Alison Boulton meets the founding director of Oxford University’s Martin School

Professor Ian Goldin, director of Oxford University’s Martin School says: “This could be our best century ever – or our worst.”

Just back from meeting the world’s great and good at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Goldin is upbeat about the value of such gatherings.

“The Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford undertakes cutting edge research in order to find solutions to a number of the critical challenges of the 21st century,” he said.

“The transformation of academic findings into practical insights which make the world a better place often requires the political will of leading politicians and business people to act. Finding time in tight schedules is a problem for everyone – Davos allows access to people who often are unavailable and is an efficient place to try to galvanise change.”

The Oxford Martin School’s hub is on the corner of Holywell and Broad streets, housed in the historic and beautifully-restored Old Indian Institute.

In the entrance hall is a plaque. It reads: “We can make any world we want.”

These are the words of the Martin School’s founder and former Keble College student Dr James Martin. His $150m donation is the largest gift ever received by Oxford University.

A successful technology entrepreneur, Martin was passionately interested in the future. He was keen to identify trends and understand the implications of new technologies.

When Martin pondered the world’s problems: global warming, an ageing population, food supply, cyber-security – to name but a few – he concluded that only by the best intellects on the planet working together, across their specialist disciplines, could such challenges be met.

“It’s crunch time,” Martin said.

Under Goldin’s directorship, the Martin School has grown rapidly. Over 300 researchers in 20 academic disciplines are gathered under one university umbrella.

Goldin himself is an inspired choice as the founding director of the school. He brings together both inside knowledge of government organisations with powerful political persuasiveness. He’s imaginative, intelligent and effective.

“We live in a hyper-connected world of accelerating change,” Goldin said. “The Martin School aims to improve all our futures and those of our children and the following generations.

“By bringing great minds together, we hope to contribute to a better, more secure future in a rapidly-changing world full of extraordinary opportunities but also immense risks.”

Goldin understands dystopian societies. His parents were both refugees. His father’s parents fled the Russian pogroms, and his mother’s escaped from their home in Vienna following Nazi occupation. He grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, under apartheid.

“My first political memory is distributing leaflets house to house and having dogs set on me,” Goldin recalls. After the death of his surgeon father when Goldin was five, his artist mother remarried and the family moved to Cape Town. A gifted student, Goldin excelled at university there, taking degrees simultaneously in both arts and sciences.

“I had to get out of South Africa or face being arrested for my activities opposing apartheid,” Goldin said. One new student at the University of Cape Town who heard Goldin speak was his future wife, who he reconnected with years later in London. They have two children, now at university themselves.

Goldin arrived in London to study for an MSc at the London School of Economics. The cold climate of the UK was a shock, especially since his scholarship did not stretch to heating his student house.

After completing his doctorate at Oxford, Goldin accepted a job in London with extended periods in South America, then .

“Many of the region’s countries were throwing out repressive regimes. They provided a source of inspirational social and economic change.”

From London and Latin America Goldin moved to Paris, where he joined the Organisation for European Co-Operation and Development (OECD) development centre. He directed the programmes on trade, environment and sustainable development, greatly enjoying the city.

“I loved living in Paris. I bought an apartment in the central Marais area, and enjoyed Paris’s delights of good food, wine and culture.”

Having honed by now a fistful of languages including English, Afrikaans, Spanish, Portuguese and French, Goldin had an international perspective. His highly developed understanding of government and political persuasiveness was about to take a leap forward.

Goldin was in Paris when, to his joy, in 1990 Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in jail. Soon afterwards Goldin met Mandela and his wife Winnie when they visited the French capital.

By the time of the 1994 first free elections in South Africa, Goldin was working as the principal economist at the recently-established European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. After becoming president, Mandela requested that Goldin return to South Africa to create a Southern Africa regional development bank, and become his economic advisor.

Six transformational years followed, in which Goldin worked closely with Mandela, witnessing the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. The avoidance of bloodshed was a tribute to the moral authority of Mandela. “He was a people person who could win over almost anyone he met. Even politicians who’d opposed him ended up eating out of his hand,” Goldin recalls.

When Mandela stepped down as president, and after five years as chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the young family moved again.

This time it was Washington calling, where he was rapidly promoted to vice-president of the World Bank Group.

James Wolfensohn offered Goldin the position of head of policy for the World Bank Group.

Rapidly promoted to vice-president of the Bank, Goldin worked with his friend Lord Nicholas Stern who was the chief economist, and now sits on the Martin School’s galaxy of star advisory council members.

While Wolfensohn earned Goldin’s admiration, when he was replaced by former US Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, Goldin resigned.

“I’d been fortunate to be inspired by all my previous bosses and realised that this would no longer be the case,” Goldin said. He laughed. From that friction arose the opportunity to apply to the University of Oxford in 2006.

Appointed the first director of the Martin School, Under Goldin’s guidance The Martin School has grown rapidly, both in its ability to tackle interdisciplinary challenges and in its international reputation and influence.

He added: The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations report Now for the Long Term has been downloaded over a million times.

“This is a job where I’m learning all the time. Our success depends not only on our ability to develop original insights out of pathbreaking research, but also on our relevance and ability to distil and communicate our ideas.”

Among his personal contributions are 18 books, the most recent of which are entitled Is the Planet Full? and The Butterfly Defect, on globalisation and risk, published by Oxford and Princeton University Presses respectively.

As I leave, I notice a photograph of Goldin with Nelson Mandela. They’re both smiling broadly. Mandela has his arm around Goldin’s shoulders. The president’s dressed informally in one of his characteristic, colourful shirts. A hand written note in blue fountain pen reads: “Best wishes to an outstanding person.”