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The foundations that shape our lives


This year's Alpbach Technology Talks, organized by AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and ORF Radio Österreich 1, will take place - as part of the European Forum Alpbach - in a completely new format: as a hybrid of on-site events streamed live to the participants. This does not detract from top-class discussions on topics such as climate protection, complexity, corona and art and science.

It was the summer of 1945. Austria, almost all of Europe and half the world were devastated after the end of the Nazi terror regime and the terrible war. There was also emptiness in intellectual life. The universities were closed, all research institutions instrumentalized for ideology and war. In this situation, a few intellectuals around Otto Molden and Simon Moser took heart: they wanted to set a sign of hope and of a new beginning, they wanted to bring together as international a group of scientists as possible. Thus they founded the "Austrian College" in the summer of 1945. The remote but beautiful Tyrolean village of Alpbach was found as the venue for a first event - through personal contacts and some coincidence. From August 25 to September 10, 1945, the first "International College Weeks" finally took place - with about 80 participants*.

From this nucleus grew what is probably the most important event in Austria's intellectual life: the European Forum Alpbach, which is thus celebrating its 75th birthday this year. The topics discussed annually for two weeks in late summer in the Tyrolean mountains became ever broader. In 1984, the first Alpbach Technology Talks took place - initiated by the predecessor organization of today's AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, the Seibersdorf Research Center, as well as the ORF and the Federation of Austrian Industries. Since then, the AIT has organized this annual summit meeting together with partners - especially ORF Radio Ö1 - which usually attracts around 1,500 researchers, industrialists, politicians, experts and other interested parties to discuss the most pressing issues of the future.

Crowding only in the data lines

The talks will also take place in this year's Corona. However, due to the virus, they are taking place in a completely different setting: Whereas in previous years, plenary sessions, breakout sessions and social events were bustling with intense exchanges of ideas, this year the congress center and the village are quiet. On the other hand, the data lines from the side valley of the Inntal to the rest of the world are very busy: The lectures and discussions take place for the most part physically in Alpbach, but the audience sits at home or in the office and participates in the exchange of ideas from there.

There are hardly any more people present on site this year than in the early days of Forum Alpbach. And they have to comply with strict security regulations: Only accredited participants* with a matching QR code are allowed to enter the congress center, and a temperature is taken at the entrance. You are assigned a fixed seat, and the chairs are placed at a safe distance from each other. The mouth-nose protection may only be removed at the seat.

Nevertheless, there are lively discussions - that is also possible in this digital/analog setting. The general theme of this year's Forum Alpbach, which runs until September 3, is "Fundamentals". It is about the fundamentals of our thinking, living and economic activity - a very urgent discourse, especially in times of crisis. "One of the fundamental questions to which answers will be sought at the Technology Talks is the climate issue," explains Wolfgang Knoll, scientific director of the AIT. "This topic has somewhat fallen by the wayside in the Covid discussion." Together with the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers as a theme partner, the European perspective on climate protection in particular will be highlighted. After all, only together can the foundations for a sustainable future be laid.

Stone statues wear mouth nose guard

Art installation in front of the Congress Centrum Alpbach "Thinkers at work", Ucki Xossdorff, 2009

Unclear world

A second thematic focus of the Technology Talks this year is "Compexity Science". The central question here is how we can and should deal with the increasingly complex and confusing phenomena in the world. In cooperation with the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, the Corona Crisis will be discussed in particular - specifically, the consequences for society and the economy, as well as how we can best return to something like "normality". The yearbook of this year's Technology Talks is also dedicated to the topic of complexity.

The Alpbach Technology Talks also include debates on Austrian research policy. Hannes Androsch, Chairman of the Research Council and doyen of the Alpbach Technology Talks, complained that although it had been known for a long time what needed to be done to enable Austria to join the group of "Technology Leaders", it did not seem to have the strength to implement it. The three ministers responsible for science and research - Leonore Gewessler (climate and innovation), Margarete Schramböck (digitization) and Heinz Fassmann (science and research) - meanwhile affirmed that they would fight as a "strong team" for higher research budgets. Georg Knill, President of the Federation of Austrian Industries, called for a technology offensive in the coming years that would be endowed with one billion euros.

Digital formats have proven themselves

The President of Forum Alpbach, Franz Fischler, already gave a positive assessment of the new format of the talks at the halfway point. The hybrid format (of live debates streamed online) has several advantages, he said: "You can reach more participants and attendees. It's easier to attract international speakers. And the program can include significantly more events," he said. Admittedly, this is offset by a serious disadvantage: that no personal contacts and chance conversations are possible, he said. "We miss the Alpbach community," Fischler said. This is a longing that many long-time Forum participants feel.

So in the future, there will probably be mixed forms of on-site debates and digital content - because no one wants to miss the latter after this year's experiences. Not even in post-Corona times.