Over the last week, I was in Sydney attending the European Union-Australia Leadership Forum. A joint initiative, the event brought together around 200 people from around the world. Backgrounds included policy, research, media, politics, innovation and others. I was one of the fifty global and twenty-five Australians selected as part of the “emerging leaders” stream.
I never thought I’d have an interest in, nor the ability to influence policy. Being selected was certainly a shock and I approached the event with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. The former because as I get more entrenched in the world of health and innovation, the requirements of national and international support become more prevalent. The latter because I still feel an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. I seemingly get invited to more and more of these events but they each have their own unique spin that always makes me question why I’m in the room. This was my first time ever in this sort of environment so skepticism was borne of my ability (or lack thereof) to have any meaningful input.
With more of these events under my belt, I have learned to approach them with an open mind. Perhaps I do have something to add. Perhaps there is an interesting person to meet and we can eventually collaborate. Perhaps at the very least, I can spend a few days learning from smart people and trying not to make a fool of myself.
What made the event even more interesting and relevant was the timing. Trump had just removed the USA from the Paris Agreement, the UK was gearing up to an election with a heavy focus on Brexit, and on the second morning, another terrorist attack occurred in London.
As the event unfolded I learned that I have a specific view of the world but one that aligns in many ways. As we discussed Brexit, migration, knowledge transfer, bilateral funding, innovation, climate change, education and more, I started to understand that while I will never have a deeply entrenched knowledge of any of these areas, the world in which I play — innovation, consultation, facilitation and business — has as much a reason to take a seat at the table as anyone else.
Policy changes make a major difference in my world. They create opportunities for overseas expansion, enable greater funding for innovation in Australia and increase the chances of bringing in skilled workers. While a lot of the discussion was focused on changes that benefit Australians, the counter benefit to that is that we are a gateway to Asia for the EU nations. This made sense in my head as I started to truly understand the benefits of multinational agreements. Open borders improve many (if not most) things.
What I found most fascinating was the social context in which the EU was created and how it is perceived. I understand why Brexit was viewed so negatively by a majority of the other nations, but also understood why it became a possibility in the UK. It struck me that the foundations of the EU were formed from two different viewpoints — one economical, the other social. It is then no real surprise that this occurred.
If policy makers only talk to policy makers, the echo chamber will only get worse. There is a certain vernacular that is used in these realms, and while I’m not fluent, I can certainly understand it. Most importantly, I can understand that if we’re not throwing multiple viewpoints at these very complex challenges, progress will never occur. It’s this shared understanding that leads to meaningful and lasting change. Perhaps if more voices were heard originally, the foundations for Brexit would never have been set, and certainly would never have gained the traction they did. I certainly learned a lot from smart people.
Over the course of the event I met a number of people (both senior and emerging leaders) who took an interest in the work I was doing. Most of these events revolve around networking, and while I find the process of networking unnatural (and it makes me feel uncomfortable), I tried to play the part where I could. As I understood more about the people around me, I could start to draw connections and look for mutually beneficial angles for future work. The event planted a lot of seeds. Some may sprout, others may not, but these things have to start somewhere. So perhaps there will be the opportunity to collaborate in the future.
The big question is whether or not I had anything meaningful to add. That I would have to throw over to the other delegates to confirm or deny. I voiced my opinions about what I thought was important and helped collate thoughts and feedback into something cohesive. I certainly maintained my natural levels of sarcasm, threw in some quips whenever possible and was not shy about the fact that I felt like an outsider looking in.
I don’t mind that I currently feel that’s my role to play. I’ve never felt I was able to conform to anything. I know now that I will never have an ambition to create international policy but I do have a vested interest in its creation. So being able to stumble my way through such events and hopefully inject a new viewpoint is something that I will continue to do and something I do genuinely feel honoured to be a part of.