How a Swiss Platform is accelerating sustainable development through collaboration

Kairos Europe unites Europe’s most ambitious young entrepreneurs to rethink broken industries and tackle society’s greatest challenges. Nora, one of those change-makers, co-founded a platform to bring people together for a sustainable and ethical future in Switzerland.

Nora Wilhelm by Marina Camporro

Since the adoption of the Agenda 2030 in September 2015, we share a global vision towards sustainable development for all. So how come we are still so far from reaching these goals?

Whether it is climate change, poverty or gender equality, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address highly complex challenges. They cannot be solved by a single actor, nor can we expect governments and states to make these important transformations for us. The goals can only be achieved by working together and collaborating.

Nora’s vision for 2030 is “empowering change-makers, stakeholders, and citizens to unleash their collective power to co-create the world we want to live in through collaboration”.

At the age of 15, Nora learned about problems such as the Amazon deforestation, extreme poverty and animal cruelty which deeply shook her. Fueled by anger and sadness at the existence of such issues, Nora decided to take action and became a volunteer for different local NGOs, an activist and a member of the European Youth Parliament. After several years focusing on raising awareness and engaging young people on key issues, she co-founded collaboratio helvetica. Collaboratio helvetica brings together key actors in Switzerland to address complex challenges and to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals. By empowering people and organisations to shift deeply ingrained attitudes and mindsets, conduct more effective dialogues, and implement new forms of collaboration, they rethink and reshape the Switzerland of tomorrow.

Nora was named one of the 20 Young Global Leaders by the International Youth Foundation, was a regional finalist of the United Nations Young Champions of the Earth award, and a Forbes 30 under 30 in Switzerland. We had the opportunity to talk to Nora and ask her about the journey of collaboratio helvetica, some things she wished she knew beforehand and what role Kairos played in her journey.

What is collaboratio helvetica’s mission?

“Collaboratio helvetica is an initiative to catalyze systemic change in Switzerland. We aim to create a more sustainable and ethical future, as articulated in the Agenda 2030. In order to do so, we must focus our energy on addressing systemic issues, as opposed to fighting the symptoms. Imagine an iceberg: what is visible is just a small part of it. As a society, we tend to focus on visible problems, such as taking plastic out of the ocean. This work is amazing and needed, but it does not solve the root issue. For example, in the plastic scenario, it does not stop plastic from ending up in the water. The root causes are more complex, profound, and harder to work on.

Those are the challenges we take on: we look at climate change, gender equality, migration, and other pressing societal challenges. These are beyond the responsibility of one single person and no one is solely guilty. It’s a shared responsibility of us all, and specifically of powerful actors across sectors. Therefore, we develop methodologies and approaches to addressing these topics, such as social innovation labs, which convene these actors to create change.”

For example, collaboratio helvetica contributes to the achievement of SDG 5: Gender & inclusion, which is a topic where Switzerland is lagging behind other OECD countries. To address this systemic issue, they co-initiated a Social Innovation Lab on Gender Equality, which took place 2017–18 with participants from all sectors (e.g. Google, WWF, youth and LGBTQIA+ activists). This Theory U-based process was supported by the Federal Office for Gender Equality and resulted in intellectual, social and human capital, as well as new collaborations and prototypes. One of them is called “A spark for change — gender equal and inclusive organisations through transformative dialogue” and is taking the approaches practised within the Gender Lab into companies.

In the face of the current pandemic collaboratio helvetica was quick to react and launched a new project to fulfil its mission to activate and enable people to take action for the future they wish. They initiated a process called Nova Helvetia, which supported self-organised teams to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on their field and explore possible solutions. The working group on SDG5 created a prototype: “Inclusive working practices for all”, which provides the first version of a resource website that features lived and tested inclusive working practices from teams across sectors in Switzerland. The website will be openly accessible to everyone and aims to break the idea that inclusion work is difficult and expensive or would only belong to a certain sector or hierarchy level. Other issues addressed by working groups included democracy, education, climate, well-being in organisations and funding for systems change projects.

Knowing that collaboratio helvetica started with a conversation, can you talk about the steps that followed?

“It took us a long time to prototype different strategies because we wanted to create something that added real value. As Albert Einstein famously — or supposedly — said: ‘You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.’ For me, the same principle can be applied when we want to change the world.

It was clear for us that we could not be two people founding something, thinking we figured it all out. We needed to prototype, see if it helps the ecosystem, collaborate with others, and then keep on trying. That’s why many individuals were part of the discussion and creation of collaboratio helvetica. And we continue to experiment to improve what works and to find new angles when it doesn’t.

It also takes a lot of courage to dream. We won’t create a better future with cynicism. You need to hold big visions, without losing touch with reality. The first step to do anything that is intended to push the boundaries of what is deemed possible is to check if your dream is so big that it scares you. If not, then what’s the point?”

What keeps you motivated when things get hard?

“Knowing it’s the only way! I do have those moments when I wish I would’ve chosen a simpler life. But it’s like a self-evident thing for me. I would never compromise on my values or dedicate my life to something that is not aligned with what I stand for. Even when I get an attractive offer, deep down, I know it’s not right for me because of what I stand for and what I want to work towards.

The other thing that keeps me going is knowing that I’m not alone in this. Many people are working with different tools focusing on different topics in different parts of the world. Knowing that we are many who try to contribute to a better tomorrow is very motivating and crucial to keep going.

Lastly, I realized that every roadblock is an opportunity to learn something new. So even though it may be painful in the moment, I always find a valuable lesson in every challenge I face. Especially when looking back, I can see how these hard times taught me and prepared me to take the next steps. I definitely had those Phoenix moments, where I had to burn down to rise from the ashes, to move forward.”

Do you see other European countries taking after your mission with collaboratio helvetica?

“Our focus is on Switzerland to take responsibility for its privilege and contribution to global issues such as climate change and human rights violations, whilst activating the potential that is here due to the long tradition of collaboration and dialogue across language barriers and religious divides.

We are not seeking to proactively expand, it is not our place to tell other countries or regions how to do things — context matters far too much. Of course, there are people in other countries that follow a similar mission. We are regularly contacted by people and organisations all over the world who wish to learn from our model, collaborate and/or launch a sister organisation in their country. Similarly, we have learned and are learning from different initiatives all over the globe. There is this beautiful continuous exchange between the global community and local projects that then share their knowledge. I like to call it a global forest with local roots!

A key element in our approach is civic participation. Every citizen can shape our systems so that they correspond to our innermost values. And a big problem right now is that we have systems that produce outcomes we are not happy with. How these issues manifest and how to address them will never be exactly the same in two different contexts. You cannot just copy-paste solutions. However, we found that the ingredients of participation, personal reflection and cross-sector collaboration are useful pointers if you seek to invite change on the level of the system. I notice that there’s a shift happening from finger-pointing and judging others towards curiosity and courage to question our old approaches. Those initiatives are visible all over the world, and people with similar ideas are coming together to change things.”

How did you get involved in Kairos Society?

“I met the President of the Kairos Chapter in Switzerland and she recommended that I join. I was really curious and attended the summit in Venice to learn more about Kairos. It was such an interesting experience for me because I met people who think differently than I do. I came across individuals who work on high-tech projects that are not part of my world of social change. Confronting myself with a different social bubble was very enriching.

Kairos does a great job of selecting a diverse group of people who are driven and brilliant. Each of them has their unique perspective on the world. Afterwards, I met up with people from the Kairos network in a smaller setting which led to a deeper level of exchange and co-creation. It was a very touching experience. They challenge me to think differently and I imagine myself collaborating with them in the future.”

Before launching a social enterprise, what do you wish you knew?

“So many things! But then again, if I had known those things in advance, I may not have done them and then I wouldn’t have been able to learn and grow from them.

I would’ve liked to have known that if you are committed to making a contribution, whatever that contribution may be, it will not turn out the way you imagined. Because there are so many outside factors, such as people, regulations, and unexpected opportunities, that can influence that ideal scenario. So be prepared for a long journey and remember that you never have all the answers.

The other thing I wish I knew is related to my TED Talk. I called it the hidden variable of societal transformation, which (spoiler alert) is the internal dimension. I wish someone would have told me that all this work requires work on yourself first. One of my favourite quotes is by Thomas D. Willhite, which says, „If we do indeed seek to bring peace to the world, we need to do it by first bringing peace to ourselves. A person cannot give what they do not have.“ For a long time, I was not aware of the extent to which my interior condition, whether I am calm, angry, or resentful about the topic I am fighting for, affects the impact that I can have. That was a big lesson for me and I am still working on it.”

Nora is an active member of the Kairos Switzerland chapter and has been a part of the Kairos family since 2020. You can follow her journey on LinkedIn here and support her work here.

Thank you for reading this article from the Kairos Society Europe. We bring together Europe’s most ambitious young entrepreneurs to tackle society’s greatest challenges. Visit www.kairos-society.eu to learn more about us.