Metro International reporter Céline Zahno discusses The New Institute and how they initiate change to combat global issues.
Bold claims and grand goals – traits many think tanks share are taken to new heights by The New Institute. Christoph Gottschalk, one of the Institute’s directors, says that the think tank aims to optimistically shape and design social change in response to the most pressing problems of our time. In an attempt to “fundamentally reconfigure societies”, as stated on the institute’s website, academic excellence and creative vision are brought together. Through projects that concern far-reaching issues, from the organization of our economies to the future of democracies, The New Institute attempts to redefine the ways in which we live together. Founded only recently at the beginning of 2020, the institute is situated in the Warburg Ensemble in Hamburg, an impressive series of nine townhouses with a rich history dating back to Bismarck’s empire.
Combining scientific analysis with utopian, ideological thinking seems like a highly ambitious endeavor and poses important questions for the viability of social planning. Social planning as a concept has had a difficult history, having been associated with communism for a long time. Yet social planning, which is the activity of taking directive action to address critical social problems, is crucial to liberal-democratic states as they exist today; and is essentially what policymakers constantly do. However, some underlying issues still remain. Social planning necessarily involves a specified goal and practical action to achieve it, which can have paternalistic connotations – a small group of people decides what is good for a community and attempts to redesign society according to these standards.
Similar problems lie at the core of the study of futurology, a field of study closely connected to the approach that The New Institute takes. Rolf Kreibich, the former director of the Institute for Future Studies in Berlin, has defined futurology as the scientific study of the future; specifically the possible, probable, and desirable developments in the future and the possibilities of them being realized. Scientists of futurology presume both that the future can be known and that it can be controlled by drawing on that knowledge. The impact of futurology on social and political systems becomes an interaction between the prediction of consequences of current day practices and intervention to bring about more desired outcomes.
Taking a closer look at The New Institute’s ongoing projects, their deep roots in futurology are clearly visible. One such project concerns a sustainable value system for the 21st century. By studying the nature of past values and how they have emerged, The New Institute hopes to answer questions about a desirable set of values that could drive sustainable change. These values seem to be a deeply private issue and have been addressed in a dubious manner implying a sense of “we will tell you what to believe in order for society to be better” in the undertones of how they have been formulated.
Another one of their projects, although still in the process of conceptual clarification, will examine what an alternative, more sustainable economy could look like. This project envisions different measures of progress as well as the kind of structural changes in the economy that would have to be brought about. Given the tremendous complexity of the social and economic world at large, it is difficult to see how such a plan can take all important elements into account and bring about a transformation that is both sustainable and effective. Futurologists might have to admit that the elements of uncertainty playing into their calculations of the future are too extensive. Implementing policy based on theoretical considerations about the interplay of a variety of factors, lacking a sufficient epistemological basis in scientific research, can lead to pitfalls. The more unknown, or only partially understood components involved, the harder it is to design an effective policy.
Futurology might bring unfamiliar, or even esoteric ways of thinking that are too ideologically tinted for it to be called a science or to inform policy. Despite all that, it might be a viable way to respond to the changing nature of politics. Until now, it has always been the case that politics addresses problems in the present. If something is not right, governments can implement directives to take action to solve these problems. However, it is possible that we have entered a new era of politics. We are increasingly being confronted with problems that are years or decades away. While we feel the impact of climate change already, the long-term consequences are easy to ignore if they do not affect our day-to-day life. Similarly, the advent of issues such as artificial intelligence, data politics and what some call a democratic malaise poses a set of problems that force us out of our defensive lanes. The emergence of The New Institute is not random, it is a specific response to current pressing political issues and reaffirms the need for us to change our way of life and the ways in which we organize ourselves in order to respond to them by stepping outside our comfortable lifestyles.
The New Institute’s far-reaching goals must be taken with a grain of salt. The institute is not a government deciding on what to do, but a group of highly educated individuals thinking about the critical issues of this era and proposing ideas of what taking action could look like. No one is going to run after them trying to implement their policy proposals as fast as possible and they will have to do a lot of work to convince decision-makers of the feasibility of their ideas. We can only hope that they will be successful in that endeavor. Futurology, even if not as accurate as other scientific disciplines, is our only possibility to tackle future problems in a level-headed way that still possesses the creative vision needed to actually make a change.