Swiss think tank foraus: “We’re not here to disrupt diplomacy: we think we can complement it.”

Local news, 04.05.2017

Nicola Forster, co founder of the international, Swiss-based think tank foraus, came to San Francisco last month to lead a Humanitarian Innovation Lab “Open Situation Room” workshop, with ICRC Communications Director Charlotte Lindsey-Curtet, and to participate in a Global Pitch Night that evening. That event, organized with swissnex San Francisco and the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco, brought together teams from nine cities around the world that have been engaging independently with pressing humanitarian issues. It’s just another day at the office for Mr. Forster. Currently based in New York, he is often on the move between Geneva, Zürich, Berlin, Paris, and humanitarian hot spots around the world. We found a few minutes to debrief with him on foraus, bottom-up diplomacy, and hope for the future.

Nicola Forster © Nicola Forster
Nicola Forster Nicola Forster

Let me start with a soft ball: where did foraus come from, and how did you get involved with this way of thinking?

Nicola Forster: Before starting foraus, the founders were leading a national campaign on the extension of the free movement of persons to Bulgaria and Romania for the Swiss youth parties. There we’ve identified huge potential: knowledgeable young people with great ideas who want to be get involved in politics, but not in party politics.

We decided to build a platform for all these intelligent young people in the form of a think tank, to connect good ideas with politics in the field of foreign policy. We belong to the first truly international generation of young Swiss people, having had the great opportunity of studying and working abroad for a few years and to work together with migrants from different countries, in Switzerland as well. We also love internationally: Every third marriage in Switzerland today is at least bi-national. These new freedoms are there for everybody, not only for academics. We felt that they were endangered and we wanted to contribute to saving them for the next generations, by doing what we do best as non-politicians: Use our knowledge and fresh ideas to contribute to a constructive relationship between Switzerland and its international partners.

We created a think tank without knowing exactly what a think tank was. None of my co founders or I had ever worked for a think tank. As we didn’t have money, we invented a new model: A crowd-sourcing think tank which bases its work on the wisdom of the crowd, the many out there with good ideas. We can’t offer money to the hundreds and thousands of contributors, but we can offer them a great platform and the brand of a major think tank for their original, well researched and argued ideas.

Is foraus explicitly for young people?

NF: No. We have members that are one hundred years old and above, as well as former ambassadors and experienced professionals who want to engage with our crowd. Yet the majority of our active members are between 25 and 30+ years old. At that age, you’re at the top of your academic knowledge and you are enthusiastic about shaping the world, but you typically don’t have the possibility to engage with decision makers directly or to be published by major media outlets yet. We further develop these talents and give them a voice in order to have an influence with their ideas.

So foraus is a bridge between learning and professional action?

NF: I would say that foraus bridges the gap between academic knowledge and impact in the policy field. And it works astonishingly well. Contributing to this success is the Swiss political system with its Milizparlament [lay parliament] so that the connections between civil society and parliament are quite strong. However, you need an organization to be heard.

foraus is growing. You’re already present in Berlin and Brussels, you personally are based in New York. How do you see the geographical future of foraus?

NF: Actually today we’re launching our next Spin-Off think tank in Paris.

Congratulations.

NF: Thank you. Argo is the French Spin-Off; and the German think tank is called Polis180. It has recently been identified as one of the ten best new think tanks worldwide by the famous think tank ranking of the University of Pennsylvania. Now we’re launching operations in the U.K., in Austria, and probably in Dakar or Nairobi. I’m based in the U.S. identifying opportunities for a new crowd-sourcing think tank, and we’re looking for co founders in Asian countries as well. Our goal is to create national think tanks around the world to build a global network of open think tanks which use the same crowd-sourcing method we use in Switzerland. We will keep track of all our members around the world, their skills and competences and what topics they would like to work on. This will enable us to connect and match the brightest minds from around the world who are interested in the same global challenges but come from very different national perspectives. For example, a policy brief on Brexit could be co-authored by experts from the UK, Brussels, Switzerland and Poland, each of them bringing in their specific knowledge. You can think of a Tinder-like app which will help our members to find the right co-authors and experts for their next study and give them all the tools to insert fresh ideas in international politics and a global discourse. Step by step, we will become the first truly international think tank with a bottom-up, crowd-sourced model.

You talk a lot about “open” and “bottom-up” –what do you think an organization gains by opening up its decision making process?

NF: Of course you gain fresh input. We got the impression that your decisions become better if you involve the people who are affected by your policy and the work you’re doing. Also, in a traditional setting, when you only have the experts (in a narrow sense) around the table, you’re missing out on great ideas. Especially in complex issues: these problems have societal dimensions. For example the election of Trump. It’s not enough to have a security policy expert analyzing what this means. It’s much bigger than that. You need people from different fields and parts of society to determine what this event means for a country like Switzerland. That’s where our approach of opening up diplomacy comes in. We can bring something to the table: coming up with fresh ideas that stimulate traditional decision making. We’re not here to disrupt diplomacy: we think we can complement it.

Do you think there’s a kind of genetic connection between this way of thinking and the Swiss tradition of direct democracy?

NF: I think so. What we’re exporting with our model of crowd-sourcing think tanks is based on Swiss values. Getting close to citizens and letting them express themselves. It’s close to our concept of lay politics. Most foraus members have another job, but they feel that they have something to offer to society. They dedicate their free time to this endeavor, and we give them a platform for that. This is very Swiss in my eyes. And it connects very well to the American virtue of volunteerism.

foraus has recently entered into a formal relationship with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs [FDFA], managing the Think Tank Hub program in Geneva. Do you find there’s a productive culture clash between foraus, FDFA, and other think tanks? An unproductive culture clash? No culture clash?

NF: (laughing) I think it’s very productive.

Most international cities, like New York or Brussels, are a haven for think tanks. There’s a lot of decision making on an international level going on, and many organizations swirl around the decision makers and try to influence them with their ideas. We discussed this with FDFA, and together came to the conclusion that it really would be a good idea to establish Geneva as a new hub for think tanks. With foraus, we are on eye level with the international think tanks we’re hosting. We know what they need in terms of organizing meetings with international organizations, offering them office space, arranging events to discuss their work and publications, and so on.

We also have another collaboration with FDFA: we organize events to bring in speakers on topics which will become more important in the future, like e-Diplomacy. As outsiders to the official foreign policy of Switzerland, we bring new approaches to the table.

You travel all around the world and listen to academics, to people affected by humanitarian emergencies, diplomats, business people, NGO employees: you listen to people’s concerns and thoughts about all the issues facing global society. What gives you the most hope for the future?

NF: Very good question. What gives me hope, which is also linked to my work in the Bay Area, and the work you at the Consulate and swissnex do, is this connection between tech, traditional diplomacy, and humanitarian actors. You can use tech to leverage solutions that have been around for a long time but were waiting for the right platforms to spread on a global level.

Also, new actors are part of foreign policy today: who would have thought that Bill Gates would one day come up with more than 80% of the world-wide anti-polio efforts, a traditional domain of development cooperation? Google also does impressive work with their think tank, Google Jigsaw, and Google.org — they are heavily invested in humanitarian issues. They are trying to bring new solutions to problems that have in the past been dealt with on a nation-state level. You have a lot of new actors in this multi polar world today, and there is great potential for collaboration. What if these actors could work together to solve some of the world’s biggest problems?