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The immortality of animals

The quest for immortality is a human conundrum. But in the world of animals and sea creatures, this pursuit has already been solved. Longevity is tied to specific characteristics: body size (bigger animals live longer), protection from predators (flying, armored, and underground species have longer lives than can be predicted from body size alone), metabolic rate (the slower the better), and brain size (the bigger the better). We look at some of the species that have the shortest and longest recorded lifetimes from one day to infinity — yes, we’ve found a creature for whom death does not exist.

Mayflies

Habitat: Everywhere, except Antarctica

Average age: 0.03 years

Conservation status: Least concern

After years in the water, mayflies decide to live, mate, and die as winged creatures, in the span of 25 hours. They are so driven towards sex that they often don’t evolve functional mouth parts — eating is not important if you’re supposed to die at the end of the day. Mayflies spend most of their lives in a sort of infancy, moving through the water they were hatched in as nymphs, and then flying out in millions between autumn and spring (cleaner waters have led to a spike in the mayfly population). As female swarms join the clouds of males, a short, passionate dance is repeated, again and again, as it has for the past 300 million years. A male mayfly embraces a passing female and they consummate in flight; she then descends to the surface of the water to lay her eggs, dying there as her companion dies, alone, on land.

Müller’s giant Sunda rat

Habitat: Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand

Average age: 0.5 years

Conservation status: Least concern

Rats don’t live much, and this rat is no exception. The rodent, who shares his epithet with a better known gibbon, belongs to the Muridae family and can be found all across the forest and shrubland of SouthEast Asia. It lives only six months in the wild, and hasn’t survived longer than two years in captivity. Rat lives are cut short by natural predators and human intervention, but they compensate by reaching sexual maturity in about five weeks and having 21-day gestation periods, which produces an average litter of seven. Under ideal conditions, they can grow their population by a factor of 10, in 15 weeks.

Labord’s Chameleon

Habitat: Madagascar

Average age: 1 year

Conservation status: Vulnerable

This lizard has the shortest life span of any four-legged-animal at one year. During the dry season, the southwest forests of Madagascar see no chameleons, only eggs, making them a vulnerable population, according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Labord’s Chameleons incubate for an average of eight months, hatching simultaneously with the arrival of the wet season — November to April. Then, the whole adult population will have died, leaving behind offspring that they will never see hatch. As soon as its eggs are laid, the new parents lose weight and get ill, often falling in numbers of trees. These reptiles live an insect’s life as an answer to Madagascar’s difficult, ruthless, and unpredictable environment, protecting the majority of their lives within an egg. They die young and they live fast: after gaining 2 to 4% of their body weight per day, by eating anything that they come across, females dress in bright mating colors and mates start fighting ferociously, before having reportedly aggressive sex, according to a report by National Geographic.

Courtesy of Javier Viver

Dwarf pygmy goby

Habitat: Great Barrier Reef

Average age: 1.6 years

Conservation status: Critically endangered

This is one of the smallest fish in the world, at less than 2 cm long as an adult, and it’s also the shortest-lived vertebrate that we know of. It sorts its life out in 59 days, give or take: larvae spend three weeks in the open ocean, mature for two weeks (once settling on a reef), then leaving their adults with only three weeks to make new larvae. While previous record holder, African turquoise killifish are confined by their environment to a 12-week lifespan, the pygmy goby’s short life is the answer to getting eaten a lot: One in 10 is gobbled up every day. Martial Depczynski, who first studied these creatures’ lives, thinks 59 days is more or less the limit for vertebrates. She says: “You might be able to shave a couple of days off, but not much more.”

Common Kingfisher

Habitat: Eurasia and North Africa

Average age: 1 – 21 years

Conservation status: Least concern

For birds, life expectancy is closely correlated to size — the larger the bird, the longer the life. Parrots, vultures, albatrosses, and eagles are all good examples: Healthy Macaw parrots live an average of 50 years, and are said to exceed 100. So how about the small, azure kingfisher, which grows to be 15 cm long and weighing only 35 grams? Very few of them survive more than one breeding season. Many young are driven out of their parents’ nest before they have successfully learned to hunt for themselves, so only half survive more than a week or two: as juveniles make their first dives in the water, their soaked, heavy plumage may cause them to drown. They also die of cold and hunger: Winter starvation is as deadly as summer floods, destroying nests and making fishing impossible. Only a quarter of young kingfishers survive to breed the following year — then there are the threats of cats, rats, cars, and pollution; only a quarter of adult birds survive to see more than one breeding season. However, the longest-lived known wild Common Kingfisher was at least 21 years old, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and other sources.

Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo

Habitat: Inner Australia woodlands

Average age: 83 years

Conservation status: Least concern

Captivity is a major factor in avian lifespans, eliciting significant gains and dubious claims. Cookie, a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, is the exception. He was born at Taronga Zoo in Australia in 1933, then moved to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo a year later, and died in 2016, at age 83, as the last member of the Zoo’s original collection of animals. During Cookie’s life, he received letters and gifts from fans, which included the likes of famed Indian spiritual healer, Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji, according to the local news, and he was finally immortalized as a life-size bronze statue in front of the Reptiles and Birds exhibit at the zoo.

Giant Tortoise

Habitat: Galápagos Islands

Average age: 173 years

Conservation status: Vulnerable

These huge reptiles were already roaming around 70 million years ago, and decided to reach the Galápagos a bit more recently — 1 million years ago. During the last 50,000 years, most giant tortoises have gone extinct, and the remaining species are considered vulnerable, albeit with an average lifespan of over 100. Giant tortoises lead an egotistical existence: Their enormous shells and isolation guarantee that they won’t be bothered by predators, so they can focus on other stuff, except for sex (you have to make babies fast if you’re getting eaten all the time). These reptiles focus on sleeping, resting up to 16 hours a day, and eating, especially prickly pear cactus; they only really get rowdy during mating season, having loud sex and settling their fights with neck measuring: males will face each other with mouths open, and stretch their head as high as possible. Whoever reaches the highest wins, no matter their size or age.

Courtesy of Javier Viver

Bowhead whale

Habitat: Shallow waters of the Northern Hemisphere, around ice

Average age: 200 years

Conservation status: Least concern – global population

The arched mouth of a large sea creature, a Leviathan, is three meters wide and six meters deep, with hundreds of overlapping keratin baleen plates hanging from each side of its upper jaw. This is the biggest mouth in the animal kingdom, eating almost two tons of zooplankton daily. Bowhead whales survived the climatic changes of the Late Pleistocene by rapidly searching for and redefining their core habitat in the North (the implication being that response to climate change is “unpredictable, and species specific,” according to a report by scientists in Nature Communications in 2013. They possess thousands of times more cells than other mammals, but have a higher resistance to cancer and aging thanks to their magic genes (two specific mutations that help DNA repair) and the much lower metabolic rate of their cells, helping them live to be over 200.

Greenland shark

Habitat: North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean

Average age: 400 years

Conservation status: Near threatened

Inuit legend says that a woman was drying her hair after washing it with urine, when the wind stole her wet cloth and dumped it in the sea. That cloth became Skalugsuak, the first Greenland shark. This massive predator’s flesh is so packed with urea (the main nitrogen-containing substance in the urine of mammals) that is has to be boiled several times to be eaten; anything else puts you in a state comparable to extreme drunkenness, minus all the fun parts. This beast has the longest known lifespan of any vertebrate species — marine biologist think it has to do with the cold it inhabits, and its tendency to take things slow: they reach sexual maturity at 150, growing just 0.5 to 1 cm a year.

The immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis Dohrni)

Habitat: Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan

Average age: Forever ∞

Conservation status: Least concern

In a global, silent invasion, these minuscule, bell shaped creatures are invading our oceans. They are spreading through ballast water discharges by ships, seemingly able to survive and reproduce anywhere in the world. They were discovered in the late 1980s, by a young marine biologist spending his summer vacations in Rapallo, Italy. Christian Sommer was the first person to notice this creature’s stubborn refusal to succumb to mortality: This medusa doesn’t fade to darkness or walk towards the light, but reacts to external trauma or environmental stress by growing younger and younger until it can start its life cycle all over again. A key factor in this whole Benjamin Button-ish affair is cellular transdifferentiation, the process by which a certain type of cell is converted into a completely different one — the same process that occurs in human stem cells.

But if sea creatures, like the Turritopsis Dohrni, have found a way to live forever, what are humans doing wrong?

The dictatorship of the clock

There’s no way to escape the dictatorship of time. The hands of the clock rule every instant of our lives, and keeping an eye on the hours and minutes has become, in our society, the norm. Is it inevitable that the passage of time has such an important role? “Everything is organized in time. Our own perception and our behaviors are organized in time. Our whole life basically evolves over time,” explained Marc Wittmann, a neuropsychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg and author of the MIT Press book, Felt Time. “Next to space, time is the second big organizational principle of the world and of our perception of it. Why is this? Because in the world as we perceive it—if you don’t go into experimental or quantum physics theories—time looks like an arrow that goes from the past to the present, and then to the future. We have to adapt to these timing properties of the world, also for biological survival.”

In different civilizations, even if they are contemporaries, there are varying concepts and perceptions of time: how is that possible?

 There’s not just one perception of time; we have several time domains. In the most basic time domain—which is the immediate perception of the passage of time and duration—I would say that in many respects we are all very similar. If we are in industrialized cities like Berlin or Milan we perceive the passage of time in seconds, but this is not just about us. In cities we have to avoid cars, and people in the jungle have to avoid snakes, but the sensory and motor timing is similar. Then, there are different levels of time perception, which depend on cultural influences.

You could take extreme examples from indigenous people who don’t have a tradition of recording time. They only have the memory of people with whom they have lived, back to grandfathers or great-grandfathers. But maybe the most prominent feature is the difference in time perception that the late Robert Levine made. In A Geography of Time, he explores different perceptions of time in the world, using the empirical assessments of his international students. Levine argues in the book that our goal should be to try to live in a “multitemporal” society in which we learn to move back and forth among nature time, event time, and clock time, charting our own geography of time. In general, we could say that in industrialized nations there are differences between cities and rural areas. Levine distinguishes people who are time oriented—they are always checking the clock to be on time—from people who are event oriented, because they first have to finish an activity before they start the next one, and they are not directed by their clocks. In Brazil, for example, in São Paulo people are more clock-time oriented, while in the countryside people are more event-time oriented.

Courtesy of Mark Story

In our western society, in general, we are addicted to time: we can’t help but look at the clock, even if we have nothing to do. Why is that?

That happened because of our work socialization, where we have to be at work at 8:00 a.m., at 12 we have lunch, at 3:45 pm we have a meeting, and so on. We have all of these events that we have to synchronize. We also could say that the success of industrialized nations depends on people referring to clock time and synchronizing with it. People, therefore, are able to work together efficiently. And that’s how the economic success of our societies happened. But we are doing this all the time. Even if it’s the weekend or when we are on vacation, we can’t switch off this mode. We are like hamsters on the wheel: if suddenly the wheel stops, we still have this inclination to run and run. It’s very difficult to switch off this future-oriented mode based on clock time, calendar time, and appointment time.

Where does our sense of time come from: is there a specific area of the brain that deals with the passage of time?

On an elementary level—as you feel time, for example, waiting for a train for seconds or minutes—we don’t have a little ticking clock in our heads. But I would say that it is related to our body perception, our sense of bodily self. Let’s say you are waiting for the train without doing anything: you feel time very clearly. But if you are distracted away from time, because you’re having a great conversation, then time passes quickly—because you don’t attend to it. Why is that? Because you don’t feel yourself.

This is also corroborated by my research on the insular cortex, a region of the brain’s cerebral cortex which is related to processing body sensations. If you feel cold, warm, pain, hunger, or thirst, the insula is activated. But this region is also triggered when you judge duration in seconds. This adds to the intuitive notion that our bodily self is related to subjective time.

What kind of role do smartphones play? Has their pervasiveness in our lives somehow changed our relationship with time?

 Maybe we could say that we are not used to waiting because we are always on our smartphones so any waiting time can easily be killed. But if our phone battery runs out while we are waiting for the train, then suddenly we panic, because we have to face empty time with ourselves. And that’s interesting because it means that we are bored when we are with ourselves and that we are always looking for entertainment, for some activity that allows us not to be alone. We could argue that, because of smartphones, we are less and less capable of spending time alone. Waiting 20 minutes for a train while doing nothing is already unbearable, while it was normal 20 years ago.

Courtesy of Mark Story

Is it important to spend time with ourselves, for our mental health, for example?

 What you could say is that we need free time to be creative. Maybe you have to go through a phase of boredom to get some sort of inspiring ideas, of what to do, what to change about your behavior. Even if you’re puzzled about a problem—about life, or work, if you have constant inputs then your mind won’t process these problems, because your brain won’t have time to digest them. When you are bored, and you don’t know what to do, then suddenly you might have a spark of an idea, that comes from nothing. But this can only happen if our mind has time to produce this spark, without constant inputs.

You claim that time could also be an error signal, what does that mean?

It’s an everyday experience. Normally, we don’t constantly think about time: we do what we need to do, we drink coffee, we chat with friends. “Error signal” means that suddenly we realize that something happened too fast or too slow. Slowness refers to the classic waiting situation, but also when our flow is interrupted. Maybe you are on the motorway: driving, listening to music and whistling. You don’t feel the passage of time. And then you’re suddenly in a traffic jam and you’re out of your flow state and you start to feel time. That’s the error signal.

But it could also be in the other direction, when something happens too fast. For example, you’re in a restaurant with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you order your dinner and you have just started to chat and the first course is presented. It was too fast, right? Because you wanted to drink wine and chat… Again, that’s the error signal: because according to what you were expecting and what you are used to, it was too fast.

This distinction between slowness and speed and the different ways that we perceive time are also crucial to the relationship between the perception of time and mental disorders. Could you please explain this relationship?

 One of the key symptoms of depression, anxiety, drug dependency, schizophrenia, and many other pathological disorders, are that time consciousness and self-consciousness are mutually disturbed. For example, patients with depression or anxiety feel that they are stuck in time, that there’s no future, and they also report that time passes slowly. Moreover, these patients have a hyper-awareness of themselves. Again we see the relationship between the self and time. Because depressed patients are hyper-aware of themselves they feel stuck in the present moment.

You said that when we are doing something that we like, or when we are busy, it seems like time is running, but when we do nothing, time stands still. Does this perception conflict with our perception of time accelerating as we grow older? Elderly people have said that for them, time never passes, even if they have little or nothing to do.

 There are two different time perspectives. If you ask an elderly person what is happening in the moment, if they have nothing to do they might say that time is passing slowly. But this is only one perspective. The other is in retrospect: if you have nothing to do for days or weeks, then you won’t accumulate memories and when you look back, time will have passed quickly.

There are close relationships among increasing age and increasing subjective passage of time. The older we get, the faster time passes. This is related to memory, because over time we have more routine in our lives. When we were young and had our first kiss, first beer, first summer vacation without our parents, we had firsts for everything. When we leave home and go to college everything is new. This is recorded in memory and then, when you look back, time expands. But if someone is 50 years old, they might have spent 30 years in the same city, doing the same job, going to the same places, and when these routines set in, they don’t memorize them because the memories are all the same. And so it might seem like time flies. Because, in retrospect, routine kills time.

The invention of modern time

Humans have always reflected on the concept of time and its implications, from both a cognitive and a behavioural perspective. As the early Christian theologian Saint Augustine wrote, we know very well what time is, we live it and experience it continuously, but if someone asked us to explain what it is, we would not know how to do so effectively.

We consider time such a natural thing, and we live so immersed in it that we still don’t know how we can perceive it at a cognitive level—even though recently some researchers have managed to pinpoint some areas of the brain that seem to function as temporal markers.

This specific type of time, however, describes a subjective, personal, intimate time, which is quite distinct from the concept of time that governs our societies, a modern time. Communication systems, our means of transportation, and the coordinates obtained by GPS satellites orbiting the Earth, are all instruments that rely on concepts of modern time that are completely disjointed from the subjective ones.

This new time is in all respects an invention—introduced at the end of the 19th century—which did not arise as the natural continuation and development of our societies, but was instead imposed, even by force, upon all the nations of the world. At the International Meridian Conference of 1884, 41 delegates from 25 countries met in Washington and signed a seven-point resolution stating that the meridian passing through Greenwich was the zero meridian, and establishing a global system of timekeeping to define modern time.

Today, it feels natural for us to have a global system of timekeeping in which 24 time zones encompass the globe, starting from the Greenwich meridian. The system applies throughout the world and enables us, taking into account time zones, to organize virtual meetings with people in Sydney or Toronto. But it hasn’t always been like this.

Human history inevitably describes us as born timekeepers: whether it’s by natural phenomena or via artificial instruments, such as obelisks, sundials, or water clocks, we’ve always built systems to regulate our activities. In the ancient era, time was marked by the change of the seasons or by other cyclical natural phenomena, such as the flooding of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians. Or, for religions like Islam, where prayer times mark the day.

Every place has its own concept of time and specific ways of measuring it. The times of antiquity, however, were inextricably linked to the local scale—we could define them as local times. What was introduced in 1884 was a global standard time, to which all nations could refer. Thus, the scale of interactions expanded.

Picture by Mattia Balsamini

Since the second half of the 19th century, the undeniable explosion of two new technologies radically transformed relations between people. On the one hand, railways shortened the distance between places and brought cities closer together. Goods and people could reach destinations that had previously been inaccessible due to lengthy travel times or the lack of means of transport. Within a decade, starting in 1830, all the major European nations began building their own railway lines, and by the beginning of 1880 most of them had expanded to about 60% of their current reach.

On the other hand, the telegraph facilitated and revolutionized remote communications: it became possible to send messages to the other end of the line almost instantly. It wasn’t real teleportation, but it must have seemed quite close to it. By the second half of the 1830s, the first commercial electrical telegraph was on the market, and in 1866 the Atlantic Telegraph Company successfully laid a commercial telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, followed by the connection of India to Great Britain in 1870 and Australia in 1872.

The telegraph and railways immediately found synergies: the telegraph was used for railroad signaling. Managing exchanges and the passages of trains required a high degree of synchronization among stations. These technological developments, as Professor Vanessa Ogle points out in her book The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950, are the main factors that modern time is based on. These two technologies promised to bring cities closer, but at the same time they had to contend with a varied patchwork of local times.

In the US, in the 1870s, there were hundreds of different time zones, all based on local times that were calculated according to the position of the sun. This time fragmentation caused considerable confusion for those who had to manage railway traffic. To try to tame this temporal chaos, special time tables were designed to show the times of different cities.

They were a kind of real time-maps on which one could read—for example—that when it was noon in Boston, it was 11:48 in New York, 11:12 in Detroit, 10:54 in Chicago, and 11:44 in Philadelphia. And similar maps were made to compare local city times globally, such as the one published in Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas of the World. A clock with Washington’s time was at its center, surrounded by dozens of other clocks of many cities and capitals of the world placed on circles along circular paths. In addition, each clock also showed air-line distance from Washington. When it was 12 o’clock in Washington, it was 17:17 in Paris, 17:08 in London, and 17:58 in Rome. It was impossible to think of being able to synchronize these myriad times that differed from one another by a handful of minutes.

The Scottish-Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming promoted the idea of unifying worldwide time by following a single clock. As a result of promoting his studies and his research at conferences, his global timekeeping system was officially adopted by diplomats at the 1884 conference. The railway and the telegraph gave people the impression that the world was completely connected by a global time, stripped of all its local ties and designed to connect everyone. Simply calling it global time, however, should not lead us to believe that it was accepted equally in every nation—quite the opposite. The innovation was met with considerable political resistance in many states, thus revealing the ideological power of modern time.

But the ideological power of time and its abstract nature had already come to light long before that milestone conference. In 1792, the French revolutionaries changed their calendar, dividing the months into three groups of 10 days, shortening every day to 10 hours, with every hour composed of 100 decimal minutes. Such a system would be incredibly alienating to anyone today. This shows the hidden ideological and political power of time. Defining a new timekeeping system grants invasive control over the population and also creates the image of unity and territorial cohesion, thus strengthening the national identity—as well as marking a clear change of pace with respect to the past. Philosopher Michel Foucault recognized that the control of time is fundamental to disciplinary power and governing techniques.

Therefore, ordering a new way of conceiving and organizing time globally inevitably creates friction among people who find themselves compelled to accept a decision made primarily in the Western world. Some countries at the Meridian conference were hesitant: Brazil and France abstained from the final vote, and San Salvador voted against it. Most European countries and Japan aligned their clocks to Greenwich Time during the 10 years following the conference: Italy shifted its clocks in 1893. China adopted standard time zones in 1904. France resisted until 1911, holding on to its Paris Mean Time instead of Greenwich Time until then.

Picture by Mattia Balsamini

For India, however, the adoption of global timekeeping was more complex and faced incredible resistance. As Ogle points out in her book, the Bombay Municipal Corporation only accepted Indian Standard Time nearly 50 years after the conference, thus abandoning Bombay time. India now has a single time zone for a territory that spans about 3000 km in width—effectively creating areas that experience the sun rising at different times. According to Maulik Jagnani from the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, these discrepancies in sunset time can have repercussions for education and, therefore, for a nation’s economic development. Each evening the sun sets more than 90 minutes later in west India than in the eastern part of the country because there is a single time zone for the entire country. “School-age children in geographic locations that experience later sunsets are less likely to complete primary and middle school, are less likely to be enrolled in school, and have lower test scores,” writes the economist in “Poor Sleep: Sunset Time and Human Capital Production.”

Jagnani goes so far as to point out that “India would incur annual human capital gains of over 4.2 billion USD (0.2% of GDP) if she switches from the existing time zone policy to the proposed two time zone policy.” This peculiar case shows how the concept of modern time can lead to major drawbacks: while on the one hand it can improve territorial cohesion and strengthen national identity, on the other, it can severely affect the state’s economy.

Besides, the arbitrary invention of modern time paves the way for new forms of protest and resistance against the oppression of power. In China, for example, the time shown on your watch can get you imprisoned.

All of China is in a single time zone—Beijing Standard Time—even though it covers an area that is approximately the size of the United States of America, which, instead, has six different time zones. Official Beijing time is about two hours ahead of the natural, daylight time of the people in Xinjiang, a region in north-west China, where the Muslim minority Uyghurs, an ethnic group of Turkish origin, live. In this region, the Chinese government applies invasive repression and widespread surveillance, using advanced facial recognition and digital surveillance, as well as controversial re-education camps for Uyghurs who oppose Beijing. Among this population, some people set their watches two hours behind the country’s official time, as Xinjiang Time. Reaffirming one’s identity through the definition of one’s own time becomes— in the words of researcher and writer Ruth Ingram, a psychological tool for independence. However, this tool risks being subversive and, according to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2018, there has been at least one case in which China imprisoned an Uyghur man because he set his watch behind Beijing Time.

As Vanessa Ogle points out in her book, the invention of modern time offers the opportunity to reflect on the meaning and effects of technological change. Modern time is neither a natural nor an apolitical concept. It reflects a well-defined ideology that draws its origins from the idea of technological superiority and undisputed efficiency that accompanied the development of the second industrial revolution in the West.

We must not, therefore, observe modern time only with a scientific approach, but must consider it as an essential tool for the spread of Western thought, which seeks to impose its concepts of uniformity and progress on the rest of the world, even with the help of clock hands and watches.

Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery cleverly describes in his novel, Laziness in the Fertile Valley, the psychological burden of the introduction of an alien time, compared to the one that was observed in Egypt before the arrival of the British. The British wanted to transform Egypt into a colony that was efficient and synchronized, worshipping the demands of punctuality. Therefore they changed the local calendar and introduced the concept of modern time. Oppressed and upset by the consequences of this change, the only solution that remains to the characters of the novel is to sleep all day. Thus, Cossery defines the only solemn protest that remains for those who seek to oppose the tyrants of modern time—inaction.

The future of Europe is in its own hands

Exponential technologies and innovations are on the rise, bringing with them new challenges and opportunities. For sustainable developments, we need changes that require not only courage, but also an entrepreneurial, cross-industry rethinking. 

We have the best chances for redefining our lives, our work and our values for the better. Technological developments in particular are leaping towards fulfilling many of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. On the other hand, our lives also seem to be becoming more complex, faster and more unpredictable—the challenges brought about by climate crisis, the industrial shift to modern, networked workflows, and the increase of efficiency through robotics, artificial intelligence and new business processes cannot be denied. We need an ambitious “Kennedy Moment”a moonshotthat inspires us with a new narrative so we can dedicate our passions and goals to a great idea. For me, this great idea is a “Europe of Opportunities.”

A mission for Europe

The European Union has begun defining a mission for its new funding and research program “Horizon Europe” which is oriented towards desirable future over impartial technology research. Europe is home to some of the world’s top companies and leading fundamental research, but the future will be more about submitting technology to a greater purpose. In this sense, the EU mission has a chance to awaken the combined forces of research and innovation departments, which are goal-oriented, but leave plenty of room for concrete implementation. One prime example of a mission is: One hundred CO2-neutral cities by 2030. 

When looked at closely, this goal demonstrates how no individual technology is being targeted, but multiple innovations simultaneously stimulated. This requires a new way of thinking and cross-industry networking, as well as the very much desired involvement of the public.

Institute for Exponential Technologies and Desirable Futures

It is precisely because the tasks ahead of us cannot be solved by individual technologies, but rather by innovative ways of thinking. This is precisely why Futur/io Institute was founded. Futur/io is the European institute for exponential technologies and desirable futures. The institute‘s mission is to highlight and situate Europe‘s strengths next to global power blocs the United States and China.

The institute, founded in 2017, invites decision makers from all branches of the economy to selected locations in Europe, such as Venice, Aix en Provence or Davos. In a relaxed atmosphere and enchanting landscapes, top speakers are invited to share their innovation roadmap. Interactive workshops help participants deepen their knowledge and, more importantly, practice the new attitude and mindset needed to develop a positive strategy for their own company: their own Moonshot.

Exponential innovation takes off

Exponential innovations (exponential technologies and new business models) have a disruptive force, but also offer enormous opportunities for increasing efficiency, improving the quality of life and offering new products and services. The importance of exponential technologies will increase significantly. This is underlined by the fact that the Federal Government has founded a new institute with the agency for disruptive innovations in order to support the German economy with a massive budget of 1 billion euros in funding. The Leipzig Agency for Disruptive Innovations focuses in particular on promoting artificial intelligence, medical research and climate protection.

With this political support for and awareness of innovation, Germany as an economic region in a newly orienting Europe has enormous opportunities to reposition itself through societal challenges as a provider of solutions for global competition. We see massive potential, especially in the combination of cutting-edge research with the values and experiences of hidden champions in Germany. The strengthened data protection rights (GDPR), ethical questions regarding the use of AI and occupational health and safety rights offer added value that secures Germany’s position as global export champion.

Moonshots with courage and method

The first “Moonshot” was initiated by John F. Kennedy‘s speech in 1962 at the Rice University stadium in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” with these words, Kennedy animated an entire nation to face this challenge. Driven by his vision, new companies were founded, innovations released and new collaborations concluded. The goal has become a reality and Neil Armstrong‘s historical footprint celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“Moonshot Thinking” was born of the principle “from a vision becomes reality,” a method that helps executives face major challenges in interdisciplinary teams, in order to conceive new visions that inspire and anticipate the compass for innovation in decade-long steps. The technology group Alphabet (formerly Google) founded the world‘s first Moonshot Lab “X” in 2015. Their focus on new technologies is merely superficial. Technology is viewed as a means to an end in fulfilling a mission that meets specific criteriait is a different way of thinking. The first thing is to find great challenges, to “fall in love” with the problem and not with the first solution, then do everything possible to efficiently sort out the worst ideas. This requires courage to learn, and implementation of new agile working methods, coupled with a corporate culture that is open to experimentation and pilot programs as well as their possible failures.

The second worldwide Moonshot Lab in the world and the first in Europe was launched in Barcelona at Telefónica Alpha. The budding company currently employs more than 60 people who are independently organized, report directly to the CEO and aren’t situated in the classic R&D department. When Alpha was founded, the following guidelines were given to make a project a Moonshot: Has a sales potential of 1 billion euros in 10 years after entering the market; Positively contributes to the lives of 100 million people; Uses innovative technology; Creates social improvements, compatible with the UN sustainability goals.

The first Moonshots developed at Alpha targeted health and energyand not, as one might initially think, the next telecommunications standard like 6G. Alpha uses various methods to develop ideas and product concepts. One example is field research, where a team from Barcelona spent a few weeks in the Andes of Peru or in the Amazon region with indigenous peoples who have so far had no contact with electricity. Another method is developing future scenarios that deal with role-playing games and “World Building”Hollywood tools for developing science fiction films.

For this phase of development, very innovative and mostly young researchers and developers work together with design thinking professionals, designers, artists and industry experts. All ideas are allowed, and the best are tested vigorously over a period of several months before being presented.

Sustainable corporate culture

The need to rethink corporate strategy is becoming more evident every day; a new generation of politically active schoolchildren flood the streets on Fridays; the news paints gloomy pictures of effects of the climate crisis and within the company workforce questions about the meaningful creation and the security of jobs are growing more and more The change is particularly evident in family businesses. The young generation not only has to cope with digital change, but also a transformation to a more sustainable company in the interests of all stakeholders.

In the United States, a business roundtable recently announced that its members (including Apple, Amazon, BlackRock) agreed on the following goals: job creation, a sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunities. New gestures by corporations that previously been characterized by the exploitation of low-wage workers and raw material countries as well as tax avoidance.

This can be done better! I hope that sustainable business can be combined with the innovative strengths of medium-sized companies and hidden champions in Karlsruhe, Manchester or Copenhagen. Recognizing the challenge is the first stepimplementation in the company is not easy. Naturally, resistance is to be expected, as change is a threat to the working atmosphere and competitiveness. But if we take on the challenges and have the courage to act decisively, then solutions to climate change and the sustainability goals can create a billion-dollar market. Are there potential providers for this in Germany or Europe? Certainly! Does it make sense for startups to focus on innovations around these topics, rather than game apps? Certainly.

The culture of exponential innovation 

Could you also set up a Moonshot Lab in your company to jump over your own horizon? Can you imagine being successful in unknown territory of a “third horizon,” i.e. outside of your company product strategy (1st horizon) or the expected innovations of your branch (2nd horizon)? And weren‘t youas part of the generation of foundersmore courageous in the early days of your entrepreneurship as a pioneer against the current market? I think many hidden champions and world market leaders have what it takes to act like X or Alpha: fall in love with the problem! Openly articulate your mission and invite an ecosystem of partners to join you in dedicating yourselves to this mission with open innovation.

You will see how meaningful work attracts the right talent and, in the future, investors. One thing seems to be a recipe for success: start in a small and independent team “at the Edge” (John Hagel). Do not disrupt ongoing operations, but be more radical in the ideas and future scenarios that you develop. This is how exponential innovations such as the iPhone at Apple or the Hololens at Microsoft came into being, and it’s how the mobility turnaround in Germany, the most important industry, and the digital transformation from East Westphalia to Thuringia will most likely succeed. It requires a collective effort and rapid retraining and educating of specialists, but especially of board members and executives, to reinvent the corporate culture in new forms of management. Instead of top-down, we need co-thinking and incentivesnot just monetary ones. We need the 5G on every milk can and a new work culture that also allows time for a flexible home office. We need fewer ties and more equality. We even need the young talents with tattoos, broken German and without a class B driver‘s license. Taking talent seriously whether young or oldas a communicator or mentor: the automated world of work in an aging society is a new and major challenge.

Entrepreneurs who have been successful for generations show how they have constantly reinvented themselves and dared to achieve the unreachable with the help of new technologies and management methods. Just look at Ford, Apple, Googleor even Siemens, Volkswagen, Viessmann, Henkel, Airbus or Deutsche Post. Moonshots for Mittelstand is not a paradox but an opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs: think big and plan concrete first steps. We need a strong dose of optimism and a passionate entrepreneurial spirit that will steer the 4th wave of industrialization into new directions, and new dimensions.

Moonshots for Europe

You may be thinking that the task is too big; there’s always the possibility to go a bit smaller, slower or more perfect. Maybe you also think: we are in Darmstadt or Karlsruhenot in the valley, what can we do here? The glass is at least half full and we need to finally rearrange our minds. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN in Switzerland, not in San Francisco. The MP3 music format in Erlangen / Nuremberg and not in Los Angeles. The Biotech scissors for genes, CRISPR / CAS9, have been extensively researched in Alicante, Vienna and Umea (Sweden). But where were these innovations financed and scaled?

Mostly in the USA, especially software and soon also biotech applications. We urgently need a more positive attitude towards the exchange of research and teaching within the business worldand political framework conditions that promote a networked Europe for digital production, lifelong learninG and further education as well as sustainable innovations. A lot has been saidnow we have to do it! There can be no “keep-it-up” along the current trajectory we want to invest in the future for our successor generation.

Now is the time to start paving the way for tomorrow‘s businessesto leave the country greener than we found it. Let us not waste any more timethe digital transformation is the backlog of innovations of the past 10 years. A corporate culture that supports Moonshots ensures that the next decade can also be actively shaped in the heart of Europe.

It’s time to take note

“There was always a lot of music going on in my house, and I first fell in love with it when I was about 4-years old: my earliest recorded music experience is a song called First Circle by Pat Metheny. Around the same time, I started watching Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and Bugs Bunny: animated series have a special place in my music education, especially Tom and Jerry, where there is no dialogue and the music has the role of telling the story. I never said that I was a musician, but from a very young age I was comfortable touching the piano. And from the eighth grade on, I decided to make it a profession.”

Harold O’Neal is an American 38-year old composer, pianist, and dancer. For his work, he’s been compared by The New York Times to Duke Ellington and Maurice Ravel. In recent years, he has published several solo albums under Universal Music Group and collaborated with a variety of artists, including U2, Damien Rice, and Jay Z. He also composes music for movies, and in 2015 he worked as an additional composer on the 2015 Disney film Tomorrowland with Anthony Giacchino.

What is your process for writing music?

When I went to school I was in an exploratory stage where I would try different methods of writing. Sometimes I would write traditional music, or sometimes I would draw a line, like a path, and just look at it and play up. Now, instead, the music I write is very spatial, theatrical, visual, especially when it comes to film scoring. In that case I play and animate different characters at the piano based on motion pictures, and on different patterns that can happen there. One could say that I think of transitions, of movement in motion.

When composing, what tools do you use?

The first tool that I use is my breath. To me, instruments are just a tool to express what’s going on in my body. The piano is literally just an instrument: it all starts from my breath and my heartbeat, which is the rhythm — and every heartbeat is unique, meaning we have infinite potential for how we can exist with our rhythm. So I realized that if I connect with that, then I can witness, perceive, and receive what is here. Music is ultimately vibration, and everything around us is just combinations of different vibrations. This means that everything is sound: I perceive it, and express my interpretation of it.

What’s the relationship between time and music?

In the known universe, there’s an infinite spectrum of different sounds, vibrations and frequencies: if we could hear all sound in the universe all at the same time it would not make any sense. All the music in the world exists right now, but it also doesn’t exist: it is there waiting to be discovered. Every style of music has fundamental grooves and fundamental rhythms. All of these different genres have different rhythms and grooves and I can create and shape them to create this line and this different path and story.

What is the power that music has over time, to change how we perceive a moment? How does that shift based on the emotional state of the listener?

Part of my job is to share a director’s vision with music, and influence how people perceive what they are seeing. A director’s interpretation might show me something that I have to show musically. If I do something musically it could even change the way the director sees the scene.

A study by Universal Records found that songs in contemporary music are becoming faster, and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is being performed more quickly than it was in the past. Other studies show conflicting information. What is your take on that? 

I think it’s about technology and accessibility: thanks to technology, we can create music much faster and better, and instantly put it out in the world. At the same time, it’s easier for the listener to get a copy, and music is much louder than it used to be. All this is happening because of technology.

Can a specific song take us back in time?

There is one part of me that says that music is timeless, and it can be appreciated just like art, at any time. But we can also say that it’s artists’ and creators’ responsibility to be the messengers and express the time they are living in. It all depends on the intention of the writer, and on that of the listener.

When work becomes religion

We thought technology would help us work less, but we ended up working more than ever. Luckily for us, automation itself could end up being our way out of this cult we’ve unconsciously forced ourselves into. The way we work is changing — and not necessarily for the better: our society is more job-obsessed than ever, yet productivity is decreasing and disengagement is on the rise. Such phenomena are studied from different perspectives and under various labels (overwork and hustle culture are two among many). In February 2019, The Atlantic published “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable,” igniting the debate even more. Derek Thompson compares our devotion to work to that of congregants worshipping a religion. Thompson says we’re devoting our lives to work with the blind faith that our actions will pay off.

Most people worship something, but among the credos that have emerged in the aftermath of religious decline, Workism has the most fervent followers. This neologism coined by Thompson, is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” This is work for work’s sake, but also for the sake of one’s identity, the source of our spirituality and the meaning of life: Homo laborans.

Not everyone is a believer. For most, work is a necessity. As researcher and sociologist at NYU and author of The Refusal of Work, David Frayne, says, “employment definitely does not coincide with everybody’s self-identity. Even though there is still a powerful expectation to identify with employment, I suspect that many people only feel like themselves after they clock out.” However, the numbers of Workism devotees are growing — mainly white males, who use money not to buy their way out of the office, but quite the opposite. Says Thompson: “The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.” This religion is spreading like wildfire among millennials, as Erin Griffith writes in the New York Times, about the cult of work finding fertile ground within this generation’s members, who are “hungry for meaning” and trying all they can to meet their own high expectations and those of their parents.

Is comparing our obsession with work to a religious faith too much of an exaggeration?: In Slate’s “Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With How Much They Work?” journalist Daniel Engber says that this analogy is “not based on facts,” and mentions a series of studies showing how our relationship with work has never changed. But Workism is not about how obsessed we are, or in which terms we should talk about overworking. Workism is about too much work, that is hurting us: There is no heaven waiting for us after exhausting 12-hours shifts. We’re not feeling happier by getting tasks done, in the words of Thompson, Workism, and “failing to deliver,” is making us miserable.

This religion, obsession, or whatever you want to call it, has in fact, done nothing but harm to us. Malissa Clark, associate professor of psychology and director of the Work and Family Experience Research Lab at the University of Georgia, has seen this in her studies on the scientific effects of workaholism — a “multi-dimensional construct“ composed of the inner pressure or compulsion to work,” a “cognitive obsession with work and negative emotions when you’re not working,” and “the behavioral component of spending more time working than is required of you.” According to Clark’s research, this obsession causes “greater job stress, greater burnout, but also physiological outcomes such as cardiovascular risk, dysregulated cortisol levels, and dysfunctional sleep.” Not to mention the impact on relationships, which “is huge,” she says. We are forgetting that work is a means, not an end, and are getting sick on the way there. One might hope, or think, that prospects are brighter on the business side: They’re not. Another major side effect of workism is a decrease in productivity: health issues can mean that a worker is not at their best when they are at work — because they’re always at work.

In a society where international human rights laws do not recognize the refusal to work or the right not to work, other than as the right to strike, is there a way out of this cult of Workism? Maybe. Some claim that we’re heading towards a few different approaches: A future with less or no work, or a future where work is deprioritized or more meaningful. The goal of those thinkers (such as anthropologist David Graeber, writer Nick Srnicek, and Frayne) is the same: they envision a society that has a healthy relationship with work, called post-work, or post-workism. Says Frayne: “If life in today’s job-centred societies often alternates between miserable labour and passive recuperation, the post-work writers try to envisage a more varied kind of life, where the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred, and people are free to do different things from one day to the next.” To make this happen, we’ll have to leverage the process of automation and seriously consider programs such as the Universal Basic Income (UBI) — regular cash payments made to people with minimal or no requirements for receiving the money — to unchain the link between survival and paid work, and completely rethink our idea of free time.

A life without work might seem impossible, but realizing we’re in a cult is the first way out of it.

We all get 24 hours

A nun, a street sweeper, a clockmaker, and a scientist from Switzerland  — the country of time and precision — share their perspective on the precious 24 hours that we are given each day. The talks were part of the podcast La 4e by Laure Gabus, produced by Reportage in partnership with Radio Vostok.

Contemplative time: Michel Simonet

“I take time for myself in this simple work: arms busy, head free,” says Michel Simonet, a roadmender in Fribourg. Every day, from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., he sweeps the same streets, repeats the same gestures, and empties the same garbage cans. After graduating in Theology and working briefly as an accountant, he chose to become a sweeper for the love of the job that gives him time to contemplate, observe, and be a public servant.

Every morning, by ritual and for poetry, he hangs a rose in his sweeping bin. A married father of seven children, Simonet pictures his life as “quasi monastic.” His present, past, and future are all linked in a cyclical linearity.

“My life repeats itself, but things are moving forward: it always has something different, we grow, we evolve,” he says. Simonet, his rose, and his broom offer something reassuring for passersby: “I am a kind of beacon, a fixed point. Until the day it will stop.” His job is also a way to get away from the constraints of time, society, or family: “I enjoy having no professional worries. When I get home, I can let go of my broom.” On the other hand, while sweeping, his head is free. He uses it to repeat songs or think about columns that he writes for a local paper. In 2015, he published Une rose et un balai. Petit traité de sagesse d’un balayeur de rue (A Rose and a Broom. Small treatise of wisdom of a street sweeper). His book was reissued in France, translated into German, and sales exceeded 30,000 copies. “Writing comes from a desire for transmission — Simonet says — The past must lead us to something, not just a feeling of nostalgia or memories for oneself. It must contain philosophy, not just facts.”

Universal time: Gaëlle Boudoul

Gaëlle Boudoul works with particles that move beyond the speed of light. She supervises the CMS experiment — one of the four CERN particle accelerator labs, 100 meters underground, somewhere between the Swiss-French border. She says: “Time is complicated in science. From the infinitely large to the infinitely small, the universe is governed by universal laws. Whereas time is relative. It expands and distorts, according to the person who measures it. And that’s what makes the concept of time kind of crazy.”

To explain time in particles science, she talks about Einstein, the distortion of times and muons, large electrons created by high-energy collisions of star dust as it enters the atmosphere. “Muons have a lifetime of just a few microseconds, which shouldn’t be long enough to penetrate the earth, and certainly not 100 meters underground and be observed by the CERN detectors as it is the case,” says Boudoul. Einstein has established that speed is calculated by distance over time and time would then be the 4th dimension after length, width, and height. The universe has not been made for us. On our human scale, it is impossible to imagine this 4th dimension, and its relativity. Mainly because we are not going fast enough. To experience it, one would have to go beyond the speed of light. Einstein explained that muons have been created by such a powerful energy shock that their speed is close to that of light. In these conditions, time and distance expand. So that even if the muon lives a few microseconds, we watch it live two to three times longer. “Time is rare and finite. It is one of the most expensive resources the earth offers us. Therefore, in an epoch where everything accelerates sometimes to the nanosecond, I advocate for the preservation of a proper human time in our societies. My recipe? Maximize the present, do not regret the past and project into the future as little as possible.”

 

Watch time: Philippe Dufour

Time passes differently for Philippe Dufour than for the watches that he makes: His work is immortal, but he is not. The legendary Swiss watchmaker is dealing with one of the greatest dramas that craftspeople or artists could face — years have passed without him finding a successor. Dufour’s workshop in the Vallée de Joux is filled with tools, some of which have been handed down to him from his grandfather. “I can make you whatever watch you want. A watch that goes twice as fast or goes upside down, but time will not change,” he says. “Watches tell the hour, not the time.”

So what is time? Dufour points to the sky and marks the path of the sun, from east to west, from sunrise to dusk: “Sun is the real time.” For many, Dufour is one of the greatest watchmakers of the 21st century. At a time where brands produce nearly 800,000 timepieces a year, he has manufactured some 200 throughout his career. His models, including Simplicity, released in 2000, are now snapped at auctions. His best sale has exceeded one million euros on a private website. The recipe for his success is a simple mix of “time and passion.” Time spent making the watch is as important as the person who spent that time making it, he says. Dufour underlines the importance of traceability (the origin of the person who created it) in watchmaking and the need for brands to restore the human touch: “People want to know who made their watch and how,” he says.

The master observes his success humbly. And success seems to go hand in hand with the acceleration of time. Dufour works alone, unable to answer all the orders that he receives. Time has taught him to say no. No to travels or to invitations, without giving in to the temptation to speed up. He continues his work, piece after piece, day after day.

Eternal time: Sister Gesine

There are places where time can not be lost or won. Sister Gesine lives in Grandchamp, a monastery in a hamlet on the shore of Neuchâtel’s lake. “We do not live out of the world, nor out of time,” she says. The sister’s Protestant community is global. Here, there is a time for everything: community life, prayer, welcoming visitors, and rest. “We do work for the community, but work does not define us. I am and after I do,” she says. Monastic days are the same but not alike, she adds. “We’re not going somewhere. We repeat, and each time, it’s different.”

At age 34, Sister Gesine left Cologne, Germany, and her job as a social worker to join the Grandchamp community, where she found here space and time to accept herself and to take things as they come, with the confidence that everything is right. Leaving behind her past also allows her to feel freer, even if she does not always succeed, she admits. “Finding happiness is difficult if I constantly think that something is missing out. Everything that matters is here and now.”

Sister Gesine perceives two different times — each one as important as the other: Everyday time — of toil and life in community — and eternal time, “a rare moment where we are bound to everything, a time that is no longer something but is someone — God.” Now, her life consists of finding the right balance between what she pictures as “the time of God and that of Jesus, his son made human.”

The interaction of political and utopian thought

Alessandro Ferrara, professor of political philosophy at the University of Rome talks about how politics has always been influenced by utopian thought, from Plato’s republic to dictatorships, explaining the concept of hyperpluralism, sensible utopias, and the legitimation of democracy.

Political Philosophy started with Plato’s Republic, now one of the most famous examples of utopia. In the last century, John Rawls wrote an influential book in that field, A Theory of Justice, which describes the principles of a just society. Twenty-eight years later, a “realistic utopia” was a phrase used in Rawls’ The Law of Peoples. Which role does utopia have in the history of political philosophy and how has it evolved?

Utopia has been part of the Western philosophical conversation on matters political from day one, as a style of thinking. It should not be confused with a longing for setting things aright. The inclination to criticize existing arrangements and change the status quo for the better is a much larger endeavor — more often than not inflected in non-utopian ways. Utopia adds a peculiar ingredient of its own to that critical inclination: disregard for feasibility or for a viable path from “here to there.”

Utopian thought is “political.” There is nothing utopian in moral principles such as the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative, or the principle of the greater happiness for the largest number, or the two principles of Rawls’s “justice as fairness.” Utopian is a life form in which these principles will prevail all the time and the same disinterested, impartial, principle-abiding disposition will show in how people relate to the last éclair on a dessert-tray and to the last life-jacket on the sinking Titanic.

Utopian thinkers reject the demand for plans and blueprints, shun demonstrations and perorations. They show us a silhouette of social perfection that, like an a work of art, lets the force of exemplarity run its course. We are as fascinated by utopias as we are by an image that speaks for itself — the protester in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square — and by example that is a law unto itself. While non-utopian thought may quibble with footnotes, utopia’s secret weapon for success is its radicalism. Reasonable reformist thinking moves one step after another, but with utopia, thought spreads its wings and soars above reality. So it is with Plato’s utopian polis run by philosophers and dedicated to justice and the proposition that “natural capacities are similarly distributed in each sex, and it is natural for women to take part in all occupations as well as men;” with Thomas More’s Utopia; with Harrington’s Oceana (which inspired the settlers of Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia); with the socialist utopias of Fourier, Babeuf and, averse though he was to utopian socialism, with Marx’s communist society, that supposedly enables me “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

While for Plato a utopian society was hierarchical, unstable, and, if ever achieved, would quickly degenerate, in modern times and especially after the Enlightenment, utopia has taken on a more social and political stance, bound up with egalitarian redistribution and, above all, with stability. In all times, “impractical” utopia has functioned as a beacon that shows the way, and keeps people moving forward.

Historically, Utopia is an idea based on a political or religious ideal applied to a limited human society (Thomas More, Plato). In this framework, technology serves the political principles on which the new society is based. For example, modern science-fiction narratives, like Black Mirror, tell about a dystopian/utopian reality where technology defines and determines a political setup. Does technology define politics and not the other way round anymore?

That is absolutely correct. In a way, utopia is the opposite of science-fiction. The key to science-fiction is flamboyant technical innovation in the service of the same old motives. All-powerful spaceships, artificial planets, and laser guns add color to the same old saga of struggles for power, betrayal, vendetta, rebellion, and political repression. Utopia, instead, is about moral innovation in a technically unchanged world — Plato’s gender equality and “statesmanship as wisdom,” More’s and Harrington’s tolerant republican self-rule, Marx’s overcoming the division of labor and his groundbreaking distributive principle “to each according to his needs.” Which is not to say that technology does not affect politics in ways that deserve ever closer attention. Print media contributed to democratizing hierarchical societies, the net may contribute to polarizing democratic ones and to further insulating warring tribes, and technology-induced acceleration may verticalize political relations and dry out deliberation.

The twentieth century experienced several catastrophic attempts to turn utopias into reality. What is the relationship we need to keep between utopia and reality?

From utopia to dystopia, its opposite, it’s often a tiny step. That step is driven by power-seeking. Utopia is the poetry of thought and should remain in the realm of ideas. Its impact onto existing reality must unfold through conviction and the change of mores. Like religion, utopia can inspire great deeds and enliven our existence, but the moment it gives in to the temptation of enlisting coercive power to sustain itself, it turns into the nightmare of forcibly “creating a (Soviet, Nazi) New Man,” and Pol Pot’s “killing fields” are just around the corner. At most, utopia can hope to affect reality through exemplarity: flagship locales, communes, colonies, communities, where a new life is voluntarily lived out concretely for everyone else to see.

In one of your latest books, The Democratic Horizon, you claim that democracy is no longer simply one form of government among others, but is instead almost universally regarded as the only legitimate form of government, the horizon to which most of us look. Is utopia beyond modern liberal democracy material for writers and directors instead of political philosophers?

Things are actually more complicated. In the decade after 1989, democracy seemed to constitute a horizon, in the sense that after centuries during which it would compete with other kinds of regimes, now it became the one form of political rule considered fully legitimate by the majority of the world population. One authoritarian regime after the other fell. Elections placed new elites in power. But here is the insidious Trojan horse that threatens to disfigure democracy. Whereas in the early twentieth century, elections marked the dividing line between democratic and non-democratic (fascist, Nazi) regimes, this is no longer the case in the twenty-first century. Few, if any, elites in today’s world advocate or dare abolish elections. Tempting as it is to salute this predicament as a triumph of democracy — as the obligation of vice to pay homage, however hypocritically, to virtue — this historical phenomenon should be considered a dangerous challenge. What truly matters is no longer whether, but how, elections are held. At stake is an epochal tilting of the balance between two aspirations undergirding constitutional democracy but always in tension with one another: a) implementing the will of the people and b) securing equal rights and voice for all free and equal citizens.

Now, during the 2010’s, liberal-democratic regimes are confronted with pressure coming from presidents and prime ministers, legislatures, administrations, cabinets, who claim to represent the will of the people. Even where formally unchallenged, democratic institutions often operate in a political climate of impatience with procedural checks and balances and with the regulatory function of constitutions. The will of the people, as expressed in elections or in referendums, is often invoked to legitimize, not just ordinary policy, but entirely new constitutional projects. In happenstance convergence with populist and authoritarian rulers, well-meaning proponents of radical democracy sometimes forget that “the (multigenerational) people” cannot be reduced to “the voters” (a tiny temporal segment of it). So both groups advocate the idea that the regulatory function exerted by constitutions and judicial checks on legislation and administration obstruct the realization of the democratic “will of the people” expressed in fair elections. I wouldn’t want to sound too pessimistic, by observing that failing to carefully grasp and curb these developments may lead to some unfortunate time when the restoration of constitutional democracy will be the utopia of the day.

The democratic horizon is still in place — even Putin and Erdogan must pretend to have a democratic mandate — and cannot possibly close off the space of utopia. In fact, utopia always speaks about the utopias and its worries … In an already globalized world, utopias won’t concentrate on universal interconnection. We can expect them to focus on reconciliation with nature, external and internal. Happy de-growth or post-growth societies are next in line for utopias.

Within The Democratic Horizon, what is the shape that utopia or dystopia can take? Could hyperpluralism be an example of democratic dystopia?

I coined the term hyperpluralism to describe the presence, on the ground, of more numerous and deeper cultural divides or rifts than envisaged by Rawls and like-minded liberal authors. Thus, hyperpluralism is the name of a problem which still awaits a proper solution. I would not call it a dystopia, because as a “political liberal” I don’t think pluralism can or should be wished away.

What could a sensible utopia look like? I’ll go for minimalism, or what Rawls called a “realistic utopia.” For me, a “realistic utopia” is a state of the world, domestic and global, such that “political luck” or contingency would keep all our inevitable and deep disagreements within the range of public reason, and of our political imagination’s ability to devise and implement solutions that no one finds oppressive.

Expiring decisions

These days, everybody is talking about agile organizations, and many are experimenting with models inspired by “agile” principles, introducing internal teams organized as “tribes” and “squads,” copying businesses like Spotify. This is guided by the illusion that adopting these methodologies is enough to become fast and successful. What is often not taken into account is that the need to be fast implies giving up control of everything. Mario Andretti, the famous ‘70s Formula One race car driver, expressed the point well when he said: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” And when we don’t have everything under control, making decisions and changing is scary.

But why are we so afraid of change? It’s a trivial question, and deep inside we believe that we know what’s stopping us from making decisions that involve some kind of transformation. It’s the fear of making mistakes that frightens us and makes us hesitate when we have to make a choice. It’s fear of judgment that’s holding us back. Is that all? Are we only afraid of losing face? Why?

In the past, when typing, making mistakes was a big hassle because you had to correct by hand or even retype the whole page. Nowadays, thanks to the undo function, we can write without thinking about it too much, and retrace our steps by simply pressing a key combination (control+Z) to delete the error and rewrite the sentence correctly. But most of the choices we are called upon to make don’t have an undo function, and that makes everything more complicated. Partially or entirely irreversible choices are the most thorny ones because they raise endless doubts, and they force us to make interminable analyses and to go through lengthy decision-making processes. This situation is true for people and applies, all the more so, to organizations where people make decisions on form and structure. The difficulty of making the decision often depends on how irreversible it is.

Assigning new responsibilities, redesigning processes, moving resources and power centers, are all decisions that profoundly create or modify an organizational structure, to the point that it is no longer easy or painless to backtrack if the choice does not work as expected. And the possibility that the choice may somehow be wrong is much more likely than we think. It is not only a matter of committing an error of judgment, but also of not reasonably predicting the developments of a situation, and expecting a solution to work forever. But in an organization, processes depend on context, and it’s unrealistic to think that the same person should always interpret and face new challenges. Context, motivation, and complexity change over time, and the right people for a certain stage may not be the best to handle the next stage.

Wouldn’t it be easier if decisions had effects with time limits? If they had a “best before” date, or an expiration date, like yogurt? The result would be an organization where choices, responsibilities, assignments, and processes would be created to solve problems or seize opportunities that exist at the time we make decisions that we know could later change and require drastic adjustments. This is why everything should have a “best before” date or an expiration, upon which we could reset decisions, and benefit from re-assessing the suitability of the choices we have made, to confirm, fine-tune or radically change them. The expiry date would be an enabler of a mindset oriented towards prototyping and iterations.

But planning times to critically assess choices and decide whether to continue with them as is, or change them, does not mean that everything should end on an expiration date. Just as we do with yogurt: if we like it, we can buy it and eat it again before its expiration date; likewise we can confirm what works convincingly, and what we continue to find sensible. But still, this decision is deliberate and not inertial. The general principle is that everything must come to an end.

But what could possibly be the shape of an organization that has an expiration date set for everything? What would a “Yogurt Organization” look like? First of all, an expiry date could have two levels: one for responsibilities, and the other for structure. Setting an expiry date on responsibilities means assigning tasks with start dates, objectives, resources, and end dates for mandates. Defining a deadline for structure involves an awareness that an organization makes sense within a given context that is continually changing. In other words, it means understanding that since processes and the distribution of responsibilities can vary over time, we must challenge them frequently. Clearly, having an expiration date for responsibilities makes it easier and smoother to adjust the organization’s structure, so that it can be reassessed with each change of responsibility, and confirmed or adjusted without significant shock.

At first glance, defining a universal model for an organization’s operating system based on these principles makes no sense, since context and form continue to change. However, a real, functional implementation of a Yogurt Organization is worth examining. How would processes work and decisions be made in such a fluid organization?

Let’s imagine a situation that is common at many companies: On the one hand, there is a need to explore new knowledge and technologies to seize opportunities sooner and better than others; on the other, there is a need to create a highly-attractive work environment so the best people can combine their diverse experiences, skills, interests, and passions. How can a Yogurt Organization address these challenges and with what processes and approaches?

Project-based and without an organizational chart

Within a Yogurt Organization, everything, every single task, from the smallest to the largest, is treated as a project. Of course, there can be different types of projects—internal, external, or R&D — but the logic to apply is always the same: maximum freedom for the project manager to define a budget, choose a team, assess what to do internally and externally, and negotiate independently with suppliers and customers.

Benefits of a project-based organization are that it has specific objectives and the resources to achieve them, but above all, it has a beginning and an end — a clear expiry date, on which the team and responsibilities dissolve.

Crews continually exploring boundaries within time-limited missions

In a Yogurt Organization, research and development are vital to staying up to date about the newest and most effective fields and methods. To define missions, every year a team is elected and tasked with choosing which proposals — among those that anyone can submit — deserve to be pursued by allocating adequate time and resources.

Distributed and time-limited governance

Thanks to its non-traditional structure, a Yogurt Organization attracts talent and chooses the right people without having to invent new boxes to put them in, or free some up for new arrivals.

This doesn’t mean that there is no need to manage certain areas. Areas like business development, offering, controlling, skills development, internal and external communications, knowledge management, and hiring would have one-year mandates for submitting projects, with investment and resource management plans. When the expiry date comes, employees can apply or change their fields, or hand over the baton to other colleagues who present projects that are considered more compelling. At each cycle, responsibilities and formats can be reviewed for a single manager or a small team, and the areas in which to distribute governance and define boundaries of responsibility.

Personal development left to individual’s initiative

An organization that follows these approaches is not simple or suited for everyone. In particular, two aspects are essential in a Yogurt Organization: self-motivation and the ability to be fully part of a team of people bound by trust. Not only do you have to appreciate its purpose, but you also need enthusiasm to be part of it.

This approach requires strong self-determination: to imagine a personal growth program and attempt to implement it. Without people who manage people, there are no direct discussions about these issues with one’s boss, and it is, therefore, necessary to establish an alternative figure to perform this function: a sponsor. In Yogurt Organizations, people choose a sponsor with whom to focus on their growth path, and define objectives to achieve during the year, establishing suitable metrics and targets (OKR or Objectives and Key Results) every quarter. Here, time even plays on two levels: The sponsor, chosen as a figure capable of conveying inspiration and challenges, can be changed at any time, while quarterly objectives offer the possibility of quickly correcting an action. Targets and metrics don’t follow the classic MBO (Management by Objectives) system: There are no rewards associated with achieving or exceeding individual objectives since Yogurt Organizations prefer team-players to soloists competing with each other in a zero-sum game. Instead, objectives provide direction, substance, and traceability to the desired path to reflect progress.

Legitimizing the assessment process

Abolishing MBOs does not imply discontinuing recognition: wage increases, bonuses, and promotions are key elements to boost commitment and quality. However, the process used to define them is different from traditional models. In Yogurt Organizations, performance is interpreted and rewarded according to the contribution that individual’s work has made to the entire team, and the compensation process is designed accordingly. It starts with the sponsor, who, at the end of the year, collects feedback about how people have worked on projects. Afterward, sponsors add their personal observations to their colleagues’ opinions, and create a proposal for remuneration, bonuses, and possible promotions.

The sponsors’ final proposals are sent to a small board that is responsible for evaluating and validating them. This board is elected once a year and remains in office for a month, just long enough to complete the evaluation cycle. By the end of the year, the sponsor completes the process by informing sponsees of any raises and bonuses.

Real-time and transparent information

In an agile organization, every element has an expiration date. Problems and situations also require distributed, coordinated, and prompt decisions. This is not compatible with traditional management systems, which require lengthy analysis to provide a framework for decision-making. In a Yogurt Organization, information must be real-time, always accessible, and transparent to everyone. Team members who share a vision, who trust each other, and have access to the same data, will end up making correct and aligned decisions most of the time. In this case, transparency and accessibility become a key coordination mechanism.

But is it really so simple? And is it sufficient to make responsibilities expire and redefine them periodically to become an agile organization? Of course not. The point is not only about who does tasks but also about how those tasks are done and why an organization exists. Frequently reviewing the “who” also helps to relax the “how.”

And what about the “why”? Why does an organization exist? What’s its purpose? Does that have to expire all the time, too? I don’t think so. The “why,” the purpose, together with trust, are the foundations of it all, and must provide direction. They are the essential elements that enable us to act even without detailed planning. The purpose gives meaning to who we are and why we exist as an organization. Trust defines the basis for operating a team that works with these approaches: namely that you trust your colleagues’ work; that you trust the ethics of your company; and that you trust others to consider you a fundamental part of the project regardless of lofty titles and resounding responsibilities. Those may no longer exist or may expire, but not purpose and trust.