Spheres of influence - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle
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Our double issue takes you from one year to the next, from December’s joy (we hope) to a more contemplative January when plans are made, ideas hatched. But many of the stories and themes that have shaped 2023 are likely to remain relevant in the new year and beyond. Some of the mood music will be stuck on repeat.

One of the themes that will continue to be crucial is security – from how nation states use their might for self-defence to how cities protect their citizens from a multitude of threats, both man-made and natural. It’s a topic that we shouldn’t shy away from because it affects so many things: whether businesses feel that it’s the right time to invest, whether parents are confident about allowing their children to walk home from school in the dark, and more.

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That’s why this issue contains two deep dives into the question of what we can do to make ourselves feel more secure. Our foreign editor, Alexis Self, has commissioned a series of stories looking at topics such as defence spending, South Korea’s growing role in manufacturing the kit that the world’s armies want, and spotting risks – but he has also explored the value of negotiating with your foes and how a nice inflatable tank might be all that you need to keep your soldiers out of harm’s way. Then, in the business pages, Petri Burtsoff investigates how to protect our cities from floods, air pollution, terrorist attacks and other dangers without scaring people unnecessarily or limiting personal freedoms. Safety and the ability to trust that things will be OK are essential for the gentler elements in our lives to flourish. You can’t have a good quality of life if you think that it can be swept away at any second. It’s a subject that we need to debate. 

Balance is also vital. This double issue is host to our Soft Power Survey, which looks at how nations can win friends and gain global influence through the use of such things as culture, diplomacy, food and design. I always find the annual survey fascinating as it charts the rise and fall of the nations featured and how, while people back home might grumble about their leaders or the state of the economy, out in the wider world their country’s brand appeal can often be shining brightly. 

A good example of a cultural play with glowing soft-power credentials is bande dessinée, the graphic novels that come out of France and Belgium. It’s a tradition that took off years ago with the likes of The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix but is now a vast publishing phenomenon. And it’s a sophisticated one: the stories told cover everything from history to espionage, design movements to biographies. In a meta move, we commissioned Belgian artist Hamo to produce a comic about the comics. I must add that Tyler Brûlé, our editorial director, is a fan of the genre and played a key part in the negotiations; I was only surprised that he didn’t make an illustrated appearance.

Two final things to flag. In our design pages, there’s a story about Finnish timber that includes a report on how the furniture brand Artek is embracing imperfection. It has been looking at its supply chain as it seeks to meet its environmental commitments and one of the conclusions is that it needs to use more of the felled birch that’s the mainstay of its furniture. The pursuit of perfection meant that as little as 10 per cent was being accepted as worthy of use. But now it is looking at how knots and marks can be embraced and has released a version of its Stool 60 that celebrates the blemishes. It’s a wonderful example of how a simple change of mindset can transform how we see beauty.

Then there are cakes. This issue’s Expo is a big cake shop with a display of festive buns, brioches, spicy confections and creamy temptations that puts the icing on the issue. Please feel free to get stuck in.

Finally, a thank you to all of our readers for your support across the year (and it was great to meet many of you at our events). We hope that you have a merry Christmas and joyous end-of-year celebrations, and wish you a safe and happy 2024. With some cake on the side. And, as always, feel free to send ideas and thoughts to me at at@monocle.com

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