Jan 032012
 

The symbolic yet sturdy walls between scientific disciplines and paradigms still often hinder joint efforts and integrated approaches in science, which are needed to face walls in the form of current and future societal, environmental and economic challenges. The Falling Walls Conference, a scientific mega-event that is held annually in Berlin on the historic date the Berlin Wall came down, attempts to tear down these walls. It assembles twenty leading international scientists from diverse areas of research and a good seven hundred attendees to share knowledge and opinions about ‘which are the next walls to fall’ and how to bring them down.

The Format

What started as an experiment in 2009 has since become a tradition, a fairly “normal event” as initiator of the conference Sebastian Turner (under-)stated in his opening address, characterizing Falling Walls as a casual conversation rather than a conference, a place where academics talk to the audience like to a friend. The conference is organized by the Falling Walls Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to the support of science and humanities by the Berlin Senate for Education, Science and Research and directed by Turner. Its list of supporters reads like a veritable who is who of the German scientific landscape, among them the German Ministry for Education and Research, and leading research institutions like the    Fraunhofer and    Max Planck Society , the    Helmholtz Association , and the like. Also participating in this distinguished circle of friends’ annual chat is Chancellor    Angela Merkel , who in her keynote stressed the need for the mutual exchange of ideas to transcend borders on the way to a new Europe.

Each year, Turner and his organization team of just three people bring together “forward thinking individuals” from science, politics, economy and culture. A lot of work and consideration goes into assembling the crowd on the podium, in front of it, and behind the scenes in the press area. Speakers are required to conduct excellent research in their field and are handpicked by recommendation of scientific peers. Moreover, breakthrough-appeal of their research is considered pivotal. As in science, some of the most far-reaching breakthroughs were accomplished by fairly unknown researchers and off the beaten path (as is well illustrated by Einstein and the theory of relativity); this strategy seems to make sense:    “To lure Einstein to come to Berlin, Max Planck travelled to Z?rich. Had we asked Max Planck, he could have named Einstein as a candidate for the conference early on. In this way it would have been possible to find him before he established the general theory of relativity and even before he was awarded the Nobel Price.”   Turner explains. Of course, not everything that deserves to be presented at the conference can be considered, he concedes, as there are enough outstanding researchers to fill one or several weeks, some so productive that they can present relevant advancements each year. The concentration of Nobel laureates and holders of other notable scientific awards at the conference is imposingly high.

As society is becoming an increasingly demanding consumer of both application-oriented and mass medially communicable knowledge, the external view on scientific research becomes more and more important. This is exemplified by the promotional effort scientific events like the Falling Walls Conference take on nowadays. An expert in merchandising almost everything from the    Dresdner Frauenkirche to the Federal Republic of Germany (for which he is said to have coined the slogan:    land of ideas ), Turner knows a good deal about large-scale communication. Fortunately, Turner comments with a wink, when asked how difficult science is to merchandise,    `it is rather easy and takes rather little funding. This would become even more apparent had science the marketing budgets of washing agents”.    The next question, of course, is who actually shall and realistically can be reached by the Falling Walls format. The audience of `decision makers” is as well selected as are the speakers; and with high ticket fees, the exclusive look and feel of the event, questions about the walls around this very wall breaking event arise. Since the conference, according to Turner, addresses `everybody interested in the future”, and since one of its declared aims is to “inspire people to break down the walls that we face today”, easy access is of importance for the credibility of the event. Asked about possibilities and difficulties in communicating science to the masses, and Falling Walls’ role in it, Turner declares that this was indeed a challenge, and sketches the steps the organizers take to approach it:    “No obstacle is invincible. The first question is how scientific complexity can be made understandable without distorting it too much. The question of drawing a connection, pertinence to the audience comes in second. We always try to find speakers who, while being excellent in their research, are able to explain their work to a broad audience. Finally, the easiest part is distribution: We make all presentations available online, and a remarkable number of journalists report from the conference, whose professional qualification is to convey complicated subjects to their readers and viewers. With the live-stream the audience was multiplied by ten in the last year, by hundred due to the online availability of the videos. We’ll see what happens this year.”   In addition to watching the presentations online, viewers (approx. 8,000 this year) can contribute questions or comments. Thus, even though it may not be easy to get inside, the organizers make an effort to get people    involved . In theory, one might say, their intentions are in tune with this year’s opening lecturer    Robert Darnton (Harvard University), who is a proponent of open access and the democratization of knowledge, and sees the advent of modern media technology and digitization as a means to democratize culture. It remains an (open) question and would be interesting to see who actually watches from outside the walls of the venue and with what subjective benefit.

The Talks

The presentations at this year’s conference, which covered a wide array of disciplines and topics, were directed at three main problem fields: the fundamental questions of humanity (   What was there before the universe? ), current global challenges (   How do we end famines and protect individual security? ), and the measures available to science itself for tackling these ‘walls’. One of the recurring themes was the plea for interdisciplinary cooperation and joint effort of scientific and other societal players in facing global challenges. As this mantra of the contemporary academic and political landscape is easier (and more often) preached than actually put into practice, it was pleasant to see speakers introducing innovative tools capable of fostering cross-disciplinary approaches. Seemingly disparate areas of research were tackled by taking on one single obstacle. One such issue is the effective handling of vast and ever growing amounts of digital data, on which more and more disciplines from astronomy to art history depend. As computers shrink, explains computer scientist    Anastasia Ailamaki , growing data deluge puts critical limitations to the speed of scientific research, which grows more relevant with the urgency to find solutions quickly. With her work, Ailamaki enables discoveries in diverse scientific fields by equipping research teams with database solutions and developing new algorithms capable of performing multiple operations simultaneously.

Other talks suggested that there could indeed be potential synergy effects with Ailamaki’s work. DNA sequencing is one of the procedures that could profit from innovations in data processing. Its cheap and quick realization is fundamental to the future development of personalized medicine, the subject of Nobel laureate in chemistry    Aaron Ciechanover . Yet another possible application is British evolutionary biologist    Nick Barton’s    research, which deals with one of the most fundamental questions of humanity:    Why do we bother reproducing sexually? According to Barton, even being fairly expensive (mating can cost enormous amounts of energy and carries a lot of risks), from an evolutionary standpoint, sex is just a smart thing to do: the combination of genes from different organisms is superior to asexual reproduction as it heightens the chances of adaption and survival. Until now, Barton has only been able to show this mathematically, but sets out to empirically test his hypothesis using genome data.

A characteristic difference between Falling Walls and a ‘typical’ scientific conference became apparent, when more current topics like environmental issues and ecological sustainability or the protection of health, individual wellbeing or human security were touched: In addition to offering facts about and insight into scientific phenomena, the talks presented at Falling Walls were almost always equipped with a vision, they often tried to convey an emotional message to the audience.    Robert Schl?gl , director at the Fritz Haber Institute emphatically stressed the importance of thinking about alternatives to fossil fuels and corresponding ways of storing energy. He looks for ways to develop storage methods for sustainably generated energy. New methods in oxidation catalysis could contribute to the development of ‘solar fuel’ modeled after nature’s own energy storage: sugar. To put things in perspective, Schl?gl made clear that we are far away from changing our current dependence on fossil fuels quickly. He stated that to develop eco-friendly energy storage,    “nature had four billion years – we have to do it in 20”   . With the global financial crisis still smoldering, economy was critically discussed and further appeals were made.    Stewart Wallis , director of the new economics foundation, diagnosed that a fundamental problem with economy toda`y is its ignorance towards ecological limits of life and what he called the four problems or `u-s” of economy today: It is    u nsustainable,    u nfair,    u nstable, and makes people    u nhappy. Economy’s narrow focus on economic growth, Wallis continued, is echoed by the economic science, which measures economic growth solely by indicators like the gross domestic product. Wallis called for a more holistic understanding of economic progress and the consideration of indicators such as individual wellbeing, societal justice, and ecological sustainability.

With calls for change from such diverse directions, the findings of decision scientist    Elke Weber received particular attention and response. Weber explained why changing behavior is so difficult. Human aversion to change is really more a status quo bias, Weber explained: In mental decision processes, the status quo is preferred because of the way the brain organizes evidence – we stick to our habits. The solution lies in what she calls `decision architecture”: Understanding how decision processes work psychologically and applying this knowledge to influence decision behavior. To illustrate her point Weber referred to the much higher number of organ donors in countries that had an ‘opt-out’ policy, i. e. in which citizens are potential organ donors until they actively declare otherwise.

The Challenge

Falling Walls gives a lot to think about in little time. This formula makes the conference itself an experiment, testing how much an individual can learn in one day, as Turner put it in his 2010 opening address. Naturally, the majority of the topics discussed at the conference comprise complex subject matters. Given the diversity of the audience and the limited time-frame (each speaker is given exactly fifteen minutes and the measures taken to keep the tight schedule are infamous) speakers have to come up with ways to catch and bind the audience’s attention and convey their sometimes complex ideas and their conceptual preconditions. The resulting entertainment factor of the presentations (the audience was, among other things, engaged in live online-gambling on stage) is a refreshing contrast to other formats, but also an expression of the concept’s limitations: Falling Walls cannot be (and does not claim to be) about exhaustive answers and purely fact-oriented scientific rigor.

That time is indeed a challenge for both speakers and organizers became particularly apparent when the format was put on    fast forward in the Falling Walls LAB, a new spin-off in cooperation with business consultant A.T. Kearney, which offers 100 young academics and professionals the unique opportunity to present their breakthroughs to a distinguished jury, combined with a scholarship that allows free participation in the main conference the following day. The challenge: the even tighter three-minute time frame. Chair of the jury and former president of the Leibniz Society    Ernst Th. Rietschel underlined how important it was for scientists to be able to convey their message to partners, and praised the Falling Walls LAB as a new format to promote condensed information in talks. The presentations were as diverse as those on the conference the following day, often echoing topics such as personalized medicine or data management, which showed how both young and established researchers unite in tackling these issues.

In this marathon of ideas, projects have to be boiled down to the very essence. Participants took different approaches to this challenge. Some excelled at this challenging task, like winner of the Audience Award and the jury’s first price    Shuo Zhang of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in G?ttingen with his presentation on magnetic resonance imaging or    Eileen Diskin of Trinity College Dublin, who explained her breakthrough in antibiotic resistance using a bright pink flamingo mascot. Other ideas suffered from too much compression and got lost. Even with successful presentations, the mere number and frequency of talks, caused the audience (those we spoke to, at least) to mentally flick through the presentations and wait for an idea that ‘resonates’. This mostly seemed to happen with ideas or research paradigms with which the listener was already familiar with. As one of the concerns of the event is to overcome narrow minded ‘silo thinking’, this effect seems rather unfortunate.

There can never be enough time for discussion and reflection, Turner says. Due to its brevity and density, Falling Walls is mainly a site for meeting people, inspiration, and irritation, where individuals can find new impulses and cooperating partners for their work back home – which as a matter of fact happens frequently. At the conference, the organizers strive to make the best of the time budget, for example by offering a `Meet the Speakers” area where participants can discuss directly with the speakers. The organizers constantly look for ways to improve the conference. Following the careers of ideas presented at the conference is one of the future aims, along with finding ways to reach students and undergraduates, further enhancing the international layout of the conference, and above all improving the value of the conference for the participants. At the end of each conference, Turner says, the organizers have an endless list of newly discovered obstacles they set out to overcome the following year.

The Experience

To sum it up, Falling Walls is not a typical scientific conference in many ways. And for those not expecting to be informed exhaustively about scientific issues, but to spend an animating day with others engaged in research it is a convincing concept. What appears to be its unique quality in any case is that the participation in the Falling Walls conference is not only intellectually stimulating, but also an overwhelming experience. As Sebastian Turner put it:    “the contact to top researchers as well as the engagement with their work is very rewarding. It is a little surprise, that there is no enjoyment-tax for this. These are inspiring minds, that think ‘out of the box’ with delight”   . Inspiration on more than an intellectual level is also what participants seem to appreciate. Whenever we spoke to someone about their experience of the conference, everybody from speakers to audience members pointed out the ‘spirit’ at the conference as particularly rewarding. And indeed, putting aside the quality of the programme and the actual content of the conference, it seems to be its ability to ignite people’s passion for and belief in scientific research and its ability to make a change, that makes Falling Walls a success and has led its way from experiment to tradition.

— Tobias Boll

Full coverage of past and this year’s presentations is available at www.falling-walls.com

  One Response to “When Walls Come Down, Inspiration is Scattered Everywhere. The Falling Walls Conference Berlin 2011”

  1. This sounds a lot like the TED conferences.

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