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Themes

Our research contributions are awarded in the following areas:

Why these topics?

Our topics are shaped by the Sunflower discussion group (money:critical), which we accompanied for ten years, and as formulated by Eske Bockelmann. This concerns the first six topics. Handling risks and dealing with new financial technologies requires a lot of research, too. An example is the discussion on loosening the government’s money monopoly. The following texts will give you an idea about the projects we support.

Last edit:13/11/2019

The evolution of modern-day money

“We’re short of gold, well fine, so fetch some then,” the emperor tells Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, Part Two. He does not anticipate the wheels he sets in motion. Mephistopheles proceeds to action and literally fires up the money printing press. But the backing of his new paper money is powerful: up until then, the gold used to strike coins had born the value of its own material. Now, “as a secure pledge“, the banknotes are backed by mineral resources, which the emperor lays claim to as a precautionary measure, that have not yet been extracted, but are assumed to exist. The ruler himself deems this a scam and candidly ponders why anyone would accept the paper money in the first place. But his printed word is valid and the kingdom’s financial issues appear to have been resolved. We, as enlightened people, of course know: this will not succeed in the long run. And indeed, a little later, the Three Mighty Warriors enter the stage: Bullyboy, Grab-quick und Hold-tight, the epitomes of violence, avarice, and greed.

So much for the literary background. Throughout the course of history, money certainly did not just appear with the flick of a wand. However, there is one thing Goethe did not get completely wrong: it was in the early modern period, around 1600, that money, as we know it today, developed.

During the Middle Ages and in all pre-modern societies – e.g. in ancient Greece, in Rome, and in Celtic tribes – these forms of payment were partof the general economy, but they were only one part of it after all. They lacked the all-encompassing nature they adopted in the modern period. Back in the day, economy served the purpose of providing all of the essentials. Along with purchasing items by using money, people also exchanged goods and produced a lot of what was needed on their own.

Just as the emperor in Faust complained, modern-day economy cannot get enough of money. In our modern societies, money defines the value of everything and is the only factor that enables the general supply of goods. Those who do not own any money are practically excluded from any form of societal participation and, ultimately, survival. Vast amounts of money are needed. This unprecedented constellation of modern-day economy allowed for money to multiply of its own accord as capital that reproduces itself in sometimes inexplicable and seemingly magical ways.

The Swiss sociologist Adlo Haesler has been conducting research on this topic for forty years. He has already published several monographs that include thought-provoking ideas worth following and analyzing further. The linguist and literary scholar Eske Bockelmann, too, has opened a window that allows us to approach this topic from a completely different point of view. He connects the development of our present-day understanding of beat and rhythm to the altered significance and role of money in the modern period. While it goes without saying that we equate the rhythm of a musical piece with its beat, people perceived it in an entirely different way until 1600!

This field is particularly relevant and pivotal as it does not only concern the question of how capitalist economic activities developed. It is also the basis for other questions the Sunflower Foundation is seeking answers to: How does this way of using money affect societies? How does it affect us as individuals?

At the end of the story, Faust is saved, because as the angels cry: “Whoever strives, in his endeavor, We can rescue from the devil.” But what do we want this striving to look like and where do we want it to go in terms of monetary economy? This remains a far-reaching field of research.

 

Last edit:01/11/2019

Time and Money

“Time is money!” As ever-present as this notion is, it is wrong nevertheless. It implies, vice versa, that money equals time. One could argue at this point that money is, in a sense, the time you invest in your own work and which you will then be paid for in money. Every employee has their own opinion on whether or not their boss has adequately converted the time they spent at their workplace every day into money. So far, so good. Even so: We can’t use money to purchase more time and we can’t save time for the future.

Michael Ende’s novel “Momo” exemplifies the absurdity of this idea of saving time for future use better than any scientific analysis. I am going to work longer today so that I have more time on my hands tomorrow. Of course, we can “save up” for a sabbatical this way. But who can say for sure they’re going to live to enjoy their retirement, which they’re slaving away for, anyway? This is how the Men in Grey in “Momo”, the agents of the Timesavings Bank, make their money.

All of this is made possible simply because money forms the basis of our entire economy and the life of society. Yet, this hasn’t always been the case. The idea, too, that rhythm is strictly determined by a certain beat, may be self-evident today. But the literary scholar Eske Bockelmann has proven that this predominance of the musical beat developed in the same century that also saw the evolution of our “modern” money – namely the early 17th century.

The question of what role we assign to money in our world cannot be detached from the question of how we interpret time. Einstein taught us that time is not absolute. Time is relative. As soon as we dismiss the claim to absoluteness of time, we can resort to dealing with other notions of time in a much more relaxed manner. Why does time have to “pass”? It only does so if we interpret it as a linear course. Cyclic concepts of time, as they predominate in Asia and among numerous so-called indigenous peoples, allow for the idea of time as constantly recurring categories. If one spring has passed, another one will come. If the sun has set, it will rise again. Modern-day economy and its obsession with optimization and growth has increasingly pulled us away from these notions that ultimately are bound to our natural surroundings.

There is a reason why awareness and slowing down, stress reduction and meditation have found their way into mainstream consciousness. The modern world does not really coincide with human beings as they evolved over time. An African proverb states: “Europeans have watches, Africans have time.” Once we exchange a Rolex for placidity, we realize that time and money are not commodities which can be arbitrarily exchanged. You don’t have time, you make it. However, the prerequisite for being able to do so is based on our notion of money and economy.

Last edit:01/11/2019

Concepts of Property

Sharing is caring. This well-known phrase fittingly describes a development we have witnessed amongst the younger generations in recent years: sharing appears to have become more important than possessing: carsharing, on-demand music streaming services, joint usage of appliances. All of these are made possible by way of the latest forms of communication. Startup companies are being founded left and right, and many of them take advantage of this new lifestyle trend. This raises the question: are for-profit businesses such as the private taxi company Uber or the accommodation platform AirBnB still in some way connected to the idea of resource-efficient sharing? They certainly like to claim they are. Streaming services do not necessarily belong in this category either: after all, users are not sharing CDs or vinyl records, but each one pays separately for the usage of the data offered.

However, all of the above proves one thing: many people want to own less and minimalism is a new trend. What matters now is having enough possibilities of using the respective services. A study conducted by the financial advisory services network Deloitte in 2015 predicted that 55 % of the Swiss population would want to make use of the“sharing economy” in the following year of 2016. Does this mean the end of private property is near, just as the financial magazine Wallstreet Online provocatively asked? The U.S. American economist and sociologist Jeremy Rifkin believes that we will witness a drastic growth in collaborative commons in the next couple of decades and he claims that capitalism will have lost its dominant role by the middle of the 21st century.

How do we interpret property? As a starting point for subsequent research, we can consider property a concept which determines cultural values and defines both social relations as well as our place in the world. Hence, concepts of property play a crucial role in our lives and our economic systems. At the same time, these concepts are not universal, but they depend on the respective cultures. Our supposedly obvious idea of private property is by no means without any alternative, not even in our own culture. Let us use land ownership as an example.

According to the Jewish-Christian tradition, God says: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” (Lev. 25:23). The following verses then lay out the specific rules on how to apply this idea in everyday life. God has provided land for us to use, but it is not human property that we can use in whatever way we want.

We encounter similar ideas all over the planet. Small farmers in numerous parts of the world use their land cooperatively. What matters to them is that it provides all of the necessities of life. Which is why conflicts arise every single day whenever big companies or entire states purchase the land owned by these small farmers or other associations and thus take away any opportunity for them to continue living lives devoted to the common weal.

Cases such as these constitute a chance for researches to question our ideas of property and to compare them to other models of life. It also allows for the analysis of the resulting conflicts and of the influence globalization has on our lives. Will this “Sharing Economy” concept change our interaction with societies that still live according to long-established traditions? Or will the big “global players” remain immune to such seemingly leftist ideas? 

Last edit:01/11/2019

Money and Society

A few weeks after he had been elected the President of the United States of America in 1928, Herbert Hoover presented his entirely new economic policy: the government should encourage demand by way of targeted spending and thus bring about general prosperity. Those who claim that literature has no influence on your lives, find themselves disabused based on this case. For Hoover’s program was inspired by a book, which had been published just a few months beforehand: “The Road to Plenty”. It tells the story of a group of fairly diverse travellers who discuss economic relations on a train ride. A smart businessman comes to the conclusion that a policy much like the one initiated by Hoover, would greatly benefit society.

Money, society, and literature. This is an enormous field, seeing as money and economy are an element of human life which is so pivotal that almost anything and everything revolves around it. The desire for more money is an ever-present topic in novels, stories, and movies. But unlike scientific papers, literature can do more than just encourage a hands-on discussion of our economic system, as the aforementioned, and admittedly very specific, case demonstrates.

Literature presents itself as a sort of prism, in which all facets of human life are refracted and any individual’s actions, fears, desires, and wishes are spread out against the backdrop of the zeitgeist of their surroundings. Let’s look at the young and successful Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: he lives high on the hog in his palace by the ocean in the Roaring Twenties, he’s adored and envied by both men and women, he’s constantly the center of attention – and he nevertheless drifts along as a lonely and unhappy human being whose life is void of purport and fulfillment.

Gatsby supposedly had everything, namely money. How far will people go for money? This is perhaps one of the most fascinating initial questions that could lead to ethical experiments. “Skinvertisement” caused quite a stir several years ago. People had accepted money in return for their bodies being turned into walking advertising media through permanent tattoos. Friedrich Dürrenmatt takes this question of our bribability even further in “The Visit”: The older lady, who has returned to her hometown, wants the townspeople to kill a man in exchange for one billion.

The Sunflower Foundation offers an extensive library of carefully-selected books in which the characters and actions demonstrate the extent to which money and our economy influence our lives. This question has not yet been sufficiently analyzed. Literary scholars, sociologists, economists, and other experts offer numerous possibilities to jointly explore the reciprocity of economy and the individual.

Literary and cinematic works fill ethical theories with life and transfer them to our world. Hence, if we want to question how we relate money and economy to our every-day lives, what value we attach to money, and how we want to set the course for future generations in regards to dealing with financial issues and property, then there’s no getting around the analysis of works of art. They are the key to a true understanding of humanity.

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Money as a Thought Form

Our thoughts shape who we are. We’ve all heard it before: “Just think more positively!” We don’t like to hear such advice when things are going south. However, it does actually help to try and change your perspective, almost as if you’re looking at yourself from the outside. If we approach a problem with a positive mindset, we are more likely to find a solution for it. This may sound like kitchen sink psychology, but the idea has proven useful in everyday life.

Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky believes that linguistic concepts, i.e. the language we have grown up with and the way we speak (and of course think), shape or even determine our perception. This approach has since become known as the theory of linguistic relativity. Boroditsky once noticed that a five-year-old Aborigines girl, who was asked where north was, instinctively knew which direction to point at. Nowhere else were people able to do that. According to Boroditsky, this proves that language and socialization are connected to our cognition and competence.

“All Smith thinks about is money.” This is no unusual statement in our society. But what does it imply? And what does it say about us? On the one hand, it means something entirely different than “All Smith thinks about is apples.” The latter is used to express that our fictional Mr. Smith really does think about actual apples, which maybe he enjoys eating. However, if Mr. Smith only ever “thinks about money”, then he doesn’t think about specific banknotes or checkbooks. He thinks in monetary categories, he acts according to economic aspects and asks himself: “Can I derive profit from helping this elderly lady across the street?”

We attach a price tag to everything – to things, actions, yes, even people. But there’s something that goes even further than that. Germanist Eske Bockelmann has attempted to subsume it in the term Denkform(“mindset”): money does not only shape our actions in terms of economy, but also in other fields, which aren’t necessarily connected to money. Money is nothing else but a convertible value. To convert Swiss francs into U.S. dollars or to convert a certain amount of work into an hourly wage might still be fairly obvious. Yet, we transfer this conversion to unquantifiable values as well: an insurance company calculates fire damage in money. But how can we determine the value of the family album we lost in the flames? What about the hand-knitted sweater? How are you feeling today (on a scale from 1 to 10)? To answer this question, you are forced to find the mean of all the individual emotions that can’t really be offset against each other – and you assign comparable values to your emotions. This evaluating and comparative way of thinking is a fine and sticky spider web which covers our life and our thoughts.

And so, we return to where we started. Our thoughts shape who we are. Time and again, we all unavoidably think about money. We have to survive after all. But let’s be honest: aren’t we all a bit like Mr. Smith? Every now and then, we think in the category of “What’s in it for me?” And this is where more research is necessary! What effect does money as a mindset have on all of us? On our society and every individual person? 

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Beyond Money

They’re called EulachTaler in Switzerland, Chiemgauer in Germany, or Bristol Pound in the UK. All of them are considered local currency, a complementary payment system, which exists alongside official national currencies, but is disconnected from the vast national and international capital movements. However, this placid idyll is deceptive. Local currency, too, is very often backed by the official national currency. So, what is to be done when said national currency is heading towards a financial crisis, when inflation is skyrocketing?

There are countless attempts of alternative payments, economy, or trade. You can remedy money’s defects, you can create “good money”, almost as it is done in agriculture: regional, seasonal, organic, fair-trade. But is that really possible? Doesn’t money always remain money?

So-called LETS, local exchange trading systems, take this idea a bit further. Their currency is time. Because we all have the same time on our hands. Whether I spend an hour cleaning my apartment or working on a research project, either way, an hour of my life has passed or has been “invested”. But can a complex economy like ours really be based on the exchange of time?

Maybe a few reforms would suffice? For several years now, the term “financial transaction tax” has been repeated in the media as an alleged magic bullet, but mere changes in the interest system are also possible. But will the “monetary system” accept such interventions? After all, they do contradict the motivation of money in modern-day capitalism to multiply, to be optimized, to generate more output …

What are some feasible alternatives to the problems of capitalism that we know of? This is a question that’s on our mind and we want to analyze other ideas, support research, combine old concepts, and develop new ones.

One alternative is to detach our economic activity from individual pursuits of profit and to return to a more traditional understanding of economy, namely public interest or cooperative work. In the past, communities owned land that belonged to everyone and which was used collectively: the commons. Nowadays, we know Wikipedia’s information and picture database, published under a commons license. Commoning and Share Economy are pivotal key words in this context: objects or services are no longer purchased individually, but rather used jointly.

We have to ask ourselves: is it even possible to think of an economic activity connected to money that improves the welfare of all people? Or do the advantages of money immediately keep it from accepting a subordinate role and result in it completely controlling the economic system?

Could a more radical approach lead to a feasible alternative? Or a combination of several less drastic ideas? One thing’s for sure: we have to keep questioning our system – and all possible alternatives.

Last edit:01/11/2019

Experiments in the field of Blockchain

Whether you pay cash or have your wages transferred to your bank account – there is a national currency behind every single one of these transactions. Your country ensures that you can withdraw banknotes from an ATM in the end. Bitcoin works entirely different. For years now, everyone has been talking about the cryptocurrency. By processing calculations, computers generate values which are used for transactions. This doesn’t only sound complicated – it really is. As a non-expert, one has to keep in mind that finding the right calculations is becoming more and more difficult and thus the total value is increasing, individual units (Bitcoins) are becoming rarer and are consequently gaining in value. Bitcoins are moving away from stable currencies and are approaching speculative stocks. It isn’t necessarily a recommendable substitute for currencies. After all, there’s a reason why less and less businesses accept bitcoins as a means of payment.

However, this criticism blocks our view of the revolutionary aspect of it, namely the technology behind the phenomenon of Bitcoin. In the 1990s, security experts developed a process which allows for the connection and reciprocal protection of data sets. As soon as someone manipulate one data set, the value of the previous one and thus the entire database also changes – and the intervention is uncovered. You can imagine this data set as a chain of data blocks, which is why it’s called “Blockchain”.

Let’s travel back in time to 1941: the Zuse Z3, the first working digital computer, fills up an entire room and nevertheless, all it can do is calculate. This heavy dinosaur of a computer can hardly stand comparison with a modern-day Macbook Air. Although their DNA is quite different, their basic workings are the same: it is all based on zeros and ones. It was this technology, not the machine, that revolutionized the world.

Bitcoins will most likely not supersede Swiss francs or the dollar. Perhaps nobody will talk about them anymore a few years down the road. Who still remembers the social networks which were founded in the past 15 years but have died in the meantime? But who can imagine life without social networks today? They have become an all-encompassing part of our lives.

So, Bitcoin may become irrelevant one day, but Blockchain is a technology which can be used universally. The crypotechnology ensures a high security standard for decentralized transactions. Why should we trust a particular country’s central bank if its bankers have to implement politically motivated provisions? And, of course, experts in pinstriped suits are neither infallible nor incorruptible. Hence, a currency organized by countless individuals all over the world offers a new approach. In addition, Blockchain records relentlessly register every single change within the Blockchain for everyone to see. We usually only encounter such transparency in Open-Source software or cooperative organizations, less so in old-fashioned banks. This transparency creates trust and security. And people are looking for just that in our globalized world with all of its challenges. Blockchain could open the door to a new world of reliable transactions in countless fields. This might happen in ten or twenty years, but we nevertheless want to research and discuss it – cooperatively and openly.

Last edit:01/11/2019

How do we deal with risks?

“Watch out!” is what we say when we are supposed to pay close attention. But our most important organ of perception is easily deceived in everyday life. How is this related to money? It is quite easy, actually: if we find ourselves browsing a glossy brochure at a bank and we skim the appealing graphics indicating constantly increasing profits, then we should not forget that that is an ingenious attempt of manipulation, a bait for our visual perception. There is also a reason why the consultant, who ensures us that the products bearing high interest are “virtually risk-free”, meets us in finest Italian garments.

Approaches like these intent to make us take risks – to someone else’s advantage – which are very unlike us and something we cannot assess correctly. But the majority of our assets is invested in the capital market.

Two factors that go hand in hand appear pivotal in the context of our money-related research: first of all, the topic of “Risks”, and secondly “Financial Literacy”.

Let us visualize how the acquisition of investment products works: a consultant analyzes how much money we want to invest, takes into account factors such as our risk appetite or the planned duration of investment, and thus ties up a package for us. And this all happens against the backdrop of his professional expertise. The situation is similar to when we visit the doctor’s office. The “demigod in white”, as they are colloquially referred to in German, sitting on the other side of his desk, asks about our symptoms and then presents his diagnosis including a treatment plan – unless he refers us to a specialist. Objections are not welcome and most of us refrain from uttering them anyway. In both cases, the consulting party has resigned to their fate and accepts the proposed decisions. But we have to realize: the diagnosis or risk analysis is based on the range of experience of the doctor or investment consultant. Our task is to critically call the results into question. After all, we are talking about two central topics of our lives: our health and our financial scope of action. But in order to do so, the corresponding knowledge must be available to us.

Regarding medicine, one would be ill-advised to disagree with the doctor based on internet research. If you want to be on the safe side, seeking a second or third opinion from other specialized doctors could be helpful. That is not how it works in the finance sector. The internet does offer an abundance of substantiated information. Acquiring a solid basic knowledge of finance has never been this easy. Said knowledge and the self-confident approach to the world of finance has been termed “Financial Literacy”. And it is indispensable if we want to assess whether or not a certain product matches us and our risk appetite. That is the only way we can question offers in regard to their plausibility and soundness. If we do not want slip and fall on the glossy floor of alluring marketing experts we have to educate ourselves to become “financially literate” people.

Therefore, the Sunflower Foundation wants to cooperate with people who can help us in becoming “financially literate”. This refers to every single person’s ability to bring in line two things in their life: our money and our risk appetite. Those who know enough about the instruments of investment can use them to their own advantage – and to everyone else’s advantage at best. If they can correctly evaluate their own character they will also find the appropriate investment strategy. And instead of focusing on an elegantly dressed consultant, they will regularly take a look at their portfolio information.

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Partners

Eske Bockelmann

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Eske Bockelmann is a German expert in German studies who wrote an important book in 2004 discussing the interconnections between money and the Modern Age: Im Takt des Geldes (In the Rhythm of Money, available in German only). He is professor for Latin in Chemnitz and private tutor for modern German literature. In the book Im Takt des Geldes, he developed an independent monetary theory focusing on the question of how and with what consequences we might abolish the modern medium of money. 

 

 

Video: Im Takt des Geldes. In the 16th century, the European world underwent a tremendous change: Previously, it had been almost entirely rural, but from then on, cities were gaining more importance. Buoyant markets emerged and, for the first time in history, they joined their forces to form a single, transnational market. Market economy was born... and this had vast implications.

 

Eske Bockelmann: Abolishing money

A world without money: Would it be at all possible? Would we make it possible? That is and remains the crucial question. Here it is asked and answered: We cannot imagine a world without money. In this brochure you find out why. 

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Last edit:13/11/2019

foraus

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The think tank foraus promotes constructive foreign policies and an informed dialogue: independent, scientific, relevant. foraus provides young talents with a non-profit access to the debate in order to contribute their ideas to the foreign policy-making process – outside the traditional framework of party politics. foraus publishes scholarly sound recommendations for action in the form of discussion papers, succinct analyses and blog posts; foraus also organises debates aimed at finding innovative foreign policy solutions.

Website: www.foraus.ch

Sunflower supports foraus with the project “sustainable fintech” and contributes its knowledge primarily with regard to sociocultural aspects. 

www.sustainablefintech.ch

Sustainable fintech’s objectives are, on the one hand, to help the Swiss financial industry achieve the Paris climate goals (UN Climate Change Conference 2015) and, on the other hand, to promote the implementation of sustainable development goals. Sustainable fintech has the function of a platform and a network that helps develop sustainable guidelines and innovative services and product ideas promoting these goals.

 

Project outline for the collaboration of foraus and Sunflower:

The topics “sustainable fintech” and “Asia” jointly discussed by the Sunflower Foundation and foraus are currently undergoing a very dynamic development. Despite increased attention by economy, politics, science and the public, there are numerous open questions and challenges at once, as the following examples show:

- Fintech is central to our economic centre. Although Switzerland has ideal characteristics (e.g. ETH, financial centre), its international performance is only average at most.
- New governance or economic initiatives with global impact (for example AIIB or BRI) will increasingly come from Asia as the post populated region of the world. In Switzerland, however, there is only rudimentary institutional competence for and limited knowledge of Asian policies.

foraus has been successfully addressing these challenges for several years. In 2017, foraus members founded the project “sustainable fintech” and the thematic programme “Asia” on their ow initiative:

- The sustainable fintech project pursues the objective of formulating fresh, convincing ideas for the financial centre Switzerland. It is based on two pillars: (technological) innovation and sustainability. Its regularly scheduled events popularise the topic among the industry and the public, offer a platform for relevant initiatives and help recruiting volunteers. The project is well connected internationally and is regarded and consulted as an expert group on relevant subjects. Lastly, it has a record of proven achievements regarding policies and the industry.

- The Asia programme consists of a core of 15–20 motivated Asia experts with political interest (young professionals, PhDs, students). It is divided into three subgroups (East Asia, South/Southeast Asia, Western and Central Asia) and has selected partnerships (e.g. Stein am Rhein Symposium) and memberships in professional networks (e.g. European Think-Tank Network on China). At the beginning of 2019, the programme published a position paper on a constructive Swiss “China policy”. Furthermore, numerous blogs on Asia-related topics were published.

foraus ​has been publishing scientifically sound recommendation for actions regarding constructive foreign policy for years. The think tank’s success is based on a unique grassroots model with more than 120 volunteers and several hundreds of members who, for example, are involved in the two initiatives mentioned above as authors of discussion papers and organisers of public debates.

The present project outline shows how innovative solutions can be launched for decision-makers and the public in the two areas “sustainable fintech” and “Asia” with the help of two Senior Policy Fellow positions and a reinforcement of foraus’ volunteer structure.

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Last edit:13/11/2019