Collaborative Advantage

With zero-sum logics and intergenerational frictions on the rise, the 51st St. Gallen Symposium will explore current dilemmas and new, more impactful models of collective action to address our shared challenges.

In light of the cross-cutting nature of current challenges, finding effective mechanisms of collaboration between businesses, governments, and across generations seems more relevant than ever. Technology-driven ecosystems and global supply chains offer unprecedented opportunities for businesses to collaboratively create economic and societal value. Climate change, global economic shocks, and pandemics all extend beyond borders and disciplines – eluding solutions by one individual, organisation, or country alone. Indeed, during the past two years, one of the key learnings has been that the spread of an epidemic in any one country endangers all of humanity – and that currently, no one will be safe unless a large majority of the world population has access to vaccines and other protective measures.

Inter-generational challenges such as inclusive education systems and a sustainable welfare state equally require a collaborative effort: the idea of a “generational contract” embodies the principle that generations rely on each other to provide mutual support at different stages of their lives.

Collaborative advantage is the benefit achieved when individuals, organisations, or societies attain more than they would have independently, by working effectively with others. As sociologist Richard Sennett notes, “cooperation oils the machinery of getting things done, and sharing with others can make up for what we may individually lack.” Cooperation is also embedded in our genes. In his book “Sapiens”, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that what made humanity stand out as a species in evolution was its ability to “cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.”

Balancing Independence and Interdependence

While the stakes are high, leveraging collaboration to address shared challenges has become increasingly difficult. The return of geopolitics, eroding trust, and mounting intergenerational frictions all aggravate the potential for collective action, while key questions and controversies of our time debate the case for working together over going it alone.

What this shows is that, in shaping the ties that bind us to others, we encounter real dilemmas: Oftentimes, cooperation tries to join individuals and institutions with conflicting interests, diverse values and distinct histories. Working together while upholding one’s own convictions and commitments can be a daunting task – but will be key to sustain, for instance, political and economic ties between the US and China in areas of common interest. Collaboration can equally require to forego short-term self-interests to realise long-term, shared gains – the slow pace at which climate action was pursued for decades demonstrates the difficulties this entails across generations. It can also make us vulnerable to the fate and intentions of those we partner with – and come at the expense of efficiency, autonomy, and control. Recurrent debates around European integration and global supply chain deficiencies demonstrate the difficulty of striking a reasonable balance between independence and interdependence.

The St. Gallen Agenda

The St. Gallen Symposium’s unique platform of leaders of today and tomorrow from business, politics, academia, and civil society will explore current dilemmas and new, more effective models of collective action. In light of diverse interests and values, how should we strike a balance between independence and interdependence in addressing our most pressing challenges? And what are the skills, values and frameworks needed to work together more effectively? Our year-round dialogue and research projects, and the 51st St. Gallen Symposium from 5-6 May 2022 at the University of St. Gallen will address these questions in five key areas:

Resilient Economies and Businesses: Crafting rewarding partnerships – with global suppliers, in technology-driven ecosystems or through joint ventures – is increasingly key to sustain business success. Yet, the more businesses reach out and partner up, the more they experience the downsides of interdependence. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the vulnerabilities and risks associated with a densely connected global economy – from chip shortages shuttering car plants for weeks to shipping delays and soaring costs. How can businesses rewire the ties that bind them to partners and stakeholders and benefit from collaboration in an uncertain environment?

Effective Global Governance: Our most pressing challenges extend beyond borders and elude solutions by one government alone. However, reaching agreements between diverging state interests and values has become increasingly difficult. Mirroring the tense international environment, domestic political controversies often focus on the trade-offs between national sovereignty and global responsibilities in areas such as global trade, health, and migration. How can governments strike a balance between independence and interdependence and develop more effective models of collective action?

A Sustainable Transformation: An environment which sustains human life within planetary boundaries is a global public good, but climate change and other ecological crises have long been characterised by failures to organise collective action. As the world’s largest economies have now outlined decarbonisation roadmaps, there is hope this might catalyse the world towards a more ambitious trajectory. How do we leverage our environmental and economic interdependence to accelerate a sustainable transformation?

Responsible Innovation and Technology: Emerging technologies allow us to reimagine collaboration across organisations and locations, while human cooperation is key to reap their unique benefits and manage their profound risks. Nevertheless, because technological capabilities are a fundamental component of companies’ competitive advantage and countries hope to gain a strategic edge through technological leadership, collaborative innovation and data-sharing are hard to come by. How should we balance a collaborative and competitive approach to innovation and technology?

A New Social and Generational Contract: As captured in the idea of a generational and social contract, generations and societal groups depend on each other to provide mutual support.  Yet societies, particularly in the West, have seen years of mounting polarisation, which increasingly run along generational lines. Therefore, what are ways to re-emphasise common ground and mutual interests in contemporary societies, particularly between generations?


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