The German city of Leipzig recently hosted a problem-solving conference for Germans and Americans. VOA's Paige Kollock reports the subject matter of the conference extends well beyond those two countries.
Young professionals and experts from a variety of fields came from all over the world to attend an annual three-day conference hosted by the BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation. The topic for discussion was the relationship between the individual and the state; specifically, one's responsibility towards his or her country.
One goal of the conference was to solicit ideas from different industry leaders about how to solve some of the problems facing Germany, America and the world. For Americans, those included immigration reform and the dealing with the high cost of health care. For Germans, the list included easing high unemployment and managing a young population largely reliant on welfare.
Yasmin Ibrahim, a 29-year-old investment banker, said, "The stereotype is just this general malaise of young people. You don't really see the motivation to work and everyone studies until they are 27 or 28. It's just this prolonged adolescence."
Ibrahim is half-German, half-Egyptian and grew up in New York City. She says, despite her German heritage, she identified with the American approach to an exercise in nation building. She said, "We had to create a government for this new state, and we came up with, 'Why don't we make a corporation as the government?' All the Americans were like 'Oh, that's a great idea' and they Germans were like, 'No, how does that work? It's not very realistic.' "
Ibrahim said, “They had much more of the practical detail, and they kept asking the most detailed questions, whereas we were thinking much more big picture, much more creative."
The effort to bridge the differences included exercises where participants were put into teams and placed in situations meant to foster communication skills and create dialogue. Teams worked together to build a bridge, lead each other through a minefield and challenge one another to climb to new heights.
At the end of the day, each team had to come up with their version of a nation-state.
Participant Jeremy Goldberg said, "It did build a sense of camaraderie and exchange of ideas, meeting different personalities, which I thought was an important aspect of the conference."
The teams then presented their states and everyone voted on which one they liked best. Goldberg's team won. He says the exercise revealed the different thought processes. "I saw Americans much more advocating kind of a free-market approach, as opposed to a more important social safety net with respect to the Germans, and you could see the differences in the societies play out in those conversations."
German professor Stephan Janzen hopes those conversations will continue after the conference ends. "I hope we bring something new to mix the best of both worlds,” he said. “From the United States system, we have some very good aspects in the elite higher system, financing the higher education system, for instance, the labor market, and we also have, in Germany, some very interesting models."
Goldberg said, "There's a shared challenge here where nobody has the answers, but we're all asking the same kinds of questions, and with that, I think, comes the idea to say, ‘Hey, maybe we can start asking these questions together.’ Maybe there's ways that we can learn things from one another."
While no pacts were signed, no wars ended, and no lives saved, each of the participants came away with a greater understanding of the world's problems and the motivation to fix them. The young leaders also have a lifetime to do so.