Society / Global
Change for good
Big improvements can often come from small adjustments to our behaviour. So how can we ensure that we do things better? We asked 20 thinkers – from authors and professors to artists and architects – for their take.
Former speechwriter for Barack Obama
How can leaders be better, more effective communicators?
It’s not just about world leaders; it’s business leaders, community leaders and the leaders of any given organisation. Obviously, we are facing a global pandemic and consequential economic crisis, but the way that our fragmented media system has changed means that even if you have an intention in your communication, it might be misperceived entirely; it can be sliced, diced, repackaged and completely distorted. And you’re also competing against misinformation. So the challenges involved are significant and one leader can’t solve them.
I do think that, right now, people can smell untruths from a mile away. What people want to hear from their leaders is an authentic and real sense of who they are and what they plan to do. I don’t believe that people are easily persuaded by lofty language; they want to feel rooted in something. The job for leaders, as Joe Biden said in his inauguration speech, is to level with folks and be clear about their intentions – and why they’re doing what they’re doing. All too often what we hear from our leaders is a programme or list of policies but not necessarily an umbrella narrative under which these ideas can cohere. People don’t really know, “What are we signing up for? Why are we following this person? What do they have? Where are they taking us?” So being really clear about that for yourself – and then finding a way to communicate that clearly – is extremely important in these times.
Editor in chief and publisher of Vienna’s ‘Die Presse’
How can we ensure reporting is fair and balanced?
Last year has shaken the world and turned things upside down in a way that we hadn’t been able to imagine before. Journalism was challenged to a degree that meant not all quality requirements were met all the time. Therefore, it is important to focus even more on fulfilling the high standards of quality journalism.
Audiatur et altera pars (the other part should be heard as well) must not be neglected even if the other part is paranoid, aggressive or simply stupid. Even if you detest a certain opinion, it must not show in the reporting.
We have realised that science and medicine can be fallible too. We are facing a situation where our knowledge and understanding can change from day to day. Therefore, the need for transparency about the source of information is bigger than ever before. Traditional media have lost readers to the so-called alternative media that bend facts and disclose sources. Our reporting must have the utmost clarity about what we know – and where we get it from – but also about what we don’t know.
For many of us, the pandemic manifests the first worldwide crisis that can be felt in our daily lives and that affects us individually too. Therefore, emotions and personal experiences might have influenced the reporting more than before. It is important to take a step back and strive for a helicopter view. It is our job to educate our readers. We have to deliver arguments and facts so that readers can form their own opinions – whether we like it or not.
Pritzker prize-winning Chilean architect and founder of the Santiago-based Elemental studio
How can we build better housing?
Housing is not a product, it’s a process. In housing you ignite: you create the first spark and then the whole process begins. The moment you understand it dynamically and not frozen, like other architectural buildings, then the forces at play change. Then you channel people’s interventions.
The state, the market, the private sector, cannot deliver enough of what is needed. So that’s why we talk about the four Ps: the public-private people’s partnership. Evidence shows us that shared spaces that require agreements should not go beyond 30 units. Also, living space has to be flexible and big enough. In doing this, we have forgotten about the balcony; during the pandemic, the balcony meant having a moment of fresh air and relief.
Housing is a human issue. The Paris riots appeared in the vertical ghetto. The pandemic has proven that we need to update our approach to housing as it has huge consequences for security, political stability and democracy.
Dutch artist and founder of Studio Roosegaarde, which develops projects that merge technology and art
How can we grow food, manage agriculture and farm better?
The future of agriculture involves a new harmony between people and nature; the fields that feed us currently seem disconnected from our lives. Bridging that gap through technology was the inspiration for my latest project, Grow.
In the project’s development stages I was in dialogue with Wageningen University, the Netherlands’ biggest agricultural college, and we were discussing wavelengths of light that can be used to stimulate plant growth. One ultraviolet light was found to encourage growth and boost resistance to pests, allowing up to a 50 per cent reduction in the use of pesticides. So far we have worked with a farmer to use this technology on a huge field of leeks and found it to be effective in stimulating plant growth.
Grow’s aim is to show how light can help to produce crops more sustainably and encourage people to connect more with the places that feed us. Hopefully it will act as a platform to speed up the development of similar projects and can be expanded to a larger scale. In the same way that the invention of Technicolor allowed for new expressions in cinema, light science can provide new solutions when it comes to connecting us to our food sources and lessening their environmental impact.
Award-winning Japanese architect, known for working on ambitious projects in Europe and Asia
How can we keep thinking big and designing ambitiously?
I like to keep a certain amount of space free for myself to work on one or two conceptual projects at the same time. Otherwise, you’re just completing actual projects and there’s no freedom where you can allow your ideas to really grow. Experimental work allows us extend our thinking. As designers, it is very important to do conceptual work and competitions, not only so we can win new work but so that we can think of crazy ideas to push ourselves further forward.
Conceptual thinking is like a big river network; sometimes, suddenly, new ideas come out and a new river starts, and sometimes two different rivers join together to create new ideas. Realised projects are based on these flows of conceptual thinking, where if you’re lucky you can make your idea possible. But even then, it’s not just about a simple translation from conceptual thinking to the real project; through the process of realisation you learn, get inspired, and further develop your conceptual thinking to achieve the project.
Conceptually thinking about the new possibilities of projects without any clients and remaining grounded in reality or some kind of future situation in society, can be an endless discussion with no answer. But it is quite exciting and important.
6. Foreign affairs
Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Canada
How can we do diplomacy better?
The global economy is facing a crisis of low growth, high unemployment, low productivity, spluttering international trade and a huge debt overhang. Without significant diplomatic efforts among leading global economic powerhouses – which will involve firing up the g20, the imf, and the UN to ensure a recovery for all – we will enter another volatile period of “beggar thy neighbour” policies that will rival the Great Depression.
The 2007 global financial crisis gave birth to a brief period of co-operation and diplomacy, which was reflected in the first leaders’ meeting at the g20. This spirit of international co-operation and co-ordination needs to be revived if we are to avoid severe worldwide economic pain. However, this approach will not be easy, especially as some global leaders have become more nationalistic. There is an opportunity, however, for the new US administration to reach out to the g20, particularly China’s Xi Jinping, and host a special multilateral summit focused on a post-pandemic economic recovery.
World leaders also need to find ways of stimulating economic growth, while being attentive to concerns about climate change and growing inequality. Leaders will have to listen to new ideas about reviving the global economy that take these concerns more seriously. A renewed diplomatic effort is the only way to prevent a lost decade.
7. Civic policy
New York’s International Affairs Commissioner
What have cities learned from the past year – and what can make them better?
We have learned a lot in the past year – it would be a travesty not to have done. In New York, we have always shown leadership around climate change, affordable housing and many other topics, but the reality is that I don’t think everyday people appreciated how critical strong local leadership and government was in their everyday life.
One of the ways cities can perform an important role is by incentivising policy. For example, in the past year we had to think about what remote education looks like for more than one million students and increase access to broadband.
From an infrastructure perspective, we were able to focus on those who were most deprived and the infrastructure around how to support those communities who found themselves at a disadvantage.
The reality is that a lot of things from an infrastructure perspective really have to change. I hope that is one lesson that comes out of this moment. In our everyday reality, you’ve seen so many more people walking in their neighbourhoods, riding around on bicycles, or even those who are dining outside. This outdoor experience is also affecting the way that we are reimagining urban infrastructure.
Outdoor dining is going to limit the number of parking spaces and the number of cars that exist in the city because there’s just less space. And that space is given to people. This is a really exciting place where I can see us focusing on – and investing in – for our post-pandemic future.
8. Brand identity
Founder & CEO of Sylvain, a New York-based consultancy for sustainable strategy and design
How can we build brands that are more sustainable?
We need to design our brands for sustainability. And we need to do so with a sense of patience, resilience and proactivity. Many organisations are waiting for these challenges to dissipate before they actively set out to re-engage with consumers, the economy or the world at large. But brands will need to push for boldness in a way that will shape a better way forward, rather than passively waiting it out and returning to behaviours and practices of old.
Today and into the future, brands and companies will be tools for consumers to achieve their own ideals. The most pressing of those ideals requires addressing the multiple social and cultural crises that we face today. This will ultimately mean that they play more of a civic role, instead of a commercial one.
The companies and organisations that step up into this role, live it, own it and genuinely adapt and align their business goals with the new needs of consumers and society at large – those will be the brands that last.
9. Urban spaces
Co-founder of The Laneway Project, a non-profit social enterprise revitalising public spaces in Canada
How can we improve and care for the neglected public spaces in our cities?
In Toronto and many other cities, laneways are everywhere. Here it’s a network of more than 2,400 public spaces hiding in plain sight throughout the city’s rapidly intensifying downtown and midtown neighbourhoods. These laneways have historically been overlooked as places for people. But with strategic improvements they can be transformed from purely utilitarian spaces into welcoming places that strengthen the vitality and quality of life of Toronto’s communities.
By leading a focused community- centred revitalisation of laneways and other neglected civic spaces, we can transform them into complete, living public places. These transformations enrich their neighbourhoods by unlocking an additional area for shared community use.
In 2019, we worked with business and community associations in Bloordale, a neighbourhood west of downtown Toronto, to transform a laneway into a welcoming mixed-use space. It provides both delivery access to neighbouring independent shops and pedestrian access to a well-used parklet. It also introduced new pole-mounted solar led lights, planter gardens and a traffic-calming road mural, which enabled all users to share the space enjoyably and safely.
Urbanist and founder of Gehl Architects
What are some big, positive steps we can take to get our cities back on track?
Over the past year we have, in varying degrees, lost sight of the bigger picture and the fact that the major problems of our time are climate change and the declining quality of our cities. Addressing the steadily growing number of private cars is the most urgent place to start.
What is currently discussed is the phasing out of fossil cars. Fine. But what is not discussed is how many cars we need to secure this workable service. What we see is that the number of cars just grows unchecked, as it has done since the 1960s. Driven by market forces and pressure from the car industry, every year more cars, more parking, more overcrowded streets and more space is taken up in our cities. Do we get twice as happy with twice as many cars? Nothing points to this conclusion.
To address climate considerations and achieve more welcoming communities, an obvious resolution would be to limit the number of cars and place a much higher emphasis on shared solutions – public transport and many more shared cars. Actually, shared cars should be the norm rather than the exception. Both climate, cities and efficient mobility are suffering from the steady increase in numbers. Let us instead have much fewer units, fewer problems and much better cities.
11. Climate action
Executive director of C40 Cities, a group of 96 global cities working towards a greener future
What role do cities play in shaping a more prosperous future?
Most immediately, cities can show how a green and just recovery from the pandemic will create more jobs, protect people’s health, reduce emissions and improve resilience. Mayors have been the strongest champions of the Paris Agreement and, in the absence of intergovernmental co-operation, they have kept the flame of internationalism alive. We need national leaders to get behind them with decisive green stimuli and regulatory support.
Against all odds, cities continued to progress climate action in 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, Paris has invested €20m in cycling, Bogotá announced hundreds of new e-buses, making theirs the largest order outside China, and the 15-minute city is being adopted globally.
The pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities, the fragility of our economic, political and social systems, and the urgent need to protect and restore our natural world. We must emerge on a path forward that guarantees economic, environmental, racial and social justice for all.
In 2021 more than 1,000 cities around the world will be mobilising to do this – by signing on to the Race to Zero, a campaign to unite cities, businesses and investors around a green and just recovery ahead of this year’s crucial UN climate change negotiations in Glasgow [cop26].
Academic and president of the Rhode Island School of Design
Should we rethink the way we teach?
For education to be real, it must also be equitable. Some private schools have access to facilities and resources that set up their students with a huge advantage over others in school districts with restrictive budgets and outdated facilities. Class sizes must be determined by ideal learning outcomes rather than demographics. Adaptable classroom spaces would allow for different kinds of assembly. There are major takeaways from this instant reinvention of learning environments over the past 12 months, which must be assessed to decide what we should and can carry forward. A key discovery is the inequity for some students who really suffered under remote learning, either due to learning styles, lack of technology access, internet reliability or personal time and space with the necessary technology.
With new teaching tools, the notion of a field trip is amazingly expanded, as are the opportunities for collaboration and experiential learning. We should invest in major curricular revision and infrastructure so education can address what we have discovered. This includes inventive ways to learn, share, and experience, while also addressing the structural racism and inequities present in our curricular materials and student experiences.
13. High streets
Chief executive officer at Centre for Cities, a think-tank improving the economies of UK cities
How can our high streets be better run and managed?
A thriving high street is based on the strength of a wider economy. Lots of well-paid workers create a market for restaurants, shops, bars and other amenities that can’t be sustained in cities where people don’t earn as much money. Because of this, the most effective way to create a high street that is appealing to businesses and shoppers is to focus on the wider economy. Councils and business-improvement districts should consider how they can encourage skilled firms to set up in the city centre and create a market for high street businesses.
Struggling high streets are the symptom of deeper economic problems in a city. Any strategy for a “better” high street should recognise this and tackle the root cause of the problem: a lack of disposable income in the area. Improving people’s skills and encouraging more well-paying businesses into city centres will create a market for restaurants, shops and bars. Because of this, I’d encourage councils to spend more time thinking about how to attract office-based firms. Where offices go, retail, hospitality and leisure will inevitably follow.
14. Home planning
Architect and co-founder of Marko & Placemakers
Why should our homes be important, beautiful and handsome?
Home should be a place to hold one’s own, a safe space to retreat to. But, importantly, it is also an area for social connection – from the intimate relationships that grow within them to the informal encounters on one’s doorstep, the street and wider neighbourhood.
The quality of the spaces we live in therefore impacts on the whole microcosm of the city. Throughout the pandemic, our homes have taken primacy in our day-to-day lives, prompting a questioning of what matters – is it the size of a bedroom or the quality of space? Is it the overall floor area or the ability for spaces to allow both privacy and social interaction?
The notion of beauty in architecture is often deemed too subjective to define. But the basic ingredients of good architecture – such as daylight, proportion of space and character – are timeless. While the housing crisis is often perceived through lack of units, it is important to pause and define what kind of housing we want to build for future generations. From the amount of daylight and access to open space, through to views from our windows, well designed homes can make a positive difference to our health and wellbeing.
Author of ‘The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power’
Why is it important that everyone has a functional address? And how can street names and addresses help to positively shape our lives?
We take our street addresses for granted, but in fact billions of people lack a clearly defined way to pinpoint where they live. This might seem a small point, but addresses play an important role in modern economic and social life. Without one, you will often struggle to open a bank account, establish credit or even cast a vote. Even receiving mail will often prove impossible. And governments must be able to find people to tax residents, send out ambulances and, yes, enforce quarantines and track disease. That’s why international organisations see street addresses as a key tool for development.
Addressing seems easy: slap a name on the street and mark a number on the door. But it’s actually surprisingly difficult to devise an effective addressing system that will grow with a city. International organisations help: the World Bank has an online course explaining the fundamental techniques. Ultimately, though, most of the work must be done and maintained by cities themselves. Several companies offer digital solutions but even these can’t replace the benefits of traditional street addressing.
Apart from the practical benefits, street names have become living storage for community memories. Ones with historic names – Market Street, Cloth Fair – recall history on their signs. Streets named after local and national heroes explain what people valued or even didn’t value, given the paltry number of streets named after women. Meanwhile, debates over whether slaveholder street names should be changed also provide focal points for much-needed debates about race and identity. Even the numbered street names in the US say something about the nation’s founding values. A street name is never just a street name, even when it’s a number.
Co-author of ‘Toronto Architecture: A City Guide’ and Canadian National Magazine award-winner
How can we design a better learning environment?
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” When Winston Churchill said that, he was referring to the UK’s House of Commons. But it is certainly true more broadly – not least of the spaces we occupy as children. Architects and educators alike have long believed that school buildings have a profound impact on children’s learning and development. Tall stony piles enforced the regimentation of 19th-century schooling. Low, bright, open buildings of the postwar era – like Perkins and Will’s Crow Island school in Illinois, or Denys Lasdun’s Hallfield Primary School in London – reflected new political and pedagogical realities, while presenting young lives with modern ideas about form, space and light.
So where is that ambition today? Too many contemporary schools in the UK and North America are drab exercises in efficiency and economy. One response comes from Prague. There, a local government conducted an international competition for a new elementary school building. Its winners, the Canadian studio Office Ou, responded to the challenge with a four-level structure that shows off sustainable mass timber construction, provides generous access to the outdoors and natural ventilation and gives the school community a variety of room shapes and configurations.
Truly, then, this is the kind of architecture that directly models a generous, sustainable, creative and diverse society. Who would say no to that?
Cartoonist at ‘The New Yorker’, CBS News, CNN and more
How can we get better at seeing the funny side?
I’ve been doing this for 40 years, observing people and drawing them since I was a child, so it’s partly instinctive for me. But drawing and observing something is one thing. Making it funny is a whole other learning curve. A lot of it is about being aware that everybody’s going through similar things. So it’s about looking for those things that we all share, and realising that a lot of it is just kind of silly and that the ordinary things we do are silly. Learning to laugh at yourself is a good start. Not taking yourself too seriously is important.
The pandemic has been interesting because there’s the two elements to it. You have the human-nature side that’s doing all kinds of weird and unusual things dealing with the pandemic, so that’s ripe for humour. On the other side, you have people dying – that’s not so easy to make fun of, and I don’t. That’s why you have to find a way to separate them. Humour often makes fun of our routines and traditions, the things we accept as normal. With serious subjects, I think humour can open a door for someone to see a new way of looking at something.
Former US diplomat and senior partner at Signum Global
How can we argue better?
By listening, really listening. Too often these days people come into conversations already convinced of the righteousness of their positions. As a diplomat you learn to listen and to discern those finer nuances in your interlocutor’s positions. You have to get used to learning to read between the lines – what is the person really saying? There are times when you have to contextualize the words against cultural and historical backdrops. Everyone is in such a rush these days that few people actually take the effort and the time to properly listen.
Putting oneself in other people’s shoes is a helpful technique as well. We each bring a unique perspective to our own world view. The tendency now is to put people into monolithic blocs: conservative versus liberal; left versus right; populist versus globalist. Doing so is terribly limiting. It reduces our fellow citizens to the lowest common denominator and ignores important opportunities and moments to find common understanding.
It is too easy these days to live in social media echo chambers that don’t allow for dissent and that only serve to reinforce our beliefs. We tend to do this not only through social media but also in our personal social interactions and through our work. Dialogue, especially political dialogue, has become too polarised and too polarising. As difficult as it might feel, pushing ourselves to listen to opposing viewpoints and challenge our core beliefs is critical if we are to have a more balanced world perspective.
Editor-in-chief of ‘Aftenposten’, Norway’s paper of record
How do we run better newsrooms and tell better stories?
Newsrooms need to be a better mirror of the societies they cover. They must be diverse and populated with journalists who see the world through the eyes of the people they’re reporting for.
A newsroom shouldn’t be an echo chamber. Journalists need to dive into stories with a truly open mind and be aware of their biases. Many stories contain dilemmas and nuances that weaken even the toughest conclusions. Sometimes it’s necessary to play devil’s advocate. We must enable people to make up their own minds through honest, transparent reporting and be as open as we can about our sources, enabling readers to check them for themselves.
However, we must avoid the pitfalls of “both-sideism”, when facts are indisputable. There aren’t different “opinions” about the validity of the US election, for example. Biden won fair and square, and we need to make that clear. But we must seek to understand and explain why so many people spread and believe in false stories, and that demands getting out there and having frank and open discussions with people on the ground.
20. US foreign policy
Former director of the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA)
How can we do better at engaging with our enemies?
There are opportunities we’re missing. Years ago, with the Soviet Union, we had normal talks with their military all the time. It was hard to do but we did it. And that would be a good idea for China – working together on training for rescue operations, and so on. I’m a former nsa-er, and cyber-security means a lot to China and to the US, so maybe there’s some things we could do well together.
There are almost always some common interests uniting us. A couple of times when I was in the cia, we needed to call the Russians because there was a problem about terrorism – and that wasn’t for us but for them. Iran is a bit more of a problem. About 10 years ago there was an earthquake in Iran and we helped – but their government didn’t say that.
There’s an opportunity now for the US to reach out. Before the election, I thought that if Trump was defeated, we could revive the US again. If he won a second term, then America – especially in terms of intelligence – I don’t know how we would have recovered. Now, we have a chance.