.

But, what ties the two together goes deeper than the humanitarian and digital realms. The link between the Bay Area and Lake Geneva could be decisive for making the future of mankind both innovative and sustainable.

I will share a few arguments that can help bring the Bay Area closer to Lake Geneva.

 

The first is innovation, which both the Bay Area and Geneva are renowned for. The Bay Area has a high concentration of leading tech companies, ranging from Google and Uber, to Apple and Twitter. Globally, Switzerland has been ranked the most innovative country in the world for the past seven years. At CERN,  human rationality has long excelled in the search for answers to core questions about our physical environment. The EPFL in Lausanne is among the global leaders in robotics and information technology. The Bay Area and Geneva Lake Area speak the same language of innovation.

The second is that both areas have a common cultural operating system. Cultural values and outlooks matter a lot for the growth and prosperity of society, as Max Weber outlined in his seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The Bay Area and the Geneva Lake Area are shaped by trust in the power of reason and human ingenuity. Historically speaking, calvinism and protestantism played an important role in promoting hard work, individual initiative, and dedication as values to which society should aspire. The enlightenment added a new layer promoting the idea that humans can shape their future and destiny through innovation, science, and entrepreneurship.

So far, these are complementaries. However, there is one difference that makes it important for the Bay Area to converge with the Geneva Lake Area.

 

In the Bay Area, there are no limits to innovation. Innovation can go as far as one’s imagination. Failures are allowed. This approach has made the Bay Area what it is today.

However, the Bay Area approach is facing some obstacles. Since the beginning of the year, Internet companies have been under increasing pressure from governments and civil society worldwide to ensure that their growth does not harm societal interest - whether it is job creation, or paying taxes, or the fight against terrorism or fake news.

Difficult chapters in European history forced Geneva and the rest of Europe to learn how to balance innovation with societal concerns. The origins of the Red Cross date back to the 19th century when a growing power of ‘killing technologies’ - at that time, guns - triggered the need for humanity to deal with the wounded and the vulnerable.

International Geneva addresses global health, humanitarian affairs, human rights, trade and other global concerns. On many of these issues, the underlying challenge is to ensure the right balance between fast technological growth and societal concerns.

For example, the World Health Organisation is looking into ways in which health innovation can be coupled with proper data protection mechanisms; humanitarian organisations start looking into big data while trying to avoid exposing vulnerable populations, and while e-commerce has presented an opportunity for small businesses in developing countries, concerns have arisen as to the growing divides within countries.

 

While they have a lot in common - innovation and trust in human rationality - the Bay Area may find in Geneva some much-needed solutions on how to reconcile innovative growth with the concerns of those who may be left behind for a wide range of reasons. The two areas - Bay Area and Geneva Lake Area - should meet more often.

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