At the crossroads of scientific enlightenment and regression

By Daniel McMurray, BA LLB MIL Global Event Lead – Impact Hub, Managing Director & Global Head of Communications – Enterprise IQ Pty Ltd

“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects”.

– Nikola Tesla

It is hard not to feel that we live at a pivotal moment in history, with the world racing toward an epochal crossroad.

In one direction lies the path of reason, science, community and progress. A world where growing systemic challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, overpopulation, inequality, and environmental degradation can be addressed through logic, evidence, and rational, creative, and collaborative action. Where the ingenuity, collective genius, and relentless optimism of humanity can resolve complex problems such as poverty, disease, and ecological collapse, creating abundance of energy, health, education and well-being for all.

In the other direction, lies a different path. One of regression, unreason, and parochialism. A fact-free, fearful and frightening world of separation, science denialism, and superstition, ruled over by demagogues offering glib, unworkable solutions, convenient scapegoats to blame, and soothing illusory retreat into fragmented tribal realms.

Which path we collectively choose to follow will determine the trajectory of the 21st century and beyond. Will we choose the enlightened path of working together collectively, collaboratively, and consciously for the greater good? Or will we choose the path of darkness, disintegrating into unconscious, unreasonable and irrational behavior that hastens systemic collapse?

At such a pivotal moment, the choice of “New Enlightenment” as the theme for the recent European Forum Alpbach was a timely, prescient and crucial framing.

Attending the forum with my European-based colleagues from Impact Hub – a globally connected network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and change-makers as official partners for the event – inspired hope that the path of enlightenment, reason and collaborative action is fundamentally achievable.

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

One of the highlights of the event for our contingent was a facilitated hike into the Tyrolean alps with Pavel Kabat (Director General & CEO of IIASA) and other key thought leaders from the Alpbach Laxenburg Group – including Jeffrey Sachs (Director of The Earth Institute from Columbia University), Tarja Halonen (the former President of Finland), Björn Stigson (former President of the WBCSD), Justin Yifu L in (Director of the Centre for New Structural Economics at Peking University), Pascal Lamy (former Director-General of the WTO), and  many more cross-sectoral leaders from business, government, NGOs and civil society.

Gathered together in the scenic environs of the Boglalm Chalet, this diverse and eclectic group focused our discussion around how we can work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Sachs’ definition of an “entrepreneur” struck a chord. He described entrepreneurs as those with the vision to take elements from diverse sources, creatively combining and re- combining in new ways, key insights from different sectors, research fields, technologies, or existing systems to present a new solution or way of thinking.

In that group, representing a mix of the established elite and the challengers of tomorrow, the old and the new from business, government, science, social enterprise, and civil society, it was refreshing to feel the positive energy and inspired thinking that can come from embracing and making space for an open, cross -pollination of ideas.

It brought to mind a universal truth – that humanity is at its best when we work together collaboratively, breaking down barriers, dissolving silos of thought and entrenched interests and, like Professor Sachs’ concept of real entrepreneurship, combining ideas in new, innovative and creative ways. The path of enlightenment is not the domain of any one group. Political leaders can’t fix things alone – lacking the power, methodologies, community currency, and instruments required. They need business leaders, scientists, innovators, and change-agents from the social sector and civil society to bridge the gaps in dialogue, bring fresh insights and recombine them in radically new ways.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The path of enlightenment can only be reached through collaborative action. It is a conscious choice and one that we must come together to choose in order to avert catastrophe.

“Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment”.

Elon Musk

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Businesses now have social goals

Michael Perkinson is the chief of staff to the chief investment officer at the asset management firm Guggenheim Partners in the US. On 28 and 29 August he took part in a meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, focused on new models for sustainable business development, and on 30 August he spoke at the European Forum Alpbach Political Symposium.

Michael Perkinson speaks at the European Forum Alpbach. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Michael Perkinson speaks at the European Forum Alpbach. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

As a business leader with a background in international relations, you have unique experience in both government and the private sector: How do you think that the two could work together towards achieving the sustainable development goals?
Traditionally, the two sectors have not mixed well. Governments were skeptical of the private sector’s profit motives and the private sector believed government was an impediment. Both views were, of course, short-sighted. In recent years the United Nations has looked to the private sector to help finance development as the traditional levels of fiscal policy have been removed from the toolkit by increasingly narrowly focused legislatures. Similarly, private investors and private enterprise, who make up over 60% of GDP in the developed world, realize that they can partner with governments to achieve their social goals. Yes, businesses now have social goals.

What do you see as the biggest challenge is in achieving the SDGs?
Money and willpower.

What changes would be needed in business in order to fully embrace the SDG agenda?
I suspect that businesses need to understand how they can contribute. If given the option of a regulation or a tax, businesses will always chose a tax, because it allows them to plan accordingly. So, in this case, I think businesses require an explanation as to how they can contribute and how it won’t interfere with their executing on their business plan.

Business is often seen as “part of the problem” when it comes to issues like climate change and poverty – do you think that sustainable development could also bring opportunity for business, and if so, how?
Having been in the public sector for 25 years before returning to the private sector, I have never seen the private sector as part of the problem. In the United States, the private sector contributes some 80% of GDP. The private sector also provides jobs, which is really the only way that poverty can be eliminated on a generational scale. I think that there is ample opportunity for business to contribute to the SDGs, but the public sector needs to explain clearly how businesses can contribute in a way that doesn’t interfere with their business plan. It doesn’t mean that businesses need an inducement (like a tax break), they just need to understand the strategic logic of the concept.

Meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, 29 August 2016. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, 29 August 2016. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Interview conducted and edited by Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

Interview: An occasion for innovation

Pascal Lamy was the director general of the World Trade Organization from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves as a president emeritus of the Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute. On 28 and 29 August he is taking part in a meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, focused on new models for sustainable business development.

Pascal Lamy ©The Jacques Delors Institute

Pascal Lamy ©The Jacques Delors Institute

As the former director general of the WTO, you have extensive experience in global trade and economic development. How does this background inform your perspective on the issues of the sustainable development?
To put it very simply, there is a very well-understood interaction between trade and growth, starting in the 18th century until now. The understanding of the relationship between global trade and sustainable development, i.e. including the environment dimension, is much more recent, understandably because environmental issues only came into the picture much more recently than the 18th century.

The reality is today that the communities working on trade and environmental issues are rather poorly connected. You belong either to one or to the other. There are not that many people who have feet on both sides, which does not help because the issue  is complex.

In theory it’s very simple. Take climate change for instance: If you put the carbon price at the proper level, i.e. the one that takes into account the externalities of climate change and CO2 emissions, all you have to do is price CO2 properly, and problem is solved: markets will reallocate production factors accordingly.  That’s what theory tells us. The little problem is actually agreeing on a set price for the entire planet. And this triggers a lot of suboptimal propositions, solutions.

I think that the overall stance now is that that trade is not an end. Trade is a means to improve growth in climate, welfare, sustainability, including environment sustainability. This was in fact part of the WTO charter from 1994. When I was DG of the WTO we did quite a lot of work in collaboration with environmental international organizations such as UNEP for instance. We looked into the big question on this topic: Is the expansion of trade good or bad for the environment? There are arguments on both sides, and it is a vast set of issues. But overall I think there are ways and means to reconcile, to synergize the benefits of trade opening for a more environmentally sustainable world.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
It’s a very long and vast set of issues. So it’s not a single thing—what you have to address issues on inequality, on education,  on oceans, on poverty—it’s a lot of different things.

But overall, I think the biggest challenge—and this is why a number of us are working on that—is to properly organize the accountability of these SDGs. That means providing proper metrics, proper review, proper debate, and proper public accountability. Now that the goals have been agreed by the UN, the issue is whether or not they can be achieved, and whether we can properly organize public pressure on sovereign nation states, through civil society, involvement of businesses. So in my view the main issue is building and agreeing on a proper follow up transparency system.

Pascal Lamy talks with other members of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group at a retreat on 29 August. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

How do you think that the private sector could help in achieving the SDGs?
In doing what private businesses have been doing increasingly, which is integrating this sustainable development focus into their global strategies. Most big businesses now have a set of principles, a set of values that include sustainability.

What’s happening for instance around the push towards green finance, notably since the COP21 in Paris, is a good example of how some businesses can be on the front line of a larger coalition. We need coalitions like this to bind public authorities at the national, regional, and city levels, to civil society organizations focused on sustainability, climate, environment, biodiversity, and development, and businesses, whether big or small.

So from your perspective it sounds like business is already on the right track. What further changes would be needed in the private sector in order to fully embrace the SDG agenda?
It will happen if and when businesses realize that it matters to their consumers, to their staff, and to their shareholders, or their finance providers more generally. This is the frame within which they have to optimize what they do—clients, consumers, their people, and where they get their financial resources from. And if these various sides of the triangle push in that direction, inevitably businesses will push in this direction. They’ll have to.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type?
What’s unusual is that it links you with people whom you may not meet every day, so it’s an occasion of diversity connecting on a topic. Plus, there is something which tends to come out of this sort of environment, which is innovation. People exchanging ideas, not just theoretically, “What should we do?” “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” but, “This is what I suggest to do,” “This is what I tried and it worked,” and “This is what I tried and it didn’t work.” It’s  more about experiences on the ground, which may then inspire more general conclusions.

Further reading
Pascal Lamy (2016). “Négociations climatiques et négociations commerciales : antinomie évidente ?“. Speech delivered at the 24th Meeting about Risk Management, AMRAE, at Lille, France, February 5th 2016. Download speech (PDF)

Pascal Lamy (2013). The Geneva Consensus: Making trade work for all. Cambridge University Press  http://www.cambridge.org/ao/academic/subjects/law/international-trade-law/geneva-consensus-making-trade-work-all

Interview conducted and edited by Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Science through the language of art

Gloria Benedikt was born to dance. She started at the age of three and since the age of 12 she has been training every day—applying the laws of physics to the body. But with a degree in government and an interest in current affairs, Benedikt now builds bridges between these fields to make a difference, as IIASA’s first science and art associate.

Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

 

Gloria Benedikt © Daniel Dömölky Photography

Gloria Benedikt © Daniel Dömölky Photography

When and how did you start to connect dance to broader societal questions?
The tipping point was when I was working in the library as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. I had to go to the theater for a performance, and thought to myself: I wish I could stay here, because there is more creativity involved in writing a paper than in going on stage executing the choreography of an abstract ballet. I realized that I had to get out of ballet company life and try to create work that establishes the missing link between ballet and the real world.

To follow my academic interest, I could write papers, but I had another language that I could use—dance—and I knew that there is a lot of power in this language. So I started choreographing papers that I wrote and rather than publishing them in journals, I performed them. The first work was called Growth, a duet illustrating how our actions on one side of the world impact the other side. As dancers we need to concentrate and listen to each other, take intelligent risks and not let go. If one of us lets go, we would both fall on our faces.

What motivated you make this career change?
We as contemporary artists have to redefine our roles. In recent decades we became very specialized, which is great, but we lost our connection to society. Now it’s time to bring art back into society, where it can create an impact. I am not a scientist. I don’t know exactly how the data is produced, but I can see the results, make sense of it and connect it to the things that I am specialized in.

How did you get involved with IIASA?
I first started interdisciplinary thinking with the economist Tomáš Sedláček who I met at the European Culture Forum 2013. A year later I had a public debate with Tomáš and the composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven in Vienna. Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director General and CEO, attended this and invited me to come to IIASA.

What have you done at IIASA so far?
For the first year at IIASA I created a variety of works to reach out to scientists and policymakers and with every work I went a step further. This year, for the first time I tried to integrate the two groups by actively involving scientists in the creation process. The result, COURAGE, an interdisciplinary performance debate will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016. In September, I will co-direct a new project called Citizen Artist Incubator at IIASA, for performing artists who aim to apply artistic innovation to real-world problems.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis performing Enlightenment 2.0 at the EU-JRC. The piece was specifically created for policymakers. It combined text, dance, and music, and reflected on art, science, climate change, migration and the role of Europe in it. © Ino Lucia

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis performing Enlightenment 2.0 at the EU-JRC. The piece was specifically created for policymakers. It combined text, dance, and music, and reflected on art, science, climate change, migration and the role of Europe in it. © Ino Lucia


How do scientists react to your work?
The response to my performances at the European Forum Alpbach 2015 and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (EU-JRC) was extremely positive. It was amazing to see how people reacted—some even in tears. Afterwards they said that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say for the past two days, but the moment that they saw the piece, they got it. Of course people are skeptical at first—if they were not, I will not be able to make a difference.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Alpbach Forum 2016.

Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016.

What are you trying to achieve?
I’m trying to figure out how to connect the knowledge of art and science so that we can tackle the problems we face more efficiently. There are multiple dimensions to it. One is trying to figure out how we can communicate science better. Can we appeal to reason and emotion at the same time to win over hearts and minds?
As dancers we can physically illustrate scientific findings. For instance, in order to perform certain complicated movements, timing is extremely critical. The same goes for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Are you planning on doing research of your own?
At the moment I am trying something, evaluating the results, and seeing what can be improved, so in a way that is a type of research. For instance, some preliminary results came from the creation of COURAGE. We found that if we as scientists and artists want to work together, both parties will have to compromise, operate beyond our comfort zones, trust each other, and above all keep our audience at heart. That is exactly what we expect humanity to do when tackling global challenges. We have to be team players. It’s like putting a performance on stage. Everyone has to work together.

 

More information about Gloria Benedikt:
Benedikt trained at the Vienna state Opera Ballet School, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Harvard University, where she also danced for the Jose Mateo Ballet Theater. Her latest works created at IIASA will be performed at the European Forum Alpbach 2016 as well as the International Conference on Sustainable Development in New York.

www.gloriabenedikt.com
Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

 

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

By Gloria Benedikt, IIASA Associate for Science and Arts

Gloria Benedikt speaks at

Gloria Benedikt speaks at “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Palais Niederoesterreich, March 2015. Photo: Matthias Silveri

“For the real human story, history must comprise both the biological and the cultural,” wrote biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence. ”The convergence between those two great branches of learning (sciences and humanities) will matter hugely when enough people have thought its potential through”.

This elegantly summarizes why I find myself at IIASA. I’ve been splitting my life between the arts (working as a professional dancer) and academia (studying at Harvard University). Over time I started to make connections between seemingly opposing worlds: arts and science. Now my challenge as IIASA Associate for Science and Arts is to help bridge them.

Why is this important, and why now? Because the way the world is run assumes that human beings act rationally and that economic (material) well-being in itself is key in solving all major issues afflicting our world. We have focused on the biological and neglected the cultural; we assumed that satisfying basic needs to keep bodies functioning will keep people alive. In short, we looked at the body and overlooked the soul. Or as prominent Czech Economist Tomáš Sedláček framed it, “There were huge advances that were brought upon us thanks to science and also thanks to economics, but now I feel we are in a time where we see the limits of it. In the beginning, there was no analytics, just ethics. Today there is only analytics and no ethics.”

Gloria Benedikt (right) and Hussein Khadour (left) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

Gloria Benedikt (left) and Hussein Khadour (right) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

There was a time when humanity was already closer in finding a balance between the two. It was called the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment quest,” Wilson observed, “was driven by the belief that human beings can know all that needs to be known, and in knowing understand, and in understanding gain the power to choose more wisely than ever before.”

Then, for the next two centuries and to the present day, science and humanities went their own way. Complex reasons briefly summarized: albeit making good progress, scientists were nowhere close to meeting expectations and artists sought meaning in other more private venues.

Is there any value in resuming this quest of connecting arts and science now? Wilson argues that the answer is yes, “because enough is known today to make it more attainable than during its first flowering.” And yes, because the solutions of so many problems in modern life will depend on solutions for the clash of competing religions, the revival of moral reasoning and on adequate foundations of environmentalism.

So, how can this work in practice?

BenediktMiccolisAnEveningforHumanityPressPhoto

Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis in GROWTH, Kennedy Center, Washington DC, July 2014 Photo: Morgan Marinoni

For starters we should be aware that there is a common foundation. Despite science and humanities being fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do, they are complementary to each other in origin, as they arise from the same creative process in the human brain. But there is more. “Good” science is  data driven. Scientists are trained to present their findings in a neutral way. A scientist appealing to emotion is likely to be considered unprofessional.

Meanwhile, artists are masters of metaphors and of appealing to emotion. At the same time, the majority religiously avoids being explicit. “Good” art is not dogmatic. We prefer to leave it up to our audiences to find meaning for themselves.

In the past 150 years, we have seen that if we push our noble pursuits to the extreme, we risk losing our purpose because we lose our link to society. If people don’t understand how scientific findings matter to them and if artists are too scared or simply too wound up in their own world, and thus fail to articulate, our work falls short of its ultimate purpose: to serve society by revealing truths in the world around us so that people can make better-informed decisions on how to go about their work and lives and shape the direction of our planet and the over 7 billion people populating it.

Arts and science need to be free – in 2015, I believe this freedom lies in the ability to present our findings clearly and independently. This quest, coupled with a new sense of responsibility to communicate, is what can and should bring scientists and artists together in the coming years and decades. I, for one, am excited that IIASA has opened its doors for us to join hands so we can create a sustainable future together and perhaps fulfill Wilson’s vision of a second enlightenment along the way.

Please note: I use the terms ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ interchangeably here. However the term humanities is of course technically broader, as it includes not only the creative arts, but also political theory & philosophy.

References

Wilson, Edward O. The meaning of Human Existence. New York: Norton & Company, 2014

Sedláček, Benedikt, Twaalfhoven. Arts Economics and the Irrational – A debate in 3 Acts. November 29th 2015. www.vimeo.com/120531313

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.