In the opening chapter of Poul Anderson’s science fiction novel Tau zero, published in 1970, space explorers meet at Lidingö in Stockholm as they prepare to leave Earth in search of planets to colonize.
The place of their meeting is significant. Lidingö is an affluent island suburb of Stockholm, where farms and manor houses were gradually joined by villas, garden cities, and eventually modern residential districts. By the 1960s, it offered an attractive combination of modern resources and rural calm. More specifically, it could provide a remarkable conglomeration of modern conference facilities. It boasted twelve conference centres, all housed in converted manor houses or brand-new accommodations designed by prominent architects and providing the latest in meeting technology.
The conference centres reflect a growing trend towards smaller meetings – or “workshops” as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences excitedly called them in 1969, as the Academy shifted its funding and policies from permanent research institutes to conferences and scholar exchanges. Scientific institutions were not alone in embracing this development. The Lidingö centres were run by banks, labour unions, business organizations, and IBM, who were all expanding their activities from internal education to outward-looking conferences. Scientific organizations were frequent guests – several prestigious Nobel symposia took place there during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as a number of workshops leading up to the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.
So what is the significance of Lidingö – or Stockholm, or Sweden – as a conference hub in the 1960s and 1970s? The choice of a country, city, or venue for a conference expresses the ambitions and positioning of its organizers, and has practical consequences for proceedings and participants. International conferences, in particular, negotiate the contradictions of an internationalism transcending national borders and geographical divisions, while taking actual place in specific sites, with their own practical qualities and constraints, and political, social, and cultural associations. Placing a conference is always a choice, but some sites achieve a kind of placelessness, as ever more meetings and international headquarters accrue to them. After the Second World War, cities like Washington, New York, Paris, or Geneva became routine venues of meetings, conferences, and assemblies of international organizations of all shapes and sizes. But they also came with associations of Western and Northern domination, colonial histories and economic structures.
In this context, Sweden in 1970 could claim political neutrality, a relative lack of colonial sins, and, not least, scientific excellence, as demonstrated in the Nobel Foundation. Swedish neutrality in the post-war period went beyond the ‘good offices’ associated with neutral countries, into an ‘active neutrality’ aiming to export Social Democratic norms into an international context. The Swedish reputation for modernity and progressive values was promoted by agencies such as the Swedish Institute in their efforts of ‘nation branding’ via exhibitions, publications, and exchange programmes throughout the twentieth century. Prime Minister Olof Palme was prominent in international politics, voicing a neutrality which argued for peace, but nevertheless championed the oppressed. Businesses and independent scientific organizations both added to, and benefited from, the Swedish image. The crowning achievement of Swedish conferencing was arguably the UN Conference of the Human Environment in 1972, where the Earth – the “Only One” as Barbara Ward and René Dubos in an accompanying book, was cast as a spaceship, a small living vessel of human life and limited resources travelling through the vastness of space.
This brings us back to the Lidingö space explorers in 1970 – or the 23rd century, the setting of Poul Anderson’s novel. By that time, the world has endured a nuclear war, and struggles to maintain its survival by reaching further into space, and by controlling the nuclear arsenal. But, as the American protagonist rhetorically asks:
“Who can we trust with a monopoly of the planet killer weapons and unlimited powers of inspection of arrest? Why, a country big and modern enough to make peace keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without the support of a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone. In short, Sweden.”
Conferencing always takes place in space. Recently, the pandemic has pushed meetings and conferences – large and small, intimate and grandiose – into virtual space. But virtual space, too, comes with practical and political constraints and associations: access to equipment, business interests, control of platforms, the intricacies of discussion management. Even placeless conferences take place.
Christine Agius, The Social Construction of Swedish Neutrality: Challenges to Swedish Identity and Sovereignty(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)
Poul Anderson, Tau Zero (1970; London: Gollanz, 2006)
Eric & Nils Forsberg, Lidingö: Människor och miljöer (Lidingö: Lidingö hembygdsförening 1995)Jake Hodder, ‘Conferencing the international at the World Pacifist Meeting, 1949’, Political Geography (2015) 49 (1), pp. 40-50