Wednesday. 18/3/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Tyler Brûlé

Crisis optics

You’re familiar with the setting. A mayor, governor, cabinet minister or head of state standing behind a podium. Behind him or her are anywhere from five to 15 aides, assistants, advisors, junior ministers and extras in uniform. Behind them are some flags and a backdrop that might say “ministry of health”, “police department”, “educational and correctional services” or perhaps a familiar coat of arms. I don’t recall when a then-clever comms advisor thought of this “united we stand” concept of bringing as many players as possible up on stage. But it is now a performance whose time has passed.

When Rudy Giuliani tried it out during his time as mayor of New York it was novel and achieved many aims. With some clever casting he could master many messages: “Look at my management team, New York! Check it out, world! Not only do I have a capable team who look good in uniform; I also have a black detective, Hispanic public health officer and lesbian fire chief.” Through deft staging a leader could appeal to his electorate’s inner concerns about diverse representation while also showing capable stewardship.

Over the years this format has gone global – with limited effect. Somehow the leadership phalanx works in the US, has a limited run in Latin America and simply fails elsewhere. Behind big-headed leaders who like to own the mic, you’re left focusing on the porky permanent secretary shifting back and forth in his uncomfortable loafers or the stand-in junior minister thumb-pummelling his phone. In these times we don’t need a chorus of possible experts and advisors lining up behind a single leader; we need a couple of super-competent communicators who can deliver sound, timely advice, answer questions from the press corps and return to the lectern at appropriate points when there is something important to announce.

Switzerland’s federal council did a super job on Monday evening when the country moved into a state of semi-lockdown and President Macron more than made his point in his national address the same evening. (Besides, who’d want a cluster of ministers blocking the fine interiors of the Élysée Palace?).

Politics / Saudi Arabia

Crown duels

Last week, Mohammed bin Salman reportedly ordered the detention of several of his relatives and rivals (and 297 public servants on Monday). It was the latest in a long series of apparently impetuous manoeuvres by the Saudi crown prince (pictured), who is both the presumed heir to the throne and the power behind it. Once seen as a liberaliser, Bin Salman’s authoritarian side is increasingly coming to the fore. So where does he really stand? “I actually don’t think that [talk of reform] was just PR,” Ben Hubbard, Beirut bureau chief of The New York Times and author of a book on the crown prince’s rise to power, told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. “I think these are legitimate changes that he wanted to see inside the country. But it’s also been clear that he was not at all interested in any sort of political liberalisation; he is an authoritarian leader.”

Communication / Global

Networking opportunities

As the rapid spread of coronavirus increasingly forces people to work from home, telecom and software companies are reaping the benefits. Firms across the world – from Google to Telstra, Australia’s biggest mobile network – are cutting costs for consumers and working hard to ensure that they can deal with the extra users. It’s a boon for business but there have been issues. Take, for instance, Swisscom, one of Switzerland’s major telecommunications providers. The company has been overloaded this week as its mobile-network activity trebled, which has meant that some people have been temporarily unable to make calls. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Teams programme, which is offering free six-month trials to businesses for its chat, audio and video-calling service, saw messages delayed or failing to go through in Europe on Monday morning. The problem has since been fixed but expect more such hiccups in the coming weeks as remote working becomes the new normal.

Health / Global

Feel the burn

The home-fitness industry has been a big mover in the past couple of years, with companies such as Peloton (pictured) and Mirror blazing a trail with bikes, apps and interactive mirrors geared for living-room-friendly workouts. The sector has enjoyed considerable success – Peloton’s IPO was valued at $8.1bn (€7.4bn) – but faces lingering questions over whether it can truly compete with the camaraderie that comes from group exercise. Yet with many gyms closing for now, such concerns are redundant. Beyond stationary bikes (including a new model from Soul Cycle in partnership with fitness app Variis), many boutique gyms and fitness gurus are live-streaming classes for everything from yoga to HIIT (high-intensity interval training). It feels like a return to the home-workout boom of the 1980s, via Instagram rather than Jane Fonda’s VHS tapes. During this shaky period, there is some comfort to be found in working up a sweat at the same time – if not in the same place – as other people.

Culture / Ireland

Light relief

Landmarks in more than 50 countries, including the Sydney Opera House and New York’s Empire State Building, turned green yesterday for St Patrick’s Day. And though public celebrations in Ireland to recognise the country’s patron saint were understandably muted, one tribute shone brightly. In Connemara, in the west of the country, Finnish artist Kari Kola has laid a cable of 1,000 lamps along a 5km stretch of the Ceann Garbh mountain. From twilight the rich green and blue glow on the hillside reflects on the waters of neighbouring Lough na Fooey. This extraordinary work, “Savage Beauty” (pictured), was commissioned to celebrate Galway’s designation as the 2020 European Capital of Culture. It was originally intended to be an immersive live experience but those plans have been shelved due to restrictions on the size of public gatherings, which the Irish government introduced last week. Even so, these stunning illuminated landscapes can still be viewed online on karikola.com.

Monocle Films / Japan

The international icon: Kengo Kuma

The beauty of Japanese design has won fans around the world but it takes great panache to translate it to large-scale projects. We sit down with architect Kengo Kuma in his Tokyo office to talk about the recently completed Japan National Stadium. It’s a building that has given a new lease of life to traditional craftsmanship and stimulated local economies.

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