Nicolas Berggruen: Reflections on a Turbulent Year

2020 has been a challenging and consequential year: a global pandemic, a contested U.S. Presidential Election, an evolving economic crisis, historic social unrest, and a raging climate calamity. As the adaptations and responses to these events accelerated many of the emergent trends of the 21st Century, the work of the Institute became more pressing and urgent. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the future—bringing with it many lessons.

We learned that governance matters. The pandemic provided a real-time, simultaneous stress test of every system of governance in the world. Countries whose leadership pushed aside politics to put scientists in charge, modeled the right behaviors and made hard choices to keep people safe, bent the curve. The timely deployment of technology and the compliance of trusting publics contributed to their success. Despite some of these decisions being unpopular, overall competence has improved trust in governments in places that have successfully managed to protect people. In other places, poor public health investment, delayed and disjointed action on the part of leadership, and a culture of distrust toward government, conspired to carve a path for the virus to spread seemingly unhindered. Our Berggruen Institute case studies of various governments’ responses to COVID-19 makes clear the true cost of poor governance and weak state capacity. Political governance is too important to leave to politics. Government must operate first and foremost as a competent and reliable public service provider.

We learned the true cost of inequality. The level to which the brunt of this calamity – both in terms of economics and health – has been borne by our most vulnerable communities, has opened our eyes to the injustice of chronic, systemic, and deepening inequality. Our essential workers in the service sector ensured that stores remained open, deliveries were made, public transport ran on time, and hospitals, urgent care facilities and testing sites were relentless in their care and dedication. Their work has been selfless with many becoming ill and others losing their lives. Communities of color have disproportionally been affected.

Governments have stepped up around the world to support their citizens in this time of need, providing income to cover shortfalls, but longer-term solutions are needed. We need programs that address not just shortfalls in income but the inequalities in wealth accumulation that impact current and future generations. Our Future of Capitalism work is focused on pre-distribution mechanisms for societies to build wealth over time, such as superannuation funds, baby bonds and other tools.

National self-interest has been gaining momentum as the core ethos of countries around the world, and with the pandemic it became the unabashed strategy of choice. Nations closed borders, competed for resources, and withdrew from, and reduced funding to, international organizations. The reaction was in stark opposition to that which is required to solve a global health crisis. The virus does not respect the borders humans have invented or the fences we have raised. To it, the human landscape is part of a broad planetary ecosystem. We are part of, not apart from, nature. The way we think about ourselves, our relationship to each other and to the planet, hinders our ability to tackle problems that do not conform to the confines of our political and social infrastructure and the aging institutional frameworks upon which they are based. Only if we shed the outdated concepts of borders and division, of national self-interest, of us versus them, and start thinking in terms of the planet and our collective relationship with it, will we be able to tackle the challenges like climate change and global public health.

We learned that almost everything we do in person can be done online. As we isolated ourselves, life became an online event. As we increasingly occupy and interact in virtual spaces, technology becomes the broker of our every transaction: defining, shaping, and monitoring every moment. The sprint of technology into every aspect of our lives accelerated exceptionally over this past year, further intensifying its influence on individuals and society. The phenomenal influence of technology and its ability to shape the world anew, to change humans and make new realities possible, makes technology in essence a philosophical event. Its impact is broader than just a feat of engineering. Our Transformation of the Human program is focused on developing a philosophy for technology and how to use it to deliberately shape the world we want to create.

The rapid changes of 2020 and the problems it laid bare have brought the importance of our work into sharp focus. From renewing democracy to re-legitimizing our institutions and building state capacity, to addressing wealth inequality through pre-distribution to questioning our traditional geopolitical understanding of the world and shaping a philosophy for technology, our ideas are gaining traction with partners and policymakers across the globe. Thank you to all of you who are on this journey with us. We are very grateful to all of you who care about these issues and continue to engage with our work.