Swiss Sustainability Forum to lead a sustainability agenda in Bern

Bern’s positioning as a leader in the energy and environmental sector, and its easy accessibility within Switzerland and from neighbouring countries, make it the most suitable city to host the Swiss Sustainability Forum

Organised by media company NZZ Connect and as part of the overall initiative Sustainable Switzerland by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the highly ambitious event, the Swiss Sustainability Forum, will take place from 22 to 24 September 2022 at the Kursaal Convention Centre in Bern. 

I interviewed Isabel Niklaus, Lead Ecosystem Sustainability, who is responsible for events that are part of the sustainability projects at NZZ Connect including the Swiss Sustainability Forum and Impact Finance Forum. 

Circular Economy Entrepreneurs 2021. Photo credit: NZZ Connect.

About the organiser

Conference organiser, NZZ Connect, is a branch of the leading Swiss publication Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). NZZ Connect organises national conferences such as the Swiss Economic Forum focusing on business topics and brings communities together that are passionate about a given subject. Prior to establishing the three day Swiss Sustainability Forum, NZZ Connect started with a precursor event called Circular Economy Entrepreneurs in 2019 in Langenthal, a city in Canton Bern. Afterwards, it moved the second edition to Interlaken in 2020, and in 2021, it moved the event to Bern. 

Due to the positive response to the topic of sustainability and the growing demand, this year it will be a three day event. The September forum will have an extended selection of topics, more opportunities for attendees to exchange knowledge with each other through workshops and networking and on one day it will be open to the general public.

About the event

Upon inception in 2019, the event was first called Circular Economy Entrepreneurs because circular economy is a model with a future focused approach. It means using the available resources at our disposal and reusing, repairing, recycling and reworking them. Its vision calls for entrepreneurs and shapers who recognise the opportunity (and the challenges) of sustainability, to create their businesses with the circular economy model from the get-go. 

By introducing the topic of the circular economy to the wider audience and making people aware of its potential to the economy, the organisers contribute to the agenda setting, pushing important and relevant subjects forward and helping to transfer knowledge within society.  

After the first three precursor events the organisers have decided to expand the topic of the circular economy to broader subjects, that support reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations as well as the Paris Climate Agreement. Within the conference a selection of sub-themes will be defined. This year, the event will look into the energy, textile and construction as well as mobility industries from different sustainability angles. 

Circular Economy Entrepreneurs 2021. Photo credit: NZZ Connect.

Event vision and objective 

The vision of the event is to shape the future of business. This is because the organiser is convinced that businesses in the economy have the power to make our planet liveable for our grandchildren. The objective is to bring all the key stakeholders from business, academia, politics and authorities together. By bringing the right people together, it is possible to shape this future. Through having the right inspiration on stage combined with dive-in sessions on important topics, participants will have the right tools and valuable insights to take action. 

Event format

Presentations, following the year’s key subjects, will take place on the main stage in the first part of the day. Participants can expect a combination of keynotes, fireside chats and panel discussions. All aligned in order to keep it most engaging for the audience. All speaker contributions are translated simultaneously into German or English, allowing all participants to follow the programme in the language they prefer.

In the second part of the day, attendees will be able to participate in deep dive discussions in their choice of workshop, based on the broader themes that were discussed on stage. This time they will focus on their applications to the business context. 

The deep-dive sessions are designed to be interactive. There will be five to six sessions running in parallel in small groups, where participants will work with a moderator on a subject, designed in a workshop style. Through this workshop style engagement, the participants will have opportunities to think more about and reflect on the subject. Participants will be given sufficient time for networking to reflect on the new learnings, engage and reconnect with peers as well as meet new people. Using this format, organisers aim to leave a lasting impression on attendees, so that they will implement the learnings in their businesses. 

Why Bern was selected as a host city

Bern is a city that is conscious of its role as a sustainable destination and bringing the event to this destination matched both the visions of the organisers and the city. Furthermore, Bern is the most suitable choice because it is the Swiss capital, with government, associations and professional bodies, research and academia who work in the field of environment and energy being based there. 

Hosting the event in Bern will give an opportunity for all stakeholders to meet and have important conversations on the subject. 

Furthermore, Bern is easily reachable from other major Swiss cities, and easily accessible from neighbouring countries Germany and Austria as well as France. 

Why was Kursaal selected as a venue? 

The Kursaal is a very flexible location and organisers have everything within the Kursaal. Kursaal is suitable for accommodating a large audience, has technicians and IT support on site, and there’s a large zone for exhibition and networking purposes.

In addition, there’s a hotel, Swissôtel Kursaal Bern, with 171 rooms; it’s within walking distance from the train station and the view from the location is spectacular.

How does the Bern Convention Bureau support the event 

Bern is a city that is committed to sustainability and this alignment is very important for the organisers. The Bern Convention Bureau supports the organisers with any question that arises during the planning process, such as a hotel booking outside of Kursaal when necessary. Their consistently helpful support is almost like a concierge service.  

Furthermore, the event is listed on the annual calendar of the Bern Convention Bureau to bring awareness to a larger potential audience.  

Target audience 

The event is expected to have 450 attendees. This number will provide all attendees with a good opportunity to network with a mix of people across other sectors and industries. The event is designed for audiences who have started implementing sustainability measures and those who want to learn where and how to start. 

The organisers put a strong emphasis on the mix of participants. Having the right people in the room will encourage others to attend, because they know they will meet the right people at the event. 

Stakeholder groups include: 

  • government
  • politicians 
  • academia 
  • students 
  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • associations 
  • shapers: individual people who are known for their vision, those who try to fix a problem

Has the event format been changed due to COVID-19?

At the beginning of the pandemic, the organisers considered adjusting the event format and explored the possibility of whether they should offer a hybrid format with both in-person and virtual events. However, due to their experimentation with other events with different formats in the NZZ Connect event portfolio, they concluded that the essence of their events is the engagement among and between the presenters and attendees.

As a result, they have decided against further hybrid formats. It will still be possible to follow the event via livestream, but there won’t be a possibility of submitting questions to speakers and the virtual audience can watch only what’s happening on the main stage. 

Technology partner for live streaming and technical support on site

For all technology support, the Swiss Sustainability Forum works with the suppliers Habegger and Kilchenmann. Kursaal is flexible about working with external providers, which is another great advantage about working with this venue. 

Sustainability initiatives during the event

The organiser’s approach to sustainability is guided and inspired by the 17 Sustainable Goals. For their conferences and for the companies that want to be more sustainable, there’s a checklist by the city on how to be as green and sustainable as possible. This includes reduce printing, reuse what’s possible, have a gender balance on stage, have vegetarian and vegan menus, have a conversation with the location about what they do to become more sustainable and more. 

Since 2006, Kursaal has been a member of the climate platform of the city of Bern and has had 21 different projects there. Examples include e-car chargers on site and having their own Kursaal bees, who produce honey for the breakfast buffet. To reduce food waste, Kursaal uses the KITRO scale, which measures their food waste. Any unused buffet food is put on that scale, which analyses what they have to do to produce less food waste. They also offer food waste boxes for clients.

The Swiss Sustainable Forum aims to be a net zero event. Having Kursaal as the event location helps because it is already advanced in its own sustainability approaches. 

Additionally, the organisers can also ask the participants to join them on the sustainability journey. Participants can contribute by arriving by train, bringing their own water bottle and taking other actions within their power to contribute to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

Challenges encountered during the planning process 

First, due to COVID-19, people are hesitant to attend live events or book at the last minute. The latter scenario introduces the challenge of ordering the right amount of food without risking too much food waste.

Second, other challenges are the impacts that changing pandemic travel restrictions and COVID-19 outbreaks may have on the ability of speakers to participate. For example, will speakers be able to travel to the conference, or what happens if they contract COVID? The organisers would love to keep the travelling of speakers at a minimum, and yet the impact of speaker contribution is different if they are on site or online. When speakers are physically present, they can engage better with the audience on site, and are still around during the break, which makes the experience more personable. Yet, this time some speakers will be virtual because the organisers want to minimise their footprint. 

Some of the speakers include: 

  • Ellen MacArthur, a leading speaker on circular economy (virtual participation);
  • André Hoffmann, vice-chairman of the Board of Roche Holding and chairman of the MAVA Foundation (on-site participation); and
  • Solomon Baumgartner, CEO Lafarge Egypt SA, Member of the Holcim Group.

Engaging the younger audience

Sustainability is a topic that concerns the younger generation; they care deeply about it and as such, students and young professionals are invited to discussions. With the new B2C theme being covered on one event day, organisers aim to have multi-generational dialogue and discussion tables, in which all generations can learn from one another, and share their thoughts and inputs.  

Confirmed sessions include: 

  • Creative workshop on Biodiversity with the Zentrum Paul Klee
  • Experience for our 5 senses with Tierpark Dählhölzli
  • Concert by fem*ergy collective
  • Opening Keynote by City Mayor Alec von Graffenried
  • Keynote by Thomas Stocker, University of Bern

Conclusions and recommendations 

One of the biggest opportunities we have, is not only having an event which is about sustainability, but is living it as a role model. The organisers are inviting the participants to join them to act sustainably.

The organisers want the event to have a lasting legacy by giving back to the host city, supporting local projects with a donation. Bern is a city that is looking after its citizens by having a sustainable tourism approach which aligns with the event. Having a long-term approach and strong alignment between both partners is the right way to create a lasting positive impact.  

When deciding to be fully committed to sustainability, there will be hard decisions to be made. One example is whether the speakers should be on site or not. As already outlined, speakers will have a stronger impact on site, but having them join virtually reduces the carbon footprint. 

Attending a sustainable conference requires more commitment from attendees, too. Whether it’s coming by public transport, contributing financially to a local project or choosing a vegan lunch option, these are all actions that can be transferred to daily life as well. Implementing sustainability into daily habits is a learning process, and events such as the Swiss Sustainability Forum can inspire to find more ways to incorporate sustainability into daily life and into business practices. If we want to see change happen for a more sustainable future, we need to start with ourselves first. 

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