Richard von Weizsäcker Forum 2020
The unequal distribution of power, wealth, and privileges in and between societies is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Growing inequalities worsen social polarization and undermine the legitimacy of political institutions. At the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum, held from October 12 to 15, 2020, some 50 former, current, and future fellows of the Robert Bosch Academy addressed the complex dimensions of the topic of inequality.
On the first day of the forum, which took the form of a virtual “Fellows in Conversation Day,” the participants approached the topic from a global perspective.
"Inequality is closely linked to other pressing challenges of our time such as technological change, the climate crisis, and migration. The Robert Bosch Stiftung is currently exploring how to contribute to reducing inequality through its activities. We focus on identifying and promoting effective systemic approaches to addressing inequality in both research and practice,” said Sandra Breka, member of the Board of Management of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in her opening remarks.
After delivering the opening address, Yascha Mounk, Associate Professor of Practice at Johns Hopkins University, discussed the various aspects of inequality with Emilia Roig, Founder and Director of the Center for Intersectional Justice, and Samir Saran, President of the Oberserver Research Foundation. The talk was moderated by the journalist Femi Oke.
In the breakout sessions, the participants focused on specific manifestations of inequality. In the first group, the discussion turned on polarization and populism as symptoms of growing inequality. How can political and social divisions be overcome? The second group discussed how and why pandemics such as Covid-19 exacerbate and even cause new forms of inequalities. The third group took a look at political and social decision-makers and debated how political measures could be made more inclusive in order to reduce inequalities.
The virtual Fellows in Conversation Day was followed by a study trip to the Ruhr region. A group of Fellows who were able to travel to Germany despite the current corona restrictions examined structural change in the region and its socioeconomic consequences. The trip began in Dortmund with a joint lunch with Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner, the North Rhine-Westphalian Minister of Federal, European, and International Affairs.
“The first university in the Ruhr area was founded in Bochum in 1962. Today the region has the densest concentration of universities in Europe. We’ve learned that the search for the new doesn’t always mean reinventing the old. We want to establish an infrastructure that serves the people, the arts, and start-ups." (Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner)
Afterwards the fellows visited the association "Die Urbanisten" and talked with its board member Jan Bunse. Through its involvement in various urban development projects, the association is working to improve urban coexistence and urban living environments.
“The traditional connotation of art is that it is something elitist. We want to show the diversity of urban arts, especially those pursued by deprived groups in society. In addition, through our projects, we aim to bring people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet.” (Jan Bunse)
The next stop for the fellows was the Borussia Dortmund (BVB) footballclub. The discussion with Daniel Lörcher, Director of the BVB’s Corporate Responsibility Department, centred on the role of soccer in the Ruhr region and the responsibility of clubs like BVB to help overcome social polarization.
“The city and the region have a special relationship with football. If something happens in Dortmund, BVB is always there. That’s why we want to use the attractiveness of our brand to initiate important social debates and shape narratives – for example, through our visits to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp or through our beer mat campaign ‘No beer for racists!’” (Daniel Lörcher)
During dinner, the fellows had the opportunity to reflect on their experiences that day and share ideas about their current projects.
The second day of the study trip began with a visit to the start-up scene in the Ruhr region. In a talk with Ersin Üstün, Program Director at Gründerallianz Ruhr, and Stefan Weber, Start-up Ecosystem Manager at the Initiativkreis Ruhr, the fellows learned about the opportunities, problems, and challenges facing start-ups in the area.
“The Ruhr area offers a unique ecosystem for company founders. The 22 universities with around 300,000 students provide a dynamic foundation. Added to this is the proximity to industry: thanks to the numerous companies, including ThyssenKrupp, Evonik, and Signal Iduna, the start-ups are close to their customers and investors.” (Ersin Üstün)
“Unfortunately, the Ruhr still has a negative image as a problem area. We want to show that it’s a region full of opportunity for young entrepreneurs with a broad variety of educational and cultural offerings that can be found almost nowhere else.” (Stefan Weber)
Afterwards, the Fellows visited Zeche Zollverein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Essen, and took a tour of the former coal mine. During lunch, they took part in a discussion with Franz-Josef Wodopia, Managing Director of the Coal Importers’ Association, on the coal industry’s continued relevance to the region and society.
"The era of coal mining has come to a good end – an end that is dragging on, as the tasks and responsibilities of the industry for the environment and the people in the Ruhr area are designed to last for eternity." (Franz-Josef Wodopia)
This introduction to an industry that has shaped the Ruhr region like no other was followed by a look into the future. The Fellows talked to Mathias Albert, Professor of Political Science at Bielefeld University and author of the Shell Youth Study, Frank Meetz, Managing Director of TalentKolleg Ruhr, and Lena Kah, Dortmund Representative of Fridays for Future, about the results of the Shell Youth Study and the concerns and priorities of young people.
“Among young people, it’s now considered cool to be interested in politics. The biggest difference in the political interests of young people is due not to gender or migration background but to the social status. There is a clear structural gap.” (Mathias Albert)
"In some large cities in the Ruhr area, up to 50 percent of children and adolescents live on welfare benefits. For that reason alone, many of these talented young people are severely disadvantaged, which makes a successful school career almost impossible and very challenging. The aim of the North Rhine-Westphalian approach to talent development involves supporting the development of talented people regardless of their socio-economic, family, or ethnic background. The North Rhine-Westphalian Center of Talent Development seeks and finds the talented individuals in this target group. We cannot allow ourselves to waste this great potential of talent socially or economically." (Frank Meetz)
“Demonstrations give us a sense of empowerment, as we feel anxious and helpless when we think of climate change. Unfortunately, political decision-makers do not understand our fears and urgency. I don’t think they can initiate any substantial change.” (Lena Kah)
At the end of the day’s activities, the discussion revolved around the political situation in Germany one year before the 2021 federal elections. At a dinner with Ulf Buermeyer, co-host of the weekly podcast “Lage der Nation” (State of the Nation) and Chair of the Society for Civil Liberties, the Fellows discussed current issues, the state of the party landscape in Germany, and possible coalitions in a “post-Merkel era.”
“The parties don’t really have answers on which to base a voting decision in two important policy areas: the economy after the Corona pandemic and Germany's role in Europe and the world. Here they are either at a loss themselves - or their approaches hardly differ from each other.” (Ulf Buermeyer)
At the conclusion of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum, Henry Alt-Haaker, Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, summarized the study trip as follows: “It was a great pleasure to take this trip to the Ruhr area with our Fellows. On the one hand, the diverse range of interlocutors provided us with comprehensive insight into the challenges in the region. On the other, the Fellows were able to grow closer and discuss links between their respective work and the region. The Robert Bosch Academy thrives on exchanges and encounters between its fellows. Next year, we hope to be able to welcome again a larger group of fellows – if the pandemic allows.”