5. August 2019

We are here today developing ideas – that is a luxury!


Daniel Hardegger, co-founder and former board member of Polis180 e.V., was the opening keynote speaker at the 10. Changemakers Summit in Tartu, Estonia, at the beginning of June. He spoke about the future of democracy, the changing public space and the next generation of leaders. Andrei Liimets of the Estonian Good Citizen magazine asked the Swiss visionary about these issues.

An Interview with Andrei Liimets and Daniel Hardegger 



As the conference is about leadership, what do you see as the main skills and competencies the next generation of changemakers needs to have?

I don’t think there are specific skills a changemaker needs, it’s more of a mindset. It’s not so much about knowing how to code a page or how to write a report, it’s about knowing that it’s okay to fail. For me, that is one of the most important things. Don’t make things perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist. Also, you must be open regarding the opinions of other people. People with amazing ideas expect others to follow, but the moment you share it, your idea changes. You must expect this change and appreciate it. It’s about being willing to take the first step, while not leaving others behind. So foremost: failing is okay and do it together.


You showed a video about initiators and followers, where one person starts to dance in a unorthodox way and is then joined by others one by one. What is the message you want to convey?

All big movements and organisations consist of more than one person. As human beings, all the things we achieve, we achieve because people work together. The idea of this great big thinker, who sits alone in his room and finds solutions, that’s not the reality. Even historically speaking that’s not true. The most amazing ideas we have had as human beings are the outcome of an exchange of opinions, experience and knowledge. If you want to do something, let others join you, let them be part of it, appreciate their ideas.


It seems to me in the past there was more emphasis put on vertical structures and leaders on top of these structures. Now there is more talk about everyone having to be a leader.

There’s a debate ongoing on this question. There are people that would like to have someone in charge, so they don’t have to take the responsibility themselves. This is also something you have to sort out – if you are a leader, you have responsibility for those who follow you. If you have a company or an NGO and you have 20, 50, 500, 5000 employees or members, you are responsible for them. Leadership means responsibility so I don’t think everyone wants this kind of responsibility. What has changed is the perception of leadership due to social media platforms. We have this idea that if you’re on Instagram and you don’t have thousands of followers, then you’re not really important. Same goes for Twitter and others. I think what is more important is what drives you, what would you like to achieve, where do you want to be in a year or five. Do you want to be the boss of something or are you maybe more comfortable with being the one in the background organising everything because this is who you are? It’s more important to not necessarily lead others, but to lead your own life and contribute to the change you want.


It seems social media is the driver of societies becoming more and more polarised. Do you see a new type of leadership that could cross these divides in societies?

I don’t think we need a leader to connect everybody. That’s not going to work. We need to be able to talk about the challenges we face as a society and we need to appreciate the fact that sometimes we are wrong. Being wrong is okay – for politicians, for everyone. Sometimes you are wrong, whoever you are. That’s the change we need in our mindsets. We have to talk to everyone, and we have to accept that – core values such as human rights aside – we can talk about everything. For example, climate change is real, we have to tackle that challenge. The question is how. This is where we have to have open and reasonable debate. And we also have to accept that we won’t agree. There will be things where we will not agree. And then we’ll have an election, or a vote and we have to make a decision and accept the results, no matter if we agree or disagree. That’s the important thing about the democratic political system – democracy ensures we get the politicians and the politics we deserve. This also means it’s our responsibility that if something goes wrong, we have to make it better. We can’t always blame the politicians; we also have to blame ourselves.


I guess the counter-argument would be that there’s enough talk already, but not enough action on issues such as climate change and social divisions. How do we get from discussion to action?

Young people have to go to politics and do it! I think it’s always fascinating that people say things like ‚yeah, we’ve had discussions for ten or fifteen years, but there’s no change‘. Well, then be the change. Go there and change it. If the politicians aren’t doing it, you can go into politics. Everybody can get active and join the political system. And you have to be honest. Sure, it’s better for politicians to say, ‚I can give you everything, you will be rich‘. But that’s not how life works. I’d rather have a politician who says, like Churchill did, that there will be blood, sweat and tears. Or to quote J. F. Kennedy: “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.”


Why aren’t politicians more honest?

I think most actually say things that are true, but we don’t want to hear it. It’s just not fun to be honest. If you go out there and say that your pension doesn’t work, we have to increase the retirement age, here are the numbers, or we have to make flying more expensive – people don’t like this. We’ve had a lot of crises in Europe from economic crisis to migration crisis and there is this imminent fear that something even more dangerous will happen. On the other hand, the former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble asked, with regard to the refugee crisis, who in Germany actually earns less money than before the crisis? Nobody. The economy is still booming. It’s important to be honest: there are challenges, but we can get through it.


We’re getting more and more votes for anti-democratic politicians. How can we combat this wave of populism?

You have to go to the people and talk to them. In the villages, in the streets, in the pubs, in the public. Talk about politics and politicians. If your friends and colleagues are not going to vote, ask them why. If they vote for a populist party, ask them if they’ve looked at the programmes because what is in there is really crazy, but most people don’t know it. As soon as they find out, they start to think. We have to take every vote seriously, because every vote counts. Many people see everyone around them get a career, get more money, but they feel left behind. And this is where the populists come in.


It seems there’s less and less platforms for actually getting together. We don’t even see people different from ourselves.

Historically speaking, there were markets and pubs around the corner, the cafés, teatime, the church, the barbecue after the church in the US – a ritual where you’re fulfilling a social need. Markets were important, you met people. We are kind of losing this, because we are trying to regulate everything, and we have a fear of losing control, but these kinds of places need some chaos. One of the most famous markets is in Istanbul and it is complete chaos, but it’s amazing. We have to appreciate this chaos a little bit more. That everybody is welcome, however you look like, whoever you are. But these places are getting more and more commercialised. In Berlin, there were a lot of small pubs that were a melting pot for the people in the area. You went and met interesting people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. As an academic from Switzerland I was able to meet a builder from Germany and talk about life and politics. Today it’s a really expensive bar so I can afford a bit higher prices, but they can’t, they stop going, and I miss them. It’s similar with music festivals. In the beginning it was a revolution from the youth, today you pay several hundred euros. It’s become so much more expensive and so much more regulated what you can or can’t do there. So, you are pushing out people that come for freedom. That’s where we have to be really careful to not lose these spaces.


Do you think people are tired of democracy?

No, I don’t think so. For example, for the last European elections, the attendance numbers went up drastically in Germany. There are a lot of new political parties in Europe. A lot of young people are joining in. Look at the success of En Marche! during the presidential elections in France. People are interested in politics, but they sometimes feel they are not being taken seriously. That’s the worst thing that can happen. We have to be honest and tell them our problems won’t get solved in one or two years, it will be a big effort. In Switzerland, when we built these big tunnels through the Alps, the leaders said it will be a generational project, which will take 10-15 years. It took a bit longer, but we did it, because the politicians were honest from the start that it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be expensive, we’re going to have problems. So the question was: Are we willing to invest as a society? That is important – it doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or a conservative or left or right, you have to be honest that these kinds of initiatives are not easy.


In Estonia, people sometimes bring up Switzerland as an example to follow, because there’s more direct democracy there. Populists would like to use direct democracy to their gains, for example take away rights from minorities. So, what is there to learn and not to learn from the Swiss democracy?

I think populists don’t really understand how it works in Switzerland, because we have protection of minorities in our constitution and as part of our values. The German speaking part of Switzerland is much bigger than the other parts so simply from a numbers perspective we could decide to have German as the language for the whole country. But that’s not how it works. You have to find a solution that works for everybody, even those who lose. You need a common set of values everyone agrees upon. In Switzerland, we agree that we have these votes and we involve everyone into the debate, because only this way we can ensure in the end that even those who lose, accept they have lost. If you look at the votes in Switzerland in the last years, most initiatives coming from the people didn’t work. It’s a misconception that you can do whatever you want with direct democracy. In the end, people are more reasonable as you might think they are at first. I’m a big fan of direct democracy, because it creates responsibility and if you want to implement direct democratic opportunities into your political system, go ahead, but make it about the process – initiate open debates, look at the facts, look at the numbers, publicly challenge the populists, because often they have no idea what they are talking about. Make sure you have safeguards such as the European Convention of Human Rights, which we are part of. We can’t change everything even if someone wanted to. 


I think this a rather idealistic view, since there is so much misinformation. People don’t even live in the same informational reality anymore, so it’s difficult to even create common ground for debate.

That’s what I meant when I said you have to go to places, where it’s not so easy to go to, where people are not academics. Where people are farmers and builders and labourers, hardworking people who don’t have time. We are here today developing ideas – that is a luxury! A lot of people can’t afford this, they have to work the whole day. What they expect from those that have the time, is to explain what the problems are and what the solutions are. Tell them how it is. Tell them if we want a green economy, it will be difficult, it will cost a lot of money, but it’s worth it, it’s worth fighting for. It’s worth for your children, worth for yourselves, worth for the nature, worth for the future, even worth for the economy. We’re dependent on the import of gas from Russia, oil from the Middle East. Imagine Europe would not be dependent on this. Our foreign policy options, our internal policy options would completely change, we would be so much more influential in the world. Then you go to people and say that. It’ll be an effort, it will take 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, most likely even more, but it will be worth the effort. You have to go there, and you have to talk to people. It’s not easy but we have to do that. And talk to people in a way that you in the end can still get a drink with them. No matter, if you agree or not.


Don’t you think it’s a bit preachy if intellectuals from the cities go to people to tell them how it is?

No. It depends on how you do it. If you go there and say, ‚look, I’m an intellectual and I’ll tell you how it is‘, then yes, definitely. But If you go there and say, ‚I’m a citizen like you, I have the same problems as you, I also struggle with the taxes, I also struggle with the housing prices‘. The people will see that their problems and your problems are not that different. We don’t often see this, because we don’t have time to think about it.


Are there any good examples on crossing these divides?

The amazing thing we have in Switzerland is that we have these votings every three months where we vote on things so there’s always a public debate on the radio, on TV, in every city, in every village. People come together and talk about politics; you can’t get away from all this debate. In Germany, there are many organisations that go to villages. They make regular meet-ups to discuss about political issues in a reasonable and supporting environment. The more they do, the more people will actually start thinking about what is happening. It’s also important to speak their language. If you’re from the academia, you have a terminology that other people might not be used to. You have to speak in a way that is understood. And the first thing you have to do is listen – listen to what they think, what the problem is, what they want to do. Maybe you have the same problem so you can actually work together. People from the countryside often seem to be stubborn, but they are really great people. If you listen to them, they will listen to you. Maybe you will be the crazy guy from the city with the crazy ideas, but they will respect you for just coming to them and listen. The populists do it. They go there and they listen. We have to do it as well. 


Many young people want to participate in politics, but don’t like the old mechanisms. What would be your advice on how to start your own movement and bring along change?

Firstly, political parties need to change. They need to become more open to include younger people and different perspectives. They need to send out the message to young people that you are welcome, we want to have your expertise. We do not elect our candidates according to the time they’ve been in our party, but according to their talents, their interests. 

For young people, two things you are important. First, we are all political people, and if you’re really motivated, go to political events. Be it a panel discussion, workshop at a think tank or an event like this. Meet new people, talk to new people, develop new ideas and if you want to make the next step and organise your own event. If you don’t like it, leave and do something different. Try things out. What’s the worst that can happen? You learn from your failures. Second, it’s never too late to participate and not only influence the decision process but be a changemaker.


The Interview was originally published in Estonian.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image Source: Karl Erik Piirimees

Andrei Liimets is a civic activist who works as the director of communications for the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations. He is also the chief editor of the Hea Kodanik magazine (meaning Good Citizen in English), which provides a quarterly overview of issues related to the Estonian civil society. The interview with Daniel Hardegger was published in the summer edition of 2019 focusing on leadership.


Dr. Daniel Hardegger is co-initiator, co-founder and current board member for strategy and development of Polis180, a grassroots think tank for German foreign and European policy, and has a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics. He co-coordinated for Polis180 the development of PolicyKitchen, a digital platform for foreign policy innovation of foraus, and published a paper on the influence on Social Media on the European electorate. He conducted various negotiations and management different projects on regional, national and international level, such the creation of UNYANET, a worldwide network of UN-youth organisations, the creation of Negotiations.CH, a platform for negotiation analysis and consulting, and the largest conference on legal communication (Litigation-PR) in Winterthur. Besides his engagement for Polis180, he is working a Business Development Manager for Novamondo GmbH and as a Researcher for the ZHAW SML.


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