In Memoriam Hugo Thiemann (1917 – 2012) …

On June 10th 2012 Hugo Thiemann left us. With him one of the 20th century's most innovative Swiss scientist and thinker has passed away.

Born in the village of Heiden (1917), graduated as electrical engineer from ETH Zurich in 1939, he obtained his doctorate in applied physics from the same university in 1947.

  Photo shoot in 1994 by Marion Lindecker

Thiemann's contribution to the conquest of new knowledge and working methods is most praiseworthy. Pioneer in the TV large screen technology (EIDOPHOR) during the late 30th and 40th - a technology eventually used by NASA during Apollo's moon missions - he was offered to join the Oppenheimer US Manhattan nuclear research team. However, preferring to be part of the newly created Geneva based US "Institut Battelle" research organization he returned to Switzerland in 1953. Appointed head of this large private R&D establishment in 1956, he was closely involved in numerous break-through developments. Amongst these let us mention his contribution to the initial engineering works for the French rapid rail mass-transportation project TGV - in fact French SNCF railroad staff called him "Monsieur TGV." Active in numerous research and development projects in the automotive industry (Fiat, Volkswagen), in leading elevator industry (Schindler) Thiemann's Institut Battelle R&D contracts activity covered prestigious names as Philips, Nestlé, Gebr. Sulzer, Brown Boveri & Cie, SMH, etc.

Yet going beyond these great origination deeds, Thiemann wanted to explore processes that could improve overall human conditions. An extension to his professional career, his caring Weltanschauung motivated him to partner with two other similar visionaries - Aurelio Peccei (Fiat) and Alexander King (OCDE) - and launch the Club of Rome in 1968.

Coming well ahead of that time's "unlimited consumption growth" ideology, the Club of Rome co-founders - to which adhered many other reputed names - called for a more cautious exploitation of planet earth resources. Forcefully developed by MIT's scientist Jay W. Forrester and his assistant Dennis Meadows' bestselling book "The Limits to Growth" (1972), the Club of Rome warning call contributed to a new paradigmatic planet earth existential survivability approach. The idea was to ask countries to limit their ever-greater aspiration for economic growth (and population progression) in order not to waste or spoil the limited existing natural resources has proven in time correct. However, confronting prevailing "growth wisdom," the Club of Rome warning call was met stiff resistance.

Over time, realities always surface above self-rewarding utopian certitudes. Gradually penetrating the minds and hearts of millions of people around the world, the need for more environmental and non-renewable resources utilization respect eventually generated tenth of thousands of different "green tainted" organizations. Suddenly, in the late 80th it became important for politicians to speak of environment, pollution, sustainability, controlled growth, human justice and economic rigor, etc. A more globalist and humanist societal attitude emerged, triggering the demand for new checks and balance rules. Yet, again, despite of much talk, UN sponsored world conferences in Rio, Tokyo, Durban, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, little materialized so far because the weight of old decision-making policies prevails over realities-based logic "change course" imperatives. Moreover, as is the case often in human endeavors, overshooting the initial goal the "green" momentum became for many either a profit-generating "market industry" or a new partisan ideology that must be imposed as "unique new mainstream thinking." Similarly, instead of keeping a steady course along the initial Club of Rome's humanist mission statement, the organization gradually became a mere networking club, surfacing over events and unwilling to address seriously the substance of fundamentals that cause problems to humanity.

Focused on improving global human conditions, until his death on last June tenth, Thiemann did not accept the dominating short-term "gains at all costs" nor the opportunistic green tainted "parasitic interest groups diversions" to use one of his terms. Convinced that the planet's asset protection is a universal moral obligation, common to all of the world's "we the people" and thus extending well above any sort of politics, Thiemann wanted, to determine in a scientific way why "despite of A. Peccei, J. Forrester, A. King, the Meadows and others - including some statesmen and former reputable central bankers - the Club of Rome genuine warning messages were not taken into account by decision makers." *1

*1 Thiemann's mail to Club of Rome Secretary General Mr. Martin Lees - Geneva, November 3rd. 2009.

Valuing since my university years Hugo and the Club of Rome founder's foresight wisdom, I met him for the first time in 1982. Sharing interest on the question why threatening realities are systematically by-passed by the mainstream order, we worked together on the issue of Governance since 1996 until a few weeks before his passing.

Our main assumption is that human conditions depend, in almost all cases; on the correct understanding of actual realities so that consequently appropriate decision-making and decision implementing methods can be utilized. This complex process is defined as "Governance". Hence, rather than caused by external "natural or genetic evolution, human or metaphysical" driven forces - as often claimed, the "actual" change in human conditions results "in fine" from the way Governance procedures are conducted.

Societies face constantly changing circumstances which in turn create different asymmetric challenges. Hence, applying "old governance ideas" based on outdated or imaginative self-rewarding certitudes to solve "new complex problems" inevitably lead to ruinous results. In early 1997, to give an example, Thiemann invited Mr. Paul Volker, former US Federal Reserve Chairman, to address the subject "The Capital Market and the Real Economy" at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich. The speaker exposed in a clear manner the many inevitable financial crises that were looming because of imaginative accounting and electoral-driven short-term decision-making that had no real links with actual on-the-ground actualities. Here again, coming against mainstream's official doctrines "everything is fine as long as growth is there", Volker's gloomy outlooks - which materialized few years later in dramatic ways - were simply ignored by leaders and media.

This self-imposed realities-occultation pathology is unfortunately not the sole attribute of the financial world; it concerns all human activities from politics to education, culture or religion. Rather than the absence of erudition, it is generally the deficit of civil courage that pushes decision-makers to avoid acknowledging publicly that essentials have changed and that this inevitably requires new policymaking and policy-implementing logics.

In fact, all along antic or modern time's history, this dichotomy between "new realities and old-certitudes-driven decisions" generated tragedies. Inscribed in all cultures, the negative effects of such pathological flaw were maintained to some extend under local control - and thus less contagious - prior to the globalization age. Yet this situation changed radically as "on line" interdependence and the enormous cross-border challenges render society quarantining futile. Flawed governance, even in remote parts of the world will therefore inevitably impact many other "we the planet's people" stakeholders. During the last decades, most problems as the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars, climate change, technology bubbles, Subprime and the different credit crisis, Arab world's evident democracy deficit, Fukushima, high unemployment or the Euro and Greek crisis to name a few cases that preoccupied Hugo, inevitably result from the timing discrepancy between the initial problem identification and when corrective process change are actually applied.

In an Open Letter addressed to the Club of Rome presidency in April 2010 Thiemann observed that "far ahead of hunger, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, pandemic, resources depletions, environmental or debt generated devastations: poor governance is the prime triggering factor for these disasters! Yet, the big question that is immediately asked is how can a new more promising Governance Process be drafted?" *2

*2 "Open Letter to the Club of Rome Members- Subject: Back to the Basic "Raison d'Être" of the Club of Rome" - Geneva, 22. April 2010 - sent to the Club of Rome Management.

*3 Together with UNITAR and the third-world specialized NGO "Centro de Estudios Economicos y Sociales del Tercer Mundo" (CEESTEM), Peccei organized an international conference at the UN Headquarters in May 1980. Despite of the UN being a purely Nation State structured system; the conference's conclusion was almost unanimously in favor of a new world order based on transnational regionalization.

*4 Aurelio Peccei, "Die Zukunft in unsere Hand" Verlag Molden 1981, page 173.

To tackle this question back in 1997, inspired by A. Peccei group's 1980 earlier works on UN institutional weaknesses*3 and by our own analysis on the world's most prominent civilization's evolution pathways, we assumed that amongst others, two key governance blocking factors needed addressing:

  • Firstly, the exaggerated utilization of the "Nation State" canon that forms the UN's Charter core structure. Infested by the "virus of sovereignty" to use a Peccei term,*4 the ghetto-like entrenched UN basic "Nation State" reference reduces accordingly the decision-making attributes of "we the people" world majority stakeholders. Whilst appropriate following WWII, as recurrently demonstrated, today's UN Governance operating system is not anymore warranted to handle efficiently and with justice present asymmetric crisis situations.
  • Secondly, the over-weighted inherited religious certitudes that are systemically hindering pious institutions to engage their resources' in the needed moral reforms. Due to their "old behavioral norms" frozen guardianship attitude, these institutions are unable to efficiently exercise their spiritual and moral therapeutic duties, thus preventing billion of people of the moral support required to engage in the 21st century mindset change effort.

Aware that questioning both blocking factors was political mainstream thinking off-limit - not to say taboo - and therefore required the build-up of a courageous debate platform, Thiemann tried to revive what Peccei called "the adventure of the spirit" that defined the initial informal non-hierarchy Club of Rome ideology-free and transcultural thinking quest.

During the organization's 40th anniversary celebration in Rome (2008) Hugo delivered a vibrant speech calling for the Club to focus back on its "tackling the problems of human kind" core "raison d'être" instead of being diverted into prestigious stereotyped schemes mostly conform to trendy mainstream thinking. As a first salutary step, he saw the need to deliberate within the Club, on the downsizing the UN Organization system into decentralized transnational sub-systems where Nation State privileges would be watered down to their real "we the peoples" related size. Instead of accentuating further world divisions through the "Nation State" dogma, he called for a more federative Planet Earth vision of the future.*5 However, Hugo's iconoclastic yet logical call was too much to cope with for the already UN bureaucratic culture boxed-in Club of Rome management.

*5 Hugo Thiemann " From Past Experience to Future's Outlook " Rome June 15th 2008, thiemann.pdf

Resilient but determined, Thiemann approached in parallel Swiss Federal authorities (2009) seeking their opinion on the creation of a "Governance Think Tank and Debate Platform" by Swiss private parties that included academics, jurists and experienced neutral political personalities. In reply Bern suggested us to join the World Economic Forum's world governance reform "Global Redesign Initiative"(GRI) launched in Davos 2009 under the patronage of the governments of Qatar, Singapore and Switzerland - but evidently remotely-guided in our opinion by US interests. Moreover, it became rapidly clear that whilst the WEF is a formidable social networking industry tool that can mobilize thousands of "opinion leaders" and "governance experts" around the world, its centralized idea control system, firmly engaged in satisfying sponsor relations, hinders any non-conformist concept to emerge and develop.

Undeterred by the GRI's inability to generate a real global redesign momentum and considering that governance weaknesses are ultimately the most lethal triggering factors leading to all human disasters - with his caustic humour, referring to Iraq, Hugo considered these policy-decision frailties as "the mother of all weapons of mass destructions" - we explored the possibility of launching yet another Swiss humanitarian inspired governance think tank and guidelines capacity-building initiative. Notionally similar to Henry Dunant's Red Cross institution, our "Swiss project" as Hugo used to call it, intends helping needing communities to elaborate appropriate full-fledge governance processes - in line with the same philosophical approach used by the International Red Cross Committee relief effort to wounded and distressed people.

The rationale behind the concept is that confronted to tragedies and rising demands from countries and civil societies for knowing more about the whole governance process - ranging from the identification of new challenges to decision-making, implementing as well as transparency and accountability mechanics - it is so to say "normal" for experienced, privileged and apolitical Swiss resources to deliver a sort of standard governance capacity-building "first aid kit" - that will have to be adapted to the local backgrounds.

In Thiemann's vision, this adaptation exercise will eventually lead to the advent of franchised "local (national) governance capacity-building committees," thus establishing an international network of governance capacity-building enhancing institutions. The works of these local committees should reduce considerably the numerous risks generated by present pitiable decision-making occurrences. Moreover, it would also contribute, once the capacity-building dynamic in place, to the drafting of a Geneva International Governance Conventions - a prerequisite for initiating the existentially vital mutation from the present old "Nation State" ghetto UN regime to a globalized federative and humanist new world-order body.

During the last year of his life, weakened by illness, Hugo nevertheless showed continuously great interest for my personal involvement in trying to assist our Egyptian friends in defining a new more democratic and decentralized governance system for their country.

It is maybe a sign of destiny that the boy born in the same village of Heiden which saw seven years earlier the passing of the Red Cross founder, Geneva born Henri Dunant, has gone, right until a few days before his own death 95 years later in Geneva, a major step forward in the complex analysis of the existential challenges hurting humanity. While Dunant tried to heal human mistake's blood-spattered consequences, Hugo tried to deal with the root causes of these blunders. Relentlessly pioneering for the improvement of human conditions, he drafted prophylactic suggestions incorporating Dunant's apolitical international solidarity as well as Swiss tradition inspired humanitarian principles.

Never shy to tackle known problematic issues that others by-passed, Hugo Thiemann has left us, yet the pathway to the future, he and visionaries as A. Peccei, A. King and other non-conformist humanists have outlined will certainly live on. As people get more aware of the existential need to address dynamic time-related logic rather than established "unique-truth" based certitudes, Hugo's and his-likes profound humanistic foresight will hopefully become central for the design of a peaceful Planet Earth survival conduit.

Alexandre Starker

Geneva, July 10th, 2012


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