4 Questions to Lee Howell, Executive Director of the Villars Institute

After more than a decade producing the World Economic Forum's influential Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Lee Howell is embarking on an exciting adventure as Executive Director of the Villars Institute. Lee is an American, born and raised in Japan, and has a distinguished international career spanning government relations and public-private partnerships, as well as academic teaching and research.

He now begins a new chapter, following his passion to empower young people to address global challenges and enact change in their local communities. We sat down with Lee to hear more about how the Villars Institute will harness the power of intergenerational collaboration, in the race to achieve a net zero world.

What does the Villars Institute aim to achieve?

The Institute is aiming to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy and to improve the health of the planet because we cannot achieve one without the other. But achieving these two goals depends on three things, which are also core pillars of the Villars Institute. First, we need more intergenerational collaboration. This means combining the creativity of talented youth with the knowledge of experienced professionals. Second, we need solutions that integrate innovations from natural, social and health sciences. Academicians call this transdisciplinary collaboration. Both forms of collaboration are difficult because “silo” thinking keeps us from sharing new knowledge. This is why the third pillar is “systems leadership.” Systems leadership is how we will solve large, complex problems when no one clearly has the authority to do so but where there is still an opportunity for collective action.

How did the Institute come about?

It came about mainly because Villars-sur-Ollon remains a special place in the hearts and minds of many who have spent time in this Swiss alpine village. And it has a long history of intercultural education through its international boarding schools. People here are also very concerned about global issues such as climate change as the Lake Geneva region is home to the largest number of international organizations in the world. But mainly it came about as an idea of Marco Dunand, one of the founders of the Villars Alpine Resort. He and his business partner, Jérome de Meyer, shared a vision to build a something unique in Villars as neither are hoteliers. As entrepreneurs, they were willing to experiment and create something that would not be a traditional mountain hotel but rather an educational platform that would combine hospitality, learning, and sustainability. And as most successful entrepreneurs do, Marco sought advice from others, and in this case, a trusted group of experts that also shared his deep appreciation for Villars. His initial idea would then evolve into a new not-for-profit foundation, the Villars Institute, which would be entirely independent from the Villars Alpine Resort. And the members of this expert group would later collaborate to form the institute’s board of directors.

The Institute is built around collaboration. Who are the different groups you’re hoping to bring together?

As I mentioned earlier, collaboration needs to be intergenerational, and transdisciplinary, in order to have serious impact. And so, we first reached out to high schools, universities, institutes, and other foundations that we felt were deeply committed to addressing climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development. I have to admit that we did not anticipate the overwhelming positive response from organizations from across all of Switzerland as well as from places as far away as Hawaii in the United States and Singapore in Asia. It shows that the Villars Institute is not only an inspirational place in the Swiss Alps but also a future platform for systemic change.

The Institute's principal activity is to build communities of changemakers. First is the Villars Fellows community. Fellows are solution-oriented, between 13 to 19 years old, and have the potential to be future systems leaders. They are nominated by educational and leadership organizations from around the world. And the second is the Villars Councils community. They are experts willing to work across disciplines for systemic change in the areas of energy transition, nature-based solutions, and emerging technologies.

What’s in store for the year ahead?

The Villars Institute intends to be a platform for systemic change and a place for intergenerational collaboration. It will also curate cultural, educational, and scientific content online. Both the Villars Fellows and the Villars Councils will be active on our digital platform but both communities will also have an opportunity to gather in person in Villars this year now that COVID restrictions are winding down globally. We were excited to organize the first Villars Symposium from the 21st thru the 24 of June 2022 and looking forward to its 2023 edition (27 thru 30 of June 2023). The symposium brings together the Institute’s partners and leading experts with the Villars Fellows. We then carry this momentum to the Villars Summit that will take place in March 2023. The summit will convene the Villars Councils and other invited organizations to develop strategies for systemic change and for shaping the agenda of future international meetings on climate, biodiversity, food and water.

And I should also mention one other inspiring event that we are organizing this summer. The Villars Music Academy will offer interdisciplinary courses to selected talented young musicians. The one-week Academy includes masterclasses given by musicians from the Berliner Philharmoniker but also seminars about leadership, wellness and other topics related to personal development. So the year ahead should be exciting for Villars-sur-Ollon and busy for the Villars Institute.