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Innovation for sustainable change

For Peter Droege, founder and Chair of the LISDAR, the concept – which has continued to develop since 2008 – has proven its worth. It has now become more colourful, more international and larger than ever: 60 speakers from around the world spoke about the world of finance and foundations, buildings and regional development, as well as business models and information systems.


The Liechtenstein Congress becomes the Davos of sustainability: over the course of three days in the beginning of May, it once more brought together foundations, the finance industry, businesses, architects, spatial planners, environmental experts, IT specialists, policy makers, the media and average citizen. For Peter Droege, founder and Chair of the Congress, the concept – which has continued to develop since 2008 – has proven its worth. It has now become more colourful, more international and larger than ever: 60 speakers from around the world spoke about the world of finance and foundations, buildings and regional development, as well as business models and information systems.

Interview: Steffen Klatt


The Liechtenstein Congress brought together architects, investors, IT specialists and academics, among others. Why these particular professional groups?

Peter Droege: The Liechtenstein Congress brought these diverse groups together because it deals with the socially and economically central relevant themes of sustainability in three separate but related conferences. It is about the theme of intelligent financial flows: How do we invest our money? In this regard, there are clear connections and interests with sustainable investments, in cities, buildings, property, infrastructure, landscape and agriculture. And it is all about the business models with which these investments occur.

The world of information and communication systems is a central aspect today for businesses and other organisations, but also a powerful nexus of media for understanding our society's existential conditions and reach out to people. All of these relate to a fundamental rethinking in our society, which is racing towards the limits of non-renewable resources and an escalating climatic catastrophe. Through the congress participants must gain clarity around the profound historical opportunity that comes with this new era of sustainable development.

How ready were the participants to move beyond the confines of their respective professions?

The Liechtenstein Congress is an academically informed event with a firm focus on sustainable economic development. It is not simply a 'green conference', but rather one which is concerned with the central meaning and direction of our civilisation. Most of our participants are already engaged, active and successful people in these fields. Many of them have strong interests in all topics of the three-day event, even though each day was tailored to specific interests and needs. The people who are at the forefront of their fields are already fully engaged. We are, after all, talking about a leading segment of the economy whose turnover is already in the thousands of billions of francs each year. People come to this congress in order to make new discoveries and experiences, whether it is about mission investments where climate is concerned, philanthropy in developing countries, or even about information systems supporting these business models.

The Liechtenstein Congress is not directed just to academics, but also to those practising in their fields. Is this the Congress' hallmark?

At the University of Liechtenstein, we do not operate within the 'pure sciences', which focus on new thought within the boundaries of theory and abstraction. In this congress and most of our investigation we are concerned with applications. The entire topic of the sustainable economy, sustainable values and also sustainable building requires academic support and academic thinking - research and development. Every successful entrepreneur operates this way, arriving at innovation supported by hard facts and experience.

The Liechtenstein Congress has now taken place for the third time. What was new?

There was a much stronger focus on business models and business principles. Last time, besides the continued spotlight on building and finance, we had a deeper look at bio-diverse and climate-stable forms of regional areas and on managing landscapes and agriculture. These are the basis of our daily existence and a central dimension in the pursuit of a dignified, just, rich and emissions-free perspective of what liveability and civilizational viability mean. We also looked at successful examples of sustainable spatial planning in our regions.

This year, in contrast, we concentrated more on the organisational dimensions, but also at economically viable and intelligent business forms needed for change. At the same time, the international resonance of the Congress also grew. There were more participants from overseas. Great interest remains even after the Congress concluded. In this regard I am very pleased. The concept – three different complex themes over three different days  – has proven itself.

Will this concept continue with a fourth congress?

We have two years' time to properly develop and work out the next congresses. But we will not blindly copy what was done this year, just as this congress did not repeat what was done in the previous ones. The fourth congress will be completely different, in terms of both content and form.

This Liechtenstein Congress was the first to take place after the changes in energy policies in Germany and Switzerland. Did the Congress send a message to those who are carrying out this change?

The change has not yet fully taken place. At present, it has only resulted in a temporary rearrangement of political positions. The decision to phase out nuclear energy has now been declared twice in Germany, but it has not yet de facto occurred. Switzerland chose a 20-year phase-out model, but this can be dragged out for longer even though everyone knows that the nuclear industry around the world has no relevant perspectives to offer. Likewise, the end of  the outmoded, potentially fatal fossil-fuel burning technology is also inevitable. And yet mentally and in actuality, we continue to live in a fossil fuel/nuclear world.  

But change is already with us. Coal is the strongest growing source of electricity worldwide; however, investment trends are moving in the opposite direction, and away for coal. We are witnessing a dramatic growth in renewables, a pronounced drop in producing power from fossil fuels, and practically no private investments in nuclear energy. Representatives from the nuclear energy industry have launched a global PR campaign in response to this inexorable shift. But in many countries the energy revolution is underway, and they are moving in a dynamic fashion; sometimes they falter, but it is an upwards trend. This is why just last week, the German federal council stopped the politically and special-interest motivated effort to lower the solar feed-in tariff.

What must be done in order to accelerate the change in energy policies?

If as an investor you want to be involved in a genuine energy revolution that moves us away from dangerous, old models, then you cannot do this simply by 'thinking green'. Rather, you do this because you recognise that the very future lies in this, by discovering the vector of history in this shift. In this sense, the energy revolution already has a massive, and in some ways perhaps unstoppable, financial dynamic. However, the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries still seem financially stronger - but only because this is how it appears from a backward-looking perspective. It is inevitable that energy production will move in the direction of renewable sources; that is, away from our past. The question is whether this shift can be directed before time runs out.

The financial centre participated in the Liechtenstein Congress. Is its interest in sustainability growing?

Most definitely. The bank Kaiser Partner, which is active worldwide, has been one of our key sponsors since 2010 and is active responsible investing. There are hardly any large banks left in Liechtenstein that are not at least interested in these subjects. Many even sent their employees to attend the Liechtenstein Congress. The financial centre is taking the questions around sustainability seriously. The government, too, backs the Congress.

What do you expect from Rio +20, the UN conference on sustainability that will take place in June?

The sole outcome that we can expect with certainty is plans for a Rio +21. In the past 20 years there has been much energy devoted to global declarations and exchanve - sadly been no meaningful progress, no real commitment to change. These large international conferences produce a lot of statements and therefore serve the interests of their diverse participants. But they don't seem to succeed in bringing about action or meaningful progress, not of the scale needed. As is always the case, they appeal to the lowest common denominator of the advocates as well as that of the enemies of progress. This also holds true for climate conferences. Genuine action takes place at the local and regional levels, in the economy, in legislation -- in the firmly held belief in the transformation of insight and possibilities, which has already been known for a generation. Perhaps this is the true if indirect benefit of Rio and Kyoto.

 

Biography:
Professor Peter Droege is Professor for Sustainable Spatial Development at the University of Liechtenstein. He developed, organised and chaired the Liechtenstein Congress for Sustainable Development and Responsible Investment, which was held for the third time in Vaduz from 2 - 4 May.
Droege is President of Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable Energy, and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. He studied at the Technical University of Munich and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at the universities of Tokyo, Sydney and Newcastle.