Alison Boulton meets the head of an institution which brings the finest brains together to endeavour to ensure this is the best century ever... not the worst

There's nowhere in the world like us”, says Oxford Martin School director, Professor Ian Goldin.

“We provide an incubator for original and interdisciplinary thinking.”

Global warming, food production, cyber security, the impact of a global ageing population are just some of the challenges addressed by the Martin School of more than 300 researchers in 20 academic disciplines who are gathered under one university umbrella.

It’s overseen by Goldin, a man who has advised presidents, baled out governments and lobbied business leaders and billionaires. Who Nelson Mandela called “outstanding”.

He’s recently returned from Davos in Switzerland where he attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, an opportunity not only to network but “to get things done”.

“Humanity faces many critical challenges and choices,” he says.

“By providing fresh insights, researchers are both informing these choices and delivering answers to some of the toughest questions we face.

“Yet without harnessing the political will to act, society misses out. Meetings like Davos can help with that process.”

Goldin believes we’re at a crossroads; that this could be the best century ever – or the worst.

He says in an increasingly densely populated and connected planet, global issues are affected by the decisions made by all of us.

If we take an antibiotic unnecessarily today, it may render ours – and others’ – future recovery ineffective due to rising antibiotic resistance.

Whenever we drive our cars, fly or turn on our lights and electrical appliances, it contributes to global warming.

The Oxford Martin School aims to seize the opportunities of this most extraordinary time in history and manage the risks.

In some places, progress seems to be reversed: societies resist education – especially for girls. Aid workers are murdered for delivering life-saving vaccines; wars are fought without rules and with acts of unprecedented barbarism uploaded on the internet for global reach.

These are not utopian but dystopian, nightmarish societal outcomes that the Oxford Martin School was founded to prevent.

Goldin’s family have seen dystopian societies close up. His parents were both refugees – his father’s parents fled the Russian pogroms, and his mother’s escaped from their home in Vienna following the Nazi occupation. He grew up in South Africa, under apartheid.

“My first political memory is distributing leaflets house to house and having dogs set on me. I must have been 11 or 12 years old,” Goldin recalls. “South Africa was not a good place to be at that time. My mother was an artist, and as a European immigrant was out of place in the repressive, militaristic apartheid regime in Pretoria where we lived.”

Goldin’s father, a surgeon, died when Ian was five. His elder brother died from leukaemia. “Within a year, my mother had lost both her eldest child, and her husband.”

His mother remarried, and the family moved to Cape Town, where Goldin completed school and excelled as a university student, taking simultaneously both arts and sciences Bachelor degrees.

“I had to get out of South Africa or face being arrested as a result of my activities opposing apartheid,” he says. “When I left for London, I thought I’d never return, as I was not optimistic about the prospects for change in South Africa.”

One new student at the University of Cape Town who attended meetings where Goldin spoke against apartheid was his future wife, who he reconnected with later in London. They have two children, now at university themselves.

Goldin arrived in London to study for an MSc at the London School of Economics. Surviving off a modest scholarship, he notes: “We didn’t have the means to heat our student house – I still remember the cold.”

But Britain’s intellectual freedom was liberating.

Oxford Mail:

“I went from LSE to Oxford to study for my doctorate and from there to a job in London and extended periods in South America.

His next move was to the French capital, to join the Organisation for European Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

“I loved living in Paris,” he says. “I had a little money in my pocket. I could do many of the things Parisiens enjoy: good food, wine and culture.”

At the OECD Development Centre, Goldin directed the programmes on trade, environment and sustainable development.

How many languages could he speak by then? “Only four or five,” he says: English, Afrikaans, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

In 1990, Goldin rejoiced in Paris when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in jail. Yet it was a meeting with Mandela and his wife Winnie in Paris, soon after Mandela’s release, which changed Goldin’s life once again and he returned to South Africa (see panel right).

After Mandela stepped down as president, and having been chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa for five years, the family was on the move again, this time to Washington, where James Wolfensohn offered Goldin the position as head of policy for the World Bank Group. He was soon promoted to vice president of the bank. His next move was to the University of Oxford in 2006 and under his founding directorship, the Oxford Martin School has grown rapidly, both in its ability to tackle interdisciplinary challenges and in its international reputation and influence.

Its Commission for Future Generations report Now For The Long Term has been downloaded well over a million times, and the school’s latest policy report on the regulation of robotic weapons is among its many outputs which are shaping global discussions.

“This is a job where I’m learning all the time. Our success depends not only on our ability to develop original insights out of pathbreaking research, but also on our relevance and ability to distil and communicate our ideas,” Goldin says.

Among his personal contributions are eighteen books, the most recent are Is the Planet Full?, and The Butterfly Defect, on globalization and risk.

“The Oxford Martin School aims to improve all our futures and those of our children and the following generations. By bringing great minds together we hope to contribute to a better, more secure future in a rapidly changing world,” he says.

See for free lectures open to the public.

Key aims of a real visionary

“We can make any kind of world we want” is engraved on a plaque in the entrance to the Oxford Martin School, based at the Old Indian Institute on the corner of Holywell and Broad Street.

These are the words of the founder of the School, the late Dr James Martin.

The technology entrepreneur spent his career relentlessly scanning the future, keen to pick out trends and understand the implications of new technologies.

“It’s crunch time for humanity,” concluded Martin, who believed only a multidisciplinary approach by top researchers could find solutions to the most pressing problems facing the world in the 21st century.

Key aims of the school are to mitigate the most pressing risks and realise exciting new opportunities in health and medicine; energy and environment; technology and society; and ethics and governance.

‘Honeymoon’ years with Mandela

Oxford Mail:

Following the 1994 first free elections in South Africa, Ian Goldin was working as the principal economist at the recently established European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London when President Mandela requested that he return to the country of his childhood to create a Southern African regional development bank and become his economic advisor.

The family moved to South Africa, where he stayed for six transformational years. It was a time of optimism and huge international goodwill.

“Those were the honeymoon years,” Goldin recalls Bloodshed was averted and democracy established.

Mandela’s “extraordinary intellectual and emotional intelligence” was key to South Africa’s peaceful transition.

“He was a people person. He could win over almost anyone. I saw him with numerous individuals and politicians who’d opposed him that ended up eating out of his hand,” says Goldin.

Goldin’s children grew up in South Africa and met Mandela on a number of occasions. There’s a signed photograph of Goldin with Mandela on his desk in his office in Broad Street. The president’s arm is around Goldin’s shoulders. Both are smiling broadly and a hand written note in blue fountain pen reads: “Best wishes to an outstanding person”.