The main top­ic of this year’s sym­po­sium, „Beyond bor­ders,“ may affect all aspects of life. The world is expe­ri­enc­ing an unprece­dent­ed peri­od of glob­al peace today. The threats of our time are not wars but ter­ror­ist attacks, cli­mate change, polit­i­cal upheaval, or ener­gy short­ages, to name just a few. How can we deal with crises and bor­der­line expe­ri­ences and which strate­gies can we devel­op to han­dle them? These ques­tions were dis­cussed from the point of view of math­e­mat­ics, extreme sports, pol­i­tics and the treat­ment of future sce­nar­ios in film and lit­er­a­ture.

One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics is the pre­dictabil­i­ty of crises. John Casti has worked on the mod­el­ling of so-called X‑events for many years. X‑events occur sur­pris­ing­ly and rarely but have a great impact. They have a destruc­tive effect on the sta­tus quo and they pre­cip­i­tate change. Thus, X‑events trig­ger progress. The pre­dic­tion of X‑events is only pos­si­ble to a very lim­it­ed extent. How­ev­er, fore­casts might fur­ther our under­stand­ing of X‑events deci­sive­ly. Nev­er­the­less, they are very dif­fi­cult to make because the con­text in which such X‑events occur is chang­ing con­stant­ly.

The dis­cus­sion high­light­ed events like polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions, finan­cial crises and ter­ror­ist attacks with a glob­al effect. It focused on three main prob­lems: How do you sur­vive an X‑event? How do you respond to it? And final­ly, how can a soci­ety pre­pare for it?

A soci­ety has to be ade­quate­ly pre­pared and ready to take great risks after an X‑event in order to re-organ­ise for the future. One pre­req­ui­site for deal­ing with a cri­sis is the trust of the cit­i­zens in insti­tu­tions and the trans­paren­cy of polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing process­es. Small­er struc­tur­al units that are man­age­able and trans­par­ent have great advan­tages in this respect.

The expe­ri­ence of bor­der­line sit­u­a­tions and the way to deal with them on an indi­vid­ual lev­el were dis­cussed impres­sive­ly by moun­taineer Peter Habel­er. The prin­ci­ples and basic rules of extreme sports can be applied to many oth­er fields, e.g. econ­o­my and pol­i­tics.

To devel­op your own per­son­al­i­ty in bor­der­line expe­ri­ences of this kind is to acknowl­edge your phys­i­cal and men­tal lim­its. We used the term „com­fort zone“, which one has to leave in order to be ready for new expe­ri­ences. A high degree of self-con­fi­dence is nec­es­sary in a cri­sis to bear the respon­si­bil­i­ty for your own deci­sions. Only then is it pos­si­ble to approach new fron­tiers. It is equal­ly impor­tant to rec­og­nize these lim­its and to be will­ing to turn back or to give up if the risk becomes too great. More specif­i­cal­ly, the lack of risk-tak­ing on the part of politi­cians, admin­is­tra­tors and lead­ers in many eco­nom­ic fields was dis­cussed. Few­er and few­er peo­ple are pre­pared to bear the con­se­quences of coura­geous mea­sures.

Is it pos­si­ble to pre­pare peo­ple for impend­ing crises and which mech­a­nisms are avail­able for this pur­pose? How does the gen­er­al pub­lic assess the var­i­ous sce­nar­ios for our future? Post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios are often to be found in books and films. Eva Horn has shown that fic­tion deal­ing with spe­cif­ic dis­as­ters or crises can make it pos­si­ble to assess the con­se­quences if one of those sce­nar­ios were to become real­i­ty. Fic­tion can also be used as a basis for dis­cussing eth­i­cal con­flicts: Are we will­ing to apply eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples when help­ing oth­ers dur­ing a cat­a­stro­phe? Fic­tion can also help to devel­op strate­gies for sur­vival.

Dis­as­ter fic­tion mir­rors the worst fears of the respec­tive era. How­ev­er, espe­cial­ly in com­put­er games there is a trend toward coop­er­a­tion between play­ers. Fic­tion­al heroes pre­fer coop­er­a­tion to self­ish­ness, i.e. they show how we can coop­er­ate in a sit­u­a­tion in which self­ish­ness would prob­a­bly be our instinc­tive reac­tion.

The cri­sis-prone­ness of Euro­pean pol­i­tics was dis­cussed by Karel Schwarzen­berg. The main symp­tom of the cri­sis is evi­denced by the decline of the major demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties that were estab­lished about 100 years ago. The sup­port for Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Chris­t­ian Social par­ties is dwin­dling in all coun­tries and new, part­ly nation­al­ist, part­ly pop­ulist par­ties emerge. The major weak­ness of the „old“ par­ties is their lack of prin­ci­ples and ideas. They no longer know what exact­ly they are stand­ing for. Par­ties as well as politi­cians have become inter­change­able. In addi­tion, there is a cri­sis of the „idea“ of Europe. The bureau­cra­cy in Brus­sels has lost touch with the cit­i­zens, lead­ing to a so-called „Europe frus­tra­tion“. Espe­cial­ly in sit­u­a­tions such as the cur­rent cri­sis in the Ukraine, a high lev­el of trust in insti­tu­tions and struc­tures would be nec­es­sary but is not dis­cernible. Europe seems ham­strung with­out a com­mon for­eign pol­i­cy and a com­mon defense strat­e­gy.

In this time of Euro­pean weak­ness and in the absence of real lead­ers there is an increas­ing dan­ger of a call for a „strong­man.“ The elec­tion results of new pop­ulist par­ties have steadi­ly improved over the past years. In recent decades Europe has focused sole­ly on boost­ing its econ­o­my and has achieved an unprece­dent­ed pros­per­i­ty for the major­i­ty of its cit­i­zens. Despite its pros­per­i­ty, Europe is falling back in inno­v­a­tive strength because not enough mon­ey is being spent on schools and uni­ver­si­ties. As a con­se­quence, Europe has become a „patent-importer“. It is a fun­da­men­tal threat to the future of Europe if, in addi­tion to its strate­gic weak­ness, there is also an inno­va­tion weak­ness. If this hap­pens, our good eco­nom­ic posi­tion is lost. Europe must not become Asia’s tourism penin­su­la.

The dis­cus­sion on Sun­day with Gov­er­nor Josef Pühringer and ACADEMIA SUPERIOR’s pres­i­dent Michael Strugl, mem­bers of Young Acad­e­mia and the Aca­d­e­m­ic Board marked the tran­si­tion from an aca­d­e­m­ic dis­cus­sion to polit­i­cal prac­tice.

The stu­dents raised crit­i­cal ques­tions con­cern­ing the future. The issues addressed includ­ed age­ing, the finan­cial via­bil­i­ty of the wel­fare state, the fur­ther devel­op­ment of envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able mobil­i­ty in Upper Austria’s regions, the oppor­tu­ni­ties and risks of new tech­nolo­gies, espe­cial­ly bio-tech­nol­o­gy, and the advance­ment of democ­ra­cy, espe­cial­ly direct democ­ra­cy.

A con­cern high­light­ed by the young peo­ple is the resilience of soci­ety. Here, one key aspect is the sit­u­a­tion of our edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Only if young peo­ple receive a good edu­ca­tion will they be able to devel­op the right ideas to deal with future bor­der­line expe­ri­ences.

Personal Data:

Erich Gornik is Pro­fes­sor of Sol­id State Elec­tron­ics at the Vien­na Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nolog, Win­ner of the 1997 Wittgen­stein Award and since 1995 Fel­low of the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal Soci­ety.