We Cannot Solve the Problems of Our Time by Redistributing Misery


Welcoming Remarks by Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

On the Occasion of a Reception with Rice University discussing Switzerland: Pairing Technology with Sustainability

At Rice University, Huston, Texas

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

In 2016, Switzerland was ranked the world’s most innovative country by the Global Innovation Index, a position it has held for the past five years. This really does not come as a surprise. Since the country lacks natural resources, the Swiss economy depends on human skills and generating knowledge. This year, two significant events demonstrated that Switzerland is a country of innovation:  the round-the-world flight of Solar Impulse 2, an exclusively solar-powered plane, and the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel.

In Switzerland, half of our gross domestic product (GDP) is earned abroad, and many Swiss citizens play an important role beyond our borders. Despite our sometimes old-fashioned image, an adventurous spirit prevails in Switzerland. Many of my fellow Swiss colleagues go abroad to explore uncharted territory.

Solar Impulse 2 embodies this audacious attitude. One of the planet’s most pressing challenges is to increase the use of renewable resources. Powered only by the sun, without fuel and polluting emissions, the first ever round-the-world solar flight proves that we can meet this challenge with innovation and a daring mindset. Solar Impulse 2 is not only a technological feat, but a strong call for a paradigm shift.

When the Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in June 2016, a foreign journalist made the ironic or even sarcastic comment that “the Swiss are happy because they are looking into the world’s deepest tunnel now.” It’s true that we are happy, but not because we are fascinated by opaqueness. On the contrary:  in the tunnel, we see a strong example of a shift away from fossil energy toward a more sustainable means of transportation. And this tunnel that brings Italy, Germany, and Europe as a whole closer together is, like Solar Impulse 2, a sign of openness toward the world.

Before becoming Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, I was head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the equivalent of the USAID. One of the most fascinating debates I was involved in was the negotiation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

At the very beginning when I started that job, the question was:  how can we lift people out of poverty, promote economic growth, and at the same time respect the ecological limits of the planet? In the first place, many countries, organizations and other protagonists strongly favored redistributive approaches. Their ambition was to share more equally the resources that already exist. That is, of course, an uninspiring way of looking at things. It is a way of thinking which is encapsulated in what exists now, without imagining what could happen in the future. Or as Albert Einstein once said:  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

History has shown us that approaching the problems of inequality by redistributing already existing resources equally doesn’t lead to the desired outcome of a fairer world. Fortunately, we do not live in a closed and static world. On the contrary:  We live in a world where knowledge is expanding in an unprecedented way.

In his “Knowledge Doubling Curve,” Buckminster Fuller noticed that until 1900, human knowledge had doubled on average every century; and by the end of World War II it was doubling every 25 years. Today, the increase of knowledge is certainly very uneven in different areas. But one of the estimates is that on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. In a recent study, IBM estimates that the “Internet of Things” will eventually lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. The challenge is—to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller again—“to harvest and properly use the knowledge.”

Therefore knowledge and inventions alone are not sufficient to generate sustainable outcomes. They are not self-fulfilling. To translate an invention into something transformative, into a product, a service, a process, and so forth, they need a favorable environment and conditions that are conducive to novelty and progress. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, there was a functioning model of a steam engine in the famous Library of Alexandria. But the engine remained an interesting exhibit without any economic or social significance.

Governance, regulation, access to venture capital and other resources are essential for a progressive transformation. That is the reason why the process of elaborating the Sustainable Development Goals was so important. It made it possible to exchange ideas and to agree on policy priorities. What happened in peoples’ minds during this process was of more importance than the texts the delegates selected and which were approved by the states.

Apart from the United Nations as such, it is also important that the individual countries and multilateral institutions assume their part of the responsibility and encourage the right incentives toward a more sustainable way of life.

Ideas, frameworks and incentives are powerless alone, but together they can change the course of history and our own lives, too – or to put it in a more fashionable contemporary way:  they can be disruptive.

Without the right incentives and a good framework, projects like the Gotthard Basel Tunnel and Solar Impulse 2 would be utopian ideas on paper. Today, they stand as examples of how knowledge leads to innovation and how innovation can change the world for the better.

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