Reflecting the bigger picture with Knut Wimberger

Author Knut Wimberger Interviewed by Katja Hellkötter
Published September 2020
© Knut Wimberger

On Cities and their Evolutionary Purpose – A Brief Systemic Analysis by Knut Wimberger

Let’s start with a the big picture: What do you think is currently at stake? What is our calling as city-makers, as changemakers, as responsible individuals? As societies?

What is at stake? The survival of mankind. No more, no less. If we do not manage to prototype and scale a model for a sane society, we will exterminate ourselves. Does this sound too dark? Population scientists speak of a bottleneck event which leads to the drastic reduction of a population’s size. I believe that our current concept of cities is directly connected to this. What the researcher John Calhoun called “the behavioural sink” in his famous mouse experiments is a sad reality in many of the world’s urban spaces, where high population densities and low social standards emulate the conditions of the scientist’s experiments.

Erich Fromm, one of the greatest social psychologists of all time, once wrote a book called The Sane Society, in which he analyses how social systems impact the mental health of the individual. He examines the alienating effects of modern capitalism and offers his view on how to reorganise society.

What was not so obvious in 1955 has become an undeniable truth: there is a direct correlation between mental and environmental health. Individuals who are unbalanced, frustrated or depressed compensate for their unhappiness by consuming more and thus fuel the exploitation and degradation of our planet.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have observed an accelerating rise of mental health issues in developed nations. When Sigmund Freud treated Vienna’s bourgeois elite for its neurotic disorders and its discontent with civilization at the start of the 20thcentury, the global population hovered between one and two billion and had little impact on the state of the planet.

Today many populous developing nations have followed the Western growth paradigm and succeeded in moving unprecedented numbers of citizens out of poverty and into material affluence. China is only one albeit giant example of a nation which aims to concentrate more than 80% of its total population in cities – for the sake of boosting its GDP through inflated urban real estate markets.

Despite the economic benefits, a growing urban consuming class will exacerbate China’s and the world’s environmental problems. According to a World Bank study, China’s urban residents use three times as much energy as their rural counterparts. The tragic state of mental health has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis with a reported surge in child suicides.

Changemakers are called on to take a long, hard look at rapidly urbanizing regions and assess whether cities in their current form promote human and planetary wellbeing or not.

If you were to co-create a CITYMAKERS version 2.0, what impulses would you give? What potential do you see?

I would start with an analysis of the evolutionary purpose of cities and ask if this purpose has changed over the course of human existence. In my understanding, cities have traditionally been spaces where information and knowledge were created faster than in the countryside. As described by the author Stephen Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From“, cities have always played an important role in human evolution by connecting people and thus creating a space for innovation and creativity.

In the last few decades, however, exponential technological progress has reduced the importance of cities for the creation of information and knowledge, and we, as societies, need to refocus our attention on where wisdom can be harvested. This is all the more urgent since we have been witnessing an information flood as pointed out by culture critic Neil Postman in his well-known speech “Informing Ourselves to Death.

In some way cities have turned into deserts of consumption and many creatives are now seeking the solitude of the countryside to inspire and be inspired. Cities have lost their evolutionary value and therefore need to be rethought if they are to remain relevant in society, that is, other than as spaces which make it easy to control obedient citizens and loyal customers.

There is, however, much wisdom in what the author Erich Kästner writes in his children’s novel The Flying Classroom:

“Be they fir trees or factory chimneys, skyscrapers or mountains with eternal snow, be they cornfields or subway stations, Indian summer or telephone wires, crowded cinema palaces or green mountain lakes, be it city or country, I love both. And both deserve to be loved. What would one be without the other?”

Another way in which the evolutionary purpose of cities is being challenged is through gentrification. While earlier urban ecosystems attracted artists, creatives and young academics, gentrified cities with high rents and unaffordable real estate now stifle social mobility and deprive the ecosystem of its very meaning: to accelerate human interaction and innovation and thus generate progress.

Cities must therefore become more affordable and accessible again; at the same time country living must be made more attractive to city dwellers. High quality decentralized education and a better appreciation of work carried out in the countryside are two key ingredients for such a transformation. Some emerging technologies like 3D printing will do part of the job, but they won’t be able to substitute for the coffee houses of Vienna, Paris and Edinburgh in the 19thand 20thcenturies. People need to mingle physically in order to truly inspire each other. How will they be able to do so if city life becomes increasingly unaffordable and is ecologically and mentally not sustainable?

Erich Kästner made me wonder when we should live in cities, when in the countryside, and whether there are stages of human development which are more suitable to the one or the other. I ended up with a simple formula which combines insights from Eric Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development and Emile Durkheim’s vision of renewed social cohesion through action from occupational groups. While Erickson created a blueprint for the development of the human psyche, Durkheim foresaw a transformation of communities of kinship into communities of interest and passion.

I therefore propose rethinking the city and the country as spaces for specific age groups. Up to the age of 18 children and teenagers should ideally grow up in the countryside in order to connect properly with the planet and mature as human beings in a more stable social environment. Aged 18 to 35 we typically strengthen our identities, find intimacy and self-direct learning. It is during this period that we have the most energy to connect with many people and it is in cities that we have the opportunity to meet them. After age 35, a phase which Erickson calls generativity, i.e. taking responsibility or caring for someone else, people are usually occupied with parenting duties, which are easier to fulfill in the countryside. At this stage at the latest we should have decided what we want to do with the rest of our lives and be ready to move into smaller countryside communities.

China is a latecomer to industrialization and some of the scenarios described above are yet to play out there, but the country’s growing role in driving man-made global warming puts pressure on world leaders to develop a new international agreement on climate change that includes the booming Chinese economy. Yet it has proven difficult to reach a consensus with China on top-down policies. Bottom-up strategies might be the only realistic way to involve the Chinese population in an effort to avoid runaway climate change.

Over the years the CITYMAKERS network has grown into a real platform for European and Chinese individuals with diverse backgrounds and from all walks of life. It is a potential hotbed for such bottom-up strategies and could – if brought into play smartly – bring about a larger transformation.

After 20 years in China you are now moving back to Europe. What are you bringing with you as inspiration/enrichment? What are you looking forward to in Europe?

When I left Europe two decades ago, I was looking for a new way to view life, the world and myself. I have certainly found this perspective in Buddhism. Having been removed from my native culture for such a long time, I was also able to separate what I want to keep from what I want to give up, a process which Carl G. Jung calls individuation. I have dropped very unhealthy dietary habits like meat and alcohol consumption.

On my return to Europe, I am looking forward to a less intrusive state, lower population density, cultural diversity, and easy access to relatively unspoiled nature. In particular, I am looking forward to summer hikes and winter ski touring, and the opportunity to instill this love of active nature experiences in our children.

What is your personal vision for the future of living? And for (European and Chinese) learning communities?

In the last book I have read, a biography of Steve Jobs, a less important passage about his foster parents resonated strongly with me: “Like many who lived through the war, they had experienced enough excitement that, when it was over, they desired simply to settle down, raise a family, and lead a less eventful life.”

Twenty years of living in China did occasionally feel like a war. During my years in the corporate world, I definitely fought in the trenches of a business battlefield, but despite mental and physical exhaustion, I was always intellectually stimulated and intrigued. I have had enough, though, and my focus now is on raising our children in a healthy environment.

I didn’t find that environment in China, but I hope to find like-minded parents who want to connect a more liberal European society with enlightened elements of Chinese culture in transgenerational living and learning communities. Projects like the Garden of Generations are blazing a trail for such cohabitation; but there is still a long way to go until we make them both transgenerational and transcultural.

You are a member of the CITYMAKERS Accelerator project with the Green Steps ARK. What does your project intend to achieve? What is its vision? How fast did it accelerate in the last few months?

The ARK aims for a radical but gradual transformation of human behavioral architecture and the acceleration of environmental education. We have prototyped a gamified social network which drives offline community building and nature connection.

It has accelerated only marginally since we struggle with turning our concept and ideas into code. As a startup which operates at the intersection of ecology, education and IT, we believe in technology as an agent for social and environmental good, but like most other social entrepreneurs we are faced with the challenge of limited resources.

Green Steps © Knut Wimberger
Green Steps © Knut Wimberger
Green Steps © Knut Wimberger
Green Steps © Knut Wimberger
Green Steps © Knut Wimberger
Green Steps © Knut Wimberger

You are a systems thinker with an overview of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Shanghai and, to some extent, Berlin/Europe. What do you observe? Same same, but different? Which dots could be connected? How could we combine our efforts?

There is quite a bit of same same, but different. My main observation is that human beings, no matter whether they are politicians or social entrepreneurs, waste a lot of energy on communication. Even if intentions and mindsets are alike, there is too little mutual trust to transcend the current economic system and try out a new way of working together.

The ARK is therefore conceived as a platform which – like Airbnb – creates such mutual trust, but not – like Airbnb – in order to deprive national governments of tax revenue.  Rather, it aims to add social and environmental value to communities and commons.


English Editing: Heidi Kirk

About Knut Wimberger

Knut Wimberger was born in Austria in 1976 and studied law, psychology and sinology in Austria, Spain and China. He came to China for the first time in 2000 teaching English and German at Qiqihar University and in the city’s SOS Children’s Village. In 2005 he joined The Nature Conservancy in Kunming researching for his Juris Doctorate on the establishment of China’s first National Park, Pudacuo. After a decade in the technology and manufacturing industries, Knut merged his management experience and life-long interest in psychology to consult non-profit organizations and social enterprises on HR and organizational development issues. As co-founder and long-time board member of a Shanghai based non-profit kindergarten he learned first-hand that growing human potential starts early on. Knut therefore continued his training in Montessori early childhood education and now designs the environment to help children unfold their potential for Green Steps.