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Geneva Science and Diplomacy start-up marks new stage 

GESDA is looking at what's cooking in science labs that could have a big impact on our future. Artificial intelligence is one of its priority areas. Samuel Truempy Photography

Amid high expectations, a Swiss government-sponsored foundation that aims to connect the worlds of science and diplomacy is entering a new phase towards launching concrete projects. 

This content was published on December 17, 2020 - 09:30

On Thursday the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), launched in 2019, unveiled a list of almost 100 diplomats and scientists who will meet to discuss how to implement recommendations identified in previous reports. This meeting, which will be held on Friday, will be a virtual one due to the coronavirus. 

After months of preparation, the plan is to examine key scientific advances likely to emerge over the next 5-25 years, before ultimately proposing how GESDA’s initial scientific findings can be put to good use.  

These include areas such as advanced artificial intelligence, genome-editing, neuro-enhancement, decarbonisation and “computational diplomacy”. This refers to the possible re-definition of international relations thanks to communication tools, new algorithms and computing power. 

Innovative solutions? 

Things now seem to be clearer for this new NGO, which has been a long time in gestation and which raised much expectations, but whose workings have not been obvious to the public.  

GESDA Board chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former chairman and CEO of the Nestlé group, says the organisation’s aim is to “bring together different communities” such as academia, diplomacy and civil society, to “anticipate advances in frontier scientific work (…) and to develop around them new initiatives, projects and solutions for humanity”. “GESDA is both a think tank and a do tank,” he stresses. 

In its early days, some observers expressed concern that GESDA might just be a government-sponsored talking shop. NGO Swissaid said it seemed to lack transparency and that the links of its top two people (Brabeck-Letmathe and Patrick Aebischer, former head of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne EPFL) with Swiss multinational Nestlé were problematic. 

GESDA nevertheless seems to have established an impressive cross-sector line-up. As well as scientific experts from around the world, its “Diplomacy Forum” unveiled on Thursday includes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and president of the ICRC Peter Maurer, as well as Swiss Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Jürg Lauber.  

Supported by Switzerland and Geneva  

Announcing the launch of GESDA in February 2019, Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis said it would concentrate not so much on the “classic” humanitarian concerns of International Geneva but on the challenges of the future, such as how rapidly evolving new technology should be regulated. He gave the example of drones and automated vehicles, as well as genetic engineering.   

International Geneva must be positioned as the best place to discuss the emerging issues that will dominate the global agenda in the coming decades, he said; the city must make sure that its reputation is strong enough to withstand competition.   

The Swiss Confederation is providing CHF3 million ($3.4 million) in initial funding for GESDA’s pilot phase (2019-2022), while the city and canton of Geneva are each contributing CHF300,000 for the same period. Sponsors are also expected to contribute funds. GESDA’s Science Communication and Outreach director Olivier Dessibourg told SWI swissinfo.ch that its funds have been “partly matched” by a philanthropic foundation and it has a team working on fundraising for projects. 

Operation 2022 

During its first three years, GESDA’s science and diplomacy experts are expected to meet, identify the issues to be addressed and launch the foundation’s first projects. So then what happens? 

“From now, we have one big year to show that what we are doing is useful and makes sense,” said Dessibourg. GESDA has to show that its methodology is viable and its projects can have impact. At the end of 2021 it will have to go back to its founders to convince them of its future. 

GESDA seems to be taking a new step forward, but it still has to prove itself.

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