“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
These words by Charles Dickens have rarely seemed so topical. Throughout history humans have encountered moments where the decision about which side of the history you must be comes to question. We have lived through great moments of leadership and grave failures. Only to return to these same questions later without a mutual understanding of the course of our common path.
It would be easy, then, to question all we have learned and argue that our times are more special than any time before us. However, I – as a person who has dedicated my life to public service – would like to make the case for development, not stagnation.
30 years ago a divide shattered as the Berlin wall fell. It had divided not only a city, but a country and the world in a physical manifestation of a mental dreadlock. People were ready for change. Time had run out on the old ways of governing. Technological advances, freedom of speech and modern values finally took over the wall that had been a constant reminder that nations are not the ones dictating the course of history – people are.
Even though the events that led to the final fall of the wall seem specific, the momentum had been felt for long. In his recent Times article former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reminiscences attending the festivities in East Berlin marking the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 and feeling the overwhelming discontent of the people. Inherently an urban sentiment, concretized by a wall, the discontent of the East Berliners epitomized the feeling of belonging to a community that had overgrown its role as a puppet of the nation states politics.
Even though a complex nation state -led diplomatic process eventually delivered peace and unification the process of coming together had started in the streets of Berlin where people were trying to envision what good life would mean for newly unified community. The peace made in the streets and communities was practical, although not easy. Life must go on and for the better.
The divide of Berlin was the divide of two worlds by politics. But the fall of the Berlin wall unified much more than a city. It gave rise to the idea of a city as a community, rather than a place. It also gave birth for the growth of a much larger community of the European Union. At the end of the cold war countries and cities from the global south to the north experienced the economic, cultural and social aftermath of one of the greatest transformations of our time. Empowered by example countries were able to take bold steps forward. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia found a new political footing and made a move towards independence. In Finland, the end of the cold war paved the way for our subsequent European Union membership and a highlighted role on the world’s political stage.
For decades after, we have been resolute that Western democracy had proven its vitality and superiority over all other systems, and it was only a matter of time before it would be adopted everywhere. Now we know that what we believed to be a well-functioning democratic model has not successfully spread outside its traditional territory, and instead it has been strongly questioned, even in its original roots.
What we saw as a conclusion 30 years ago was only the beginning of a new era. We have come to understand, that the world will never be complete. We must grow used to the constant transformations and the insecurities of our time. “A right model” might not exist – only what we make of it at any given time.
As writer Nate Silver described brilliantly in his book “The Signal and the Noise”, we often fail to distinguish the signal – or true and relevant information – from the confusing noise that blurs it. Things considered permanent, such as communism, may disappear surprisingly quickly. This is relevant when we think of the future of democracy and liberalism. They are no laws of nature. We cannot and should not take them for granted.
In many places of the world cities have become the leaders of modern democratic values. Where nation states fail to act on climate change, segregation or migration, cities step up and take the lead. As communities of people, cities are many times better equipped to manage rapid response. We are close to people, pragmatic, action-oriented and used to dealing with everyday life challenges. Cities are less politically oriented as nation states. As the former New York City Mayor La Guardia used to say: there is no democratic or republican way of cleaning the streets.
Leaders from all around the world recognize that their people are growing impatient. Our governance structure must be developed in order to accommodate the growing demand for participation. A change of political regime does not help, if the root causes for unfunctional democracy lie at the core of our governance system.
At the same time corporations, NGO’s and civil society take a larger role in shaping our societies. The way we live, move, work and travel is less and less controlled by the tools of nation states and increasingly in the hands of the wider ecosystem. We can try to limit or stop this change, but a more meaningful way forward would be to shape our governance to meet the people halfway.
The walls of today take many shapes and forms. We see regimes limit their people physically, mentally and culturally. We witness a time where access to information and knowledge is becoming a new weapon and data the new oil. We try to provide our people with the necessary tools to equip and even master these new shifting circumstances, but many are left behind. The divide between realities is our current wall. Whole world is now much like Berlin, growing impatient and searching for a new direction.
Cities account for over 80 % of global GDP and more than half of the world’s population. The Greek philosopher Aristoteles said over 2000 years ago, “people move into cities in order to find a job and earn their living, but they stay there in order to live a good life”. Cities, much like nation states before them, collaborate on international scale, provide solutions for the most pressing global challenges of today and create a framework for innovation and creativity that take humanity forward. Cities are the new powerhouses of the world. I believe that some of this development started in Berlin 30 years ago.
With this new established power comes also great responsibility. In many corners of the world the growing importance of cities and their role in defending western democracy has been recognized but not supported. Cities, with no armies, weapons or treaties, must resort to softer tools in their battles. In the end, communities are built by people, for the people, managed by the people. Where politics fail, we must replace force with productive action. In the words of the late President Kennedy “let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future”.
I am inherently an optimist. I believe that technological advances will help us create solutions that make the future better. I believe that cities’ new found power and international collaboration will provide a platform for the fast response expected by people. And I believe that – at least in some cases – the collaboration between nation states and cities will provide a model for a more comprehensive governance model.
Western democracy will prevail if it is desirable enough. It will not prevail by force. We have built it; we have the ability to develop it in the way that will provide a more comprehensive and sustainable model. In the end it is not a question about right or wrong but what will provide us with the solutions we need in order to preserve life on earth.
30 years ago Berlin became a symbol for a powerful movement for freedom of speech, equality, democracy and modern leadership. Today we need those symbols to once again prove that governance is built for people – not vice versa.