This month we are organizing a major international conference at The Fletcher School, "Greece's Turn? Litmus Test for Europe." This conference is the 2016 edition of our "Turn?" series. In each edition, we pick a country or a region experiencing a period of profound transition and explore it in depth; we apply many lenses - socio-political, historical, business, economic and cultural - to explore the underlying issues and debate potential solutions and future directions. I am excited about the assembly that is lined up for this task: political leaders, scholars, builders of business and social organizations, authors, investors, policy makers, young entrepreneurs, among so many others.
Speaking personally, this conference has been part of a long and meandering journey. Greece has been firing my imagination since I learned to read growing up in distant India (where ancient Greek maps mark the edge of the world). I knew the Greek legends as well as I knew our own. I grew up knowing that Alexander came to the threshold of India and turned around. I dreamt of re-tracing his return.
While I am still waiting to completely re-trace Alexander's footsteps, my first encounter with the "real" Greece was on the Ionian island of Cephalonia, many years back. We had assembled for a game theory conference. Local restaurant owners would open their doors at all hours to give us free meals and sit down and chat (in Greek) when they recognized the game theorists from out of town. The mayor took us to his favorite spots to convince us that Cephalonia was the true home of Odysseus and put to bed all the false claims from the neighboring island of Ithaca. We would talk, drink and eat till late. It was a first encounter of Greece by experiencing its essence- the people, their passion and pride in the country's place in the world.
I think of this conference as another way to re-trace Alexander's return and to gain some insights into the "real" Greece. Today, however, Greece and the European continent, stand at the cross-roads of crises - economic, political and human. This is why this gathering is so timely.
Is This Conference Irrelevant Already?
Now, there are several people I have spoken with who disagree on that last point - about the timeliness of the conference. They have argued that Greece is not going to turn in any direction but South and that the litmus test for Europe has already passed with the Brexit vote this summer.
I would not want to write off the skeptics as Cassandras - ironically a gift from Greece, as is the word "irony" itself. Greece, admittedly has numerous challenges, many of which have been re-hashed ad infinitum. The human toll of the aggregation of these challenges is heartbreaking. To make matters worse, Europe has even deeper structural challenges. Apart from the existential crisis within the European Union, it is squeezed on the outside as it attempts to not slide further behind as an economic and political power relative to the U.S., a rising Asia, a pugnacious Russia and a volatile Middle East.
In addition to these, more familiar, crises, I have argued earlier in the Harvard Business Review that there is another hidden crisis unfolding in Europe: the continent is suffering from a "digital recession"- a loss of momentum in its evolution toward a digital economy. Of the 50 countries we studied using a Digital Evolution Index we created, 15 European countries have been losing digital momentum since 2008 and EU countries occupy the bottom 9 spots in our ranking of digital momentum. I have argued that the prospects worsen with Britain's departure from the EU.
Why then, you may ask, am I not ready to accept the Cassandras' prophecies? Why are we organizing this conference?
A Greek Puzzle
One reason is to solve a puzzle we uncovered in our digital research. There is, indeed, a sliver of silver in the gathering clouds. Of all the EU countries, Greece did the best in digital momentum: a respectable 17th out of 50 countries, one step behind Israel (the "startup nation") and better than Estonia (considered a digital haven), Switzerland (a regular top performer on the World Economic Forum's country competitiveness league tables) and Ireland (a top European destination for global tech companies). This is even more remarkable when we consider that in terms of policy and government support for the digital economy Greece fared better than only one other EU country - Italy. For more details on our study, read our Digital Planet report. Clearly, there is an unresolved mystery in here: is there, really, trapped value within Greece - and what could be the source? A hypothesis worth testing is whether there is a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem taking shaping amidst the adversity. I am hoping that through our conversations at the conference we can find some clues to the answer.
Of course, we have many highly experienced luminaries, a former prime minister, Lucas Papademos, the leader of the opposition New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who might be prime minister one day, and numerous others speaking at the conference. I am excited to meet them and learn from them. What I am most intrigued by, though, is the opportunity to meet three individuals who we may not have ever heard of. One of our luminaries, George Logothetis, the widely regarded Chairman of the Libra Group, brought them to our attention. These mystery speakers may be part of that ecosystem that pushed Greece to the top of our digital momentum rankings across the EU. Maybe it is this generation of innovators who will push Greece out of its present and unending crisis.
The Mystery Guests
One of these mystery guests at our conference is Yiannis Broustas, who is pursuing a passion for machine learning and content personalization in the company he founded, Rabt, a content personalization startup which innovates in the way users experience content at home or on the move. Another is Matthew Woollard, who will talk about Raymetrics, a Greek company that uses LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) a technology that uses light from a laser instead of radiowaves to remotely sense distant objects. Raymetrics, as the first atmospheric LIDAR company in the world, now finds itself at the forefront of a new and booming industry. The third is Evangelos Pappas, whose startup, RTsafe, revolutionized quality assurance in radiation oncology and is making the lives of cancer patients better around the world.
Sometimes it is OK to Not Fear Greeks Bearing Gifts
Cassandra may have been a good prophet, but, because of Apollo's curse, was condemned to not being believed. So, for now, I am sticking to the protocol handed down by Greek legend in my stubborn refusal to believe my Cassandra colleagues. I am also holding out hope that in our conference, we might find that Greek legends and Greece's recent headlines can be re-written: for once, we may prove Cassandra a false prophet. Join us to find out.
Bhaskar Chakravorti is the senior associate dean of international business and finance at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is also the founding executive director of Fletcher's Institute for Business in the Global Context and author of the book, The Slow Pace of Fast Change. He is a chair of the "Greece's Turn?" conference.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, leading up to "Greece's Turn: A Litmus Test for Europe," an upcoming conference that will examine the fundamentals, strengths and vulnerabilities of Greece from the perspectives of politics, business, investment and the economy, society and international relations while exploring the implications for the future of the Eurozone. This series will address some of these challenges in advance of the conference. For more information about Greece's Turn, visit here [https://www.eventbrite.com/e/greeces-turn-litmus-test-for-europe-registration-27466534143].