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Working Together to Build the Best Version of the Future

Evan Sills ’03 participates in a global governance think tank

Evan Sills ’03 was one of 25 young professionals chosen to participate in a global governance think tank based in Berlin. The objective? To look ahead 10 years and recommend ways to address oncoming global challenges.

It is around 1:00 a.m. in early September 2016, and I am in Tokyo doing what everyone should do the first time they travel to Japan: drinking and singing with friends at a karaoke bar. One of the great things I’ve learned from karaoke is that no matter where you grew up, there are some songs everyone knows. (This was confirmed when we went to a karaoke bar in Delhi months later and the local 20-somethings knew every word to “Gangster’s Paradise.”)

But that night in Tokyo I learned something about U.S. pop music history from an unlikely source. My friends Mirko and Eliza, a program manager at a German think tank and a German diplomat, respectively, picked a song by Michael Jackson that I’m pretty sure I had never heard before: “They Don’t Care About Us.” It turns out, as I learned from a quick Google search, that the song was banned on many American radio stations because of some controversial lyrics. I knew Michael Jackson was popular in Europe, but I had not expected to be learning about U.S. pop culture controversies concerning racism and anti-Semitism in Tokyo from my new German
friends.

This experience was made possible by my participation in the Global Governance Futures (GGF) Program, funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation and run by the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank based in Berlin. As the program website succinctly states, “GGF brings together young professionals to look ahead 10 years and recommend ways to address global challenges.” I was one of 25 fellows, with five each from the United States, China, Germany, India and Japan. We were chosen to be part of one of three specific working groups: data governance, transnational terrorism, and global health and pandemics. I participated in the first.

As a group, we traveled to Washington, D.C., in May 2016, to Tokyo and Beijing in September 2016, to Delhi in January 2017, and finally to Berlin in June 2017, spending approximately one week in each location. Using a methodology for creating possible (not necessarily likely) futures, these trips involved meeting with subject-matter experts, participating in group discussions and ultimately writing a report. Overall, my working group experience was challenging, frustrating and invigorating as we battled jetlag and foodborne illnesses while focusing on our primary task to consider how issues such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and privacy concerns would develop over the next 10 years.

As with many extracurricular activities at Newark Academy, the lasting value came from the people I spent time with and the experiences we shared together. I ate Italian food with a Chinese professor whose interesting life included having a brother in the one-child policy world of China, and, after some unfounded trepidation, I also became the unlikeliest of friends with the kindest lieutenant colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, whose research focuses on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Fellows shared difficult stories about their earliest memories in East Berlin before 1989 and their experiences working for the UN in war zones in Africa and the Middle East over the last fifteen years. In one particularly moving experience, a German fellow who is a religious scholar took me and my wife to Weissensee, the second- largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, which is located in Berlin and has an incredible history. The cemetery covers more than 100 acres and is almost entirely made up of pre-World War II graves that were undisturbed by Nazi desecration and Allied bombing; one Jewish family actually survived the Holocaust by hiding there.

While my experience in GGF was unforgettable and the friendships I made will last far beyond our time there, I would be remiss in describing the fellowship without discussing the profound impact that the 2016 presidential campaign and election had on us. The fellowship began in May 2016 in Washington, D.C., when it was becoming clear that President Trump would be the Republican nominee. I watched one of the presidential debates from my hotel room in Japan, flew back from India on Inauguration Day, then spent an incredibly refreshing week in Berlin, away from the U.S. news cycle.

In some ways, the campaign and election felt similar to the way significant events shaped my experience at Newark Academy. September 11th was the central event of my high school experience, from participating in the vigils in the days immediately afterward to debating the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in Ms. Masterson’s humanities class weeks later. The attacks caused the cancellation of the trip to Spain that was to have been led by Dr. Schafler in 2003, and when we finally made it in 2004 there were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Madrid protesting the war in Iraq.

The dissonance between the position taken by President Trump and the idealism of my fellowship cohort was strong. Having these great fellows with me to comprehend what was happening, hear their experiences, and focus on what will be a brighter future was incredibly
helpful.

At the close of our fellowship, Thorsten Benner, the think tank director, quoted the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, saying “Who speaks of victory? To endure is all.” After writing a report with 10 other people, surviving “traveler’s tummy” in China and Japan, breathing smog in Beijing and Delhi, eating innumerable delicious meals, running a 5-K through the Tiergarten in Berlin, visiting a Sikh temple in Delhi, meeting with subject-matter experts in every city, and now becoming part of the GGF alumni community, I know I endured a lot. Working to build the best versions of the futures we predicted in our reports may even allow for something like victory in
the coming years.

You can read our full report, Data Power Dynamics: Who Runs the World in 2027?, which looks at futures involving digital statehood and the potential for de-digitization, at www.ggfutures.net/publications/categories/all-ggf- publication/. I highly recommend the other
group reports published there as well, where you can read about futures in which the new terrorism hotspot moves to the Fergana Valley in Central Asia and diphtheria makes a scary comeback.

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