he second edition of the French consulate's Night of Ideas took place recently at the San Francisco Public Library, part of a series of 150 events worldwide organized around the topic, "Living on the Edge."

"Living on the Edge is the notion that we are living through a time of technological revolution and environmental challenges, and we have this feeling that the world of tomorrow will be very different from the world of today," Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Consulate General of France in San Francisco, told Diplomatic Courier at the Night of Ideas. "There are big challenges—climate change deals with the survival of humanity—but there are very many opportunities as well."

Held after hours in the iconic main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, the Night of Ideas was held over six floors, hosted more than 5,000 attendees, and included dozens of panel discussions, breakout sessions, workshops, and informal chat sessions on a range of topics. These included a panel from the World Economic Forum on flying cars and drone delivery, a discussion on art and borders, a historical perspective of San Francisco's political movements, instruction on dealing with misinformation and propaganda, readings from the San Francisco Public Library's artists-in-residence, sessions on post-incarceration voting rights, disability rights, the future of medicine, and more. In the mix were performances from local musicians, student dance troupes, circus acts, a bubble master, a "living library" ask-an-expert event (in which the Consulate General took part), a pay-it-forward coffee cart operated by a local business, gatherings around the food trucks brought in for the occasion, and many other sessions designed to foster innovation, conversation, and connection.

“And so, the question tonight is, how do we put the citizens in the driving seat in the way we create, the way we organize, tomorrow's world, to make sure that it fits all ways of seeing society?" Lebrun-Damiens asked.

It's fitting that France is leading the conversation into these areas. Following the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Americans to move to France to research climate science, and funded several scientists to do just that. Following criticism that he wasn't doing enough to combat climate change, last month, he created a "citizens' assembly" of 150 randomly-selected French citizens to direct his carbon-reduction policies. He has repeatedly called climate change "the fight of the century.”

It was a message echoed by French Ambassador Philippe Etienne when he visited the Bay Area recently, and gave a talk at University of California Berkeley, on the French vision of "Tech for Good."  French companies support 730,000 jobs in the United States, according to Etienne, and 90,000 in California, with makes France the third-largest foreign investor in California.

Etienne, who spoke of the close research and academic ties between the United States and France, also warned that the fourth industrial revolution brought challenges that would require international cooperation, at a time when it is on the decline worldwide.

"Multilateral political action appears all the more urgent, since the movements at stake—climate change, globalization, digital revolution, the global rise of inequalities—are gradually eroding the ability for our action of our national governments," the ambassador said. "Digital services bridge a gap between economic activity and territory. They require us to think of physical sovereignty of states differently, and defining it in the cyber space."

"It is a task made harder by the fact that multilateralism is in a crisis,” Étienne said. "And the multilateral framework which we've had since World War II must be adapted and transformed to take into account our global challenges and the new role of new actors. We need such even if we need to reform our international order. We need more than ever the collective conversations, sincere listening, and a search for fair compromises to solve these common problems."

Etienne's call for reforming international order struck a particular cord in San Francisco, where the United Nations was formed, following a conference at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, 75 years ago.

"Our international order was built after World War II here in San Francisco, and in Breton Woods. This is where we have to start now to build a shared governance. History teaches us that there is no reason why humanity will not be able to organize itself the way it did with the previous revolutions, in order to maximize its benefits and mitigate its risks."

And at the Night of Ideas, in the library that was awarded Library of the Year in 2018, a new world order seemed possible. The free exchange of ideas, the diversity of thought from attendees, the impassioned and rigorous debate, lasted into the morning hours. The Night of Ideas serves to provide what many of the world's thought forums cannot—accessibility to the masses. Hardly anyone will be able to attend Davos, an APEC Climate Summit, or a Circular Economy Summit. But in 150 cities around the world, citizens can get a free ticket, and learn from thought leaders, academics, industry experts, and most importantly, each other.

The host locations of the Night of Ideas vary by city. In Los Angeles, it was held at the Natural History Museum. In Chicago, the Field Museum. Other events have been held in Dakar, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Kathmandu, Marseille, and many, many, more. But despite the numerous gathering places, large and small in San Francisco, there was perhaps no more appropriate host than the public library.

The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, the library's non-profit supporting organization, was one of the main partners of the local Night of Ideas. Marie Ciepiela, executive director of Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, said it was important that the organization have a key role in the event.

"We are partnering with the library and showing off what is the most important democratic institution in the United States, the free public library, with access to all, inclusion, thought, togetherness, social gathering, and our greatest social infrastructure," Ciepiela told Diplomatic Courier, "And it's all shared and it's all free, and that's what we're celebrating tonight."

"It's not just about books anymore. It's about e-resources, about climate change. It's about civic discussion as our democracy is challenged right now, how do we stay together, in social spaces of exchange and learning?" Ciepiela said.

And those face-to-face interactions are critical. While anyone can watch a panel discussion on the internet, or follow a discussion thread on Twitter, (and perhaps join in) those engagements are no substitute for meaningful, in-person conversation.

As Consulate General Lebrun-Damiens said, it was all "very French."

"With Night of Ideas, France provides a platform. We provide a way of discussing, a way of exchanging ideas. You know it's very, very French. France is free, it's inclusive."

"All of these discussions lead to a way to see the world, and getting fresh ideas, but it's also to make consensus. We all live in different bubbles, and tonight, we want those bubbles to clash," Lebrun-Damiens said. "I want to meet people who don't have the same ideas I have, who don't think the way that I think, who don't see the world the way I see it, and I want to exchange with them my view of the world, and listen to their view of the world.

"That's how you build consensus for the future," Lebrun-Damiens said.

Molly McCluskey
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.