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From Arab uprisings to global financial disasters, we are living through an era of exceptional change. And yet, something fundamental is missing: big, innovative, world-changing ideas. Actually, even small, modest, city-changing ideas. Where are the philosophers and the thinkers, the day-dreaming professors and the controversial policy makers?

MONOCLE has invited five of our favourite thinkers to come up with a new idea to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Whether it’s author and mathematician Alex Bellos on how maths should be taught, or Danish urbanist Jan Gehl on how cities should be rebalanced in favour of pedestrians, each thinker lays out an argument that needs to be heard.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s head of policy Matthew Taylor tackles one of the toughest challenges austerity-wracked European governments face – keeping the welfare state alive. And Kofi Annan’s former special adviser Nader Mousavizadeh trumpets the strength of cities, promoting a c20 as powerful as the g20.

01- Not to be underestimated

—Alex Bellos, mathematician

You’re in the supermarket. You have an €8.99 bottle of wine and a €6.20 chicken meal in your basket and are working out if you can add the €4.70 dessert without going over €20. You do the sum in your head and then walk to the shortest checkout queue. This scenario requires the solution of two maths problems. The first is the sum €8.99 + €6.20 + €4.70 and the second is the judgement of which line has the fewest people in it. One involves the addition of Arabic numerals and the other the rapid estimation of ratios (you don’t count everyone in every line).

We tend to see the first type of calculation as more important than the second. That’s why the maths we learn at school begins with learning numbers and arithmetic. Yet research in psychology shows the second type of calculation is, in fact, the crucial indicator of mathematical ability.

The big new idea in maths education is that young children should spend time improving their estimation skills before learning how to count with exact numbers. The theory emerged from Johns Hopkins University in the US, which conducted experiments in which children were shown sets of dots. Some dots were blue and some were yellow – each child needed to say whether there were more blue or more yellow dots. Children who scored highest at the dot task also performed best at standardised maths tests.

This was surprising. Maths is a system of manipulating abstract symbols that has taken humans thousands of years to develop. On the other hand, estimating ratios involves what academics call our inner “number sense”, a deep-rooted ability to compare quantities which is also present in other animal species.

The realisation that the best indicator of success in the abstract world of maths is our inner, animal number sense ran counter to prevailing opinion in mathematical psychology.

Further thinking:

Educationalists are wondering whether maths teaching needs to be completely reinvented.

02- Time to reclaim the streets

—Jan Gehl, architect

In our ever-urbanising world it is essential to be both idealistic and pragmatic about how we choose to live. If we’re to make our cities healthy, happy and resource-efficient, there is a simple way planners, architects and city governments could dramatically transform our quality of life: we should swap round the preferential space given to cars for people.

The framework for this is already in place. In 2011, the UN pronounced a draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces – stating that it is a basic human right. This timely decree happened just days before the right was exercised by citizens everywhere from Cairo to Wall Street. Communities took possession of places like Tahrir Square in Cairo or Bahrain’s Pearl traffic island.

If you looked beyond the politics and the violence, what you could see was cities around the world that previously were full of cars now full of people. While these were acts of defiance and displays of symbolic solidarity against a despot, physically they had also reclaimed the streets from another threat – the car.

According to a 2009 report from the who, more people are killed on the road each day than die from Aids, tb or malaria. Globally in 2004, road accidents were the leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds and the second among 5 to 14-year-olds. The draft UN resolution begins the necessary legislative process against this skewed order.

In Jeddah pavements have become a dumping ground for building waste. In some Indian towns, residential developers are not bothering to even build pavements at all and in Moscow, pedestrians are forced into confusing underground networks as traffic speeds above. While people seek out their political rights in the public spaces around the world, let us not forget their human right to open space and walking freely in the city.

This phenomenon is something I have been studying for many years. In 2007, Gehl Architects undertook an important study called Flushing Main Street in New York. We found that 97,000 pedestrians walk along Main Street every day but they are squeezed into only 30 per cent of the street space. Some 56,000 motorists have access to 70 per cent of the street space.

We should set targets for investment in cities based on the number of people that it will positively affect. This is especially relevant in emerging economies. In Chennai in India, 45 per cent of daily transit trips are by foot or bicycle, yet investment in pavements and bike lanes comprises less than 3 per cent of all infrastructures (highway investment comprises 39 per cent of investment but serves only 23 per cent of the daily trips).

Planning should be optimistic and lead with positive frameworks for what you can do – not jargon about what you can’t do.

Further thinking:

Architects should ask not what your city can do for your building design, but what your building design can do for your city.

03- We need to work together

—Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

European governments face a huge challenge in the coming years. It’s the social aspiration gap: the difference between the collective hopes we have and the course on which we are set if we carry on thinking and acting as we do right now. In the face of rising demands and global competition, constrained resources and climate change, an ageing population and mass youth unemployment, our progress relies on citizens being more engaged, more resourceful and more altruistic.

One of the most pressing examples of the social aspiration gap is “the paradox of entitlement”: comparatively rich societies seek to guarantee people the basic tools they need for a happy, healthy life. But – and this is the paradox – entitlements don’t work socially or economically if we treat them as mere entitlements rather than part of a social contract.

Welfare benefits are damaging if people who could get jobs become dependent on them. Schools only succeed if parents support their kids’ learning. Healthcare systems will collapse if we don’t look after our own health better. So we need to build obligations and expectations of reciprocity built into all social provision.

Government policies should be judged on the degree to which it helps people meet their own needs. If this all sounds rather abstract how about a concrete example? Millions of people suffer from mental ill health. But even severe mental illness is episodic and for most of the time can be managed by the sufferer and their loved ones. With the right personal support and social expectations people with mental illness could cope with their conditions and remain independent and in work.

But we spend ever more on a medical model which pours billions into drugs of dubious efficacy, which encourages people to see a psychiatric diagnosis as a life sentence to dependency and which leaves unchallenged attitudes that mean most employers say they would be concerned about giving a job to anyone who has had a mental illness. Shockingly, the probability for people with many forms of severe mental illness recovering or coping has not improved in the past hundred years.

A new approach that focuses on maintaining the independence of people with mental illness would involve not just patients and professionals but all of us and in so doing it would make society stronger, and it would almost certainly be a whole lot cheaper.

Further thinking:

We can have better lives if we all think and act very differently.

04- Rethinking foreign policy

—Shadi Hamid, director of research, Brookings Doha Center

Rather than being status quo powers the US and Europe should make it their business to intervene in other countries domestic politics, if and when those countries brutally repress their own people. Getting on the right side of history is easier said than done. What it takes is a new way of thinking about foreign policy. The US should begin with a formal apology for supporting, funding and arming Arab dictatorships for so long. Significant changes in policy, rare as they are, often involve coming to terms with past mistakes – and acknowledging them.

When it comes to actual policy changes, budgetary constraints are a real concern, which is why western powers need to pool their resources, and work with emerging democracies such as Brazil, and Turkey to develop a common approach and funding base. The centrepiece of a new regional policy towards the Arab world should be a “reform endowment” of at least $5bn to create incentives to meet benchmarks on democratic reform. New democracies will be asked to contribute annual dues.

Democracy sceptics will use the ascendance of Islamist parties to argue that democratisation has its dark side. In a sense, they are right; in the Middle East the future is Islamist. Instead of denying what is now an unmistakable reality, the US and Europe should get on board and pursue a strategic dialogue with Islamist actors across the region. An emerging Sunni Islamist bloc, stretching throughout Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – and possibly Syria – need not be cause for alarm. Such a bloc can provide an effective counterweight to Iranian ambitions in the region. A strong Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can put pressure on its counterparts in Hamas to further moderate. Despite their anti-American pedigrees, the region’s rising Islamists are looking to international institutions for aid, loans and investment. The evolving partnerships between Islamist parties and the West can easily benefit both sides.

This may all sound like a recipe for foreign entanglements. But considering what’s at stake – the stability of an entire region – bold leadership is precisely what’s needed. The question remains: is the West capable of doing the right thing, after doing it wrong for so long?

Further thinking:

The West cannot insist that democracy is vital in some countries while backing autocrats in others. It’s time to go all in.

05- Global cities hold the key

— Nader Mousavizadeh, CEO, Oxford Analytica

Imagine turning on your television to see a meeting of the leaders of the world – coming together to address a global crisis – and the nameplates placed around the table reading like a monocle top 10 of the most liveable cities. Except, in this case, it’s the great global cities appearing on the nameplates – Hong Kong, New York, Rio, London, Mumbai, Istanbul – and it’s their mayors who occupy the seats. Imagine a United Nations restructured as a United Cities and a new g20 redefined as a c20. Imagine (with apologies to John Lennon) no more countries.

At the root of the crisis of confidence gripping much of the western world has been the widening gulf between a 20th- century international politics organised around the world of 1945 and a 21st- century global economy transformed by technology and globalisation. The emerging archipelago world of fragmented power, capital and ideas is rendering traditional borders and the institutions of global governance irrelevant. Struggling to respond to this shift, leaders everywhere are seeking new alliances and new solutions. The problem is that they’re looking in all the wrong places. They’re looking to countries when they should be focusing on cities to drive decision making.

In a world riven by deepening divisions of culture, politics and economic ideology, today’s global cities are oases of tolerance and diversity, innovation, opportunity, meritocracy and productivity. Bringing together people, capital and ideas of a historically unprecedented diversity, some 40 urban mega-regions are estimated to hold around 18 per cent of the world’s population but generate 66 per cent of global economic activity and 85 per cent of scientific and technological innovation. The share of the world’s population that lives in urban areas is growing exponentially. At only 3 per cent in 1800, it was at 30 per cent in 1950 and represents more than 50 per cent today.

Cities rather than nation-states are the imagined communities that define our modern existence. And the ties of trade, capital, culture and design that bind them have created a virtual alliance for progress far more powerful and resilient than any treaty could be.

As human capital is increasingly disconnected from traditional notions of nation and belonging, the world is being remade by a migration of men and women to the global cities in search of opportunity and meritocracy. It’s time that the global councils of political and economic power reflect this. We need a new map of the world – one where cities are the defining locus and the country or continent mere geographical contexts for the centres of innovation they represent.

When asked where they’re from, my three sons – by nationality half Danish, a quarter Persian and a quarter English – have a simple answer: “New York”. They may be on to something.

Further thinking:

Cities may have huge economic power but they rarely have political clout to match. That needs to change.

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