Dr. Brigitte Mohn, member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board

It’s time to leave our comfort zones. More innovation. Now!

An article by Dr. Brigitte Mohn, member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board


In Germany and around the world, we are confronted with problems that are becoming ever more complex. Challenges abound, such as climate change, global pandemics, the aging of our societies, the opportunities offered by digitalization and the education of young people to ready them for the years ahead. If we want to have a future as a society, these challenges must be accepted and addressed today. If we fail to do so, we risk losing our prosperity and stability in the short term – and place our existence itself at risk over the long term.

At least in some regions of the world, there is broad agreement regarding the need for change. Scientific data shows that this isn’t good enough. What is needed is a comprehensive political commitment to sustainability as an overarching goal, combined with concrete and swiftly implemented measures. However, this is precisely where opinions differ: Should policy be based on incentives or prohibitions, for example in the reduction of CO2 emissions? Is it enough to adapt the existing structures? Or is there a need for more dramatic changes to the overall system, for example by pricing companies according to their social value creation? In other words:  How extensive and painful does the change have to be in order for us to maintain the basis for our lives without resorting to even more serious interventions?

Even if we may remain successful today, the future viability of our country and continent is at stake. Our current mode of economic activity overuses natural resources; should it continue, we will not be able to develop into a climate-neutral society.

Coming to terms with failures and wrong decisions from the past requires courage, as well as clear political and business goals that are not designed to maximize benefits or profit in the short term, but instead pay off as long-term investments in a sustainable future. Our problems cannot be solved through the use of traditional approaches. This implies that we need significantly more new forms of cooperation between governments, businesses, academia and civil society. The goal here should be to reach consensus on key cross-sectoral perspectives, allowing the contributions by each stakeholder to be usefully combined.

Our core task – as addressed in many of our previous Reinhard Mohn Prize cycles, and demonstrated again very clearly at the current award ceremony – remains as follows:  We must make the state fit for the future, and capable of acting accordingly. We must establish overall societal processes that are able to generate solutions to our looming problems, and we must create markets for sustainable action. The financial sector must evolve to become an accelerator of transformation, with new incentive-based models. Put simply, this means: We need a systems-based and results-oriented financing solution for social interventions that is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.  This solution would ensure an effective use of resources by demonstrating the economic and social returns associated with individual activities, and by supporting cross-sector collaboration between stakeholders through data-driven coordination. If we tackle these goals proactively, Germany can position itself in Europe as a role model for the transformation of today’s industries.

Innovation as a lever for sustainability

This presupposes that we in Germany develop a sustainable vision for the future of Europe that is also capable of gaining majority support. The basis for joint action includes the implementation and use of innovative policy measures. To this end, we must reach beyond our national borders and combine forces across Europe in order to live up to our global responsibility. Only in this way will we be able to achieve the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

It is essential that our business and research institutions become much more proactively involved in working to meet our society’s basic needs. Even though we have outstanding companies and research institutions with innovative technologies and products in Germany and Europe, their contributions are often still too small-scale and risk-averse for the purposes of sustainable economic and social development. During the research for the Reinhard Mohn Prize 2020 on the topic “Fostering Innovation. Unlocking Potential,” we at the Bertelsmann Stiftung determined that innovation must be promoted and implemented as a key lever for sustainability, through focused initiatives led by both the political and business communities. The foundation for this must be a new, holistic assessment of value creation that takes into account societal factors, and leads to a new approach to managing and valuing our natural resources. The market could then release its creative forces in a way that promotes the common good, and we could keep our political systems on a stable path.

We have the chance right now to shape the future, and to set an example in Europe.

Dr. Brigitte Mohn, member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board

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