Fourth Industrial Revolution

Don’t despair. You can’t build a wall against ideas and progress

A woman looks through a crack in a concrete barrier that is part of the former Berlin Wall border fortification at the memorial site in Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, August 13, 2012.

"Scientists and innovators have faced greater challenges than those that arose in 2016." Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

David Gann
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Development and External Affairs, University of Oxford
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After the US election and Brexit vote, talk of ‘walls’ is spooking scientists and innovators.

When barriers hold back the free flow of ideas, growth stalls. Global collaboration makes the research community tick. Most academics would be unable to develop their ideas without the influence and creative abrasion of international partners and networks.

Science and technology flow and roam. They do not respect boundaries. This applies especially in the start-up and high-tech sectors, where global thinking is the norm.

There is concern that the End of History – Francis Fukuyama’s powerful phrase for the ascendancy of the post-Cold War liberal democratic order – might have been more of a temporary hiatus.

The assumptions we held from 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to 9 November 2016, when Trump was elected, feel threatened in new ways. Globalization and innovation are perceived by many not to advance their wellbeing, but to endanger it.

A recent trip to Berlin on the anniversary of the Wall coming down, and seeing the US election results rolling in, led to reflection on where we might still find robust bastions of progressiveness to counter this view of the world.

East and West German citizens celebrate as they climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg gate after the opening of the East German border was announced in this November 9, 1989 file photo.
East and West German citizens celebrate as they climb the Berlin wall, November 9, 1989. Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Cities and universities provide two examples. They can be havens for innovation and progress – and they most likely always will be, even when surrounded by regressive political cultures.

Standing on the ground that had once been the apex of East-West tensions and in the company of young, international entrepreneurs, reminded us why. The appropriately named Falling Walls events bring together a global community of scientists and start-ups on the spot where the Berlin Wall once kept people apart.

The Falling Walls Conference involves 700 of the brightest minds from 80 countries, from cities such as Cairo, Sendai, Johannesburg, Moscow, New York, Dakar, and Lahore. They come to discuss which scientific walls might be breached next. The Falling Walls Venture competition rewards exciting science-based start-ups, some of which will make the world a better place.

Yet there is also something curiously old-fashioned about this kind of event. The history of innovation shows why we may not need to worry about the future quite so much, whatever the current political uncertainties, provided we maintain the right conditions in our cities and universities.

Scholars attended the Conference from some of Europe’s most ancient universities, including Heidelberg, Leuven and Oxford and from some of the world’s oldest trading cities such as Shanghai, Hamburg and London. These universities and cities existed centuries before 1648, when the modern nation-state took shape at the Peace of Westphalia. They were already sharing ideas, often in Latin, the lingua franca at the time.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Leonardo da Vinci travelled across Europe, sharing and absorbing new ideas in architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, cartography, painting and sculpture. He was seemingly interested in everything about how the world worked and brilliant in his application of the many ideas his fertile mind produced.

British, Dutch and Portuguese traders, collectors and philosophers, curious about what they could learn from physical and cultural difference in far-flung lands, were similarly international in perspective. This passion for learning about the world provided the origins of the Royal Society in Britain in 1650 and establishment of the British Museum 100 years later. Entrepreneurs and industrialists such as Josiah Wedgwood were part of an extraordinary circle of eclectic friends – the Lunar Society – that met regularly in Birmingham in the late 18th century to exchange ideas on scientific discoveries from Britain and overseas. Both Charles Darwin’s grandfathers were members of the Lunar Society, and no doubt stimulated his insatiable curiosity.

London opened its doors to the world with 6 million visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Using the profits from this event, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert endowed South Kensington its museums and university with the objective to bring arts and science together for the betterment of humanity for 1,000 years.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park hosted the Grand International Exhibition of 1851 Image: View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851.

Such optimism is part of the human spirit and will never be curtailed. Scientists and innovators have faced greater challenges than those that arose in 2016. Through scores of wars, thinkers and doers have found ways to travel, collaborate and push back the boundaries of knowledge.

Dennis Gabor epitomised this mindset. The Hungarian-born Jewish physicist worked in Budapest and Berlin before fleeing Nazi Germany for Imperial College London. There, he invented holography, going on to win the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics. Europe’s turmoil forced him to move, but his brilliance was not lost to the global community of scholars.

Other scientists, such as Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, and great entrepreneurs, such as Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley took similar, perilous journeys, maintaining their internationalism as their discoveries and efforts reshaped our world.

It is this spirit that got samizdat literature - secretly published by dissidents - into and out of the Soviet Union.

It is also the sentiment that drove two Syrian refugees in Berlin to found a start-up, Bureaucrazy, that is helping others navigate German bureaucracy in housing, healthcare and banking. Whether you’re a German speaker or not, complex concepts such as Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung (proof that you owe no rent from past housing) show why it is taking off.

Cities and regions such as the Bay Area in California tend to be safe harbours for migrants, particularly those that pride themselves in and safeguard multiculturalism. Where would the mighty US technology industry be if it were not for immigrants? Elon Musk is a South African-born, Canadian-American. Steve Jobs’ biological father was Syrian. Sergey Brin was born in Moscow. The Kauffman Foundation makes the point that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children and over 50% of US ‘unicorn’ start-ups (valued at over $1 billion) are founded by at least one immigrant.

By these standards, Brexit and Trump are just noise surrounding the march of international progress. Any new wall, real or imagined, will not stop Texan and Mexican scientists from making new discoveries and breakthroughs together. And, as in Berlin, walls can be torn down.

The role of cities and universities as oases in the present political turmoil is one of the ideas we are exploring at Imperial College London and the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils’ Global Innovation Summit. We will be debating how cities can continue to be innovative, competitive and sustainable and by becoming more, not less, international in their connections to science hubs and business networks around the world.

Like all truly leading cities, London and its universities are open to business and science. As in the past, such openness will remain the key to future prosperity.

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