Peter Wennink wants to apply corporate governance principles to our society to save it. But it doesn’t need saving.
We’re living in times of existential doubts about our form of government. Whereas most people in the Netherlands claim to be happy with their fate, they’re unhappy with the way things are run. That feeling becomes stronger when an election is approaching and parliament suddenly decides to dole out money left and right, at the expense of long-term investment, innovation and the attractiveness of doing business. All this at a time when we face major threats like climate warming, Russian aggression and Chinese assertion.
Against this background, I was triggered by reading in the newspaper that the CEO of the Netherlands’ most prominent company, ASML boss Peter Wennink, warned us against misplaced complacency. He did this in his keynote at the opening of the academic year at Eindhoven University of Technology. As Wennink stated, all-important developments in digitization and in materials and systems for the energy transition will be led by the US and East Asia, respectively. Europe risks running behind, implying a threat to our welfare and independence.
This reminded me of similar warnings we received in the early nineties when I started working at Philips. Especially the Japanese would start eating our lunch and our dinner, too. It was only a matter of time before Japan would become the dominant technological force in the world, again with all kinds of sinister implications for our welfare and independence.
Indeed, Japan, and in its wake Taiwan and South Korea, did well in becoming leaders in high tech. Similarly, the enormous business and wealth created out of thin air by Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft are extremely enviable, and saddening, from a European perspective.
Yet, the world competitiveness report for this year, compiled by IMD, puts the Netherlands (again) in the top group, still ahead of Taiwan and China, the US and Japan. This year’s world happiness report has even starker differences: the Netherlands is once more in the top group, far ahead of the US, South Korea, Japan and China.
Of course, a certain dose of paranoia and an unrelenting drive to excel and push the boundaries do contribute to this enviable situation, and complacency must be avoided by default. But we need to recognize and acknowledge that our system of government and societal governance works well. There’s no need to advocate a change like Peter Wennink did in his keynote, where he called for applying corporate governance 101 to our society: have a clear vision, align your strategy and tactics to this vision and then prioritize accordingly.
Societies aren’t companies. Wanting to treat them as such reminds me of calls for government by technocrats or looking at Singapore on how to run your society, as I start to hear more often. Although Singapore isn’t less competitive than the Netherlands, its freedom of expression is considered to be worse than that of Russia (admittedly based on data from 2020). Do we want that?
Companies need to focus on creating a return on shareholder investment, democratically elected governments are responsible for the welfare of all their citizens. It may be a messy process, but it has proven to be highly effective. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.