CASBS Leader Margaret Levi Receives Breakthrough of the Year Award

Margaret Levi

Margaret Levi’s conception of “an expanded community of fate” gained international recognition as the 2020 “Breakthrough of the Year” in the social sciences and humanities. The Falling Walls Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Berlin, selected 10 “Breakthroughs” out of a pool of nearly 1,000 nominations from 111 countries.

The Falling Walls Foundation holds an annual conference to consider, “What are the next walls to fall in science and society?” The meeting coincides with the anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The foundation invited Levi to submit a video in which she begins to outline a framework for a new moral political economy and its expanded community of fate.

On November 9, Falling Walls announced Levi’s expanded community of fate as the Breakthrough of the Year in the social sciences and humanities category. The Breakthroughs in all 10 categories were revealed and celebrated in a Falling Walls Grand Finale that streamed online; a list of other winners appears below.

“This recognition is particularly meaningful to me because it acknowledges the work we have been doing at CASBS to create a new moral political economy that builds on and then sustains an expanded, inclusive and robust community of fate,” said Levi, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University.

Social Sciences and Humanities jury chair Shalini Randeria cited the merits of Levi’s contribution:

Margaret Levi’s brilliant project develops a framework to understand how innovative institutions could help individuals to recognize how their destinies are inextricably entangled with distant strangers. She shows us how to create a new political economy model, that promotes planetary well-being without losing sight of economic productivity and innovation. The jury is highly impressed by Levi’s project, which tears down the narrow walls of national solidarity and sovereignty, whilst advocating for a bold conception of Justice.

The project Randeria refers to is the CASBS program on “Creating a New Moral Political Economy.”

In 2018 Levi, with support from the Hewlett Foundation and in collaboration with a network of academics, journalists, civil society activists, technologists, and policy practitioners, launched the program with CASBS as network hub. Now in its third year, the moral political economy program has received additional support from the Ford Foundation and Berggruen Institute. In 2019, the program received funding from LinkedIn co-founder and entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, impressed by the program’s ability to generate innovative ideas and “untangle some very thorny problems and issues.”

Levi and coauthor John Ahlquist, a CASBS fellow in 2017-18 and current moral political economy program participant, introduced the term “expanded community of fate” in their 2013 book In the Interest of Others: Organizations and Social Activism (Princeton Univ. Press).

“I am thrilled that Falling Walls is honoring my longtime mentor, collaborator, and friend Margaret Levi for this breakthrough of the year,” said Ahlquist. “As Margaret and I defined it, a community of fate is more than simply, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ It is a disposition, shared among some group, where I understand that the victories for those others are beneficial to me, while their challenges and defeats are mine as well.”

Margaret Levi continues to push her thinking on her breakthrough idea. In late March 2020, after much of the world had sheltered in lockdown due to the COVID pandemic but not yet adjusted to a new way of living under it, Levi, writing in Social Science Space, pointed to halting government responses mired in an outdated version of capitalism with presumptions that no longer apply. Though not what anyone would wish for, the pandemic presented an opportunity to recognize the limits of our current policies and rethink how to best protect workers and ensure more general well-being for all members of society.

In July, writing in Noema, a magazine published by the Berggruen Institute, Levi presented the most refined formulation to date of “An Expanded Community of Fate,” advancing it as “critical to the survival of humanity, extended human cooperation, and the development of societies in which people flourish.” In the piece she invokes the shared ethos of recent and emerging social movements in capitalist democracies as exemplars of community builders whose strength lies in creating networks of people across multiple boundaries to solve common problems.

According to Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, chair of CASBS’s board of directors and a Justice of the Supreme Court of California, “Margaret Levi’s pathbreaking work on the political economy of institutions, ethics, and morality has long been admired but never been more timely. To see her work honored again is terrific not only for CASBS, but for everyone engaged in continuing efforts to understand the moral and institutional foundations of our economics and politics.”


Other Breakthrough Winners

Past recipients of the Breakthrough prize are collected on this page. Winners for 2020 are listed below, along with a short description of the project provided by Falling walls.

Physical Sciences: Breaking the Wall to Room-Temperature Superconductivity | Mikhail Eremets, Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry, Mainz

For a long time, superconductivity was only achievable at ultra-cold temperatures that could only be created inside a laboratory. Mikhail Eremets, the Belarusian-born physicist, has pioneered experiments that allow superconductivity at temperatures of a common household freezer by using unusual materials such as metallic hydrogen.

Science in the Arts: Breaking the Wall to Machine Auguries | Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Studio Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, London

London-based Ginsberg created new bird voices to help us understand our negative impact on nature. In dialogue with scientists and experts, she uses emerging technologies such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) to create deep fakes that challenge our perception of nature.

Life Sciences: Breaking the Wall to Next Generation Biopharmaceuticals |  Christian Hackenberger, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie, Berlin

Today, cancer treatment by chemotherapy has many negative side effects and treatments against viral infections have shortcomings. Christian Hackenberger found a way to improve the treatment of both. He has pioneered the development of protein-based therapeutics, based on the modification and cellular delivery of antibodies to target cancer and viral infections.

Digital Education: Breaking the Wall of Refugee Education | Chrystina Russell, Southern New Hampshire University

Tens of millions of people worldwide are refugees with little to no access to education. The Global Education Movement directed by Chrystina Russell created outstanding results in providing degree-level education to refugees. 95 percent of her students graduate and close to 90 percent are employed within six months after graduation.

Science and Innovation Management: Breaking the Wall of Hybrid Intelligence | Jacob Friis Sherson, Aarhus University

The approach by Jacob Sherson, the ScienceAtHome Project, to involve hundreds of thousands of people to collaborate with him in addressing complex research challenges marks a breakthrough in science and innovation management. His big idea is to turn a quantum computing issue into a popular video game that – in conjunction with AI – provides insights to researchers from natural, social and cognitive sciences.

Engineering and Technology: Breaking the Wall to Wireless Medical Robots Inside Our Body | Metin Sitti, Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems

Conventional surgeries are associated with risks. The observations Metin Sitti made in nature, studying worms and jellyfish, inspired a range of versatile microrobots that can navigate and function safely inside the human body. This breakthrough revolutionizes the way we can deliver drugs, pump fluids, perform biopsies or clear clogged vessels.

Emerging Talent: Breaking the Wall of Neonatal Health Disparity | Shawana Tabassum, University of Texas at Tyler

In rural and poor communities, newborns are often subject to a fatal delay in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like jaundice, sepsis and hypoglycemia. Shawana Tabassum has pioneered a device that allows for the measurement of biomarker levels within just 10 minutes, and at a significantly lower cost than conventional testing. This provides the opportunity for much earlier diagnosis and treatment. The device is easy to use, requires only one drop of blood from the newborn, and is portable.

Science Engagement Initiatives: Breaking the Wall to Astronomy for the Vision-Impaired | Nicolas Bonne, Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth

Where most science engagement projects focus only on people without disabilities, this outreach project involves blind people in a novel and engaging way. Its unique quality is shaped by the fact that its founder, Nicolas Bonne, is a blind astrophysicist himself. Galaxies are printed as 3D-models fitting the size of a human hand. Combined with innovative teaching resources and workshops they allow blind people to experience and understand astrophysics.

Science Start-Ups: Breaking the Wall to Carbon Negative Material | Made of Air GmbH / presented by Allison Dring, Respond Accelerator, Munich

 Up to this day, construction and production has a massive carbon footprint. The breakthrough achieved by Made of Air is to reverse this phenomenon. The science-based start-up combats climate change by bringing carbon-negative materials into the market at scale. It uses low-value biomass waste to produce high value, carbon-negative thermoplastics. Their products pave the way to pollution-eating facades tackling city smog.

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