University of Geneva (Switzerland) Regional cooperation in fun mode

An international symposium held last June demonstrated the innovative potential of a serious game in the context of regional cooperation.

Mountain regions are particularly exposed to the consequences of climate change. What resources and strategies will they need to mobilize to adapt? A symposium was held last June in Vienna on this issue, at the invitation of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). On this occasion, some fifty representatives from six mountain regions (Andes, Himalayas, South Caucasus, East Africa, Alps and Carpathians) were invited to participate in a serious game designed at the Environmental Governance and Territorial Development Unit (Institute of Environmental Sciences), a scientific partner of the SDC and UNEP on this theme. Concocted by Professor Jörg Balsiger and his colleague Stéphanie Reusse, lecturer, this fun but intense experience allowed participants to lay the groundwork for innovative mechanisms in the field of interregional cooperation.

Welcome to the fictional world of Tamlar Range, a mountain range shared by five countries, different in population, territorial and energy profile, endowed with several main resources: monetary reserves, knowledge, collective and individual well-being, agricultural production, water and biodiversity. In order to guard against the consequences of climate change, each country is called upon to invest its reserves in national projects (institutions such as universities, medical centers or infrastructure such as solar parks, dams), while working with its neighbours to set up common instruments, such as renewable energy research centres or a regional warning system in the event of weather disasters. Conducted over one day, this scenario was expected to lead to the adoption of a regional treaty aimed at collective action for adaptation to climate change.

While Stéphanie Reusse was responsible for materializing the idea through a game board and a set of rules, Jörg Balsiger developed the computer program controlling the parameters. “Everything was connected,” he explains. Every decision taken by countries had an impact on how they could or could not strengthen their adaptive capacity. We also anticipated unexpected events, such as the arrival of a pest that could destroy crops if countries had not put in place proper management methods.”

In reality, mountain regions are often marginalised within the States to which they belong because of their lower economic weight compared to lowland regions. They are therefore encouraged to collaborate with neighbouring countries with which they share ecosystems and often common economic interests. The difficulty in international negotiations is therefore to take care of national interests while seeking to improve this indispensable inter-state cooperation. In the game, countries have rubbed shoulders with the need for trade-offs: should a university be built in the country or should a regional research centre be created?

The participants in the game, mostly members of ministerial delegations to climate change negotiations and regional organizations, were divided into teams of six to eight people, led by each fictitious country. How did they react to this unusual experience in the world of diplomatic meetings? For Jörg Balsiger, they have gained a sense of accomplishment specific to the game, while managing to draw the contours of an international treaty. And the test was mostly successful from the point of view of interactions. “In these types of meetings, we often see that the representatives of a region stay with each other. In the context of the game, they were able to see how their counterparts in other regions reacted to a particular situation. This is an important contribution to future negotiations.”

This simulation exercise has thus passed the proof of concept stage that the designers of the game had set themselves. It could have applications in other contexts or in the context of courses on international relations, for example.