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November 3, 2022

Futures Forum – Ambassador Gutmann's Opening Remarks

Muenster, November 2, 2022

Ambassador Gutmann takes part in the Futures Forum conference
Ambassador Gutmann takes part in the Futures Forum conference


As prepared for delivery.

The idea for a Futures Forum was born at the farewell meeting between President Biden and Chancellor Merkel at the White House in July 2021.

The day before that meeting, devastating floods took the lives of hundreds of residents and caused enormous destruction in the Ahrtal and neighboring regions. That year, the impact of global climate change was obvious and very present. Extreme rainfall, droughts, wildfires were happening faster than scientists previously projected.

The fact that President Biden and Chancellor Merkel were able to meet in person after 16 months of a global pandemic was exceptional – and not only because of the respect the two leaders shared for each other. It was also exceptional because after 16 months of a global pandemic, they were able to meet in person – and not via Zoom. And why? Because across borders, working together, scientists had developed vaccines in record time, including one notable U.S.-German effort: the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.

Never before was the promise and potential, the need for collaboration and innovation, for the Futures Forum that was launched at that White House meeting, so significant and so necessary.

The connection between what happens in one country and what happens around the world is more impactful than it’s ever been –– whether it’s climate, global health, food insecurity, energy, supply chain disruptions, cyberspace piracy, digital policy, or the strong allied response to Putin’s brutal war of choice against Ukraine.

At the same time, however, the connection between like-minded partners such as Germany and the United States – partners that share the same fundamental interest in a system where people play by basic rules; where security and sovereignty are protected; and where human rights are respected – is of crucial importance.

We are at an inflection point, a moment of intense competition to shape what comes next. Innovation and technology are poised to define the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century, generating game-changers in health and clean energy, creating new industries to drive our prosperity, and shaping the values and fabric of our societies. Innovation is more, however, than research and patents. It is about creating an ecosystem that fosters an exchange of ideas and expertise across a spectrum of both new and established knowledge. In our polarized world, it is important that we work to find common ground and a way forward together, harnessing the tools technological advances offer to bolster democracy rather than sitting idly by while they’re utilized to undermine our shared values.

That’s why there is no better theme for this first U.S.-German Futures Forum than the future of democracy in a digital age. Supporting and defending democracy has been the focus of my academic career. One principle I have observed time and time again is that everything we do makes a difference; and everything we don’t do, also makes a difference.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where I served as President for almost 20 years, we practiced what I call inclusive innovation. Under my leadership, we launched the President’s Innovation Prize there which offered students an opportunity to launch their innovative entrepreneurial ideas into the real world. It was my belief then, as it is now, that the innovation ecosystem ties us all together.

Bringing together different types of knowledge, insights, and experiences helps us to better understand the world we live in. Those who see only ‘my street, my family, my tribe’ may only see a future that looks exactly like their past. Creativity blooms when people expose themselves to a larger world.

When I used to recommend to students that they think globally, I was describing something more profound than working across language barriers or national borders. Thinking globally also means comprehensively, encompassing and integrating all academic disciplines. That’s what global thinking is all about.

And so, over the next two days, this is what I would recommend to all of you, as you consider the challenges we face, and specifically the challenges to democracy. First, practice global thinking. Second, begin with an open question and consider distinct points of view. And finally, develop actionable recommendations about how to implement the bold new ideas that are so desperately needed in today’s world. A world that as Secretary of State Blinken admitted just a few weeks ago, is dangerous and complicated and full of challenge – played out before our eyes in real time. But it is also a moment of incredible opportunity.

Being a part of the University of Pennsylvania for almost 20 years, I drew continual inspiration from its founder Benjamin Franklin. He believed universities should combine both theoretical and practical wisdom; and that cooperation and shared responsibility were necessary for the success of any initiative, large or small.

And so, I leave you with a short definition of democracy – in Benjamin Franklin’s words. Upon the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence, he famously said: “We must hang together, or surely we will hang separately.”  Surely, Franklin was right: our hanging together – our working together, creatively – is the key to our mutual defense of democracy.  In this creative and collaborative democratic spirit, I wish you a successful first U.S.-German Futures Forum – and look forward to hearing your recommendations tomorrow.