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A World of Difference: Cambridge Global Conversations

25 Sept 2019

A Conversation with DVC’s Daniel Fung SC, QC, GBS, JP, FCIArb

Many of today’s most fundamental conversations about global problems take place in an echo-chamber where only existing perceptions are reinforced. CGC, the newly set up education platform, seeks to redress this by illuminating complex and multi-layered problems with a view to delivering innovative insights and strategically disseminating the conversation to promote engagement.

In this interview with DVC’s Daniel Fung SC, the Founding Chair of CGC, he touches upon everything from climate change to the purpose of life, in discussing the mission and vision of CGC.

He explains that we need a recalibration and reaffirmation of human strengths and ethics to transcend the issues we currently face.

Des Voeux Chambers (DVC): What is the genesis of Cambridge Global Conversations? When was it established?

Daniel Fung (DF):  CGC is a broad effort that came about after talking to different specialists hailing from different disciplines. The Conversations which attempt to draw in millions, are catalysts for change and the idea behind it is to resolve myriad existential challenges confronting us today. The 19th century Russian writer Alexander Herzen coined the phrase “the pregnant widow”. This is a very evocative statement which primarily means that the child (without his/her father) will eventually be born into a world which is full of uncertainty. We therefore have a moral imperative to create an environment which will be most conducive to the baby’s survival.

This inspirational phrase led to thinking about the current world order and a contemplation of how the nation state arose as a result of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Treaty served a very useful purpose because it ended the 30 year war; the most vicious, serious and destructive conflict in Europe between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Movement. This kick-started the precedent of peace by diplomatic congress, and interstate aggression was held in check by a balance of power. Norms were established against interference with another state’s domestic affairs. And these precepts ulimately became central to international law.

However, today, we know that the nation state is actually an impediment to solving the world’s biggest problems so it is in this context that CGC was conceived – over a gestation period of 6 years. CGC was set up in July of this year.

DVC: What is CGC’s mission and vision?

DF: CGC’s purpose is to address existential challenges to humankind in the biosphere which lie beyond the ability of individual nation states to resolve. No matter how powerful the US and China – not even supranational organisations like the EU have been able to tackle these issues successfully.

This is why I propose we need to overhaul the current global architecture to address these far-reaching concerns including climate change, the advent of AI (which will lead to the obsolescence of employment,) resource scarcity and unchecked migration. The question then becomes, with a loss of employment – what does it mean to be human? And what is the meaning of life because even if you’re lucky enough to live in a developed country rich enough to provide a minimum income – what do you do with your life? These problems very much affect the next generation. And it’s their world we are looking out for.

DVC: Where is CGC based and who are the collaborators/key players involved?

DF:  As the name implies, Cambridge University is, if you like, the mothership for CGC. However, we host conferences in various locations around the world. This summer’s Summit for example was held in Aspen on climate change.

There are four main interlocutors, in addition to myself,  and they have very different backgrounds. By pooling together people with niche expertise – this makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. We want to achieve something holistic and interdisciplinary and through the lens of each of these individual experiences and their specialist expertise, we can explore different forms of governance. The founding members include myself as Founding Chair as well as:

1) Stephen Toope – Vice Chancellor of Cambridge

2) Lord Martin Rees – Astronomer Royal, Founder of the Centre of Study of Existential Risk, (CSER), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge

3) Julian Hubbard – Molecular Scientist, DNA specialist and Director of the Intellectual Forum

4) John Barker – Cambridge Governance Labs, Centre of Governance & Human Rights

DVC: How does CGC seek to include an audience that is increasingly made up of Millenials, Generation Z and what some are calling the Alpha Generation (the new cohort born after 2015) who are deeply invested in issues with current and long-term effects like climate change and employment etc?

CGC is about pulling millions into a wider conversation with a view to actioning problems that impact Gen Y, millenials and Gen Z. In order to resonate with increasingly younger generations, we disseminate our message via social media and through blogs given shorter attention spans.

To this end, we also have a volunteer group in Hong Kong steered by graduates from different disciplines. They are young, in their 20s and passionate. We are lucky to have them.

The platform is generously funded by a few donors. One is The Layden-Shimberg Foundation and its associate UK Education Charity – the WEL Foundation (World Ethics & Leadership Foundation). We’ve also brought in another very powerful outfit called Nexus. They are made up of millennials and Gen Z, who have inherited very substantial wealth. They’re a robust cohort in their 20s and 30s who wield money and influence. And importantly, they want to shift the needle. They are in a position to put their trust funds to work. Nexus is hugely supportive of what we do.

In order to stay relevant, we need to continually include millennial and other voices in our conversations and this needs funding to keep the flywheel going. You cannot shift the needle without funding and resources. Nexus has been very useful in this regard because they divest and then invest and by that I mean, they can pull funds out of a venture (e.g. fossil fuels) and channel this into, say, hydrogen because this is an eco-friendly alternative source that has the potential to meet a range of energy needs.

Twitter Quote:

DVC: CGC seems to be sideways political – can it be characterised as an NGO? In what ways is it different e.g. funding etc? 

DF: It is similar to an NGO yes. But the focus is on education. We’re very careful to ensure that CGC is not a pressure group. We present the facts and ask our audience to decide but we don’t try to lobby. So that’s the big difference.

We also steer clear of anything hierarchical. CGC is not siloed. We make it known that everyone’s voice is legitimate. That way we don’t alienate millennials, Gen Y or Gen Z because ultimately it is their world we are dealing with.

In terms of funding, as I mentioned, we are supported by The American Foundation, Nexus and a UK registered company which originally started as a 501(c). This then became WEL  (World Ethical Leadership.) They emphasise ethical leadership in business and politics. This resonates because of the ethical dimension associated with combating climate change. There is usually much more of an emphasis on the tech side of climate change vs. the ethical aspects so the WEL Foundation is distinct in that regard. In addition, 50% of our funding comes from a mainland couple. This was a pleasant surprise. I am in constant fund-raising mode but I don’t mind; I find it gratifying.

We’re catalysts in a broad conversation. Given that CGC has already demonstrated it has legs, and we believe that success breeds success, this continues to attract money and donors’ investment as well as more like-minded people. It snowballs and we’re very gratified that we’ve also had people approach us to ask how they can help.

DVC: It is easy to talk the talk but how do you walk the walk?

DF: Firstly, input is evaluated on the merits, not on the reputation of the speaker. This way the dialogue remains authentic.

We do not use slideshows as they are very stilted. After all, what do graphs really mean? We look for more dynamic ways to express ourselves and to continue the dialogue.

The set up of our conferences is very different. Many have said it’s unlike any other conference they have ever been to, because of the way this is structured. There’s no podium, there are no lectures and there is no Q&A because this is extremely stilted. It’s not conducive to having a real conversation. So it’s actually one enormous round table. The result is it is refreshing, completely horizontal, and importantly everybody is engaged.

The conversations are meant to act as catalysts for change for a broader audience involving millions. The point is not to educate the elites because that is when you ignore the 99%; the knock-on effect of which is a backlash. These are how and why many problems arise because the 99% are alienated and this has resulted in an unhealthy dichotomy. People need to be enfranchised and empowered in order to create a level playing field.

With experts from such a diverse range of backgrounds, we are able to have honest conversations.

The ethical dimension underpins much of what we discuss but there are different forks in the road too. There is an element of spiritual leadership as well.

DVC: How do you set an agenda, how do you establish goals and objectives and then achieve them in a realistic time-frame?

DF: That’s a very good question.  CGC is still very much in its start-up stage. However, initially we wanted a declaration at the end of the conference. It didn’t work as effectively as we thought, because everybody wanted their own particular pet point being made, and this then became extremely long and unmanageable so we’ve scrapped that. What we’re going to do instead is roll out blogs so we can channel feedback. The feedback we get will set the agenda for the next round. This way it is more meaningful and is based on a collective voice.

We currently have the Head of Social Media, Kaitlyn Tosh, from The Economist pulling through these strands, which are stripped away from the blog. She then parlays this into something that we can tangibly use. She also acts as a moderator.  We are far from the World Economic Forum but we feel that many of these old structures have lost credibility because they are no longer relevant. CGC is more dynamic.

DVC: What topics have you addressed and what will you address over the course of the next year?

DF: Climate change really resonates and we have looked at the ethical dimensions of it. We held our inaugural 4 day Summit (AREDAY)  in Aspen this Summer at the American Renewable Energy Institute, of which I am Vice Chair. The Summit covered extensive ground with titles that included Y on Earth, New Frontiers in Energy Efficiency, Economically Sustainable Carbon Capture and Quantifying the Cost of Adaptation. With climate change, there is a lot we can do in everyday life but will we put our money where our mouth is? Will we actually stop eating meat to reduce methane emissions? We have Impossible Meat. We can create meat in a lab so we know we already have the ability to prevent cruelty to animals. But we have to ensure that the rubber meets the road to enact positive change.

Next year we will tackle AI. The conference will be held in Oxford and at Harvard.

AI may facilitate a whole host of things but it also shades off into personal life. It is a massive topic with huge ethical dimensions.

We will have an update on this after next year’s Summit… so watch this space

DVC: So often we start with a negative, e.g. the uphill battle we face with climate change. We have already also seen Indonesia for example shift its capital to Borneo as a direct result of rising water levels and the physical impact of the weight of development and infrastructure on Jakarta.  Is this something we will see more of (i.e. human brinkmanship with nature) before we take action? Is CGC the vehicle that will give us a reason to stay positive and be hopeful about the future when we there are so many challenges on the horizon? 

DF SC: Life is not static. And I think the key message is that we don’t want to rest on our laurels because this is not a battle we fight once and then breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s ongoing and we want to build on whatever we achieve at CGC.

What we don’t want to do is characterize this as a Sisyphean battle where one is seen as pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back again i.e. something laborious and futile. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be complacent. Look at what’s happening in the atmosphere right now. Look at the Amazon.  This is not something we can be complacent about.

DVC: The book and TV show the Handmaid’s Tale, which some say is even more relevant today is an eerily prescient look into our future. With the current political backdrop we have, abortion laws in the US and a potential abrogation of Roe v Wade on the cards – some may cynically see CGC as a moon-shot. What can we do to help the cause?

The same can be said about Roe v Wade. We currently have a level of globalization in the world that is second to none in human history. The benefit of this is that we are integrated and therefore so connected. 90% of humanity, at least in the developed world, have not benefited from globalization.  This means that only 10% have. However, there is populist push back. And therefore we can’t announce the obsolescence of Westphalia because people will invariably have a very different vision, because they want to fight for something that is familiar.

I think the answer, which is clearly inclusive globalization, is something we need to work at. We can’t just say, that globalization has more on the plus side of the ledger than on the negative side therefore we’re fine – because we are not.

It is also easy to whitewash what is happening in HK now and attempt to dismiss the battles between the black shirts vs. the white shirts and call them reactionary champions of their cause. It is easy to deplore action. But this sentiment is not enough. There needs to be an attitudinal change. There are some things we can’t change, but there are some things we can. We can help with economic inequality, for example.

I believe our work is cut out for us.  As I said, we don’t want to posit a Sisyphean prognosis, but we can’t be complacent so the way to rally people is to be inclusive, not just in terms of how we live as a society, but also in terms of what people can do. This, I believe, goes towards the definition of happiness and ties into what I said earlier about finding a purpose in life. We need to be able to transcend our individual constraints. If we can make a small difference, and dedicate our energy towards something we believe in, we can move the needle, if only a little bit. We’re the lucky ones, we’re not living on the bread line, we’re not living on a knife’s edge of starvation – we have a surplus in terms of energy, in terms of intellectual ability, and therefore there is a moral obligation to do something to redress the balance.

So the message I would like to convey is that it is good for us (and for our happiness levels!) to get involved. CGC fights against disenfranchisement, dissolution, and alienation. So what better way to combat alienation than to be engaged in something that is not only worthwhile, but something that is essential.

We’re fighting for jobs, future survival, our children and our grandchildren.

Want to hear more about CGC and how you might get involved? Click on the link below to view Daniel’s video

Daniel Fung SC can be reached at

Paul Harding, Operations Manager at Cambridge Global Conversations, can be reached at