Bienvenue à Genève

In order to convey the full experience of my time in Geneva and everything that happened over the past two years I am going to do two things. First, I am going to focus on what happened. Once I have covered that, in as much detail as feels necessary, I will move on to trying to unpack the Why. Why did things happen the way that they did? Why did I make certain decisions? Why, ultimately, am I looking back, two years since deciding to go to Geneva, and typing this from my flat in Cowes and not from Geneva?

This is part one of the What.

I have already given away that the decision I made in the 24 hours I had was to go to Geneva. Well, on the 4th of July 2016 I arrived in Geneva to start my secondment at the World Economic Forum. That decision was now a reality.

I was seconded to the circular economy team at the WEF and was tasked with leading a project that is run as a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Forum. The arrangement, as of the start of my secondment, was not exactly a simple one:

  • I would spend half of my time in Geneva and the other half on the Isle of Wight, so as to operate equally connected to each organisation.
  • I would stay in AirBnB’s while in Geneva because the cost of renting permanent accommodation is astronomical.
  • The length of my secondment would be for one year, but could be extended because
  • I had the option of applying for the WEF’s Global Leadership Fellowship, a three year leadership programme.

That was the state of play when I landed at Geneva airport for the first time. After passing through passport control (fingers crossed that the border agent didn’t ask for my non-existent work permit) I collected my bags, hopped on the number 10 bus (which would become very familiar to me over the next 18 months) and made my way to the suburb of Eaux-Vives near the lake, where I would be staying for the first week. I checked in at my AirBnB, dropped my bags off and jumped on the A bus towards the WEF office in Cologny.

Things got off to quite a slow start in the office that first week. I had arrived while the rest of my new team were away from the office, so I wouldn’t be meeting them until the week after. The next induction day for secondees wasn’t for two weeks, so I would be without a laptop, lunch card and access credentials until then too. I was set up at a temporary desk and pretty much left to my own devices. To be honest, I was quite happy with that arrangement because I had plenty of work to keep me occupied, namely getting my head around the project I was now leading.

That project was called Project MainStream and was the basis for the collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The basic idea of the project is to choose a material (plastic for example), do a bunch of research to understand how the global system for manufacturing and using that material works and how broken it is (by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean), and bring together the leading organisations that deal with that material to create a new system that actually works (a New Plastics Economy for instance).

Well, after doing exactly that for plastics, the plan was to try to do the same thing for biological materials (such as food). My job for 2016 was to begin the formation of the group of organisations that could work together to change the system and to start the research to understand how the system works. The aim was to publish a report at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2017. How hard could it be?

I did eventually meet the rest of the circular economy team at the Forum. I also got access credentials, a laptop, lunch card and a desk of my own. I moved into a new AirBnB, on the other side of town for week two of my stay in Geneva and another AirBnB the week after. Three weeks after arriving in Geneva I hopped back onto the number 10 bus, this time heading towards the airport and boarded a plane bound for Gatwick. Once there I would catch the train to Southampton and the ferry to the Isle of Wight, where I would stay for two weeks before repeating the journey in reverse.

And with that my rough routine for the rest of the year was established. In the next six months I went on to stay in eight different AirBnB’s, take 27 flights, meet my girlfriend, write a paper on biological materials in cities and apply for a prestigious fellowship. Details on that in part two.

To tide you over until then, here’s a video I put together in my excitement that first week in Geneva.

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The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

“How would you you like to go to Geneva for a few months? We need to send a secondee to the Forum.”

“Can I have some time to think about it?”

“Sure, you just need to let me know by tomorrow.”

That was it. I now had less than 24 hours to make a decision.

This exchange took place early in May 2016 and the choice I made (spoiler alert: I chose to go to Geneva) had an enormous impact on my life. In the nearly two years since that short conversation with my manager, in the doorway to the office as we both headed home for the evening, I have had some of the most memorable experiences of my life and reached the lowest points I’ve ever been to (another spoiler: my time in Geneva ended prematurely).

Now that it is all over, I am going to write about of those experiences here. Mainly, I’m hoping it will be a way to make sense of everything that transpired since I faced that decision. With luck, it will make for interesting reading too.