This Eccentric Billionaire Philanthropist May Be More Rational Than You Think

Consider this week's hit movie, The Martian, in which Matt Damon's indomitable astronaut nerd uses his knowledge of science to stay alive during a four-year stranding on Marsa planet that lacks rather important things like breathable air and naturally occurring food sources. Spoiler alert: Science wins.  

Here on Earth, many practical-minded philanthropists take on tough problems that are best approached with similarly creative and resourceful uses of research, design and technical know-how. Even the cynics among us hope that "they" (aka, the people who are good at math) will figure out how to stop climate change, cure dread diseases, and put an end to age-old scourges like hunger. 

But "they"—the scientists and technocrats—won't fix all of the world's serious problems, because not all problems have technical components like carbon levels or DNA mutations. Some problems have to be approached through less easily quantified factors like cultural tradition, values, identity, and even philosophy.

Fortunately, some philanthropists get that basic truth. Indeed, we've been writing lately about a number of gifts and grants that champion liberal arts ideals and seem to be consciously pushing back against all things STEM. 

Related: Six Million Bucks From Carnegie Says That Science Doesn't Have All the Answers

Now comes another such gift, from billionaire Nicolas Berggruen.

A successful private investor, Berggruen is the founder of the Berggruen Institute, a self-described "think and action tank" based in Los Angeles. In the years since its establishment, the institute's Berggruen Governance Center has conducted long-term thinking about governance in our increasingly connected and crowded century, looking for solutions through a synthesis of east and west, and bringing together businesspeople, government reps and academics from California, Germany, France, China and other countries.

Now the Berggruen Institute is taking a big step into the humanities with the recent launch of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center. The new center will also bring together international groups from business, the public sector and academia to tackle cross-cultural dilemmas.

Berggruen, who has dual German and American citizenship, grew up and attended school in France, Switzerland and the U.S., which may explain his appreciation for cultural differences and his global approach to problem solving. A bit of a peripatetic who moved from hotel to hotel, Berggruen was known as "the homeless billionaire" until his purchase of a house in Los Angeles.

“Ideas shape our humanity, therefore understanding their origin and political traditions are critical to producing long-lasting change for a better world,” Berggruen said. “In a rapidly globalizing, yet increasingly fractured world, we aim to close the gap that has been widened by narrow views.”

The new Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center announced four main initiatives to start, including projects to engage Asian and Western cultures, and a global fellowship program at universities around the world.

But they are also borrowing some crucial ideas made popular by other foundations and fields: contests and prize money. They announced a new Berggruen Philosophy Prize of $1 million. That's real money. It will be awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas have influenced the world: "Numerous prizes are rightly awarded for invention and achievement in science and the arts, but few prizes recognize ideas that have broader philosophical and cultural impact," the institute says. That's a good point. 

And its new Aspen-Berggruen Ideas Competition will be organized each year to identify and advance research ideas "that will meaningfully impact the way we think and live." Both the prize and the competition will start in 2016.

P.S. We saw The Martian and it's great, corny fun.