Berggruen Institute / 2020-2021 Fellows

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Institute Fellow Jingfang Hao, speaking at a “Future Humans” panel event in San Francisco with alumni BI Fellow John Markoff and sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson

Institute Fellow Jingfang Hao, speaking at a “Future Humans” panel event in San Francisco with alumni BI Fellow John Markoff and sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson

The Downtown Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, a think tank whose objective is to reconstruct our political future in the midst of the challenges faced by capitalist structures and globalization, has announced its sixth cohort of innovative Fellows for 2020-2021. The Fellowship program provides funding for nine cross-disciplinary researchers and artists to (typically) cohabitate in Los Angeles, immersed in collaborative work. 

2020 also marks the announcement of Beggruen’s partnership with the University of Southern California Dornsife Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life, whose research focal points align greatly with Beggruen’s four embedded programs: The Future of Capitalism, The Future of Democracy, Globalization and Geopolitics, and the Transformation of the Human. 

The Fellows will work on projects of their own, in conjunction with a project under one of these main categories in order to utilize their previous leadership and research experience to advance major political frameworks, some of which could be translated into model legislation. The class of Fellows will curate books, academic workshops, and articles during the duration of their Fellowships.

FLAUNT was privileged to sit down with Nils Gilman, Vice President of Programs of the Berggruen Institute, and Andrew Lakoff, Professor of Sociology at USC Dornsife and initial Berggruen partner, to discuss some of the forthcoming Fellowship projects, and how the Fellows’ work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Can you tell me more about the Fellowship program?

Nils: It has been around for six years now. We’ve been bringing Fellows to Los Angeles in partnership with USC Dornsife. This year we’re happy to have a vibrant class, even though COVID-19 is making it hard for Fellows to co-locate in Los Angeles. The general purpose of the program is to support the four programs that the Berggruen Institute does research in: The Future of Capitalism, The Future of Democracy, Globalization and Geopolitics, and the Transformation of the Human. We partner with policy organizations and nonprofits. The Fellowship program is where we bring in subject-matter experts who are able to advance the intellectual agenda of the programs we’re producing.

How will the Fellows be working under remote conditions?

Nils: It’s definitely a challenge. Fellows who come here are generally doing two things at once: their own project and working with us on projects we have independently. We’re now doing this collaborative work by Zoom, and it’s not as good as in person. We continue to write things together and do intellectual work, but the one thing that is missing is the in-person meetings.

What is the process of selection for Fellows?

Andy: The first step is for potential Fellows to apply through our portal. Once a number of people have applied (we usually get close to 200 applications) we have a selection committee composed of USC professors and a Berggruen representative. We talk over the qualifications and the plausibility of the projects they’re doing, to see if it’s in alignment with Berggruen projects.

How was the partnership formed with USC Dornsife?

Andy: As Berggruen sought to increase its expansion in Los Angeles, it looked for a major research university to partner with. It seemed to be a great fit on USC’s side, because our faculty is interested in meeting and working with the Fellows and because of USC’s general interest in being involved in intellectual life in the public square. 

Nils: There’s a great deal of intellectual complementarity. Particularly as USC Dornsife is taking a much more robust approach to civic engagement and connecting intellectual research to public life is a natural synergistic fit to Berggruen’s goals. 

Is there a particular research project you’re excited about that one of the Fellows will be working on?

Nils: Aneesh Aneesh is currently working on modular citizenship. Citizenship currently comes as a bundle, you have the right to work, vote, and travel in America. That bundle varies from place to place. He is looking at places where there are modular versions of citizenship, and you can become a partial citizen. For example, you can get a long-term permit, and work, even within the United States. So he is thinking about that conceptually where people can get different kinds of mobility across the globe.

Andy: We have Claire Webb, a recent PhD from MIT who is an anthropologist, who hangs out with scientists and sees how they think about the world, make their objects, and develop their ideas. She is going to be a part of the “Transformation of the Human” program and study engineers and scientists who are building new AI systems with ethical principles in conditions of uncertainty. 

How do you see the role of the Berggruen Institute changing in the midst of COVID-19 and looking towards the future?

Nils: We have a research component, a publishing component, and convenings where we bring people together. The publishing piece has not been disrupted by COVID-19, and the research is more challenging. How do you actually sit with AI scientists in labs when no one is going into labs anymore? That is a part that becomes much more challenging. The part that gets really disrupted is the convening piece. We used to fly in people all over the world as a part of our theory of change, to put scientists and policymakers in a room together to provoke a dialogue and cross-fertilization. Our ability to do that has been significantly compromised. We’ve been trying to create a sense of community with our fellows, and we definitely had the idea that certain Fellows might work well together. We imagined in advance the types of conversations we wanted to curate. We were also hoping to bring the Fellows on campus more, and integrate them into the USC intellectual community and broader intellectual community of Los Angeles as a whole.