The Open Society – an Interview with Alexander Carius in polis Magazin

 Initiative Offene Gesellschaft

Issues like the climate crisis and the fear of social change are having major effects on our society. There is a growing sentiment of distrust for political institutions. Alexander Carius, Managing Director of Berlin-based think tank adelphi and co-founder of the Open Society Initiative, explores these issues in an interview with the German magazine polis.

Karl Popper’s concept of open society aims to liberate our powers of critical thinking. You are a board member and the co-founder of the Initiative Offene Gesellschaft e.V.  – why are Popper’s ideas still relevant?

The concept of the open society is basically the foundation of our post-war European society and 70-year-old constitution. From a historical point of view, Popper’s concept ensures the highest degree of freedom, prosperity and security for the people.

Enshrined in our civil liberties, it allows each individual to express themselves politically and participate creatively in society. That’s an incredibly valuable social good and a civilisational standard that we have, apparently, forgotten about in recent years. Popper’s idea stems from historical experience – namely, that an open society must be defended against its opponents so that democracy can function and thrive.

For us at the Initiative Offene Gesellschaft e.V., open society means a democratic society – there is no alternative. Nowadays, there is a clear lack of engagement when it comes to value and preservation of the open society. But that engagement is democracy in action.

Democracy can only function if we engage with and discuss individual ideas and the question of whether or not they are viable for our society. That is the framework for an open society: confronting very different opinions together and, from that, working out ideas for our lives and for the future, arguing about them and considering other people’s points of view.

Democracy is not static; it thrives on constant change. The point is, we are currently doing far too little for our democratic system of a pluralistic, open society, because we take it for granted, and because we are afraid of change.

Where does this fear come from? As an affluent society, are we no longer capable of opening up to new things?

This is certainly a question of basic trust in how the state and society function. Fear researchers speak of a primal fear in us, a form of anxiety that is often completely irrational. If we want to get past fear, we have to face it. We learn how to deal with the unknown and changes through confrontation.

Interestingly, research has shown that anxiety is most common in places where the probability of risk is the lowest. Xenophobia arises when people do not come into contact with strangers. On the other hand, the younger generation, more than anyone else, is experiencing a direct form of anxiety: the fear of climate crisis. In recent years, hot summers, heavy rainfall and drought have made it clear that our world is changing, and climate research shows that our way of life needs drastic change.

Frankfurt am Main, Germany - March 22, 2019: "Fridays for Future" protest in Frankfurt. Participants protesting against climate policy

What’s really behind the fear, however – i.e. the fear of strangers and of the climate crisis – is anxiety about having to give up our own hard-earned lifestyle and comforts. The fear of the unknown really comes down to anxiety about what is available globally and how, if those resources are distributed differently, we as individuals will have less.

When it comes to fears about the climate crisis, we are dealing with the fear of dematerialisation as a logical consequence of survival in the post-fossil age. Reducing CO2 consumption from 9.6 tons to 2 tons per capita requires decoupling resource consumption from prosperity altogether. This radical change makes us afraid, since we are unable to imagine a zero-emission world.

The goal of the Initiative Offene Gesellschaft e.V. is to make clear that our democratic system offers us the freedom to design a sustainable society based on solidarity. And that change is not about the loss of material wealth, but rather acquiring more time, a higher quality of life, and cleaner air. Promoting positive images like this and encouraging people to get involved and help shape our future is a key objective of the Initiative.

To what extent does political apathy create paralysis when it comes to transforming our society? 

I don’t believe that we are dealing with political disinterest in our society. Recent results from the Bertelsmann Foundation show that young people in particular have a high degree of policy knowledge and political engagement. Compared to the 80s or 90s, we are living in a highly politicised time. Finally, the unqualified and not very fruitful communication on social media is, at best, an expression of uncompromising political dialogue.

Auftaktveranstaltung des Projektes Initiative Offene Gesellschaft on Tour IV

We are not dealing with politics, but with a considerable level of distrust for political actors or a political party system that is self-referential and favours patronage. The dependencies in this system produce a very specific type of politics, as well as policy responses that function in a comfortable, fossil-fuel and resource-consuming, unchanging, political apparatus. This suggests that we can change the world with individual, political control mechanisms.

In my view, it is critical that we first come up with concrete, sustainable ideas for life in the post-fossil age, and then figure out what actions and political tools can help us achieve that. This goes far beyond the issue of emission reductions; it is the only way we can reach those people who do not have the opportunity to participate in this very knowledge-intensive process of shaping the future – and imagining a place for ourselves in that future. 

You mentioned social media as a platform for discussion and participation. How can we learn to return to the analogue, public space and participate in the shaping of society and the city?

Participation formats, like those used in urban planning, are still very closed systems. Only in the rarest cases is urban design perceived as something collective. I believe, however, that this is changing, and the social-ecological transformation of cities into a new and much broader mode of participation actually started long ago.

Copenhagen became the Mecca of a bicycle-friendly city; London banned cars from the downtown core. Bogotá turned its main streets into places to linger and exchange, Paris started reclaiming public space for pedestrians and strollers, and is making city streets on the Seine into spaces for relaxation and urban beach promenades.

aerial view from Monserrate on top of the mountain where you can see downtown Bogota with tall buildings and road between the woods. Below we also see the cable car of the city arriving at its base.

Utrecht is building the world’s largest bicycle garage and converting the roofs of hundreds of bus stops into urban bee meadows. Creating these new, natural and social spaces is incredibly important. Whether it’s top-down elements of urban planning or a revolution from the grassroots, it represents citizen-initiated urban design. These spaces create a sense of community and society, and a whole new respect for urban and natural spaces.  

How can the Open Society Initiative help create momentum?

From May to November 2019, the Initiative Offene Gesellschaft e.V. is travelling through Germany. The motto is ‘The Open Society in Motion’ and the goal is to create a new space for conversation about the future. In ten cities and at festivals, we are inviting citizens to get involved where they live and bring in new ideas for a sustainable society. We will collect ideas and continue to develop them as we travel from place to place; we will present the results at the end of 2019.

The really exciting thing is that our tour stops are not just attracting the typical, left-liberal types, but an entire cross-section of society. Young people who love to stare at their smartphone all day suddenly open up, because they can let their ideas run free and come into contact with people that they would never interact with otherwise.

Die offene Gesellschaft in Bewegung - Initiative Offene Gesellschaft

This is good for society, no matter to what extent. We started our tour in Schwerin, where 3,500 citizens took part. Our interactive social game takes people completely by surprise – they can play with ideas in a fun way and also discover the consequences. This way, we can create a kind of collaborative mode of urban design.

Apart from the exhibition, there is a varied schedule of events that we are organising with local groups, clubs, assets and initiatives. One highlight is the final debate based on the motto: ‘What kind of country do we want to be?’ To me, self-empowerment is a fundamental principle of an open society. We have to understand that this not only includes being dependent on politics, but having the opportunity to develop our ideas and introduce them to the decision-making machinery. 

We are talking mainly about urban spaces. The development of rural areas also represents a major challenge, however. How does the concept of open society apply there?

We need polycentric structures that combine the development of urban and rural areas – and when it comes to rural spaces, there is definitely a lot more work to do. The digitalisation of the workplace will, in the future, demand a change in the way we think, since it has an enormous effect on the generation of income in rural households.

Two friends using mobile device and drinking tea after harvesting in the garden, London, UK, Europe,morning.

If we create a stronger link between working and living in the digitalised world, it will be possible to better develop rural spaces when we connect them to broadband coverage and better mobility infrastructure. This represents a huge opportunity. Bascially, we will need to create different forms of working and income generation in a digitalised future, which is why I view the idea of pilot projects as an absolute necessity. If I cannot secure my income solely through employment, rural areas are much more attractive.

Can a universal basic income with no strings attached create motivation for participating actively in the design of society and our spaces?

Of course. This goes back to the idea of fear. Anxieties about the loss of livelihood dominate in rural areas and in the lower- and middle-class income groups. With an unconditional basic income, I no longer have to deal with this existential angst and can devote my time to other things, and get involved in society. Of course, there has not been enough conclusive research done in this area and we need more testing. By the way, I think one essential prerequisite for the future is: trying things without knowing whether they will work or not.

We cannot think that we already know what this world will look like or the tools required to shape that future. That applies to politics, which has to become more fluid, temporary and amorphous. There is no way around a policy of ‘trial and error’, which must also deal with failure, because politics is always working on solutions that run into contradictions and obstacles. The same applies to construction. Temporary solutions and urban interventions are required. 

German construction law will have to be a little more flexible for this, correct?

Of course, this is a necessary condition. There is a reason why the great architects do not build their projects here, but elsewhere. The German auto industry will also have to change and adapt as a result of electromobility, as China is already doing on a large scale.

The big question we have to face is whether the political apparatus and its party logic, along with the dependence on the economic interests of the automotive industry, can keep up with this development. Right now, our party system and its increasing polarisation is a result of the loss of faith in the potential of politics.

Lombard Street, San Francisco, United States

Politics tells us that more homes need to be built. We have to use the available space in a more sensible way. Countless offices, for example, are empty in the evenings and on nights and weekends. There are plenty of creative people who don’t start working until the evening.

There is a demand for new models of use, instead of always looking for solutions in the status quo. Everything that we do, the way we move and travel, the way we live, how we interact, communicate and generate income, will change dramatically. 

You approach things with a distinctly optimistic attitude. Why is this the better way? 

Because it is the only sustainable way. We must not be afraid of failure in transforming society, because that is a part of trying new things. Instead of telling each other what is wrong, we should concentrate on the projects of success and emphasise those. What is happening in design and the reclaiming of public spaces around the world are very promising approaches to sustainability. We can do much more. 


Alexander Carius is the co-founder and Managing Director of Berlin-based think tank adelphi. In the autumn of 2015, he and others founded the Open Society Initiative. A political scientist, Carius does research on the future of democracy and governance in an increasingly amorphous world. For over two decades he has been working on the topics of global governance, sustainable resource use, climate risks, crisis and conflict prevention, migration and urbanisation. Carius advises governmental and non-governmental organisations, international organisations, the European Commission and associations. He is the author of numerous articles and books.

The article "Offene Gesellschaft - Keine Angst vorm Scheitern" (‘Open Society - No Fear of Failure’ ) was published in the German magazine polis at the start of October. We publish the text here with the kind permission of the editors. 

Selected Publications

  • Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Freunde

    Carius, Alexander; Harald Welzer und Andre Wilkens (Hg.) 2016: Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Freunde. Frankfurt/Main: S. FISCHER Verlag.