25 May 2003

Back from four days in St Gallen, Switzerland, where a small army of students at its famed business university runs an annual conference (extraordinarily well -- better than any professionally-run conference I have been to, not least because there's no commercial angle). It has nearly 1000 attendees annually, has been going for 33 years, and is very well known in contintental Europe; far less so in the UK/Ireland, and hardly at all in the US. Yet as speakers,  it attracts some of the biggest names in US and global business. And the UK and US business worlds would find much of value in the global outlook and multiculturalism of ISC, especially as discussion with the audience is an integral part, from keynotes to smaller working sessions.

 ISC Symposium participants take a break between sessions

My head is now stuffed full of interesting sessions and talks -- ranging from Charles Moore, ed-in-chief of the London Daily Telegraph, on his take on the current state of the transatlantic relationship, to Helmut Panke, the chairman of BMW on branding and competition; Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of Indian telecoms company Bharti Enterprises, on India's future and the technology industry; Hisashi Owada, president of the International Court of Justice, on globalisation and its promises and discontents; Lord Griffiths, international director of Goldman Sachs, on the state of the global economy and its challenges, and much more.

I was especially interested in what Asian and Indian speakers had to say. These two mighty regions are only just beginning to make themselves felt on the business frontier (and especially the technology frontier). I also enjoyed Joi Ito's session on 'Emergent Democracy', which was all about weblogs. I think the title was perhaps a bit too ambiguous, because later that day I spoke to a couple of the 200+ students that attend ISC (by virtue of being chosen through an international essay competition). They were extremely interested in the ideas of the session when I told them about it, but the title hadn't caught their eye as indicating this was something about technology, culture, weblogs and communication. I was curious to see that Joi's audience (which is very participatory in these smaller discussion sessions) included the Dutch ambassador! Some of the students in the group were particularly strenuous in pushing Joi to defend his ideas. At ISC, the fact that students are there and willing to dive in (usually with some of the best questions) also adds spark to this event.

One of the most interesting occasions for me was the drive back to the airport (all done by extremely polite, be-suited students in BMW cars, all for free. They are at your service at all times during the Symposium too. Extraordinary). The other passenger was an Indian businessman, the managing director of a company in Bangalore. First, he grilled me on Ireland, its economy, and the tech industry there. Then I grilled him on India! His perspectives were fascinating, and got me thinking. I hope to consider some of what he said in my Irish Times column for this coming Friday. I'll post it here as well. As you can see, this event is very multicultural, though I'd like to have seen more on Africa, and more Africans.

 The city of St Gallen is lovely (though hotels are expensive!), and I had a pleasant walk from my hotel near the mediaeval old town to the university (albeit up a steep hill, through a neighbourhood of old homes traversed with charming, winding, leafy public stairways). I was delighted to find that the city is named for (what else!) an Irish monk, who arrived in 612AD and either met a talking bear or fell into a briar bush or perhaps both, and took it (as you do) as a sign from God that he should set up his hermitage there. By the 800s a monastery was established, and opened a library, now one of Switzerland's architectural and historical jewels. In it is one of the best-kept and the single most complete histories of historical religious documents. Because it preserves so many documents central to the development of European intellectual thought, the library was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983.

The library was redone in ornate baroque style in the 1700s and today, this is what you visit (DO check out this link, a fish-eye view -- it's amazing), wearing huge felt slippers over your shoes (the delightful German word translates as 'foot boats', and indeed, they are). I was fortunate to arrive just as it opened and had the great pleasure of having the sunlit old room to myself for a brief while before several big tour groups arrived. In the library (besides a beautiful inlay floor and flamboyant, baroque plastering and ceiling painting, and all the books) one can view the odd combination of old manuscripts in display cases, and a mummy and its sarcophagus (didn't I tell you this was my kind of library?!). I marvelled at one manuscript, a life of some saint, written in clear writing and bright colours on clean, fresh vellum, and looking as if it were done yesterday. But I was staggered to see it was over 1200 years old. Wonderful to be in the presence of those early minds, in a place that has revered learning and the preservation of it for over a thousand years.

Some views of St Gallen, taken with my new little Sony camera. At far left is the monastery.


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