Aspen Annual Conference 2023 – Values: A New Trend in the Digital Era?

On the eve of the celebration of the Struggle for Freedom Day, symbolically at the Prague Crossroads conference venue, leading experts gathered to assess political, economic and social developments in the Czech Republic and the Central European region. The annual conference opened with a speech on the topic of Values-Based Leadership: the Challenges of Today by Petr Pavel, President of the Czech Republic, followed by speeches from other distinguished guests – Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Tomáš Halík, Professor of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University and President of the Czech Christian Academy. They then discussed their views on values-based leadership in a moderated dialogue with the moderator of the conference, Michaela Hergetová.

🔴 Online brochure, where you can find online streams, detailed program of the Conference, speakers and published studies.  

Video clip from the event:

Online streams are available on the following links:

“Values leadership means opening up about difficult topics, listening to other opinions and listening to them with respect,” said Milan Vašina, Executive Director of Aspen Institute CE. President Petr Pavel opened the discussion following Vasina’s remarks. “One of the most dangerous trends is the growing polarization in the online and physical world. It leads to the creation of separate opinion groups and deprives society of the ability to dialogue. Aspen Institute’s CE initiatives, which develop what is most important in the Euro-Atlantic spiritual tradition, are an effective weapon against this polarization.” President Pavel called for not allowing “the erosion of the principles on which our world is based. Working to uphold the values of education and continually replenishing democratic deficits is a never-ending process. Even if it is Sisyphean work, any alternative is worse.”

Another part of the morning program was also devoted to values. In his speech, Timothy Garton Ash, highlighted the lack of transparency in the dissemination of information. “While you can see the exact ingredients of the food you are buying in the shop, when you get information on social media, you have no idea from which sources it comes. That’s a private superpower. Most of our information comes from a small number of sources, and it’s also selected by an algorithm that makes decisions based on profit, not facts or truth.” Professor Tomáš Halík spoke about the analogy between the Golem and the current development of artificial intelligence. “Technology cannot cross the boundary between production and creation, between a problem as a challenge to solve and a mystery as a challenge to admire. Technology can provide us with entertainment but not joy; it can provide us with knowledge but not wisdom. It can provide us with many bases for rational decision-making, but it cannot replace conscience.”

Throughout the day, expert studies published by Aspen Institute CE on the occasion of the conference were presented and served as the basis for individual panel debates. Specific recommendations resulting from these materials will be subsequently addressed to the political representation.

Defending Values in the Digital Age

The first discussed study, was Global Challenge of The West: Investments in Security and Defense are a Necessity to Protect Our Independence. The author of the study, Daniel Koštoval, Senior Fellow, Prague Center for Transatlantic Relations, discussed the goals of international relations of these two powers, how our Western values differ from theirs and what this implies for the West. Magda Vašáryová,  Founder of SFPA and VIA CULTURA, Politician, Diplomat and Activist, said right from the start that “it is not about Western values, but about our values, whether they are Christian, Enlightenment, democratic.” Aleksander Mokrzycki, Advisor, NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies / Deputy CEO, PFR Ventures added more, saying if we want to defend European values, we need more cooperation in Europe. “But each country in Europe acts for itself, we are not as connected as the United States, that weakens us.” Tomáš Pojar, Advisor on National Security, Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, advocated that we should also negotiate with those countries with which we do not share values. “We need to talk to China to be able to convince them to talk to us and not to the Russians. Do we share the same values? We don’t. But both sides know that.” Jakub Landovský, Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to NATO, finally concluded the discussion by saying that “whether the world order turns against us as a Western civilization or against us as humans, we must remain human.”

Transition to a Green Economy: A Way to Prosperity?

This year’s report by Boston Consulting Group, prepared in collaboration with Aspen Institute CE, “The Czech Path to Carbon Neutrality”, states that the Czech Republic needs to invest approximately CZK 3,200 billion (representing 1.5-3% of GDP per year) by 2030 to keep pace with other countries in the transition to a green economy. Of this amount, around 75% should be financed by companies themselves, probably with government support. Investment in domestic production will be key to determining the country’s position compared to other leading economies. The study offers the government 26 concrete measures to support transformation in several key areas: energy, industry, transport and car manufacturing.

Because of the level of investment needed, the debaters agreed that it would be crucial to strengthen the capacity of the National Development Bank, which is supposed to support SMEs and be less risk averse than commercial banks. Petr Hladík, Minister of the Environment of the Czech Republic, confirmed that the government is doing everything possible to get the NDB up and running by 1 January 2025. Jana Matesová, Economist / former Czech Representative to the World Bank, reminded us that it is essential to change the rhetoric, not to talk about the Green Deal as a mistake, but as a great opportunity: “The whole world will go that way. We have the opportunity to be technology suppliers, and there is a lot of money for it now.” But there is a risk that there will not be enough people, countered Jiří Švejcar, Partner and Associate Director, Boston Consulting Group (BCG). “The population is aging, people are not getting the education they need. We need to change the way we look at people, support innovation and research. We need to support experts so that research and innovation stay here in the Czech Republic.” And Petr Hladík agreed: ‘We are an industrial country and we want to remain so. But it’s not just chimneys, assembly lines and low salaries. We need to show industry as it is today and as it will be.”

Education: Success Lies in Cooperation between School Principals and Statutory Authorities

Who is responsible for children’s success at school? This is what Aspen Institute CE has been looking at over the past year and, in collaboration with PAQ Research, they have prepared another study: Challenges in education need to be solved in cooperation among school principals, statutory authorities, and other services including a series of recommendations for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic. The study is a probe into how to address problems of disadvantaged children in education, the differences between regions that are actively addressing the issue and those that are not, and attempts to filter out, for example, the influence of the social structure of the population. It also focuses on mapping areas with above-average educational outcomes, adding case studies from the towns of Kadan and Luhačovice.

The panel included two school principals, a deputy governor and a former teacher, a former education minister and an analyst. There is a conflict over who should be held accountable–the founder or the school principal–and how to motivate all parties to cooperate. The difficulty is to transfer expertise from successful schools, whether principals or founders, to other schools. “We have 2,600 municipalities and 90% of them establish only one school. We have too many schools to manage them effectively,” pointed out Jan Zeman, Analyst, PAQ Research. Jiří Kulhánek, 1st Deputy Governor, Ústí nad Labem Region, explained that the example of Kadan is already spreading in the Ústí nad Labem Region. Robert Plaga, Chairman, National Accreditation Bureau for Higher Education, explained that 600-700 experts would need to be selected for a more effective set-up, for example among successful school principals. “We need to find a tool at the state level to be able to distribute to localities where it is not an issue for the mayor.”

Digitalization: How to Support Small Czech Businesses?

SMEs are not lagging behind in the use of basic digital tools, but they find it difficult to decide which more sophisticated tools to invest in, especially when they often need skilled labor to use them. This is the main outcome of a study: Micro and Small Businesses in the Czech Republic on the Path to Digital Future conducted by the Global Arena Research Institute as part of the Strive Czechia program, a joint initiative of the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth and CARE Czech Republic. Recommendations for the state on how to support the digitalization of the smallest businesses were as follows: cooperate with municipalities, use local communication, non-profit organizations, professional organizations, explain the benefits of new technologies, support cooperation between the commercial and educational spheres, educate employees, etc.

Pavla Francke, Founder and CEO, HAAKON, a small company from the Liberec region, observed that digitalization has brought her greater efficiency and speed in business, “but also accuracy, lower error rates, but I see around me that digitalization can be intimidating for small businesses.” Tomas Prouza, President, Confederation of Commerce and Tourism of the Czech Republic / Vice-President, Czech Chamber of Commerce, said, “There are few companies that don’t want to go digital. But there are many that don’t know how, don’t know if it makes sense and don’t want to fail looking for the right solution.” Věra Jourová, vice-president of the European Commission, added that businesses don’t have the time, money, and maybe even the desire to change. “But those who don’t digitize will have trouble with competitiveness.”  Tania le Moigne, Country Manager CZ/SK, Google, recommended trying and experimenting with technologies and asking for references.

The Aspen Annual Conference is one of the Institute’s flagship events. The aim of the conference is to provide an overview of the political, economic and societal development of the Czech Republic in the context of Central Europe. The discussion is based on studies by Aspen Institute Central Europe expert groups, which in addition to analyzing the state of the Czech Republic in the monitored areas and highlighting the most serious problems in individual areas, also include specific recommendations for improvement. Experts from the business, academic and non-profit sectors are traditionally joined on the conference panels by members of the government. The Central European point of view is provided through special panels attended by Central European experts and politicians.

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