The recently concluded 46th St. Gallen Symposium held in Switzerland last May 11-13 named Schima Labitsch (IPED 2017) as the top winner for its Wings of Excellence Award. The St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award is a yearly essay competition open to students from all over the world. Schima presented her ideas on alternatives to economic growth on stage in front of peers from other universities and leaders from business, government and civil society. On this student spotlight guest post, Schima shares her experience at the St. Gallen Symposium.
Deconstructing the Growth Conundrum
The theme of the 46th symposium is “alternatives to economic growth”. It reflects contemporary criticism directed at growth in all or several of its dimensions. At first glance, the growth conundrum appears almost disappointingly easy to solve: let’s all adopt Bhutan’s index of happiness and hope that a change in measurement will alleviate the negative side-effects of growth-led economics. However, upon closer examination, one realizes that it challenges us to suggest viable alternatives that are a) implementable instead of naïve abstractions of a complex reality, b) well understood in their consequences, and c) acceptable to a wide audience. I realized that the crux of the issue is not that we lack appropriate ideas. Human species after all is remarkably inventive in its ability to solve complex issues. But the issue is in the shortfall in execution or/and lack of political will. Economics often is politics, after all.
My friends in the entrepreneurial sector stress that they face an abundance of ideas. However, the true success of a business or start-up is a function of how well an idea is executed, implemented and ultimately sold to outside stakeholders and consumers. I am fascinated by all these Schumpeterian creative destructors, and am interested in ways to elevate their dynamics to the macro-level of economic growth. In this regard, philosophical excursions bring valuable input to the often narrowly defined social science of Economics. Thus, the argument I formulated for the St. Gallen Symposium was influenced by a combination of fields – business, economics, philosophy and political science – and pursues the idea that we have alternative concepts to growth at our disposal. Society should focus on the implementation and acceptance of these alternative concepts or new societal framework (given that there is an agreement that the current focus on GDP-induced growth is outdated for large parts of the world). In doing so, I propose a triangular framework (find it here) drawing on insights from Michel Foucault and Ludwig Wittgenstein that can create an environment in which alternatives may come to fruition.
One major highlight of my St. Gallen experience is when the six finalists for the Wings of Excellence Award were asked to present their idea in public and defend them against the sharp minds of three international panelists (find the panel debate here). The truly remarkable aspect of having a big stage for your idea lies in the resulting discussions with people from all walks of life. It was delightfully surprising to discover how well an idea resonates with others. For example a linguist can advance one’s economic toolkit or a business leader thinks one’s philosophical discussions can push his/her (more practical) boundaries of thought.
The Symposium is a curious and invigorating place. It mixes old and young from different continents with different fields of expertise trying to give their approach to alternatives to economic growth. I like to think of the St. Gallen Symposium as a cross-continental incubator of ideas. It brings together the traditional and the unconventional, formulating fresh visions for our societies – sometimes practical, sometimes philosophical, sometimes heroic.
About the St. Gallen Symposium
Founded against the worldwide student protests of 1968, the St. Gallen Symposium aims to foster intergenerational and intercultural dialogue between decision-makers to advance a social and liberal economic order and to this end hosts the world’s largest student essay competition under the “St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award”.