Two and a half weeks ago I spent a couple of days in Paris at ‘the Agora for a Great Transition’, organised by Smart CSOs, discussing possible futures for people and planet; one bubble. Just a few days later I find myself traveling through the United Arab Emirates where a whole new world has been established over the last decade(s). They are also continuing to plan for the future. Another bubble.
It felt kind of bizarre and I felt quite torn. One day I am discussing the future we need to get to, which is carbon neutral, sustainable in terms of energy, water management and where people have solved human right issues. The next day I fly thousands of miles to get to UAE where my husband was going to give a keynote at an infrastructure congress. We had decided to add some time to travel around prior to the congress.
Why had I decided to come along? Why did I agree to add to my, already, large carbon footprint? Sure, I am a curious being who loves to travel and who has an enormous appetite for ‘everything that is different’, a xenophile rather than a xenophobe. But do I need to travel so far to satisfy that appetite?
I know that I am not alone in this thinking, fortunately or unfortunately. In fact, I read quite a few articles when we were out there addressing exactly this. One of the articles stated that it was in fact the left wing activists that have the largest footprint because of their traveling, though at home they are all about recycling, buying organic food, ensuring renewable energy and taking part in petitions.
I guess it highlights the tough challenges we are facing. What became again clear to me is that we cannot leave the big decisions (purely) to individuals to ‘do the right thing’. I believe that one should endeavour to ‘be the change one wants to see’ in the world, as per Gandhi. I also believe that many of us try to do so, in some shape or form. However, as I learned in my days working for Greenpeace, it is in the hands of the ‘power brokers’ to create the right paths forward; the governments, the legislators, the businesses.
In that sense I am actually very happy to have been to the UAE. From what I can tell, their leader(s) have been pretty visionary in what they are trying to create with the UAE, a quite different (Gulf) state in the region and yet aligning itself alongside the other states over there. In fact, their focus has been to create a different kind of society, a community of communities in which people play an important role. I did not know a lot about the place before heading there. Call me naïve, call me prejudiced in fact. I thought I was heading to, what I thought to be, a typical Gulf state, where money rules, where oil rules and where they are creating the kind of infrastructure that is totally unsustainable for the future.
Are they? And who am I to think this, let alone to express this? People have been living there for decades and want to sustain their livelihoods, their families for generations to come. It is hundred years ago that the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founding Father of the UAE, was born. He had a vision to create a different kind of state. This year is the ‘Year of Zayed’ to commemorate his memory and showcase his impact and legacy. From what I can tell, through observing whilst traveling, the UAE intends to be the leading country in the region regarding a sustainable society.
They are improving their infrastructure with a focus on public transport and are very open to innovation, the key word used in the opening address of the Global Infrastructure Congress where my husband was giving his keynote. The word ‘innovation’ was put into perspective straight away, acknowledging that is over used and often wrongly interpreted. The intention of the Congress was to invite people to really move the boundaries and be open to very different ways of conceiving infrastructure for the future. My husband contributed to the challenge by suggesting to the audience – overall very technology driven people – to invite ‘smart citizens’ along when planning ones ‘smart city’, i.e. to combine the ‘top down’ approach with a ‘bottom up’ one and create community.
I was inspired, and scared, by the Harj Dhaliwal of HyperloopOne, who showed us how in the near future we would step into a ‘pod’ that would ‘push us’ through a pipe to get us to our destination. Their ‘futuristic’ ideas (the company was bought by Virgin at the end of 2017, so Richard Branson is a convert) would also apply to cargo. Imagine, a different infrastructure, with no carbon emissions, (out) competing airlines and traditional trains that would hook up the Middle East and not just that region. They have gone beyond prototyping and are in the process of building the first pipe between Mumbai and Pune.
Ouch, I thought, remembering what I learned through my years with Smart CSOs: that is another technocratic solution. That will not get us the future that we need. We need a slow life, a slow economy, not an accelerating one. After all, HyperloopOne is about getting us to our destination faster, isn’t it?
Which begs the question: what is our destination?
Is it about innovation? My father brought us up with the thinking that man is very innovative, though in my dad’s mind, at times too innovative or progressive. He used to say that ‘the deviations of yesterday are tomorrow’s virtues’. I cannot get ‘that upbringing’ out of my system. I think that some of what we create, of what we invent, will be needed for the future, for the ‘low carbon future’ and can be fantastic. Some of what we create, what we invent, is what we do not need. In fact, some of this we can totally do without.
What do we need? What do we need where? Traveling through the UAE, it was actually clear that many people are still on their own particular journey of progress, in whatever way you define progress. How can we bring our worlds together to shape our common future? Sure, there are plenty of global conferences and organisations that are trying to do exactly that, and that is great. Some of those are broken though. I believe we see examples of new global and local initiatives – “glocal” ones that are connected thanks to our digitally connected world – that are addressing ways forward. Old powers and new powers working alongside each other. The powers that will pave the way towards our common future might come from unexpected places.
That brings me back to the Agora, as per Hannah Arendt’s idea: a public space where people come together, talk, listen, argue, agree, compete, show, and see the world they share.
I love that concept and it is something I really believe in. Smart CSOs Lab was conceived in 2010 to address the fact that we had had a few decades of civil society and yet we were still ‘losing our planet’. It was felt that we needed to do things differently, address root causes rather than ‘end of pipe’ campaigning, aiming for a paradigm shift. We are still trying.
I believe in Smart CSOs Lab. The recent agora confirmed to me the idea that men and women can come together to discuss the ways to bring about change, positive change and one that lasts into the future. The gathering was true to its conception that ‘different’ people need to come together, which also brought its own set of challenges along the axes of race, gender, nationality, etc., but also along the (perceived?) duality of hope versus despair. It resulted in heated discussions.
Within the Smart CSOs community, and beyond, we have an opportunity to connect by using ‘story’, by recreating our myths. Myths, after all, are the meta-stories we use to explain the universe and our place in it. As Joseph Campbell stated ‘all cultures…are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration.’ Alex Evans presented the challenge beautifully at the agora through proposing the three principles for 21st century myths: a larger us, a longer now, and a better good life.
This journey will be continued and I will continue to go from bubble to bubble and contribute by aiming to cross pollinate the various communities and seduce people into different thinking.
I recognize that sense of akwardness of flying around the world (heading for NYC next month) while aiming for a better world. And it sometimes makes me so sad.