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You’d be forgiven for thinking that we deliberately set out to make this year’s list of heroes free of techy, webby, dot-commy types, but we can honestly say that our gallery of individuals who deserve a bigger global stage came together in a natural, organic way. Sure, we’ve been irritated by how so much of the 2010 news agenda was dominated by digital technology stories and not nearly enough space was given to people implementing policies and building businesses across communities and continents. In 2011 we’d like to see news outlets spend a little less time covering the likes of Android and yet another pad launch, and more time on people such as our negotiators, our design students and journalists doing it the way Der Spiegel’s team have been since 1947.

We start with 20 people who are doing things differently but making a big (read: meaningful) impact in the process. Some of these personalities offer fresh business ideas, others inspired styles of leadership and all have a delightful disdain for the mediocre.

01 Heritage hero

Ruan Yisan, Tongji University, China

For all the modern marvels that grace China’s urban map, centuries of architectural history have been bulldozed. Enter Ruan Yisan, dean of the National Research Centre of Historic Cities at Shanghai’s Tongji University. For the past 30 years, he’s been at the vanguard of China’s preservation movement.

But changing hearts and minds about preservation is a hard task in a country that lacks robust conservation laws and is starry-eyed over office towers and apartment blocks. “I have to work with governments closely. If they go off the track, I’ll have to correct them, or use the strength of the media to protect our heritage,” says Ruan.

Monocle comment:

Sadly the pace of change in China gives little hope for an urban model that works for residents and business.

02 Online activist

Ory Okolloh, Campaigner, Kenya

When election tampering sparked violence across Kenya in 2007, Okolloh, 33, co-founded a project called Ushahidi (“testimony” in Swahili) that let people report violence on the web. That is just one of the ideas dreamed up by Harvard-educated Okolloh, who believes in using tech to make life better. “I find technology an easy way to mobilise like-minded people,” says Okolloh, who was born in Kenya but now lives and works in South Africa.

Monocle comment:

Africa’s story is often told through tragedy. Okolloh proves it’s more dynamic than that.

03 Arts shaker

Christine Tohme, Art activist, Lebanon

Over the years, Tohme has braved censorship, limited funds and political crises to give artists in Lebanon and the public a platform for dialogue. Many key pieces of contemporary Lebanese art came to light through Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts she founded in 1994, and Home Works, her bi-annual forum. Her latest endeavor is the Ashkal Alwan for Contemporary Arts and Home Works Academy, comprising an art school, public library and a space for dance and community programmes – a first in the country. — CC

Monocle comment:

Now cash-strapped governments are turning their backs on arts funding, the world needs more Tohmes.

04 The perfect diplomat

Arturo Sarukhán, Mexican ambassador to the US

During last year’s delicate debate on immigration to the US, including an Arizona law that targeted Hispanics, Sarukhán acted as translator, meeting with US officials and calling into Mexican radio stations to offer hope. Sarukhán will next try to push along the debate over reforming the US immigration system. “If we don’t recognise that this is a very powerful domestic issue,” he says, “we will miss the boat and not understand how this issue can move forward.”

Monocle comment:

A man who is a great addition to the Washington scene and never forgets whom he serves.

05 Digital gallerist

Alexander Gilkes, Founder of Paddle8 online art gallery, London

Over a flute of fizz at Frieze, Gilkes – all effervescence himself, by the way – revealed a shocking figure: over 60 per cent of art is bought after casting a magpie eye over a jpeg. Despite a galaxy of glamorous openings and the formidable muscle of the art fairs, most collectors don’t get to stand back and stare at their piece before it’s parceled-up and posted.

This winter Gilkes, a former director and auctioneer for Phillips de Pury, launches Paddle8, an online art business based around curating online selling exhibitions featuring works from some of the world’s best-regarded galleries. It’s selling but in a different way – it’s about what else is out there rather than a focus on a single house’s auction. Gilkes’s silky skills with the gavel might be on hold, but he’s hoping the mouse may well be mightier.

Monocle comment:

Paddle8 should be a much-needed entry-point for young and first-time collectors to not only learn while they bid, but be part of an inclusive online environment. Maybe the champagne and canapés come with your first purchase?

06 Paper tigers

Alexander Dahlberg and Andreas, Fryklund Bookshop owners, Sweden

If you thought print media and DVDs had no future, it’s time to visit Papercut. In its two years of operating in Stockholm’s Söder district, it has proven that demand is still strong – at least if they’re sold in the right way. As soon as you enter through Papercut’s door, you’re immersed in a wonderful world of magazines, books and films from all over the world, all selected with a careful hand, bringing people the surprising and delightful. Dahlberg and Fryklund believe that you can never replace the feeling of a magazine. The trick is to be brilliant and offer your readers added value.

Monocle comment:

Bookshops and newsstands looking for inspiration should visit Stockholm. Papercut proves that print still sells.

07 Double act

Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna, Tennis players, Pakistan and India

At the US Open this year, from out of nowhere came the doubles pairing of Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, a Pakistani, and the Indian Rohan Bopanna. The so-called Indo-Pak Express was derailed in the final but the team’s surprise run has been a boon for friendly relations between residents of the bellicose neighbours. You could easily have mistaken them for the winners as an emotional Qureshi told an adoring crowd after the final, “There’s a bad perception that Pakistan is a terrorist nation, [but] we’re a friendly, loving, caring people.”— ds

Monocle comment:

The sporting arena may be a place of battle but it’s also where the likes of Iran and the US can build bridges.

08 The correspondent

Wassana Nanuam, Journalist, Thailand

The Bangkok Post’s military correspondent, Wassana Nanuam, has spent the past 20 years laying bare the Thai army’s undue influence in politics. But with the army at its most powerful in years, Wassana says that her job is becoming tougher. “The military top brass hates me. Every time I get into my car, I walk around it first to see if there’s anything unusual,” she says. With Thailand facing a critical 2011 during which the military stands to tighten its grip on power, objective voices like Wassana’s will be more invaluable than ever. — TBM

Monocle comment:

Shouty bloggers and diminished newspapers have only made the role of the investigative reporter more important.

09 Music man

John Richards, DJ, USA

One of the most influential radio DJs in the US, Richards of Seattle-based KEXP, often champions new bands first. He plays demos from unsigned artists between tracks from commercial groups such as U2 and Radiohead and more obscure cuts (Nigerian Afrobeat from 1972, anyone?).

“I’m very emotional about what I do,” he says. “I talk about why music deserves to be heard and why this radio station needs to be here: because the radio dial has been taken from us and we need to take it back.”

Monocle comment:

Richards is one of the few US DJs still providing listeners with music chosen on its merit not its commercial success.

10 Art innovator

Fram Kitagawa, Curator, Japan

Art appreciation is often confined to city galleries. But one man is spearheading a drive to decentralise Japan’s art scene and revive small communities. Kitagawa, of Tokyo’s Art Front Gallery, is behind projects that place art in villages suffering from shrinking, ageing populations – a problem across rural Japan. Last summer, Kitagawa launched the Setouchi International Art Festival across seven fishing islands and a port in the Seto Inland Sea area, dubbed the Mediterranean of Japan. Creations by artists were placed on beaches, by shrines and in rice fields. His Echigo-Tsumari Art triennial involves high profile artists installing works across his native Niigata. “Art can help discover the potential of a place and bring people to it,” he says.

Monocle comment:

While many have used art to help revive industrial areas it’s great to see the trend go rural.

12 The adviser

Dr Ken Menkhaus, Somalia expert, USA

The most sensible voice on one of the world’s most volatile regions, Menkhaus was ignored by Bush officials who saw Somalia through the prism of the “war on terror”. That’s beginning to change, though. “I’m one of a shrinking number of Somali watchers who remember when it had a state,” says Menkhaus, who lived in Mogadishu in the 1980s. “It reminds you nothing is inevitable about this.”

Monocle comment:

With the conflict in Somalia likely to worsen in 2011, Menkhaus’s ideas on grassroots peace-building will be even more important.

11 The new politician

Matteo Renzi, Mayor, Italy

Last year on these pages, MONOCLE lamented the gerontocracy of Italian politics – the upper chamber of parliament even includes several senators for life. A fictional politician was presented. This year, thankfully, there’s a real-life alternative: Renzi of Florence.

Recently voted Italy’s most loved mayor, Renzi, 35, has emerged as a rising star of the opposition Democratic Party. Since being elected in 2009, he’s been busy. A ban removed 2,000 vehicles that belched out smog daily around Florence’s Piazza del Duomo. In October, Renzi proposed a halt to new builds, preferring renovation of existing sites. Using Facebook and Twitter, he’s also organised conventions to discuss the country’s political malaise. His diagnosis? “For almost 20 years, the same faces have ruled with self-serving chatter,” says Renzi. “To change, one needs to shake off old habits.”

Monocle comment:

If any European country needs a new class of politicians, it’s Italy. A few more Renzis, please.

13 The fantastic woman

Penny Martin, Editor in Chief, The Gentlewoman, UK

In the competitive world of women’s glossies, the commercial corset is often so tight that all creativity is numbed. Martin, however, is an editor who knows she needs to make money but also has the guts to break the rules. Glasgow-born, she edits The Gentlewoman, sister title to Fantastic Man, both produced by Dutch duo Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom. Perhaps one reason for her success is that she’s also been a museum curator. “I spent a lot of time thinking about fashion media, deconstructing it,” she says. For now she’s happy to be making a magazine that’s about “creating truly in-depth editorial”. Academia’s loss, publishing’s gain. — AT

Monocle comment:

Somehow the Dutch DNA helps both titles. It gives the magazine a fresh, outsiders’ view of the world.

14 Book lover

vSamuel Seibel, Bookshop owner, Brazil

When Seibel left the family business to open a bookstore, his wife shrugged. “I had an insight when we were walking in Rio de Janeiro and decided to take a coffee in a bookstore,” he recalls. “As we entered the store I thought that is what I wanted from life.” Seibel bought Livraria da Vila and over the last eight years has added four new branches. “My business is not just selling books,” he says. “I want people to meet each other and chat.”

Monocle comment:

Holding more than 100 events a month, Seibel has turned the humble bookshop into a cultural hub.

15 The weaver

Hanne Vedel, Designer, Denmark

Vedel may be 77 but she’s busier than ever. Sister of Kristian Vedel, whose wooden birds perch on mantelpieces the world over, Vedel’s handwoven wool rugs and textiles grace homes, over 300 churches and Danish embassies around the globe. Vedel has worked at the Spindegaarden (which translates as “spinning farm”) since 1953, taking the reins in 1970. “The young generation don’t understand textiles,” she says. “I still weave every day. It’s so important to make things not just by machine or in multiples of a thousand. You can’t replicate the special quality that comes from something made by hand.”

Monocle comment:

More than just a prolific textile designer, Vedel is keeping an ailing craft tradition alive.

16 The thinker

Simeon Djankov, Politician, Bulgaria

When Djankov was named Bulgaria’s finance minister 18 months ago, his CV had a gap: local political experience. The 40-year-old had spent his career at the World Bank, conducting research that was uncommonly compelling. In one experiment, he designed a fictitious hotel and then modelled its bankruptcy in 88 countries to see how different local laws affect economic outcomes. In 2008, Djankov helped create Ideas42, a Harvard-associated think tank studying economic opportunity for the world’s poor. Since returning to Sofia he has received high marks for what the IMF calls “ambitious” deficit-cutting while managing a steady economic recovery and a strong banking sector. “If you are a middle-income country trying to grow while sustaining a fairly high standard of living, then you should be more business-friendly,” says Djankov.

Djankov’s scholarly, cosmopolitan background offers his political enemies fodder – recent protestors urged him to “go home” to America – but if his stint in Bulgarian politics ends abruptly he won’t be short of career options.

Monocle comment:

In an age of career politicians, Djankov is a refreshing alternative.

17 Natural winner

Eben Bayer, Inventor, USA

Bayer grew up on a farm that produced maple syrup in Vermont, and on strolls through the forest he noticed myceliums of mushrooms (the branching vegetative part). Bayer wondered if this could be used to create a natural plastic. “People think mycelium is just a squishy precursor to a mushroom, but it’s actually an industrial-strength resin,” he says.

With a classmate at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he experimented with growing mycelium under his bed. Today the 15 employees at his firm, Ecovative Design, are creating an eco-friendly Styrofoam in a 840 sq m factory in upstate New York. Ecovative now produces 5,000 to 10,000 pieces of packing material a month – all of which can be thrown on the compost once used.

Monocle comment:

With fossil fuels depleting, we’ll need more eco-friendly inventors like Bayer.

18 The voice

Ingrid Olava, Singer/songwriter, Norway

Uh-oh. Ingrid Olava’s Oslo childhood is a story so on the money for a musician: the six-year-old Ingrid would go to a neighbour’s basement to play piano, honing a bond with the old upright that would repay her as she went on to record the songs that she sketched as a girl. She later gave up her psychology degree to pursue songwriting.

“If I should have a motto for my music it would be beauty with sharp edges,” says the 29-year-old. Some choice cuts from her second album The Guest will drop outside of Scandinavia in the spring while she writes her third from the green festival fields next summer. — rb

Monocle comment:

Fest-fanciers’ tip for 2011.

19 The consumer champion

Mats-Eric Nilsson, Food writer, Sweden

When Nilsson wanted to publish his book Den Hemlige Kocken (The Secret Chef), he had trouble finding a publisher. No one thought a book on the manufacturing methods of food would be interesting. However, the book has sold 250,000 copies.

Nilsson has opened Sweden’s eyes. Consumers were outraged when he revealed that some “home-made” frozen dishes contained up to 67 ingredients, including many artificial additives; since then, manufacturers have launched new, natural versions. “My aim is to influence the quality of food,” he says.

Monocle comment:

Nilsson’s success proves that people care about what they eat – and that food companies will change if pushed.

20 Arabian knight

Hisham Melhem, Journalist, Lebanon/US

The Washington bureau chief for pan-Arab television news channel, Al Arabiya, Melhem’s job is to tell the American story to an Arab audience – and it is a responsibility he takes seriously. “It is incumbent on me as a journalist to explain the United States, warts and all, to an audience that believes the US plays an important role in their lives.”

Melhem understands how a badly told story can create problems. In 2010, the furore caused by the Florida pastor threatening to burn the Koran on 11 September prompted an hour-long, on-air debate about the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “We did a show on the First Amendment of the Constitution and explained freedom of expression.”

Monocle comment:

A rare voice of sanity and moderation, Melhem knows how to educate his audience, not just inform them.

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