Change, Renew, Rejuvenate: The Club of Rome – A Case For Embracing Intergenerational Leadership

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“How do we create the positive energy to fuel real change?” Ian Johnson, Secretary General of the Club of Rome, asks to a young audience of artists, activists entrepreneurs, and representatives of international (youth) movements in his opening remarks at the Change Course Conference on December 8th, 2012.

The scene in Winterthur, Switzerland was an atypical one for the Club of Rome. While traditionally, the organization’s member base consists of influential, elderly white males, the average age on that day was 25 years. Sixty young men and women from over fifty countries came together to deliberate for four days on how to “change course” towards a sustainable world.

Founded in 1968 as an association of leading independent thinkers from politics, business and science, the Club of Rome is today primarily known as the think tank that published the influential “Limits to Growth” report in 1972. In its founding days, the Club focused on the nature of the global problems, often referred to as the “problematique.” After its initial success and the rapid expansion of local chapters that followed in the years thereafter, the organization’s influence began to diminish. This development has been primarily credited to the emergence of the neoclassical economic worldview under US President Ronald Reagan who freed up and deregulated markets in the belief that the “Invisible Hand” would guide the economy to the most optimal outcome. With hindsight, we know that deregulation has not always been the best solution.

There was also the problem of competition. In its glory days, a single report by the Club of Rome could shake up the fabric of society. Its members had access to, and could privately influence, world leaders. But with every possible organization these days churning out reports on every dimension of sustainable development, the effectiveness of this approach has been diminished, too.

The challenges of the 21st century, such as rising global inequality, the consequences of climate change, and the overuse of natural resources recently revived public interest in the Club of Rome’s activities. The Club’s current program, “A New Path for World Development,” aims to define and communicate the need and vision for a new economy, which “produces real wealth and wellbeing; which does not degrade natural resources and provides meaningful jobs and sufficient income for all people.”

In spite of the recent increase in public attention, however, the Club of Rome has found it difficult over the past decade to attract the interest and participation of younger generations. As a staff member recounted to me over lunch at the Change Course Conference (December 8th – 11th, 2012), their Annual Summit in Bucharest this October exuded a very different spirit and lower energy level than to be found at the present gathering. One is pressed to ask: What if the Club of Rome revived its golden era again? And to do so, might the Club of Rome have to change course itself, too?

Wolfgang Goethe once said: “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” This also holds true for 45-years-old organizations like the Club of Rome. The Change Course Conference was a valiant attempt at having a first set of real, inclusive conversations about the world we are leaving to future generations. But gone are the days when conferences and conversations suffice to spark lasting change. In a world with 1.8 billion people aged between 10 and 24 years old, one must find means for sustained, intergenerational engagement.  Why? Because realizing a global shift towards sustainable development requires the experience, knowledge and power of the older generations, as well as the energy, vision and courage of the young one. Success and relevance in the 21st century is therefore primarily dependent on an organization’s ability to embrace and realize intergenerational leadership.

Photo by Thomas Hirt” credit=” 

Ways for doing this will vary from organization to organization. In the case of the Club of Rome, however, 2013 has brought the opportunity to become a role model for intergenerational leadership closer than ever. With its recognizable brand, 30+ established chapters worldwide, numerous high-profile members (Mikhail Gorbachev, Kofi Annan and Al Gore have all been credited as current or former members), and sixty energetic, driven and accomplished young minds, they have everything it takes. The only missing ingredient: the commitment of the existing member base to embrace the Change Course initiative and to give it a lasting home at the Club of Rome mothership. Structurally, this could be done in two ways:

Club of Rome Fellowship Program

The Club of Rome could revive its long-term effort of fostering young thinkers from around the world. In 2001, the Club of Rome established tt30, a think tank with international membership composed of men and women around the age of 30. The idea was that tt30, from the perspective of a new generation, would work out an agenda of topics that the young members regard as central for the future development of the world (titled the “Web of the Problematique”) and indicate possible ways how to meet those challenges of tomorrow.

Today, however, tt30 no longer exists in its original format. At this point, merely the German branch is still in operation. Thus, with the benefit of experience and in the spirit of intergenerational exchange, one might want to conceive of a new fellowship program for former Change Course Conference participants instead; a program that combines rather than separates the young from the senior members of the think tank and enables fellows to engage in sustained analysis, research and writing.

Change Course Project Accelerator

In addition to enabling young thinkers through a fellowship program, the Club of Rome may also consider actively supporting young doers. This would be in line with their aim of strengthening their “role as a center of innovation and initiative.” One option could be to build a project acceleration pipeline out of the Change Course Conference. Inspired by the format of “Demo Day” at YCombinator (Silicon Valley’s most renowned start-up accelerator), the last day of the Change Course Conference could be an afternoon of project pitches in front of a Club of Rome expert jury. The jury members could subsequently pick a small number of projects that would undergo a three-months acceleration and mentorship program, starting immediately after the conference. The aim of this program for the Club of Rome would be to build a portfolio of high-impact projects while also realizing the best ideas stemming from the participants.

Whether organizations like the Club of Rome will embrace a more intergenerational leadership model in which “youth are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but also the partners of today,” remains to be seen. Economics 101 tells us that the drivers of sustainable development are those whose self-interest aligns most closely with the interest of the planet’s future. Undoubtedly, that’s the young people. So if the Club of Rome’s mission is to change the current economic growth paradigm towards a more sustainable one, they should start by putting those in charge that give a damn – about the planet as much as about themselves. Not because they’re better people than everyone else, but because their life is inextricably linked with the development of the next 80 years.

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