Global Citizen: Simon Anholt

“We need to change the culture of governance worldwide, from one that’s always been fundamentally competitive, to one that’s fundamentally collaborative.”

Simon Anholt is a singular visionary; an independent policy advisor with optimism and great heart. His childhood dream was to be a pop star or a novelist, and preferably both. Although today he is delightfully flippant about leaving a legacy, saying “Of course I hope to make things a little better for those who come after me but I don’t particularly care whether I’m remembered or not after I’m gone”, by a gentle stretch of the imagination you could say that he has practically realized his boyhood aspirations of fame and literary achievement. Among his many other impressive accomplishments, his two main TED talks were rated the third and sixth most inspiring TED talks of all time by TED viewers, and he has written and published five books on cultures, countries, and globalization, with a further book currently being written. When asked how much he values the success of his TED talks, both personally and professionally, Simon says: “A great deal. Sharing my thoughts with lots of people around the world is the most important thing for me.”

Although England is his birthplace, Simon grew up in the Netherlands until the age of five. His family then relocated to the UK countryside and, to this day, country walks, music, and literature are the pastimes he enjoys most when not hard at work on uplifting the world for the benefit of humanity. His mother was an academic who spoke Swedish and Finnish, while his father was a market research director who spoke German, French, and Italian (the latter two were also spoken fluently by his mother), and as a child, Simon was often in the company of people from far flung places who spoke an assortment of languages. These early experiences have molded him and today Simon says “I feel connected to everywhere I’ve ever been, and, strangely, to even more places I haven’t been!” — the hallmark of a true global citizen. Perhaps it was growing up in a plurilingual environment that provided the inspiration for his ultimate achievement — the Good Country; it certainly piqued his interest in all things foreign. After boarding school Simon completed an MA at Oxford University and a postgraduate course in Strategic Studies at the Royal College of Defence Studies, UK.

It was Simon’s paper on ‘Nation Brands of the 21st Century’, published in the Journal of Brand Management in 1998, that captured the attention of the media and public relations practitioners alike and came to shape the next stage of his life. He is accredited with being the founder of the concepts of nation brands and place brands, seeing them as being “simply another manifestation of how obsessed countries have become with their competitive edge, instead of focusing their energies on the system of which they are a part, and on which we all utterly depend”.

Instead, Simon prefers to focus on collaboration and cohesion rather than competition and division, believing that “we need to change the culture of governance worldwide, from one that’s always been fundamentally collaborative, to one that’s fundamentally cooperative”. He goes on to say that “cultural change, on this scale, is actually easier than systemic change, because it starts from the bottom rather than the top. Once the culture changes, the systems have to change in order to accommodate the new behaviors”. Between 2000 and 2012, Simon traversed the globe, advising the leaders of more than 50 countries about how they could engage more productively with the rest of the international community, and he came to realize that their ability to cooperate and collaborate with other countries to tackle the grand challenges of our age were more often than not obstructed by the national interest.

Encouragingly, this work also revealed to him that “the vast majority of politicians in conventional political systems are admirable people trying their very hardest to do increasingly difficult jobs. The big hurdle they face is finding ways to harmonize domestic and international responsibilities and to demonstrate as well as convey to their own populations that this is not only possible but necessary and beneficial”. Enter the Good Country Index. Launched in 2014, the aim of the Good Country Index is to measure just this — how successful countries are at harmonizing their domestic and international responsibilities. The results, however, were disappointing as, according to Simon, “almost none of them did this consistently”, so in 2016, he and Madeline Hung decided that a new kind of country was needed in order to model the behaviors that no traditional countries seemed capable of sustaining.

This led to Simon and co-founder Madeline launching the Good Country in September 2018. He describes the Good Country as “a territory-free nation with (ultimately) many millions of citizens from all around the world, whose purpose is to make the world work better”. Anybody, anywhere can sign up to become a citizen of the Good Country, and even more inspiring is that Simon and his colleague Robert Govers used the World Values Survey to estimate that “around 700 million adults share the Good Country’s basic values: feeling that one is a citizen of the world first, and a citizen of one’s own nation second; feeling that global problems are at least as important, if not more so, than domestic ones; a natural curiosity about other cultures and races; an instinctive feeling that prejudice is wrong; a tendency to look at individuals rather than group them”. The Good Country’s intention is “to start building a new culture in the international community, where cooperation and collaboration are more highly prized (and more imaginatively and courageously practiced) than competition — by voters as well as by governments”.

Although Simon says his plan is “to get the population of the Good Country to our interim target of 700 million, and then go and live in a cave”, we certainly hope that he changes his mind. His belief that many people desire more connection with the international community, despite what many politicians claim, was recently borne out by a 2019 poll for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, which showed remarkable support globally for international collaboration, immigration, and the personal benefits from globalization. The tide is turning and the world undoubtedly needs more committed, active, proactive global citizens like Simon Anholt.

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