A Glimpse of Tomorrow from the Streets of Kyiv

A Glimpse of Tomorrow from the Streets of Kyiv

As I write this, I find myself in the heart of Ukraine. My arrival was greeted by the embrace of azure skies, but as I prepare to leave, the mood has shifted. The sun has retreated, replaced by a somber rain and a biting wind. Summer’s warmth is a memory, and winter’s chill looms.

In an era where the very fabric of our existence is tested – whether by the impending doom of climate change, the challenges of burgeoning technologies, the gnawing pain of hunger, or the intricate dance of geopolitics – it’s in Kyiv that I find a pulse. A pulse that resonates with hope, resilience, and an undying spirit. Here, amidst ancient streets and modern aspirations, a community converges, not just to survive, but to thrive and redefine.

There are two tales the world seems to be caught between. The first is a grim recounting of days gone by, where shadows of oppression loom large and the future seems bleak. It’s a tale where the essence of humanity is shackled, where our legacy is threatened by our own actions. But then, there’s the other narrative. One that’s painted with strokes of optimism. It speaks of a world that is yet to come. A world where tomorrow isn’t just another day, but a promise. A promise fueled by Europe’s age-old values of peace, trust, and the transformative power of education. A path towards prosperity for posterity.

The Dance of Progress Amidst Echoes of War

In a recent conversation, Wladimir Klitschko, a name synonymous with strength and resilience, was posed a question by German Talkshow-Host Markus Lanz: Was he prepared to lay down his life for his homeland? Klitschko’s response was profound in its simplicity. No. He wasn’t ready to die for Ukraine; he was ready to live for it. A distinction that speaks volumes.

He elaborated on a stark contrast between Russia and Ukraine. In Russia, the narrative revolves around the sacrifice of life. But in Ukraine, the story is about life in its purest form. It’s about envisioning a future, not being held hostage by the ideologies of a bygone era.

On Friday evening, I found myself under the spotlight, tasked with delivering one of the most challenging speeches of my life. The occasion? The closing address for the ‘Reinforce Ukraine’ initiative, a gathering of 400 representatives from the corridors of business and politics. The weight of the responsibility was palpable, especially knowing that intellectual giants like Michael Porter and Yuval Noah Harari had graced this stage in the pre-war years. The event, a milestone marking three decades, was a call for unity and forward-thinking. The underlying message? Ukraine’s economy under the title “Facing the Future” is not just surviving; it’s looking ahead.

When the MIM institution from Kyiv reached out last summer, just a few months after the outbreak of the war, in partnership with Thinkers50, I was asked to hold a digital lecture on the future of the economy. Titled ‘The Art of Being Wrong – the path to positive progress’, I made an attempt to chart a course towards positive progress. This digital formats was part of a series that featured luminaries like Harari, Roger Martin, Dorie Clark, and Alex Osterwalder, among others. Over the span of a year, this initiative aimed to sow seeds of knowledge and hope in the fertile grounds of Ukraine’s economy.

I’m not drawn to war zones, but I am drawn to the future. I’m perpetually anchored to optimism, firmly believing in humanity’s boundless potential for progress. And while digital interactions have their merits, there’s an irreplaceable magic in sharing a physical space. Hence, I immediately accepted the invitation to Kyiv.

As the curtains fall on the “Reinforce Ukraine” initiative, a new dawn emerges: A vision of Ukraine seamlessly integrating into the EU by 2030. A metamorphosis from the shadows of corruption to the luminance of European ideals. My journey was underscored by a European triad of: peace, trust, and education. This is also the vision of Ukrainian citizens.

Ukraine’s Economic Crossroads Amidst the Echoes of War

In the shadow of a war that seems to stretch indefinitely into the horizon, the spirit of the Ukrainian people is tested. For many, the path of least resistance might be to simply give in, to resign to the circumstances. But there’s a peculiar thing about human resilience: in the face of adversity, we often discover reservoirs of strength we never knew we possessed. In my time in Ukraine, I’ve encountered countless individuals who embody this resilience, seemingly untiring and unyielding in their determination.

This brings me to a contemplation that’s been occupying my thoughts: Can the reconstruction of Ukraine also be an opportunity for a new Europe? A Europe that doesn’t merely react to the present but is propelled by a vision of the future, one that truly embodies the essence of what it means to be European. It’s an opportune moment to envision a future that not only charts a course for Ukraine but redefines Europe as a lived vision.

The key to this vision? Capital. Significant investments, particularly from powerhouses like the EU, the USA, and global organizations. Even before the scars of war marred its landscape, Ukraine was a hotbed of innovation, brimming with young, dynamic minds that were pushing the boundaries in the realm of technology. With the right financial backing and partnerships, Ukraine has the potential to emerge as a thriving economy, seamlessly integrated with the West. But these investments will come with strings attached, perhaps even more stringent than those binding current EU nations, especially in areas like climate goals and societal harmony. Yet, therein lies also an opportunity. Because when you’re rebuilding from scratch, you have the advantage of a clean slate – a Greenfield Approach. The initial focus will undoubtedly be on the foundational pillars of a functional society. But it’s imperative that this capital doesn’t just line the pockets of conglomerates or opportunistic entities; it needs to uplift the populace at large. Strategic investments, driven by clear objectives, will act as a magnet for further capital, as regions globally are perpetually on the hunt for burgeoning markets. With this growing attractiveness, the “brand value” of Ukraine will also increase, which will probably also have a positive effect on exports.

Ukraine and Europe’s Shared Destiny

The drums of war will eventually fall silent, making way for the melodies of reconstruction. But can Ukraine, even amidst the chaos, envision this impending future? Can it muster the fortitude to not only dream of a brighter tomorrow for itself but also for a forward-thinking Europe? And if it can, what might this future look like? How can Ukraine leverage its current global spotlight, borne out of conflict, as a springboard into a promising new era? As I ponder these questions, a few thoughts come to mind:

  1. Pioneers for a functioning basic income. Economic analyses and surveys tend to be less reliable during wartime. For a nation embroiled in conflict or recovering post-war, maintaining social stability is crucial. Economist Guy Standing proposes an emergency basic income, akin to the compensation measures during the pandemic, as a potential stabilizing force. While such a system might produce ‘winners’ and may not achieve perfect justice, overly intricate analyses or imposing conditions during such tumultuous times can also be deemed unfair. The key lies in fostering trust. As such, a widespread basic income could pave the way for a cohesive society. This could be further enhanced with digital innovations like blockchain and digital currencies to guarantee utmost transparency. In doing so, Ukraine has the potential to serve as a pivotal global pilot project, offering invaluable lessons and spurring the development of new services and business models
  2. The New Horizon of a Regenerative Economy. Ukraine has significant, untapped reserves of natural gas and shale oil/gas. Exploiting these energy sources, combined with investments in renewable energies like solar and wind power, could make Ukraine an important energy exporter. Reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas imports would strengthen Ukraine’s autonomy. Currently, Ukraine aims to cover 80% of its energy consumption from renewable energies by 2050. Given the dependence on oil and gas and the conditions and requirements that will come with funding, there is an opportunity to emphasize a rapid transition to renewable energies. Through projects and support, Ukraine could already be working on new models today, accelerating the energy transition, and thus serving as a lighthouse project for Europe with more than 40 million inhabitants and the largest land area in Europe. Such a move would not only free Ukraine from energy dependencies but also pave the way for localized energy initiatives and innovative, forward-thinking energy solutions. Leveraging established technologies from nations like Austria and Norway, and tapping into EU funds, could catalyze this transition. This would not only elevate Ukraine’s global stature but also unlock fresh commercial avenues for its economy. 
  3. A modernized grain and raw material chamber for the world – Ukraine is characterized by extremely fertile soil and has been referred to as the “breadbasket of Europe”. However, Ukraine also has some significant resources and raw materials that are important for emerging technologies: rare earths, iron, manganese, uranium, titanium, neon gas, nickel, lithium. With substantial investments and the modernization of agriculture and the expansion of production and processing capacities, Ukraine could once again become a significant global exporter of grain, vegetable oils, and other foods and become an important supplier of several technology enabler raw materials, thus supporting its economic reconstruction and integration into European supply chains. This would require the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure.
  4. Digital nation of the latest technologies – The emergence of Silicon Valley and the technological development in the post-war period in the German “economic miracle” are examples of how technological hotspots can emerge after wars. What is part of the war machine today will be the competent tech icons for a better world tomorrow. Even before the outbreak of the war, Ukraine had a strong IT workforce and technical talent. Today, up to 14 digital documents, including the biometric passport, ID card, driver’s license, vehicle registration, security policy, tax number, and birth certificate, are all stored in the Diia app. The goal is to integrate 100% of all public documents and services with state-of-the-art user-friendliness into the app. Ukraine is already a digital country like few others. With the ongoing digital transformation, Ukraine’s extensive IT sector could become a center for innovation and research & development. Areas such as cybersecurity, fintech, and AI/automation offer interesting growth potential.
  5. A new option to support the shortage of skilled workers in the EU – Even before the war, Ukraine had made a name for itself with its many capable engineers and production capacities suitable for medium to high-tech industries. Even if the war will leave significant marks here, technologies and skills acquired after the war can serve as a basis for areas such as aerospace, mechanical engineering, and transport equipment. The reconstruction of infrastructure and the associated training of skilled workers thus offer not only new jobs within Ukraine but could also alleviate the shortage of skilled workers in the West – which can manifest itself in a mix of migration to western markets and relocation of production to Ukraine.
  6. Supporting pillars of the construction industry – Massive investments are required to repair and improve Ukraine’s damaged infrastructure – roads, bridges, railway lines, airports, power grids, etc. The Economist bases analyses on the ‘Researchers from the Centre for Economic Policy Research (cepr)’ and estimates the reconstruction costs at up to 500 billion €. This offers great opportunities for construction and engineering firms during reconstruction. For a struggling construction industry in the West, a new opportunity, with funds benefiting both Ukraine and companies from Europe.
  7. A new Kokoda Trail – Ukraine still has diverse tourist resources today, from historical architecture and cultural sites to attractive Black Sea resorts. Even if this is hard to imagine in today’s wartime, history teaches that such terrible events can lead to a proprietary development of the tourism industry. Tourism can become a lucrative export industry with reconstruction once security and infrastructure are restored. A Ukrainian ‘Kokoda Track’ (I just learned this from Matthew Simmons) like in Papua New Guinea as a symbol and reminder of the end of a narrative about a terrible past. During World War II, the 96-kilometer Kokoda Trail was the scene of a major battle between Japanese and Allied (mainly Australian) forces. Today, the place symbolizes that societal progress is possible on both sides of the once warring states.
  8. Melting pot of a ‘Commons Economy’. Essentially, a commons economy aims to share resources fairly to meet the needs of all within ecological limits, democratically managed in the sense of the common good and not for profit maximization. It emphasizes cooperative social relationships instead of individual self-interest. These are the topics that I encounter everywhere at conferences in Europe. But how to realize? The commons economy model is consistent with the principles of degrowth and the solidarity economy. It contrasts with the capitalist focus on privatization, profit maximization, and extractive growth. Well-known examples of successful commons are open-source software, Wikipedia, community gardens, and Community Land Trusts (CLTs) – a communal, non-profit property model that removes land from speculation. Some advocates see the expansion of the commons model as an alternative to current economic systems. Ukraine already has opportunities today to deal with such an economic model. The population is learning the hard way today that it is about common resources – resources like land, water, knowledge, culture, and public spaces are part of the community. Shouldn’t they be accessible to everyone instead of remaining private? Can they be shared more responsibly by the community? These are questions that are discussed in theory in the West; in Ukraine, they are part of practical challenges. The Ukrainian population is dealing with democratic administration today. How should decisions be made about how common resources are used and distributed? The country is moving away from centralized authority. Sustainability – The sustainable management of resources for long-term prosperity takes precedence over short-term gains. Again, Ukrainians feel this importance in practice. Protecting the commons from overuse and degradation is crucial. What is knowingly presented is everyday life in Ukraine today. Justice – All members of the community have equal access to and the same rights to use common resources. Benefits are distributed fairly according to community norms. Cooperation – There is a cooperative spirit focused on mutual benefit rather than competition. Members work together towards common goals. In all these points, there is an opportunity for Ukraine to implement the already designed models in practice, from which new opportunities for the economy can emerge.
  9. A Leader in Digital Health – Trauma coping and “Mental Health” are already big topics in the West today with a rising tendency. By using new technologies and fields of competence, companies could emerge in Ukraine that offer solutions for this globally growing societal need while the local population gets support for reconstruction and economic recovery.
  10. Diversity and Female leadership – The image on arrival leaves its mark. Full trains in which many women are traveling alone with their children. But the many conversations with the women on the spot, who are now taking on leadership roles everywhere in business and politics, are surprising. They inspire me with their dedication and optimism. Despite the suffering, they lead with extraordinary dedication and compassion during this crisis. These are Ukrainian leaders who are at the forefront of rebuilding their beloved country and homeland. From this, new initiatives for a new leadership culture can emerge, which can become “export hits” and serve as an example of diversity and equality that does not arise through quotas and regulation.
  11. A Flagship in education – Not only the rapid development of technology, the complex world, and its economy pose new educational requirements, but reconstruction also requires competent people. An understanding of openness, analytical skills, adaptability, creativity, and leadership qualities are part of everyday life in Ukraine today. As a blueprint, practical experiences from crisis times can also provide a basis for new educational models.
  12. Pioneers in the ‘double materiality’ – In the near future, companies will have to consider how their actions affect both people and the planet. At the same time, they also have to consider how sustainability issues can affect their financial well-being. It is essentially about looking at the big picture from two different perspectives. This results in a strong focus on both the local and the global economy. This means that “rebellious mayors” strive to maximize value for the community. In collaboration with other (similar) regions, new export opportunities can emerge from this. I am convinced that the marginal costs for energy will move rapidly towards zero in the next ten years. From this development driven by new technologies, today’s focus on “sustainability” will become a focus on profitability. Resources, efficiency, and regenerative solutions are then no longer ideological business models but the basis of a new economy in which ecology and economy work synergistically and resource efficiency forms the basis for profitable entrepreneurship. This humane and social market economy approach represents an upgrade of existing capitalism and leads to a new form of economy. I call this economy the quantum economy. It is already becoming apparent today that Ukraine, with the right support and the right reconstruction, could become a pioneer of such humane capitalism.

Delving deeper into the nuances and intricacies of these points, it becomes evident that the challenges the Ukraine economy will face mirror many of the dilemmas that Europe faces today. As Europe strives to carve its niche in the global arena and champion an eco-social market paradigm, one can’t help but wonder: Does Ukraine’s trajectory foreshadow Europe’s destiny?

The faces I’ve encountered in Ukraine are a giant book of stories. Their eyes, windows to souls bearing the weight of their experiences, tell tales of resilience.  The upcoming winter will be a test of strength.  Yet, amidst the shadows of adversity, the indomitable human spirit shines through — in shared laughter, fleeting moments of joy, and the simple act of living. It’s a reminder that if we truly attune ourselves to life’s symphony, if we resist the urge to become passive spectators of our own existence, we harness an unparalleled power — the power to shape the future.

For Europe, the stakes are high. Underestimating the challenges of the impending winter could have ramifications that ripple through the continent’s future. But beyond the challenges lies a golden opportunity — a chance to outline a vision for a more inclusive, equitable Europe. A vision that redefines growth and prosperity for generations to come – prosperity for posterity. 

Ukraine’s current state of affairs should never be normalized. The daily battles for a European identity and future should never fade into the monotony of routine. Just as our heart tirelessly beats, often unnoticed, there’s an inherent vitality that drives us forward. In the West, we often find ourselves in a state of inertia, trapped between existence and true living. This state of equilibrium, this homeostasis, is not a sign of life but of stagnation. The call is clear: It’s about our collective future.

This morning, almost symbolically, I see a young child with a school backpack full of vitality crossing the square. There is silence, only the laughter of this young person can be heard – and the heartbeats of the world ethos from Kyiv. A force of vitality. And it is precisely this force that must not be neglected in the European Union. At some point, it will no longer be possible to deal with the future only reactively; the coming winter is another opportunity to develop a vision for Europe. With and for Ukraine. We should not miss this opportunity.

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