Author: Nerina Finetto

Michel DeGraff

Michel DeGraff
Professor of Linguistics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

The language we speak. Education, innovation and the future of Haiti

How does language use and suppression mirror societal power? What impact has colonialism had on the Haitian Creole language and its role in Haiti’s development? And how can linguists succeed in promoting the use of Creole languages, and elevating their prestige in the eyes of native speakers and their governments?

Michel DeGraff, a Haitian linguist and tenured professor at MIT, is interested in these questions and more, using his work to try and understand how languages like Haitian Creole come into being, and how new varieties emerge due to the contact of diverse populations throughout history.
Through his studies, and his own life growing up in Haiti and being forced to use French during his education, Michel believes that educating young people in their home language is essential for their freedom, well-being, and development.

In this video, he tells us why he set up the MIT-Haiti Initiative after the country’s devastating earthquake and discusses the challenges and successes in his research and teaching about the development and structure of Haitian Creole and other Creole languages, and his bringing Haitian Creole, alongside modern pedagogy and educational technology, into Haiti’s school system.

Michel DeGraff is a professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. He is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. His fields of scholarship are linguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights, and development.

Watch the trailer:
Watch another trailer:
Watch the trailer with Kreyol subtitles:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Michel DeGraff's Video here

Michel: Hello, my name is Michel DeGraff. I was born in Haiti. I’m a professor of linguistics at MIT, which is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And I’m also the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

Nerina: Thank you for joining me, Michel. What are your main research interests?

Michel: My main research topic in linguistics has been to try to understand the way that new languages come into being, and how new varieties of languages also emerge. My focus is on the interaction between the contact of populations and the creation of new varieties of language. In a way, my laboratory case is my own native language, Haitian Creole, which emerged in the Caribbean, in Haiti, back in the 17-18th century, out of the contact between varieties of French and various West-African and other African languages. And out this contact, this new variety emerged, which we now call Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl in Haiti.

I also work on the relationship between linguistics and education, especially in the context of my native country, Haiti. I think what we’re doing there can also be used as a model for other countries that speak a local language that, because of historical reasons, has been stigmatised, and excluded from the schools, courts and government, and other domains where knowledge and power are created and transmitted. So, I’m hoping that the work we are doing in linguistics can have a positive impact on education and development in countries like Haiti, but also other countries in the Global South.

Nerina: What makes your first language, Kreyòl, so unique in your opinion?

Michel: From my perspective, what makes Haitian Creole and other Creole languages special is the fact that both their own history and development and the way they have been studied by scholars reflect colonial history. At the same time, because of their very origins in situations of really drastic power inequality, I mean slavery, colonization. now those languages offer a path out of domination and stigmatization, a path into liberation. For me, that is what makes these languages very special: the fact that they come out of a history of colonial struggles. In a way, there are still the theater of struggles. But if you better understand how they emerged, how they are created, but also if you understand their capacity for education, literature and liberation, then they can be used for development in a way that hasn’t happened yet in the case of many Caribbean communities but also other communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, where you have either Creole languages or what we think of as “indigenous” or “local” languages being spoken.

Nerina: The point is that French is the official language of Haiti, but Kreyòl in Haiti is not the language of a minority but it is the language of a majority, right?

Michel: Absolutely. What you’ve just said, Nerina, is absolutely right. In Haiti, Kreyòl is the language… I wouldn’t even say of the majority… but I’d say it’s the language of the totality. In Haiti, everyone speaks Kreyòl. In fact, you can hardly function there in French, except if you were to stay at a hotel or in the capital or in fancy neighbourhoods. Once you go out in the outside country, on the streets, into the busy vibrant neighbourhoods where people are living their lives, you have to use Kreyòl. So, everyone speaks it, even those who are forbidden to speak it! I remember very well when I was in school, I went to a school run by French Catholic brothers, I was forbidden to speak Kreyòl, but yet I learnt it, I speak it. In fact, it’s my soul language, my first language. Although my own parents were very concerned that I should speak French first, but in fact, Kreyòl is my native first language. And it’s the first language for most Haitians.

Nerina: How does this situation that you are not allowed to speak in your native language and that somehow your native language may be seen as not important or not even a real language, how does this affect you?

Michel: I often ask this very question, how does this stigmatization and oppression of a native language, how does it act on a child? I’ve done research on that. So I have many videos of children in classrooms and how their languages are being suppressed. Often when they are being taught to speak French, and if they have a Kreyòl accent or they pronounce the vowels in a Kreyòl way, the teachers look down on them and make fun of them. Then those children come to believe that what they speak at home, what their family speaks is a broken language, is broken French.

So, what it does to them, I think, is to make them believe that they are broken people. It makes them believe that they are inferior, that for them to be fully human they have to speak French. To me, the effect of that entire system, of what I would say is MIS-education, is undermining the entire foundations of our nation. In the school, the children are being taught from day one to mimic. In fact, they learn how to read not as they learn how to think. They learn to parrot, to mimic, because they read sentences by sounding out words without understanding what the words mean.

So, what it does to them? It teaches them that you go to school not to learn, but to become a parrot, to pronounce or mimic French words without understanding them. So, it becomes normal for them that learning means parroting French text without understanding it. I can imagine what in the long term it does to the nation because you have cohorts upon cohorts of children who come out of school without really knowing how to read a text, without any capacity for critical thinking. Even teachers teach by repeating without questioning what they repeat.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and power?

Michel: Well, I think of the situation of a country where everyone speaks Kreyòl and a small group speaks French and yet French is the language used for power. I think it’s a good example of what psychologists and philosophers and sociologists have studied as the power of ideology, the power of prejudices to even affect those who are being oppressed. What you find is that it has been so long, since the 17th-18th century, that French has been presented as the real language, the superior language. Then, linguists and creolists have also played a role in that, in ranking Creole languages as if they were the world’s simplest languages, as if they were languages that were below in terms of capacity of expression, below languages like French for example.

So, what you find is that even those who speak only Kreyòl are also convinced that in order for them to achieve citizenship, to be real and fully human, they have to speak French. So, Steven Biko said something that is very important: he said that the most powerful tool of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. The idea here is something that Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Frantz Fanon understood very well: that hegemony works because those people who are being excluded, those people who are being oppressed, they’ve been convinced to believe in their own inferiority, in the validity of why they’re oppressed.

And that’s why the situation in Haiti still holds, because you have parents who are so poor they give all this money to schools, and they don’t care whether the school teaches the kids math or science or literature, all they care about is whether the kids learn French, as if French is the key to knowledge and to humanity. But, no, it’s not. No language can have that kind of function, right? The best tool to develop your humanity and your knowledge is your native language, and with that, you can also learn other languages. So, that’s why I think it’s really important for teachers, scholars, leaders, linguists and anthropologists to really look at this issue very closely—also psychiatrists—to deeply understand how to correct it, because until it’s corrected, you’re going to have a nation that’s totally upside down. As my colleague Yves Dejean says, we have a country that’s upside down because the schools are upside down.

Nerina: Haiti is a beautiful country, has a long history even pre-Columbus, and after the years of the colonization it was a proud moment when Haiti became independent before other countries did at the beginning of the 19th Century. But what do you think or feel went wrong, why does Haiti still struggle?

Michel: I think that Haiti, as you said, is a beautiful country with an amazing history. It was one of the first lands to welcome Columbus when he got lost. Of course, he didn’t discover Haiti. He just got lost there. That’s why he called it the “West Indies.” And the Amerindians welcomed him to their own detriment because very quickly they were decimated. It was the first genocide in the Americas.

We’ve had this glorious history whereby the Europeans brought in the Africans as enslaved labourers, then these Africans managed to outwit the Europeans: they won an amazing independence war, back in the beginning of the 19th century. There’s something that our founding fathers understood. Jean-Jacques Dessalines who was our first president understood that we may have won the war of independence in terms of getting rid of the French, but if we don’t also become independent culturally, intellectually, linguistically, then we won’t really be independent.

He also understood that there was this danger of neocolonialism. So although the French had been expelled, there were descendants of the French in Haiti, there were also free blacks who for selfish interest wanted to just replace the French and not share the wealth with their compatriots, but create a new class of colonizers that could then oppress their own compatriots.

This is what we’ve seen. We’ve seen that in Haiti from the very beginning there was this small class of free blacks, the blacks who were free even during the colony, but also the mulattoes (descendants of French who mated with African women), and they replaced the colonizers, the French colonizers. One thing that they did that was actually quite clever was to enlist the school system as a way to preserve power, because very early on, although there were attempts at the very beginning to say ‘well, we need to use Kreyòl for the school system because given that we are a population that speaks mostly Kreyòl that’s what should be used’, but those proposals from the very beginning were excluded. So, what happened is that the school system very early on was based on French which means that only those who could speak French, and that was already a very small minority, would have access to success.

So, it’s basically a privilege given to the elite that became cemented, and became so entrenched in the society. That’s what we’ve been living with since then. So that’s the tragedy of Haiti, that’s the problem. But now with all that we know about language and education, I think that we can do another revolution, which is to convince the leaders and the population that our native language, our national language, is essential for our freedom.

Nerina: You wanted to use your knowledge to change the situation, right?

Michel: Absolutely. I really believe in something that Karl Marx said, that what is important is not only to understand the world, but it’s also to be able to change it. In linguistics, and in all the humanities—anthropology, history, psychology…—we have all this knowledge about the way the mind and society work. But what good does it do if we have all this knowledge, but we cannot make the kind of changes that will make the world better, and the lives of people better? What good does it do if we build all this knowledge about Creole languages, but at the same time Kreyòl speakers cannot benefit from this knowledge? Sometimes it’s even worse, Kreyòl speakers sometimes suffer because of the kind of statements and theories that linguists have been producing for centuries about Creole languages, classifying them as if they were the world’s simplest languages. This is the very reason why certain scholars and educators prefer to use French instead of Kreyòl, because why use a language that’s ‘simplest’ when you can use a more ‘sophisticated’ language, meaning French. You see…

So this is one area where the knowledge being produced by linguists is actually undermining the livelihood and the future of the very speakers of these languages that we study. At least, we have to understand the impact of these kinds of ‘knowledge’ and question the basis for them. Because if we have any doubt whether our knowledge is solid, then we should really think of what are we doing in the real world with this knowledge? How can we make it better?

Nerina: You are the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. When and how did it start?

Michel: I like to think of it as having its roots from my childhood because as a child I was never allowed to use my native language in the school system as a means of knowledge. I was prevented from using it. When I was a computer scientist, my first job as a professional computer scientist was to write programmes for linguists who were trying to help computers to understand language, to have computers able to read, say, the New York Times and be able to pronounce text for people who cannot read, for example. As I was doing this work, I couldn’t help but think about my own language, Kreyòl, and I realised that if I were to write the same programme for Kreyòl it would also work maybe even better because in Haitian Creole we have a very transparent and logical spelling system which is a lot better than what you have both for English and French. It’s a very logical, transparent spelling where every sound is always written with the same letter. It’s very rigorous and logical, which would make it much easier for a programme to be able to read Haitian Creole as compared to French or English.

From that moment onwards, I was always thinking about the use or misuse of Haitian Creole, our national language, in the school system in Haiti.

Now, to make a long story short, in my work as a linguist I always kept in touch with colleagues in Haiti. The one colleague that really influenced me a lot, his name is Professor Yves Dejean, who used to run this state office to promote Kreyòl in the 90s. So, Yves Dejean invited in the mid-90s to do a seminar at the Kreyòl Language Bureau in Haiti, and there I met other linguists who, like me and Yves Dejean, understood the importance of promoting Kreyòl as the main language of education. So, we did some work together, training young linguists to understand the structure of Haitian Creole and to also realise that it has the full complex structure that makes it capable of expressing science, mathematics, philosophy… so there is no reason to exclude it from the school system.

So, when the earthquake happened in 2010, I was on this phone call with Yves Dejean, and all of a sudden, we got cut off! Ten minutes after, I realised that there was this major earthquake in Haiti. So, of course, I was very worried! Thank God, he was safe, his house was safe.

But then in the aftermath of the earthquake, me and my colleagues at MIT were discussing the best way that we could help. We realized that the best way was not to send money or bottles of water. The best way to help was to try and change the school system from the inside. In fact, Yves Dejean wrote a manifesto soon after the earthquake, where he says that the best way to rebuild Haiti is not with cement or with infrastructure, but it’s to rebuild Haiti from within, from the soul, to change the attitudes of the leaders of the society towards their own native culture, and their own native language. If we can do that, then we can really rebuild a Haiti that will be better for all.

So that moment after the earthquake and talking to Yves Dejean, I realised that what I could do at MIT is to try and create a team of colleagues, because at MIT we have very good scientists, educators, mathematicians, and engineers. Then we could see how we could bring some of our know-how and share it with Haiti, at the same time also expand our own humanity and expertise at MIT. So, it would be a two-way relationship where MIT would be sharing with Haiti, but at the same time, Haiti, with its own rich history and expertise and human capital, could share with us. So basically, both MIT and Haiti would expand and become better in the process. It would be an opportunity for both MIT and Haiti to try to create a new kind of university that might become a model, not just for Haiti, but for the entire world.

Nerina: What are the main pillars of this programme?

Michel: Our goal in the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to try to share with Haiti the best know-how at MIT when it comes to teaching and learning, because MIT is one of the best universities in the world. I think we’ve become very good at developing methods and tools and resources for students to learn in a very creative fashion. This notion of creativity is at the core of the initiative, because when I was growing up in Haiti I remember very well that, in order to succeed as a shining student, it was a matter of just memorising lessons, and being able to recite them by heart. If there is one feature that characterises the Haitian school system, it is rote learning. It starts from kindergarten and first grade, where children are being taught to read text they don’t understand. All that matters in ‘reading’ is to be able to sound out and repeat words without understanding them in any deep way. So, this is what my colleagues and I felt, from my own experience as a student, needed to be changed in order for the country to use the full capacity of its citizens who are very creative. If you look at Haitian art and at children on the farms in the rural country, those children are very creative, and yet they go to school, and their creativity is shut off and not exploited. So, the goal then was to create a school system, from kindergarten to university, where you can learn in a very creative way, you can learn in an active fashion.

The main aspect of the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to introduce methods and tools for active, creative, interactive learning. To do that, we need one indispensable condition which is that the students have to be able to use the language they are most fluent in because they cannot be creative learners if they have to use a language that they are not comfortable in. So that’s the second piece of the initiative.

The third piece is something that MIT is very good at, which is the use of software and tools that trigger and promote this kind of interaction.

So that’s basically the MIT initiative.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and personality?

Michel: I think in Haiti the relationship between language and personality is such a clear one. For example, if you go to Haiti, you will be pressed to find a typical Haitian giving any joke in French. If you are in a courtyard or on the playground, all the jokes and stories and songs happen in Kreyòl. And those in that context who switch to French, they switch to French to be formal. When you go and court a girl, in order to impress her, you have to speak French, so she thinks that you are smart and well educated and of a good social class. But then once you get comfortable with the girl, you would switch back to Kreyòl. Once I was on the phone talking to my girlfriend, I was maybe 11 or 12, and we were talking in Kreyòl, and the mom heard us speak Kreyòl, got offended, and picked up the phone and said ‘Sir, please speak French to my daughter! You are disrespecting her by speaking Kreyòl’. I could speak French, but I was so frozen by this command that I had to hang up the phone. This shows you how, in Haiti, that link between language and personality is so clear because you cannot be yourself in French. For most Haitians, to be true to yourself is to speak Kreyòl.

Nerina: What motivates you, Michel?

Michel: I think it’s my own history in many ways. But also when I go to Haiti and I see those children and speak to them, I can feel and hear their intelligence and creativity and desire to succeed and I can feel that they have the capacity to succeed. Then, to look at them in the school and they start failing, but it’s not because they are stupid. They start failing because the school system is set against them. That is what motivates me.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Michel: My dream, really, is to see the Haitian leadership own that project because, so far, the project has been pushed on the MIT side, and by a growing number of Haitian teachers and faculty at the level of high school, elementary school, and university. But, for that project to have fruit in the long term, at some point it has to be owned by the Haitian society in total—meaning the government, civil society, the parliamentary system….

So my dream is that at some point, hopefully soon in the future, there will be political leaders in parliament and in the executive , alongside the society and all the NGOs, that will realise that for the country, or any project, to succeed, there has to be models like the one we are promoting where the national language is at the core of the project, but also that it be participatory—that everyone can participate without any barrier of language or technology. Of course, I would hope that a stronger alliance between MIT-Haiti and the powers that be both in Haiti and beyond.

And eventually the bigger dream is to have this initiative become a model for other communities—in Jamaica, Curacao, Seychelles, Mauritius, Latin America, Africa, and all over. Did you know that 40% of students are still being taught in a foreign language? That’s a huge number. And also what is really crucial is that there is a direct correlation between those countries that do not use their national language and the countries that are impoverished. So, the most impoverished countries are also those that do not make use of their local languages. So, the bigger dream is that this model will be applied globally, that in each community with a local language, the school system will enlist that local language in the teaching. On paper this is what UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, USAID… that’s also what they believe in. Obviously, there is some blockage against this. But hopefully, in my big dream, those blockages will disappear.

Nerina: Is there a question that nobody ever asks you but you wish somebody would?

Michel: One question that I would like to be asked is: What would I have loved to do if I were not doing linguistics? What other profession would I have liked to have had!

Nerina: And what would you have become?

Michel: I have asked myself that question many times. And I answer it when I go to dance class! I have a dear friend who is an Afro-Haitian dance teacher, and I’m part of his company’s board as an advisor, and I often like to go to his dance performances. Whenever I see beautiful dance performances, I wish that I grew up in a country where boys could have taken dance lessons and become dancers. When I dance it makes me feel really good! So, sometimes I wonder if I would have enjoyed being a professional dancer, would I have enjoyed dancing maybe ballet or Afro-Haitian dance or the kind of dances that the Alvin Ailey dance company performs because they are so beautiful. It’s like a different language, but a beautiful language that people can speak even though they come from different backgrounds. So, in Jean Appolon’s dance classes, when you go there on Saturdays, you see people from all walks of life, of all ethnicities and sizes and ages, and all together they dance beautifully, and when in the class everybody feels so good and so happy! You see this community they built through dancing, and even though people don’t speak to each other that much. But they dance together, they have the drums going through their souls together, it creates that kind of coziness and love and bond that I rarely experience elsewhere. So that’s what I think I would have liked to become maybe, a dancer.

Nerina: My last question, what is life about?

Michel: Well, it’s like what I tell my little boy, that life is trying to make a change to make the world better. It could be very small, it could be something you do within yourself or in your family or neighbourhood. But in your life, if you can make that small change that will make someone’s life better, then it makes life worth living. Life is also about love: without love, life wouldn’t be worth living. That’s what I think life is about: to make some change that will make someone’s life better, and to fall in love and enjoy love and love other people and be loved by other people. That makes life worth it!

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Michel: Thank you Nerina, that was a nice interview!

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, thank you for sharing. If you have any suggestions please feel free to reach out to me. See you soon, and keep wondering. Bye, ciao.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

Youssef Travali

Youssef Travali
Next Einstein Forum Vice-President

Dr. Youssef Travaly (PhD, MBA) is the Next Einstein Forum Vice-President of Science Innovation & Institutional Partnerships. Youssef holds an MBA together with a PhD in Materials Science. He has extensive experience in a variety of sectors including semiconductor and biomedical research, low carbon circular economy and climate change.

Science, innovation, partnerships and the future of Africa

“We are here to celebrate science. The transformative power of science in Africa.” So began this year’s Next Einstein Forum, held in Rwanda at the end of March. This is the largest scientific gathering to ever take place in Africa, and its aim is to link African researchers around the world, and build the beginnings of a knowledge-economy which will transform the entire continent, and nurture its scientific talent.

Dr Youssef Travaly, the Vice President of Science, Innovation, and Partnerships for the Forum, holds a PhD, and has studied in Belgium, the US, and Senegal. Now based in Rwanda, he is an integral part of building this new community of inspiring African scientists.

Dr Travaly spoke to Traces.Dreams about the intricacies of the Next Einstein Forum, and what they are trying to achieve.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Youssef Travali's Video here

Nerina: At the end of March, the African scientific community met in Kigali, Rwanda, for the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering 2018. Here are some impressions:

Global Gathering Intro:
Listen carefully, and you will hear the voice of an ancient land; sometimes it whispers, sometimes it sings. Its thousand hills tell stories of triumph and dignity. Listen carefully, and you will hear its heart beating—alive with possibility.

Mr. Thierry Zomahoun: We are here to celebrate science—the transformative power of science in Africa. We are here today to celebrate the contributions of Africa to global science. And we are here to celebrate the achievement of some of Africa’s brightest minds, and scientific minds.

Prof. Neil Turok: This is the largest scientific gathering ever held in Africa. The next Einstein must embody both the humanity and wisdom of Mandela—possibly the greatest leader of the 20th century—as well as Einstein.

H.E. Paul Kagame: The gender gap in science is a global phenomenon, but that is no reason to accept it as inevitable. Opportunity will never be equal without equal access to knowledge.

Ms. Temie Giwa-Tubosun: 1 in 22 pregnant women in Africa will die by the time they give birth to their child, so Life Bank is trying to solve that.

Dr. Justus Masa:
It is better to be forward-looking than looking backwards.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Von Klitzing: If you have the freedom to ask questions—this is very important for a scientist—you have the freedom to follow a new direction.

Dr. Tom Kariuki: We want a leader to have ethical behaviour.

Dr. Connie Nshemereirwe: A collaborative leadership is a much better model, so I would like to think that the next generation of leaders are going to appreciate this.

Dr. Genya Dana: When we think about ‘precision medicine’, we often think about it as a developed country kind of approach, and look at: ‘How do you think about precision medicine in low resource environments?’ for example.

Dr. Anne Therese Ndog Jatta: One thing we have in sub-Saharan Africa: the sunlight, bringing nature closer to human beings.

Dr. Rocio A Diaz Chavez: Particularly important for the circular economy is the life-cycle assessment.

Dr. Vincent Biruta: Even if we have very good examples of circular economy in our businesses, in our industries, what we need to do is to be able to have an industrial symbiosis.

Mr. Hans Bolscer: I don’t think industry is against complicated regulations; they know how to handle that. Be fierce to industry, impose your standards, and make a renewable business case a profitable business case.

H.E. Paul Kagame: The future we want is as bright as we want it.

Youssef: We commit to adopt a Pan-African-wide framework for an innovation-led economy. We commit to integrate local culture and stakeholders to build, early on, scientific careers. We commit to integrating digital technologies into education and skills development, so as to accelerate the uptake of digital science on the continent. With that, I would like to thank you for your attention, and I’ll welcome you in 2020 in Nairobi.

Nerina: Thank you, Youssef, for joining me. Could you please introduce yourself?

Youssef: My name is Youssef Travaly; I grew up in Senegal. In ’86 I moved to Belgium where I studied Math, Physics, and Engineering, and in ’97 I got my PhD in Materials Science. And then I moved to the US where I spent two years as a postdoc at Rutgers University, New Jersey; I worked there in biotechnology and quantum mechanics. And then I moved back to Belgium where I spent about 11 years in the semiconductor industry—semiconductor research. And after that, I switched to research and cancer treatment; in that field, I spent about two years before moving to the sector of climate change, energy, and low-carbon circular economy. And then I got the opportunity to move to Rwanda where I currently work as Vice President, and Chief Scientific Officer for the Next Einstein Forum.

Nerina: What is the Next Einstein Forum?

Youssef: The Next Einstein Forum; you can explain that in so many different ways, and I will just take one angle if I look at myself as a researcher when I was abroad. I had the feeling that I was the only researcher—the only African researcher—in the semiconductor area, while there are many African researchers abroad. So, basically, we don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other, and, most importantly, the continent; they don’t know that they have such talented, scientific researchers abroad. So the Next Einstein Forum is a platform, it’s a platform which will basically identify all those top young African scientists; it will connect them, they will get to know each other, and they will get to be known by the continent.

And, for me, what I see as a long-term impact of the Next Einstein Forum is to build an African community of scientists. And this African community of scientists will be so powerful that they will be able to solve all the issues and the challenges that the continent is facing: whether it’s about climate change, whether it’s about health, whether it’s about agriculture, and so on, and so forth. And that, for me, is one of the most impactful outcomes of the Next Einstein Forum.

Nerina: What did it mean to you to go back to Africa?

Youssef: I think, for me, going back to Africa was really a dream. It’s something that I’ve always been looking for, but there was no opportunity; the type of study I was doing, it was difficult to find something here—while it was very easy to find a job, either in the US or in Europe. So then I just followed, let’s say, my path. And then I had this opportunity to come back, which for me was a great opportunity. And I truly believe that most of the African researchers that are evolving abroad, they all dream to come back, and they all dream to give back to the continent what they have learned, and what they have acquired while being abroad.

Nerina: You have been applying your knowledge in Math and Physics to enter different fields and follow your dreams, right?

Youssef: Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of Math and Physics when you do this type of study; you have a kind of general knowledge which enables you to do a bit of everything that you want to do, depending on what you like—depending on your ambition. And for me, I’ve always been driven by research for a purpose; like low-carbon circular economy which enabled the transition to clean energy, cancer treatments, and all these types of technology—and that’s the beauty of Physics and Math. And it’s basically what we want to bring here, to the continent, to make sure that if we train people in Math and Physics, we are sure that we are training the next generation of African leaders, if you want.

Nerina: How do you want to achieve it?

Youssef: The Next Einstein Forum approach is a Pan-African approach, and we try to build this Pan-African identity early on—that’s why we are focusing on youth. For instance, if you look at the work that the NEF Ambassadors are doing—they are science champions that we have in each African country—and basically, already now, we are trying to develop a sense of partnership and collaboration among them. For instance, now, at the time we’re speaking, in Congo, the African science week is starting, led by the NEF ambassador in Congo. And interestingly, we have about six Ambassadors from neighbouring countries that will be attending this event. Already, at this stage of their life, they start to have a collaborative approach across the continent. So if you see those Ambassadors in 10 years from now, if they are in the driving seat in their own countries, we already have a strong partnership across the continent, and this is how you build a true African identity.

Nerina: You are focusing on youth and women, aren’t you?

Youssef: What we are doing in the Next Einstein Forum, together with the AIMs (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences) and the whole equal system is we are really focusing on the education value chain. And when you look at the education value chain as I mentioned, one of the main aspects is a knowledge creation. So basically we need to make sure that we have a pipeline to knowledge creation; so we have enough scientists, young people going into scientific studies, to then build this reservoir of young African scientists. This means that, if you look at the proportion of women going into scientific studies, it’s not 50%. So basically you need to increase the share of women going into scientific studies because, in the end, you want to have enough human capital in your reservoir of knowledge creation. That’s why it’s important to increase the share of women; otherwise, you are basically working with half of your potential—that’s one of the main focuses.

Now, the way we are doing that in the Next Einstein Forum is we work with a KPI, so when we are choosing a NEF Fellow, we make sure that we have at least 40% of women represented as a NEF Fellow. So, this actually enabled us to identify the key challenges we need to address in order to make sure that we can achieve this target of 40%. When we identify all the challenges, then we can work on those challenges, then we can increase this KPI to 50% to make sure that, in the end, we systematically have 50% of female NEF Fellows and male NEF Fellows.

Nerina: What is the role of scientists for the future development of Africa, in your opinion?

Youssef: I think when you transition to a knowledge-led economy, what this clearly means is that you put innovation at the centre of your economic transformation. And putting innovation at the centre of your economic transformation means that you put the brain power, or the human capital, at the centre of the transformation of your economy. And that’s why it’s important to have a community of scientists which is there as a reservoir to generate ideas, to produce new concepts that can, later on, be implemented and serve the purpose of transforming African economies.

Nerina: During the gathering in Kigali, what were the most relevant topics?

Youssef: So the programme of the Global Gathering was built on a white paper—this white paper was entitled: Knowledge-Based Economy, The Foundation for a Pan-African-Led, Knowledge-based Economy. And this white paper was articulated around three pillars. The first one was regulatory; we need a regulative framework whether it’s about policy, whether it’s about science policy. That’s one of the pillars of the white paper. The second pillar of the white paper is human capital; we need to develop a scientific capacity for the continent in order to transition to a knowledge-based economy. And then the third pillar was about finance and partnerships; so if you want to implement knowledge, you need to make sure that you have the right funding in place—that you have the right partnership in place.

So the way the conference was organised was that we had a Presidential Panel. The Presidential Panel was meant to discuss the regulatory framework and the human capital development—so what actions the African nations, altogether, can take in order to enable those recommendations. The third pillar was about partnership and funding, and then we had a very interesting session entitled: ‘Playing catch-up’ (so how to go from lab to market). And the idea is to integrate all the recommendations of those three pillars in order for the continent to implement knowledge.

Beyond that, we had a number of discussions but always articulated around this policy paper. We looked at the future of health, we looked at the energy transition, climate change, food security, and then we also discussed the digital economy. Those are the three main thematics that we discussed, and in all those three thematics, what we mainly discussed is; what are the technologies that we should adopt, what are the policy recommendations that we should put in place, what are the partnerships, and what type of funding we need in order to enable the continent to prosper in all three of those sectors. And if you look at what we did all together, we basically explored about 10 different industrial sectors, and for all the industrial sectors we tried to come up with concrete recommendations that we could implement over the years to come.

Nerina: Knowledge-led economy is the key message for the future, but what are the challenges that you have to cope with?

Youssef: I think that the main challenge that I see is that, when we showcase all those top young African scientists they become valuable assets. And actually, what will happen, to some extent, if we don’t develop a research infrastructure on the continent to be able to leverage on those talents, what will happen is that, actually, they will be hired by Europe, by Asia, and by the US. So it’s important, now that we have a strong community of scientists emerging, that we create a framework condition for those scientists to come back and to work on the continent. That, I think, is probably the main challenge that I see; the only way forward is that we need to build research centres—world-class research centres on the continent.

Nerina: Is this happening?

Youssef: Not yet. It’s not yet happening, and this is something we really need to focus on in the years to come. Otherwise, I think all the effort that we are putting into the Next Einstein Forum will be in danger.

Nerina: Health was also one of the main topics, what are the challenges here?

Youssef: Okay, that’s really critical, and there are many challenges. I think the first one I see, because I worked in the cancer treatment area, using beam physics, is the infrastructure; the ICT infrastructure, the stability of electrical infrastructure—this is very important.

The other aspect is about the IT. So, in the health system, you have to integrate different IT systems. You need to make sure that this integration is possible. So, basically, someone who is going to take an X-ray in one city, then you go to the doctor in another city, and at the time of the treatment, the doctor should be able to access all the relevant information for the patient. So, there are so many challenges that need to be addressed in the health system. That’s one aspect which we need to work on.

The other aspect I think we are pushing for a lot is what we call ‘precision health’—so, how to implement precision health approaches in Africa. And this is not something we should wait to implement because implementing such approaches will reduce the cost when we are treating patients, so this is something we should do as of now.

Nerina: You had a session about inter-generational conversation, what was this about?

YOUSSEF: The reason why we focus on youth is we need to leverage on the dividends, demographic dividends, which are in favour of the continent—that’s one aspect.

The intergenerational conversation is a bit like, how do you transmit some part of your knowledge or your experience to the generation to come? And this is why we put the session together, where you have the Nobel laureates inspiring the next generation of African scientists. So, it’s important to understand what the path is that someone has taken in order to become a Nobel laureate—what that meant for this Nobel laureate. I think it’s important to transfer that knowledge to the next generation because this is something that is missing now. Everything is happening on social media, and so on, but this type of human transmission of knowledge is actually something that is lacking.

Nerina: How is digital technology changing the continent?

Youssef: There are a lot of benefits to the technology on the continent. But my worry and my fear is that with all the buzz that’s around those digital technologies, we are sometimes missing what I call low-hanging fruits. And low-hanging fruit is like sustainable development. Today, for instance, on the continent, to deploy smart cities, we just look at the digital technology to deploy smart cities. But smart cities are also about waste treatment, they’re about smart mobility, they’re about the way we build houses in a very sustainable way, the way we integrate renewable energy when we build houses. And all those opportunities, for me, they are missed opportunities because we are focusing too much on the digital waves. So we need to balance the buzz around the digital technology to make sure that we focus on low-hanging fruits.

Nerina: There are many different pathways to a better future. How important is it, in your opinion, to try, not only to imitate, for example, Europe or America, but to find ways to alternative futures?

YOUSSEF: We can take this example; each country should have its own definition of smart cities. Some countries, they took ‘smart’ as deploying digital technology—and this is what they call smart maybe in Barcelona, or some EU countries. But if I take the example of a country, say Rwanda, for instance, where you have a lot of hills maybe the way you should adopt mobility there is to use hybrid cars. Or, you take a country like Senegal, where you do a lot of, let’s say, construction; you need to make sure that in every house you build, there is the right energy mix, so it’s sustainable in terms of electricity, so that every house that you build is neutral in terms of energy consumption. So this is what I would call smart development. If you take the example of Guinea, maybe you should focus on cleantech for the city of Conakry, so that you really focus on waste treatment, and on waste product technology. What is important is that when we adopt a technology, we need to make sure that the technology we adopt is something that is relevant for the continent, and that we will not necessarily adopt what everybody’s doing. That’s my input on that.

Nerina: If you had all the money, and all the power, what would you like to change tomorrow, or next week?

Youssef: We need really state-of-the-art research centres, for me that’s key. The second thing that we need is, really, an innovation fund, but something that enables us to really implement knowledge. If you take the bio-based industry, you need something like $3 US billion to implement this industry across the continent; this is something that would benefit the continent right away. And there are so many technologies like this—that are ready to be implemented—and for which we just need to have the right innovation funds in place to deploy the technology because I think, in terms of skills, we have the right skills to implement this technology—we need the funding, the partnership, and the leadership.

Nerina: Africans go abroad to study, Africa can learn a lot from other continents, but what can other continents learn from Africa, in your opinion?

Youssef: I think, when I came back to Africa, there was something that I was really impressed by; it’s how dynamic the young African population is. So when you organise a conference, you see the level of attendance, you see the number of questions, you see how they innovate grassroots innovation, the amount of innovation that’s happening on the continent; and this is something that you don’t find anywhere now. Taking the example of Belgium, where I worked, if you organise a conference there, the level of attendance is low, the number of questions that you get is very low; there is not that much curiosity. We organised, once, a public lecture with one of our Fellows at 9 o’clock in the evening in Kigali, and I thought that the room would have been empty, and it was almost full, and at 10 o’clock, young people were still asking questions. So there is such an eagerness to learn new things—something you cannot find anywhere else—and this is something that is unique to Africa.

Nerina: Was there something that surprised you during the gathering?

YOUSSEF: Something that really surprised me was the potential that we have, it’s amazing. And I think we need to go beyond that potential now; for me, that’s the main challenge. We have such a huge potential at all levels; you have the Fellows (this is one case), but then you have the NEF Ambassadors. When you see those NEF Ambassadors, one per country—and today we have two promotions of Ambassadors, so we have 108 Ambassadors—they are so dynamic, they are such entrepreneurs. So this is something that is, for me, an untapped potential that we have and we should really leverage on it.

Nerina: And what is your dream?

Youssef: I think my dream, really, is the energy independence of the continent. I think we need to achieve that because when we have energy independence, there are so many things we can do—and that, for me, is really key.

Nerina: And the most beautiful moment at the gathering?

Youssef: I think for me, I liked the closing ceremony, and I really liked when all those Ambassadors came on stage with the flag of their country. That was, for me, a very strong symbol of unity, of Pan-Africanism, and I think it was a strong message that we were really putting forward. For me, I was really impressed by the very last minutes of this Global Gathering.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Youssef, for this conversation.

Youssef: You’re welcome.

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, and feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestions.

Keep wondering, and see you again next time. Bye, and ciao.


Dr. Youssef Travaly (PhD, MBA) is the Next Einstein Forum Vice-President of Science Innovation & Institutional Partnerships. Youssef holds an MBA together with a PhD in Materials Science. He has extensive experience in a variety of sectors including semiconductor and biomedical research, low carbon circular economy and climate change.

Anne Bahr Thompson

Anne Bahr Thompson
Global Brand Strategist

Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Is it possible to align purpose and profit?

What is Behavioural Economics? Why does it matter? And how can companies acting as good corporate citizens create both success and sustainability in their business?

These are some of the questions that Anne Bahr Thompson, the founder of the movement of Brand Citizenship, and author of the book Do Good, is seeking to answer with her work.

Anne is passionate about showing companies that doing good is no longer a barrier to financial success. Her research on brand citizenship and cultural trends reveals that the notion of separating how your business behaves, from how you earn money, is one that is falling out of favour.

She now believes that doing good, behaving sustainably, and combining ethical considerations with economic pursuits, can actually help businesses to increase their financial success.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style economics can help lead us closer to an open, sustainable, and successful new world.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Anne Bahr Thompson's Video here

Nerina: Hi Anne. Great to have you here. Could you please introduce yourself?
Anne: My name is Anne Bahr Thompson and I am the founder of the Movement of Brand Citizenship and I’ve just recently written a book called @Do Good which is about my five-step model of brand citizenship.

Nerina: I am reading from your website Do Good: Brand Citizenship Aligns Purpose and Profit. Cultivate meaningful engagement with customers and employees and aligning purpose and profit. Is it possible?

Anne: For me purpose and profit never have been something that should’ve been separated. Really good well-run businesses have always had a bigger vision that has to do with something more than earning a profit or being the number one best thing and whatever. The notion of separating how your business behaves from how you earn money is almost like creating a false theoretical construct. In real life the two are so intertwined and I think this is why the notion of behavioral economics is becoming more and more popular because the old way of economics was theoretical and isolated itself from the way real people behave.

Real people don’t separate behavior and money. It’s so intertwined for us. Money is such a personal issue. You go online now you’ll see everybody trying to train people how to manage their money, how to feel better about their money. Why should it be any different for businesses? It’s so intertwined how you behave with how you earn money.

Nerina: You wrote that this book was born in order to create meaningful discussions and accelerate change. What kind of change?

Anne: If we can bring this out more publicly and have more public discourse and dialogue we’ll accelerate the movement of companies aligning purpose and profit. We’ll accelerate the movement of companies that are doing good and sustaining and progressing our world and while that sounds naïve it’s really important especially today. You know we’re at a point where people focus so much more on what divides us not what brings us together and I feel if we bring this out more and feel more comfortable talking about the fact that this is all new we will all come together and coming together will be stronger and we will help support companies as they try to find a way forward.

Nerina: Could you tell us a little bit more about the book?

Anne: The book is about my five-step model of brand citizenship and the cultural trends that led up to it. At the end of 2011 as part of my ongoing trend research we were doing a study to come up with Transfer 2012 and we went out to people in the US and the UK and asked them a series of questions: what were their hopes and dreams for the coming year, what were their fears, what brands they thought would exhibit leadership and why, which brands they thought were good corporate citizens and why, and which brands they thought were irresponsible or bad corporate citizens and why and there were some other questions in there, but they’re less relevant.

As we started reading people’s responses because we did not have the data coded by people in the backroom who read your responses and turn them into three-word answers. We actually read all the responses everyone gave us. We started noticing under the surface that people were asking for businesses to step in and help solve the problems on the planet and then in society. It wasn’t I want business to fix this problem. It was more how you connected the dots that was under the surface.

So, when that happened over the next three years I granted myself some money to research the difference between brand leadership, good corporate citizenship and favorite brands which is a proxy for brand loyalty. That’s how the model emerged and as a result of our learnings I thought it was something too important to ignore which is why I wrote the book.

Nerina: What is the core message?

Anne: Well there’s two sides of it. One is that doing good is no longer a cost of doing business; it’s actually a way to grow your business and increase your profits. Because historically all the things that fall under doing good have been seen as the cost of doing business, not an investment into your brand and into bettering and strengthening your business and today they are investments into bettering and strengthening your business. So that really the biggest message I would like to get out to people because when business leaders really believe that they will start acting on it and more and more business leaders are believing it and acting on it because more and more investors are believing it and acting on it and that’s what drives the business.

The other thing is that you need to really clarify your why. You know people talk about why in the sense of their individual why and their individual purpose, but this is equally as important to businesses. Knowing why you exist, clarifying your why is very important and it’s the starting point of being a successful business and that is simple. Once you clarify and know your why you do have to deliver it every day in every way and do what you promised and that’s why trust is the starting point in today’s world of fostering a meaningful loyal relationship not the endgame.

Nerina: Do you think that it’s more complicated trying right now to define what a brand is?

Anne: Well it is because when you think about the whole notions of brands and when they started in the 60s you know when brand marketing really started in earnest with the 60s everyone knows about the TV series Mad Men, which shows you the whole evolution. Brands now are all about their point of view on the world, the position they take in terms of how they see the world and their relationship with the world, their customers, employees and other stakeholders. It’s not solely about what you offer in your product and service anymore.

So yes, it is more complicated but what emerged from my research was five simple steps to actually start connecting with your different stakeholders and your customers in a way that fosters real faithfulness and loyalty and in a way that shows you care about them and you’re solving their problems and you also care about their greater what I call we worries and you’re solving the things that they’re concerned about for the world and the planet.

Nerina: You developed five-step model as you mentioned, and trust is a very important topic in this. Everything starts with trust. Could you tell me more about this?

Anne: What’s interesting about the fact that we learn that it starts with trust is advertisers and reputation management people and people who work in the marketing communications industry have historically thought of trust as the endgame. Once we have your trust we have you. What we learned in this three years of research is that trust is actually in today’s world the starting point because people out there know that we all contrive our “authentic” personalities. So we as individuals, politicians, celebrities and companies create “authentic” personas online so we’re skeptical of believing things they say because we do the same thing; we craft our Facebook posts, we craft our tweets, we craft our LinkedIn profiles to look like the person we want people to see. For people to see the “genuine” authentic self and there is truth to who that is, but it’s not the full, genuine, authentic self. Because of that trust is more and more important and harder and harder to cultivate.

What we learn from people is that there is I keep talking about five-step but there’s five-step to trust which begins with clarity of purpose. So really understanding who you are and communicating. Reliability, being reliable constantly in every action and delivering what you promise. Sincerity, speak from the heart and so when I talk to my clients for example, I try to get them away from the notion of authenticity and into the notion of sincerity and speaking from the heart and once you speak from the heart you also then have to learn to give to give not give to get and businesses are famous with loyalty programs and things that really aren’t giving things away. It’s more about what they’re going to get and that leads you into the notion of active listening that when we have this idea of big data and we can trap all these things about our customers and the people we interact with you need to use that to connect with the things that matter to them and what’s important to them, not just cross sell new products and services to them.

Those last two steps give to give and active listening are the transition points between trust which is step one of brand citizenship and step two which is enrichment and enrichment is all about bettering our lives. It’s amazing the brands people talk about that enrich their lives and how they enriched them.

In the US, there is this company called Mrs. Meyers and they’re household cleaning products and Mrs. Meyers have lovely scents and nearly all natural, but not all natural and people forgive it for that because of what it does. When they’re cleaning people talk about how they feel like they’re in a lavender field in France because of the scents and it makes cleaning more inspiring and enriching.

Actually enrichment is a very important point because Apple is a brand that enriches people’s lives and Apple is actually one of the first brands that came up in my research that intrigued me to learn more. So, when we went out and asked people who were good corporate citizens, this was the end of 2011 when Apple was being lambasted for its supplier relationships by activist, by the media, by a whole host of people and at the end of 2011 Apple was the brand that rose to the top as the number one good corporate citizen. Who would have ever thought and that was one of the things that intrigued me. But when you read people’s answers why Apple rose to the top was because of what it did for them: Apple enriches my life, Apple has made my life better and is good corporate citizen because it’s changed the way I communicate with people across the globe. Apple is a good corporate citizen because it brought joy into my life by bringing music into it 24/7 and that was one of the things that actually started and triggered the further research. We go from trust which is do what you say, enrichment inspire my everyday life.

Then we moved to responsibility and responsibility is more the traditional notions of corporate citizenship. But first and foremost, what matters to people is that you treat your employees well and fairly. So if you go out there and you better your supply chain and in doing so you are creating a benefit to the environment people say that’s good but if simultaneously you don’t pay your employees a fair wage they’ll say I don’t care. You’ve doing good but I really don’t care because you have to start closest to home first and that’s with your employees. So the critical notion if you see in that trust enrichment responsibility the critical notion is how you interact, treat and acknowledge people.

So then you move into community which is step four and community is all about bringing people together through shared values it’s not just digital communities or things like that. In the book I talk about IBM, for example, which in 2004 before Facebook IBM ran these values jam over three days. Where it allowed its employees across the globe to participate and contribute to what IBM’s values were going to be moving forward.

2004 was a year after Gerstner left IBM financially stronger but culturally weaker and Palmisano, came in and as a true IBMer and wanted to bring IBM back into itself and make people proud. He connected IBM people across the globe to allow them to participate in creating values that’s community. Community is also something like the notion of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is that tree on paper products you often see. Forest Stewardship Council brings together communities of businesses that have the same values and want to sustain forests even though they produce paper products or use paper products to package their goods and services.

So trust, enrichment, responsibility, community and then finally it is contribution and contribution is make me bigger than I am. So through my association with you, through being your customer or your employee I am bettering the world because you’re doing something better. And whilst it’s easy to put that in the notion of socially conscious businesses and businesses that have purpose at their core, not only businesses that have purpose at their core are considered businesses that contribute.

Kenco coffee, which is owned by Mondelez a huge global consumer goods company has an initiative called Coffee and Gangs and this is about giving teenagers in Honduras an alternative to the three choices they have when they hit a certain age. Honduras is the number one or number two murder capital in the world every year and when teenagers get to a certain age they have three choices: joining a gang, leave the country or be killed. Kenco has given them a fourth choice and that is to apply to become a coffee grower and learn how to run a coffee farm. Their impact in terms of scale is not great because they only can take I think it’s 30 to 50 students per year but their impact in terms of what it does for those students and give them an alternative is huge.

So one of the things I pose in the book is imagine if Kenco created a community of coffee producers, coffee manufacturers, coffee sellers and took all the coffee sellers that source their coffee from South America for example, and brought them together and working with the nonprofits they work with to run the program expanded it across the whole coffee growing regions in South America with these other coffee producers. The impact that would then have could potentially change a continent. So contribution doesn’t have to only be socially conscious brands.

Nerina: What you are inviting companies to do is not a onetime fix everything program but a journey, aren’t you?

Anne: I didn’t want people to think there’s a given set of steps to follow. Yes, there’s a general framework to go through to start actualizing brand citizenship and start stepping on the pathway of it but once you step on the pathway it is that it’s a pathway it’s not I’ve stepped and I’m done. You have to see it is a journey and I think what’s important is that people also step back and say no business can get it 100% right especially out-of-the-box and we have to start supporting businesses for the good they are doing. Not just every time someone does something good go in to figure out what they’re doing that’s bad.

What was really interesting when I was researching for the book, when I was doing research for the book and reaching out to companies, to speak to companies to see if they would give me more the inside scoop of what they’re doing virtually every company I reached out to I heard back from and a lot of people spoke to me but did not want to be named in the book or in the research. Because they felt if I was going to present them as a brand that was doing good, that exemplified one step of the five steps of brand citizenship activists would go and start hunting through their company to find out what they were doing wrong. I think we have to get away from that notion of trying to find out what people are doing wrong.

Yes, there are companies that behave irresponsibly and companies that do really bad irresponsible behavior you know will be caught out and should be caught out but most companies actually are trying to do what’s right. They just don’t know what the formula is and they’re working around it, so they are going to make mistakes and that’s one of the things that’s also important. Brand citizenship is a journey, it’s a pathway you step on but it’s also a pathway where you have to be a little bit more compassionate with your people and with yourself as a business. You need to forgive yourself when you make a mistake and you need to allow for more risk and more innovation.

Nerina: Is this something new?

Anne: Every really strong brand has always had a more holistic perspective. I think what we’re doing is adding one additional filter or making one filter in that holistic perspective stronger. So how you better the world is more important now than ever because we know that we have limited resources, we know we are using our resources up. There also is a cultural sentiment that’s growing stronger and stronger for equity, fairness and social justice. So business does not operate isolated from social culture. Business is integrated into the fabric of social culture and it’s an essential part of our social culture. So if business doesn’t respond to what’s happening frankly it may not exist or won’t exist in the form and shape it does now.

You look at how many disruptors keep stepping in and changing industries. Now granted, a lot of these disruptors now are huge corporations in and of themselves, but maybe there’ll be backlash against them and you see that little push that’s going on against the tech giants now that used to be the heroes and they still are heroes to a lot of people, but people are also calling for them to step up and behave better because they had so much influence over our lives.

Nerina: What really surprised you during this process?

Anne: The brands people named as good corporate citizens a number of them really surprised us. Apple was the number one good corporate citizen in both the US and the UK and it really was the number one by far. Why it was there was because what it delivers to me and enriches my life that’s helped me to better communicate with people across the globe, it’s brought joy into my life by bringing music 24/7 into my life.

So there was this whole me proposition which was really shocking and those of us in industry and sustainability professionals and social responsibility professionals would have [00:21:16] [indiscernible] at that answer and said these people are wrong, but we don’t want to say they were wrong we wanted to understand more.

Walmart in the US and Tesco in a comparable way in the UK came up and why were they named good corporate citizens? Not because of any of their initiatives but because of their low pricing. They afforded me a better lifestyle and in the US at the end of 2011 Ford came up and Ford was in there because for turned around its business, which meant America could turn around, which meant me as an individual can come back from the economic crisis in 2008, even though I don’t feel that now. So it was about hope and exhibiting what we all can do. So this was a me proposition and it was really very surprising to us.

Now there were brands in there but named in smaller numbers and more fragmented that delivered good to the world in the way we would have expected people to say a good corporate citizen behaved. What emerged through the five steps was something we call a me to we continuum and this came from the grassroots up. Brands must first deliver to me and that step one trust; do what you say, delivered to me your promises. Step two enrichment; inspire and better my life and then pivot points between being a me brand and we brand is responsibility. Responsibility is as I’ve mentioned before about treating your employees well and fairly first and foremost and then the other elements of responsibility, the environment, etc. So then you move from responsibility which is the pivot point: treat people, treat the environment fairly and that the natural pivot point between being me and being we and we as the community in contribution.

Nerina: Companies have to learn to listen, don’t they?

Anne: Yes, exactly and even more than just listen they have to advocate on behalf of their customers and their employees. Businesses and brands have historically wanted their employees and their customers to advocate for them. So, if you like them they want you to go out there and wave their flag and tell everybody how great you are and these people will do that but they’ll do it now only for businesses that are doing something for them first, that understand the issues that matter to them as a person and that matter to the groups of people they care about and the movements they care about. So businesses have to step up and step out first before people will step up and step out for them.

Nerina: Do you think that people want companies to advocate on their behalf?

Anne: So actually, when I first started writing that businesses had to step up and advocate on the behalf of their customers, employees a lot of people looked at me in a cynical manner like, oh really. But it was becoming more and more clear and it emerged at the end of 2011 when we started the research in the US it was another election year. A different election than the last one, but there still a lot of controversy around that election because everyone was saying that the economy had improved but most people still weren’t feeling it.

So they were on a roller coaster of emotions since the downturn and they said they didn’t trust politicians to fix or better the world anymore and business was better poised to do that because business had to keep progressing to keep selling its products and services so they knew how to innovate. What people told us was that politicians always had an opposing force which was the opposite party. Businesses did not have an opposing force so therefore they were better situated to do good because they didn’t have to deal with that opposition.

Now in reality and I talk about this in chapter 2 business does have an opposing force and that’s their shareholders and that’s their board. So those people have to get on board and a lot of CEOs that do want to do good are held back by the returns their board wants to see. But as I said now that investors are demanding this and you have someone like Larry Fink from BlackRock stepping up and in 2014 as I mentioned, he first started talking about long termism in his letter to the CEO. This year his letter to the CEO started talking about corporate social responsibility and when investors with that much power start telling people you have to do these businesses do do that.

So what’s happened since I first started writing about businesses stepping up to advocate on behalf of their customers and employees, we started seeing businesses having to do this and especially in the US, given the polarized politics and where large corporations stand. You know we’ve had businesses waving they gay flag, the rainbow flag for gay rights when the Supreme Court made a decision.

We’ve had businesses stepping up for social justice in terms of immigrants. Now granted a lot of that is selfish because a lot of the businesses that are stepping up for that are businesses that have an immigrant workforce, especially the tech industry brings people from across the globe into it who are the smartest people across the globe. So there may be a selfish aspect to it but again it’s still happening and where people don’t want to see businesses step up and behave it’s when it’s overtly political.

But what we found in 2011, which seems to be emerging as we’re seeing current events happening around us is that people felt business had a right to step up when it came to social justice, fairness and equality and now I think the environment will probably come in especially in the US, given some trading backroads on environmental laws. People are demanding it and you have business leaders and political business and political leaders such as Michael Bloomberg, who is creating a consortium of companies that are actually creating effectively the legislature and regulation of what they will abide by because the government in the US is no longer forcing them to abide by certain things.

So all of that is advocating on behalf of what people care about and if you don’t advocate on behalf of your employees guess what? They’re going to leave and millennials are a generation that switch employers much more quickly than Gen Xers and baby boomers had in the past and Gallup ran a survey that said this turnover was costing US USD30 billion a year. So guess what if you don’t start advocating on behalf of your employees and doing things that matter to them and the things that they care about you’re going to lose them and do you really want that cost to your business? So that’s why I say a lot of these things that were thought of as cost to the business are actually now investments in your business. Investments in strengthening your brand, investments in strengthening your reputation and investments in making sure that you sustain, in other words maintain your ability to keep earning a profit.

Nerina: Do you think that we want to feel like a community belonging to a brand?

Anne: Well we don’t want to feel like a community in a brand but we want brands to bring us together with people who care about the same things we do and the community just happens. I think part of the notion of what’s really hard for businesses and especially for marketing communications people in today’s world is they’re trying to contrive these communities. But if they let go of control and they participate as a part of the community or they are the facilitator of the community, not the one who’s controlling and directing it they will benefit more if they let the people they bring together sort of collaborate to create a bigger community.

You know the only thing that comes to mind is that it’s a beautiful thing. It is something that exponentially grows and fosters loyalty because you are the one doing it. If you think about if you go back to your days at the University there were certain professors that were always followed around by students because they were leaders, because they spoke about things that people cared about and because they acknowledged each of those people around them. Then there were professors who were leaders who were arrogant and people followed them, but always felt smaller around them. They didn’t feel bigger and then there were just the professors that went around doing their job that you know made one or two friends but didn’t have a group of followers; brands are the same.

The ones that are real leaders create almost coaxed following because they represent what other people aspire to be. So brands that progress the world, that better the world, that deliver across what I called the me to we continuum those brands inspire more people to believe in them because what they do is help people believe more in themselves.

Nerina: There are people who say that companies are starting to behave in a sustainable way or have started to speak about changing the world only because they want to keep earning money and they want to keep selling. How do you see it?

Anne: I don’t care why they’re doing it they’re doing it and that makes it better. You can’t expect companies to be altruistic that’s not their purpose. We have nonprofits, NGOs and thing that’s purpose is altruism, but to have the notion of doing good and some semblance of altruism forced upon them, whether they choose to do it or the market’s making them do it who cares why as long as it is happening. That’s all I care about is what we expect from our friends changes over time depending upon what’s happening in our life. So why what we expect from businesses shouldn’t also evolve and change over time.

Now that said there are businesses that have been doing it since the beginning. You look at a company like Lush which is handmade soaps and cosmetics out of the UK, but they are more global now and you read the story and understand the story of their founders and they had this mission since the beginning. They’ve had a lot of fits and starts. It took decades for them to actually get to Lush and deliver what they felt was their purpose. Another company seventh generation in the US has a similar story. A lot of fits and starts until they got there, but these were leaders with a purpose and yes, they are socially conscious businesses. But the more socially conscious businesses that exist the more regular corporations have to start embracing those notions because that becomes our expectation of business.

So as a Pollyanna, I personally believe and would want all business leaders to behave ethically because that comes from their inside, but at the end of the day if they’re only behaving ethically because their customers and their investors are demanding it the outcome is still the same. So let’s stop criticizing and let’s get on this bandwagon together so we can sustain this planet and create greater equity for people across the globe. Why it’s happening it doesn’t matter to me at the end of the day.

Nerina: And why now?

Anne: You know the whole notion of brand citizenship as I talked about started in 2011 but the underpinnings of it actually I think have been part of my philosophy and the way I’ve seen the world or the way I’ve read the world. The way I read the things I was seeing and hearing since nearly the beginning; I mean alignment from a single purpose has been something that’s always been important to me.

What I’ve said to people over and over is that what we’re saying happening in the world now is accelerating the recent trends that began at the turn of the millennium. These things were there and they were bubbling under the surface in a very light manner. You know the larva wasn’t popping out of the volcano yet but now it’s rising and rising and if businesses don’t really start changing the volcano will start erupting and if you’re forced to change as a huge reaction you won’t do it in a smart way. If you start learning how to respond rather than react you will maintain your business and you will maintain the customers you have nurtured over time and the reputation you’ve built. So too me if you don’t start doing this now you’re going to be forced into it at some point and then it’s probably not going to be such a good situation for you as a business leader to react to what’s going on around you.

Nerina: Which brands are going to be successful in your opinion in 10 years’ time?

Anne: The one thing that when people ask what I think is sort of the most important change in brands that I focus on, while every good company has always had that it hasn’t been as much of a discipline and for me what I’d like to see have happen is brands change human resources to human relationships. If it becomes human relationships it starts embracing a business, a brand, a company’s relationship with most of its employees and customers and actually it’s not just both employees and customers. If it is human relation it’s how it interacts with everybody across its entire stakeholder base.

So I think what’s the most important thing for brands is that we stop separating and saying oh the customer is important, the employee is important, this stakeholder is important but we start seeing it as holistic relationships and how we foster relationships with everybody across our interactions.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing?

Anne: I am passionate about anything that I’m working on. When I’m not passionate about something I’m working on I can’t do it. What I love to do is help people and companies see what is possible, recognize what’s possible. To step back and break apart the Gestalt they’ve been living in and reconstruct it based upon what’s going on today and how people behave today because in doing that you open the world and you create a more expansive world of possibility. Opportunity is great but possibility is so much wider. So I love to help people just step up into what’s possible for them and I tend to see that more in people and companies than they see it in themselves.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Anne: What motivates me is getting out the truth, pilling things back to find what sits at the core. What motivates me is to change the way people see the world and connect dots that they haven’t connected before. What motivates me is helping to create a sense of fairness and equity across everything and helping people and companies to be more of their best selves, to be more of what they really can be you know when they’re sitting in the light. I’m motivated by progress and change and never accepting the status quo.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Anne: My dream just to have a meaningful impact and help people and businesses be better and keep progressing and not accept where we are but keep pushing to… Oh I hate the notion of push because it’s such a you know it’s like a fight and I don’t want it to be a fight. So I guess I would like to see progress flow rather than have to be pushed because in today’s world, we have to push to create progress. We don’t just embrace it and let it happen. We are so frightened of change and not every change is good but we need to be more open to change and risk-taking.

Nerina: Your vision?

Anne: To help people and organizations feel comfortable and confident and brave enough to step up and be more of their best selves and what they really can be.

Nerina: Thank you so much Anne for this conversation.

Anne: Oh, thank you and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to continue the dialogue.

Nerina: I will for sure reach out to you again and thank you so much. Thank you for listening, thank you for watching and please subscribe to our YouTube channel if you do not want to miss our next conversation. Keep wondering and see you soon again. Bye and ciao.


Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Paul Shrivastava

Paul Shrivastava
Chief Sustainability Officer

The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Sustainable management – sustainable life

How do we create a more sustainable world? Why should we care? And what parts do management practices have to play, in helping us to create a more stable equilibrium between the human and the natural worlds?

These are some of the questions that Dr Paul Shrivastava, an academic entrepreneur and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Penn State University, is seeking to answer with his research.

Paul advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to the world’s problems, in which we don’t just take an in-depth view of one particular subject, but instead integrate and synthesise our collective understandings, and work holistically to create meaningful change.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style of management can help lead us closer to an open, creative, and imaginative new world.

Watch the trailer:
Watch another trailer:
Watch the trailer with Kreyol subtitles:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Paul Shrivastava's Video here

Nerina: Hi Paul, nice to have you here. Would you please introduce yourself?

Paul: Hello, I am Paul Shrivastava. I am the Chief Sustainability Officer of Penn State University, before that I was the Executive Director of Future Earth.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about sustainability?

Paul: So I’m passionate about sustainability for both some intellectual reasons and for some very personal, practical reasons. So let me talk about the practical reasons first. I have two children they are both grown-up, I have other friends and relatives and neighbors and communities that I am going to leave behind when I’m gone and I would like to be able to say that my life contributed in some positive way to longing the sustainability of the earth. I think a lot of the things that we’re doing in our lives are wrongheaded, they are going in the wrong direction. So I see the need for people who can make some corrective action and I see my work towards that.

On the intellectual side I think you have come to a point in human history where the relationship of humans to nature is in the process of reversal. So for a million years we lived with natural cycles of working in a natural way and defining the world and we humans were sort of part of those natural cycles. Whether it was the water cycle or the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle or phosphate cycle nature had its own logic and we were part of that logic.

Since the 1950s there have been such a great expansion of human population and of the social impacts on earth that we are now disturbing the natural cycle, we have become the dominant force of nature and nature is getting broken in a lot of its ecosystems. So it is our intellectual responsibility, as academics it’s our professional responsibility to understand this reversal and try to create a better balance between humans and nature. So I feel my work is trying to understand nature and human relationships in a broad canvas, in a global scale, on a planetary scale and try to develop solutions that will make us more sustainable.

Nerina: You have also worked a lot on management and leadership. What in your opinion is sustainable management?

Paul: So yes, I’ve been a Professor of management in business schools and in schools of arts and science and I see management as a generic function of society. You and I do a lot of management in our own lives: we manage our children, we manage our kitchen, we manage our transportation, we manage our social life etc.

In the world today corporations are the major engine for producing wealth but they are also a major engine for destroying the natural systems. So management is the function in my view it’s not about maximizing profits, it’s not only about creating wealth, it is about managing human-nature relationships in a balanced way so that we can create a system of producing well-being for all of humanity and be able to do it in the long time frame not just for our lifetime. Certainly, not only for this quarter or this year that many corporations focus on but for the next generation and multiple generations afterwards.

So this kind of a planetary management of all the resources of the planet to serve the interests of 10 billion people that will be on earth by 2050 that’s the management that I want to advocate, I want to study and I want to teach.

Nerina: What do we need to implement this?

Paul: So there are a number of things that managers need: they need certain competencies, they need a certain kind of awareness and they need a certain set of values. So in terms of competencies we in the last 50 years have found out a lot of things about how corporations and their activities impact everything around them from the physical landscape and nature to communities and social landscapes. So that’s one set of competencies that managers need to develop. They could be in the form of developing mechanical technological efficiencies, energy conservation and resource conservation, etc. or they could be in the form of ecological efficiencies so that they can do more things with natural products and conserve natural resources or they can be in the form of social efficiencies so that we create communities and society that are more ecologically sensible and economically viable. So that’s at the level of competencies.

Those competencies are based on awareness. So managers need to be aware of the basic principles of how ecosystems operate. They cannot just be economists, they cannot just be technologists, and they need to understand how economy and technology are embedded in the larger natural systems and what technology and economic systems do to the natural system. That relationship and the awareness of it require them to read more broadly, to be multidisciplinary not just economists. So that’s the level of awareness.

Then at the level of values managers need to understand that money is not the only measure of performance, that finances and dollars is not what their own organization performance will be measured by, that we need to value other things in life. We have a world in which that a lot of people living without adequate food. There are 2 billion people who are living under two dollars a day and we need a kind of system in which the whole world can live a meaningful life, and that requires us to valorize and put more value on society, on culture, on arts, on equality and things like that. So they need some kind of reframing of their own values and this is not something that they have to come to it by themselves voluntarily, they have to understand the need for this kind of a broad prosperity and well-being for all and by all I don’t mean just people who might be poor in poor countries. I also mean the natural ecosystems and animals and plants and creating a world in which there is a kind of balance between humans and nature.

Nerina: You often use the word passion when talking about management. How are they related?

Paul: Part about this field of management with relatively a young field of study it originated in the 1920s or so with the idea of technological efficiency and rationality at the heart of it. The factories were being built and they wanted to make it very productive. So the whole field of management studies has focused mostly on sort of scientific rationality, bringing scientific rationality to the industrial workplace to me.

To me life is much broader than just rationality. Being a full human also means being an artist, being a family person, being a father, being a citizen and that’s not all captured within this narrow view of technological rationality. So I wanted to see what was the other side and the other side is emotion and science and rational thinking sort of separates itself from emotional side of things.

So to me, bringing the emotional and the passion into management is a way of expanding the function of management and I think it creates a more holistic way of managing and to the extent that sustainability is about managing holistically across the planet, across all human beings and all other species. I think this kind of an expanded view of management which includes passion and emotion into it is a very helpful thing. So I see this as the next generation of management studies which will allow a deeper emotional engagement and understanding of the phenomenon that we are interested in and helping shape that.

Nerina: What does your job as a Chief Sustainability Officer entail?

Paul: So in my current position my mandate is to incorporate sustainability into all the research programs and educational teaching programs and student life programs and employee programs off the 23 campuses of the University. So it’s like using sustainability as a spice to sprinkle it all around everything that the University does because my University as part of its strategic plan has stewarding of our natural resources as one of the three key pillars. So they have created this new position and my job is to add sustainability across the board.

Nerina: You advocate a lot for a more interdisciplinary approach to reach a more sustainable world: science, humanities and art working together. Could you tell me more about this?

Paul: Yes. So interdisciplinarity is a view that has been around for the last 50 years in an emerging science domain that has broken itself into literally more than 8000 different disciplines. So we have created these bubbles, these isolated conversations that go deep but they’re very small and very narrow. In the world that we are living in we have to think broadly and at a planetary scale, we have to look at the big picture. It’s also important to look at the individual silos and look deep but if everybody just looks deep and nobody is integrating and synthesizing and taking the big picture view then that doesn’t help us. It gets us to optimize at a sub or even sub subcomponent level while ignoring what is going on at the systemic level.

So the idea of interdisciplinarity and I don’t like the term interdisciplinarity I will talk about more about trans disciplinary in a second because that captures more my feelings of how this integration should take place. So it’s not just that biochemistry has to talk to neurochemistry, has to talk to physical chemistry, that is sort of within disciplines but we need to step out of the disciplines altogether because the real problems of the world are cannot be discovered at the bottom of the silo of disciplines.

The real problems with the world are happening in the world. So, we have to take the problem from outside of the disciplines and then bring the disciplines whichever ones are needed to address to solve the problem; that to me the meaning of transdisciplinarity. Where you pick the problem not from a disciplinary gap in knowledge but from the real world, you bring the right disciplines to interact with that problem, you engage stakeholders, communities, people who are affected by the problem to co-design and co-create knowledge that will solve the problem.

The real measure of how good your research is is how well you solve the problem. It’s not about how many papers you write. All the papers are important and you can write papers and books you can stop over there that is not the need of the hour. The need of the hour is solving real problems in real time because we have 20 to 30 years after which there are going to be some really catastrophic changes that are going to kill a lot of people. So, on the one hand we predict that there might be 10 billion people on earth but there are also scenarios that claim that if we don’t change now we might end up with 2 billion people. There will actually be a drastic reduction in population and if we want to avoid that we have this 20 or 30 year period in which we have to act and we have to create solutions.

So I say that yes you can write and think about it in academic silos but you also need to be able to make changes to the real problems. So bring your research to policy makers, bring your research to activists and the public, to the society at large. We want to create these interfaces between science and society, between science and policymaking.

Nerina: What is to biggest problem or challenge we are facing?

Paul: So there are many big challenges. I think the biggest challenge is sort of a self-imposed constraint on imagination. We are because in some ways creatures of habit, we are accustomed to doing things a certain way and we feel that the artificial barriers that are imposed by institutions or by society or by culture that we have to live within them. We need to find internal personal courage to break out of those barriers and do things that we are passionate about that I think is going to lead to solutions that are different, than are more creative, more imaginative and will actually produce solutions.

So the word is structured in a certain way, but God or no other creature told us to do it this way. We collectively decided we are going to be in the University, we are going to teach courses, we are going to do it this way but that’s not the only way to do it. So we have to be really imaginative and creative and find our own pathway into solving the problems that we perceive in our communities, on the ground, in society broadly rather than limit ourselves to the definitions that are handed down to us either by bosses or rules or disciplines.

So I’m not advocating anarchy here. I’m advocating an open, creative, imaginative engagement with the world to solve problems that are very real now and these problems are going to affect… they are already affecting our lives, but they’re definitely going to completely change the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

Nerina: If you change one thing tomorrow and money would not play a role and time wouldn’t matter what would you like to change?

Paul: So I wouldn’t say money plays no role, of course money plays a role and time plays a role, but I have great faith in human ingenuity, I have great faith in the human spirit. I think people need to look at themselves and their mode of living and engaging life and they need to find ways of enlivening. Everything they do, every ordinary thing they do has to be enlivened and made more than it is and it is possible to do this, it is possible to do it in your dining room, it is possible for us to do it in this interview. We can animate ourselves, we can jump up and down, we can create more life right now and we can do it everywhere that we exist. So we need to rethink of how we are going to live so that life is expanded in relationship to others, in relationship to nature, in relationship to our family, to our neighbors, and to our community.

Nerina: Who are the people who influenced you the most?

Paul: Yeah. So we are all sort of an accumulation of our many, many years and I am on the wrong side of 60s now so I’ve had a long time to form myself, and sometimes I even forget what part of me was formed as a child. But I did grow up in household led by a woman, a very strong woman my mother and I think I grasped a lot of things out of the way she ran the family. She was a working person, she was a gynecologist, a doctor in a small town in India which didn’t have any other female doctors, so by the time she retired she was almost like an icon and a big influence on the values that I took away, on the practical need to care. Because she was a doctor and caring for patients this idea of care, the value of care was deeply ingrained. It also gave me the value for education and knowledge because she was trained in the sciences and for her it was very important that her children and anybody that she could influence in the family go to school and college and do all the things that science has to provide.

So I think that the fundamental shaping as a child had happened but I think I also learned equally after reaching my own age of reason and becoming a person on my own and again I have to say a big influence on this has been my wife of 37 years. We have kind of grown together with the mutual understanding and she has shaped a lot of things and I always rely on her. She’s like my “strategic advisor” on times when there are challenges and especially around question of values and meaning. What is that is meaningful to do in life you know.

So I take a lot of guidance from her and then the third big influence is actually my children. So I hear from them. They sometimes ridicule me, they sometimes flatter me, they sometimes make fun of me and sometimes they’re loving to me and I kind of see in them a life that I haven’t passed over, but I’m seeing them and it becomes a form of renewal for me. So I always look forward to meeting them and learning what’s going on in their life, what is important to them, what is not important to them and I’m always surprised that they are thinking so differently from when I was 25 or 28 years old what I was aspiring to. So they have kind of opened up the windows to the next generations for me. So those are the main influencers on my life and they all come from very close and within my family.

And of course then I learned from the books and I like to read a lot and try to gain information from conversations with people and the community around me.

Nerina: What keeps you going?

Paul: I think I’m an optimist at heart. I think that the place that we are now is a place of turmoil and change both at the global society and also in terms of local issues. I feel that there are better answers that can be found and I am eager to be part of that imaginative, creative space and with that we can find better answers.

I’m dissatisfied with the way things are in the world and the way things are in my own community and in my country, which currently is the United States. They are deep sources of dissatisfaction and I think that is a better place and I think that there are solutions. So I’m very eager to contribute those solutions and improve those things that keep me going.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Paul: So what do I dream of? This is a really good question. I think we all live our dreams and we all knowingly or unknowingly interpret dreams on a day-to-day basis. The life that I dream off is one of balance; balance between competing forces. I have experienced life in the form of competition and conflicts and I have always strived for finding the common ground and finding the place where we can bring some equilibrium to the competing forces that evolve us into the next phase.

So my dream for life is that we as a whole global planetary society will be able to achieve balance. A balance amongst us as human beings so we don’t fight with each other, bring peace. A balance with nature with whom we are on a war and we are destroying nature and nature can come and destroy us. It does so regularly in the form of floods and storms and so on. So finding a way of balancing with nature and finding a way of balancing within our communities in our local spaces so that we can create well-being and prosperity in the long run.

Nerina: What makes you happy?

Paul: My wife and I have been dancing Argentine tango for last 15 years and we see that as an embodiment of the passion we have for each other, but the passion we have for the community in which we dance because Argentine tango is a social community dance. You dance with everybody in the community, you become part of the community and you learn together and you become friends and so it embodies many parts of this connectivity. Everything from the body – dancing in between two bodies, the human body and the floor and the environment, the music, the people and the whole sense of community. So to me it’s a very good physical manifestation of the passion that I have for life in general.

Nerina: Difficult question but what is life about?

Paul: What is life about? Yeah, that is sort of a deep question. So to me life is about… It’s a kind of relational thing. It is about everything and it is about the quality of the relationship to everything. So to me life is manifested in ordinary, everyday events and activities and we can make that life bigger by being mindful, by being meaningful, by adding ourselves our enthusiasm, our spirit and connecting it to others, connecting it to nature. So expanding that connectivity expands life.

So instead of thinking about what his life I think about what will enliven. So I try to make it into an activity that will actually expand life rather than thinking about it as a static thing. I like to think about it as a dynamic moving thing that I can engage with and increase so that I can have this conversation with you and if this can be an enlivened conversation it will leave us both at a higher level of understanding and also well-being and joy. So creating the joy and well-being and expansion of life I’m calling that enlivenment is what life is all about.

Nerina: Thank you Paul for this conversation.

Paul: Thank you very much.

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening and feel free to reach out to me if you have any comments. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.


The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Simone Beta

Simone Beta
Professor of Classical Philology

Università degli studi di Siena, Italy

Do you know where the word 'politics' comes from?

How were ancient Greek and Latin texts disseminated throughout history? Why should we care? And what can these texts tell us about the formulation of our modern societies, and how we should respond to current political events?

These are some of the questions that preoccupy Classical Philologist Simone Beta, a lecturer at the University of Sienna, Italy, who’s recent autobiographical retelling of the life of the Palatine Anthology, gives an insight into the histories of the Western world.

In the book’s retelling, Simone shows us how the ancient text has travelled across Europe, and the ways in which it still influences modern literature and societies to this day. In this video, Simone tells us how, in the 15th and 16th centuries, people all over Europe began to read and study Latin and Greek texts, and the story of Greece and Rome became a topic of discussion among the intellectuals of Europe.

Watch our interview to discover the tale of how modern Europe started from these discoveries, and see the ways in which our social, political, and cultural systems are founded on these ancient texts.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Simone Beta's Video here

Simone: My name is Simone Beta. I teach Classical Philology at the University of Siena, Italy.

Nerina: What is Classical Philology Simone?

Simone: Classical Philology is the study of Greek and Latin literature and the study of the way their texts have come down to us since antiquity to modern times.

Nerina: How do we know what we know about Greek and Latin literature?

Simone: They had books. They made books out of papyrus which was a plant that grew in Egypt and they wrote on these. Some parts of these papyrus books had been saved by mere chance but the biggest part of Greek and Latin literature was saved because these works were copied all over the centuries by monks in the abbeys of Europe these regards Latin books and by monks in Athens or Constantinople that became the capital of the Eastern Empire and they have been copied, copied and copied. And then when these texts were discovered by the humanist in the 14th -15th century they were then published because in those years Gutenberg invented the printer. So when they began to print they were saved forever. So from that moment on there was no chance that these texts could be missed or lost.

Nerina: You have just published a book about a Greek manuscript with the title Io, Un Manoscritto, Me a manuscript, right?

Simone: I decided to write the story of this book because as many of the ancient manuscripts this book had a very interesting history. It was written in Greece of course in Constantinople around the 10th century A.D. and it’s called the Palatine Anthology the collection of the equivalent of small poems. It was brought to Italy in the years that preceded the fall of Constantinople and the attack Ottoman, the Turks and then from Italy it started to make a long trip all around Europe because it was owned by Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was one of the most important intellectuals of Europe and then probably he gave it as a present to Thomas More. Thomas More was the secretary of Harry the VIII and then after his death it became a possession of John Clement who was a very famous physician.

And then since this Clement was Catholic and England had become Anglican he went away from England and went to Belgium where the Catholic religion was more important. Then in the beginning of the 17th Century it found its home in the library of Heidelberg in Germany. But Heidelberg was a protestant town and when the town was conquered by the Catholics during the 30 years’ war the book was given as present from Maximilian of Bavaria it was given to the Pope. So book went from Heidelberg to Rome.

Then when Napoleon defeated the army of the Pope at the end of the 18th Century like many objects of art also this manuscript went to Paris. When Napoleon fell the books were given back not to the Pope but in this case their possessor Heidelberg. But since in all these travels the book had split up into parts the French gave back only one part of it and one part remained in Paris. So now the book is half in Germany and half in Paris.

During all these centuries its poems have been copied, published, made known, generated other poems. So I thought that the story of this book is important to explain how literature went over Europe and how it also influenced modern literature because among these epigrams there were epigrams, comic epigrams or there are love erotic epigrams and all of these small poems have generated other imitators all over the century.

Nerina: It sounds like an interesting cultural trip. Could you tell me more about this?

Simone: When humanism and then Renaissance began as I told you in the 15th and 16th century people all over Europe began to read and study Latin and Greek texts. Latin text had been studied all over the middle ages because Latin was a language that was not lost. Greek was lost in Europe but saved in Greece because that was the place where it was spoken.

When in the Renaissance these texts became popular they were printed and so they began to be sold and read. The story of Greece and being mostly the story of Rome became a topic of discussion among the intellectuals of Europe and the story of modern Europe started from this discovery basically. When they began to read again these texts and to build social, political and cultural system founded on that literature and that particular culture.

Nerina: Why is such a book so valuable?

Simone: The importance of such a manuscript was the fact that it contains some compositions that cannot be found anywhere else. So in a way this book contains some unique poems, some unique texts.

Nerina: How did you find out what happened to the book over the centuries?

Simone: Many people before me have studied the stories of these manuscripts. It’s like a treasure hunt. You must put together some different clues and discover that they’re connected. There are many people who have done a lot of work – scholarly work on this book. I chose to do something different because my book is an autobiography. It’s the book itself that tells its own story and describes all these travels all around Europe.

Nerina: Why did you choose this kind of approach?

Simone: Some colleagues said that I am good scholar but I like to write things that are not very scholarly. That’s what they said but I prefer to write something that is interesting. So I prefer to choose my topics, the topics I like and topics that I think can appeal to people of the 21st century AD.

Nerina: Besides of course the joy of writing interesting comedies, tragedies, and stories why is it important to study Greek and Latin literature?

Simone: It can help us to understand what we are and what we have become. Because for instance when you speak of political systems we use words, terminology that comes from the words and the terminology invented by the Greeks and the Romans. Basically all the terminology of politics comes from Greek or Latin. The word itself politics comes from Greek because ‘politics’ means belonging to the ‘polis’ and ‘polis’ means town and in the case of Greece its town state because as you probably know Greece has never been a nation or a state like it is now. It was made of different small towns, every town independent from the others. So politics means what regards the state basically.

Republic is a Latin word which means respublica; the things that belong to everybody. So it’s something that can explain why the study of Greek and Roman is very important because the political system which is most used in the world this republic comes from a Latin word and from a system democracy that was invented by the Greek. In fact democracy is not a Latin word but it’s a word taken from Greek and it means the power of the people.

Nerina: Could you tell me a little bit how the Greek literature developed and the relation to the Latin literature? A little bit of numbers so that we can have an idea what we are speaking about.

Simone: The oldest author in Greek literature is Homer; the poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. These poems have been composed orally about 1000BC and then starting from 7th and 6th Century BC these texts have been written down and Greek literature was born in those years. Historians, tragedians, comic poets and philosophers and all these literature became very important in the 5th and 4th Century BC.

Then when the Romans got in touch with the Greece that is since the 4th and 3rd Century BC they in one way became the heirs of the Greeks. So they developed their own literature based on Greek literature and of course this authors were the authors studied in Europe since the 4th Century BC until the 6th Century AD when the Roman empire collapsed but still the language was Latin and it remained Latin until the end of the middle ages when the Neo-Latin languages were born: Italian, French and Spanish and Europe was united also by these kind of culture and language. So what we have become now men and women of the 21st Century depend on what the Greeks and Romans wrote, taught and their culture. So that’s why I think it’s important that we still study this literature or at least that we do not ignore what they did many, many years ago.

Nerina: But who became an author?

Simone: There were not real public schools and people had to learn how to read, to write and to basically to talk by attending private schools. But there was in Athens in the 5th and 4th Century BC and then in Rome an elite that was able to write and to read. For instance some literature was enjoyed by everybody. In Athens in the 5th Century everybody, all the citizens went to the theater to watch tragedies and comedies and they received the ticket for entering the theatre by the state because it was considered something important for their own education and culture. So this is one way when we have a writer, a comic poet or a tragic poet who writes tragedy or comedy and of course this is someone who is skilled and is able to write such things. But everybody went to the theatre and watched these shows because it was part of their education, was part of public life and also part of their religion because this performances were performed during religious festivals in the town.

Nerina: But the Greek literature is a “men” literature…

Simone: This is true and actually it’s true that most of the authors are men. There are some exceptions though Sappho is surely one of these exceptions and Sappho is also a poet who ability was also recognized by man. Plato said that Sappho was the 10th Muse. So among the nine muses there was also Sappho but it is true that Greece and Rome were societies where the position of a woman was not very strong, it is true. There are some exceptions but very few.

Nerina: Who is your favorite author?

Simone: My favorite author is Aristophanes, so Greek comedy.

Nerina: And your favorite piece?

Simone: Lysistrata. Aristophanes, Lysistrata.

Nerina: What is the story and why?

Simone: The story is quite famous. The women of Athens are fed up with the fact that their husbands and their lovers are always away fighting in the war. So they say that they will not make love any more if they don’t make peace with Sparta and at the end men agree.

The meaning of this comedy is very clear that war is the worst thing ever for human beings. If there is war there is no life, love is life and so that’s what is clearly told by this story. It is told in a funny way and unfortunately it was not able to influence the Athenians because the comedy was performed in 411 BC and the war ended badly for Athens in 404 BC so seven years after but the story was very simple.

I have studied not only the comedy itself but also the many modern versions that had been made of this comedy since the 16th century. It has been quite funny because the Greek comedy ended well for the women while the modern versions end badly for the women and it’s quite strange the fact that in a society that was so clearly pro-male and anti-woman like Greece there might be a comedy where the main character is a woman and at the end she wins. While in the history of modern Europe it doesn’t happens so.

Nerina: How do you see it and why?

Simone: Because these versions were written by men who were not as smart as Aristophanes.

Nerina: An old comedy with a still relevant topic.

Simone: Yes. In fact during the cold war it became the most popular comedy of Aristophanes and it was performed everywhere and also in 2003 when the second Gulf war started there was the Lysistrata Project that is performances of the whole comedy or parts of it all over the world. I think it was the 17th of March of 2003. So this comedy of Aristophanes was chosen all over the world as a manifesto against war. So this also explains why classic literature is not dead but it’s alive, it can say something interesting even in our times.

Nerina: Why do you believe that knowing the past can improve the present?

Simone: Because we know what has happened before us otherwise it’s like starting again you know. If you ignore what has happened before it’s like starting from the Stone Age. Most of the problems that we are discussing now have been discussed by the Greeks and Romans before us. Just let me use an example which of course is very important right now.

Now Europe finds itself in a very difficult situation because of all these people that are trying to enter Europe coming from Africa or from Asia because of war, because of poverty. They try to arrive in Europe. This problem has also been present in the story of Rome for instance. It happened in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century A.D. when the barbarians were pressing on the border. So what did the Roman do? At the beginning of the 3rd Century AD, Caracalla the Emperor gave the citizenship to all the people who lived inside the boundaries of the empire. So everybody became members of the Roman Empire without any kind of discrimination, these people came to the Empire and they became citizens. So that’s one answer and so we found ourselves in a situation which is very similar and knowing what they did before us might be important.

Nerina: But Rome went also down. It was the end. Was this a good solution for the empire?

Simone: Well they could survived another 200 years. Can we say the same for Europe?

Nerina: I’m not sure Simone it’s really a good question.

Thank you so much for watching, thank you so much for sharing and thank you so much Simone for this conversation.

Simone: You’re welcome.

Nerina: Thank you.


Università degli studi di Siena, Italy

Willa Huston

Willa Huston
Molecular microbiologist

Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

What do you know about Chlamydia?

So, you think you know about Chlamydia? There is a lot of stigma surrounding Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and the secrecy around the subject often prevents people from getting tested and seeking help. But how much do we actually know about Chlamydia? And how can better education, more research, and a more equal society help us to tackle the infection?

Willa Hutson, a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology in Sydney, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her research on Chlamydia and its link to female infertility. As a researcher, Willa is preoccupied with discovering why some women become infertile while others don’t, as well as engaging with the reasons why more people in marginalised communities are affected by the infection, and the ways in which outreach work and equality can help prevent the spread.

For her, removing the stigma around STIs is a vital part of helping patients to seek and access treatment, which is why she focuses on both the scientific and social avenues that will help prevent infection. Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Willa Huston's Video here

Willa: Hi, I am Willa Huston. I am a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia.

Nerina: What is your research focus?

Willa: My research is looking at chlamydia and other infectious diseases and how they lead to infertility in women. So we’re really interested in trying to understand what happens in those women that develop infertility and what we could be better to either prevents or treat the chlamydia at that time so they don’t go on to progress to developing infertility. So we look at treatment and better diagnosis.

Nerina: What is actually chlamydia?

Willa: Chlamydia is a unique, little bacterium. So it’s a microscopic organism and we all know about microbes now, they’re everywhere around us and we hear about them being part of our body. Chlamydia is a bit more special because chlamydia actually lives inside our own cells. So it’s a bacteria but it’s like a virus in that it takes over our own cells, and the only place that the chlamydia that infects human lives is in humans.

Nerina: If I look up what Wikipedia says for example, chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia and most people while infected have no symptoms. The infection can spread to the upper genital tract in women causing pelvic inflammatory disease which may result in future infertility or ectopic pregnancy.

Willa: This is our subculture facility here at UTS. This is where we grow chlamydia and it’s a fully contained room and we use human cells. Here is an incubator and I will show you some cells in flasks where we work on our chlamydia subculture experiments. In here you can see a whole lot of flasks growing chlamydia. At the moment the lab is pretty busy working on some new molecules that might be good new antibiotics against chlamydia and we’re working on some new models of human disease including some patient samples that we’re working on from women with different symptoms of the disease. So it’s an exciting time here in Australia for chlamydia research.

Nerina: Not everyone who is infected react in the same way and gets complications. Why?

Willa: It’s really interesting. So it’s transmitted sexually throughout the population. So lots of people know about it as a sexually transmitted infection and in fact our research is trying to understand how it is that in some women there’s very severe pathology that leads to infertility develops and so we look at those women. We look at the organism in lab models and we think that what happens is a combination of what’s happening in the woman’s body at the time she gets the infection and what are the stages of her cycle and the other organisms there. All of that comes together so that in some unlucky women they go on to develop infertility but that’s about as much as we know at the moment.

Unfortunately, we need to know a lot more. But one of the things we’re trying to do is understand the form of the organism during that infertility development and try to develop better drug treatments to treat that form. And so that’s a high priority for us; it’s treatment early to prevent the infertility developing.

Nerina: How many women are affected by infertility?

Willa: That it’s very hard to pin a number on it. Some studies say as high as 20%. I don’t think it’s that high but it’s certainly the more infections there is severe increase in risk. I think the risk is about every about 1 to 5% of infections will develop infertility at least in one tube. But given that… So for example in Australia there is about 80,000 infections, slightly over half of those are in women and if you think even if it’s only 1% annually that still a significant numbers each year of women who will have tubal infertility that they will not know about.

Nerina: How about men?

Willa: There’s lots of evidence that they also get infertility or at least reduced fertility from the infections, no doubt. We think similar scarring occurs up in the fine tubes in the male reproductive tract and they are pretty good transmitters. So they are often asymptomatic, they’re less likely to seek treatment and testing and they’re very good at transmitting the infection because they often have a good infectious burden. So then because of the nature of sex I guess they’re good transmitters. So they have a big role to play A, they can be compromised in their own infertility but B as key people in the networks that we need to kind of get in for testing and treatment who are not as engaged in the healthcare it’s very important that we look at men.

Nerina: What do we know about chlamydia and what do we not know about it?

Willa: So we know that it’s an ancient organism. There is evidence of trachoma the eye infecting version in hieroglyphics, so from ancient Egypt but we even know from genome sequencing analysis that it’s a very ancient organism. So it’s been around as long as we have. So we know therefore that it’s a very clever at living inside us. It’s almost evolved with us in some ways, and so we do know that is really clever and that it’s a really well adapted to live inside our cells.

What we don’t know is why that goes wrong in some women. So logically if you only live in humans you don’t want to stop them having sex and transmitting on the organism and so one hypothesis is that it actually is advantageous for some proportion of women to be infertile or lower fertility with chlamydia because then than they might have more sex in an evolutionary history and the organism could be transmitted. As long as it’s not causing very many symptoms which often it doesn’t cause many symptoms then the women are not prevented from having sexual contacts but they’re prevented from having babies. So they are more likely to have more sex.

So maybe it’s just evolved this feature to increase its spread in the population, but we actually don’t know if that’s what’s happening or it’s something about the women themselves, their particular type of immune response, perhaps their genetic makeup. Maybe those of the factors that they’ve got the unlucky lottery that when they get the chlamydia infection, they’re the ones that are going to develop the infertility. So that’s one of the unknowns that is a big priority. Is that kind of personalized or precision medicine and chlamydia is it really about that.

Nerina: Are there differences between countries in their infection rates?

Willa: Absolutely, it’s a very high burden in the Pacific Rim. So very poor countries like Samoa have very high burden of chlamydia, mostly because there’s very little health intervention and very little treatment and testing. In most developed or well-to-do countries like in Europe or Australia or the US the baseline prevalence, so the average number people who might have it in reproductively aged individuals is about 4 to 6%. But even in those countries marginalized people or people who have low socioeconomic conditions have a much high percent. So it’s a disease of marginalized populations.

For example, in Australia you may be aware that we have the first people, indigenous people of Australia. They are very marginalized and they very socioeconomically disadvantaged, and in young people – young indigenous people chlamydia can be as high as 24%. So that’s really, really high and so we really worry about the burden of infertility and other sequelae from chlamydia like ectopic pregnancy in those young indigenous people.

It’s worth mentioning that the other form of chlamydia that infects our eyes and can lead to blindness. There’s about 5 million people worldwide who are blind from Chlamydia trachoma and a gain to our national shame. The indigenous people of Australia are one of the few peoples in a developed country where we still have trachoma.

Nerina: How are the chlamydia infections of the eyes and of the genitals related?

Willa: They are very related. So they’re quite similar, there are just a few subtle differences between the eye and the genital infecting chlamydia. In Australia in fact, it may be that those eye infecting strains may have come from genital strains that came in with Caucasian people, when Caucasian people came to the Australia continent just over 200 years ago.

Nerina: And chlamydia does not affect only humans but also animals with severe consequences, right?

Willa: This is a really… it’s an important topic for animals worldwide but it’s a very dear topic to Australians because our national icon, the koala is suffering severely from chlamydia. The chlamydia that infects the koala is called Chlamydia pecorum, it’s a different species from the chlamydia that infects humans but the disease presents almost identically. So they get ocular infections all around the eye that can lead to blindness, very severe blindness. They get your urinal genital infections in their urinary and genital tracts, which can lead to incontinence, which we call wet bottom and it’s really debilitating. They’re in a lot of pain, their whole bottom rump is covered in sort of wee basically that isn’t evacuating properly and that’s from scarring. That also scars all through their reproductive tract.

That scarring in their eyes and in their reproductive tract looks exactly like what happens in humans. So it’s a different chlamydia but present in the animals in the same way and it’s a really sad story. In the koala it’s very hard to treat because we can’t give them oral antibiotics very often for koalas. Most the time we can’t because they have a special complex gut composition that they really need because they eat gum leaves.

So part of our research is actually translated from a human into the koala because we need to find new ways to treat chlamydia in the koala. At the moment it’s one of the major threats to the koala. Habitat loss is the major threat undoubtedly and that’s a real problem, but as soon as we do more habitat loss and the koala populations get more stressed the disease increases. So it’s a disease like our marginalized people, chlamydia in the koalas is associated with stresses and then we already put them under stress from removing more trees or whatever we do and then the chlamydia presents and then they lose fertility. So the koalas are a threatened species right now so it’s not on the extinction list but it is severely threatened and vulnerable in some states and threatened in others. So yeah.

Nerina: But chlamydia in men and women is treatable, correct?

Willa: So in humans we can treat chlamydia and it’s very simple. It’s a simple antibiotic regimen and it’s mostly effective if the people would stick to the antibiotics and take them. The problem is that because it’s often a quiet infection, so it’s often asymptomatic people might not seek treatment and so the problem is that they often don’t get this treatment and then the symptoms develop or the infertility develops, sometimes without them being aware.

So treatment is easy, testing is easy. We can do a PCR from a urine sample or swab. But it’s getting the right people into the clinic and getting them tested and treated in time is the problem.

Nerina: What new information have you learned during your research?

Willa: I knew very little when I started just over about 10 to 12 years ago now. I thought chlamydia was fascinating in a very abstract way and I’ve always loved microbes but chlamydia was kind of interesting. Now I guess I’ve learnt that even though it’s on face value a very simple microbe compared to most of the other microbes it’s an amazingly versatile and niche adapted organism that we really only just beginning to understand.

I think that it’s much more versatile and adaptive than we thought and I think that we are also starting to understand that perhaps it lives in more spots than just the urogenital tract. Perhaps it lives in the gastrointestinal tract. Perhaps it survives longer than we think after treatment. There’s a lot of things that we used to think were simple but they’re not and I think that’s the most exciting thing. Life is always more complex than we think it is.

Nerina: What do you think we need the most: better prevention, treatment or information?

Willa: I love the list that you outlined. So the challenges for the chlamydia field are almost all three of those. Prevention is critical. Most STIs are best controlled with prevention and the best prevention would be a vaccine. Chlamydia is very hard to make a vaccine against but I have no doubt that will happen eventually. Treatment is absolutely a critical aspect of chlamydia control and I think we could do that better, and that’s part of our research is improving the options for treatment. But information really matters. There’s a real stigma around STIs. In lots of populations there’s a real stigma around infertility that might be because you had an STI years ago.

So I think changing our culture around acceptability of sexually transmitted infection but just sexual behavior in general and just more acceptability, more ease of communication. So that it is not so much of a stigma for those women who are infertile and worried that maybe that’s why and they can’t even talk about that, talk about it. So I think all three yeah: prevention, treatment but also change that stigma and open the conversation. Maybe more people will get tested and treated as well.

Nerina: How difficult is it to speak about STI, sexually-transmitted infections?

Willa: There’s been lots of work in many countries around for women, for example, when they come in for the cervical screening to try and get a routine sexual health workup without a stigma. Just you’re already here let’s do that but that’s often in every two years and now that will decrease with the change in cervical screening to PCR.

There’ve been lots of conversations around try to target risk groups to have a broader conversation around healthy sexual behavior and acceptability. But most GPs find it really challenging to have that conversation or they’re just too busy. So there’s lots of activities around the clinic nurse perhaps around targeted screening and outreach in jails, high schools, nightclubs to try and reach the most vulnerable people and screen them more regularly so lots of go to them.

There was a study done by researchers in Australia about postal pee and post. Where they used a special material to dry the pee so they could post it and do a PCR test and then post them the antibiotics later. So there are lots of, lots of research being done in acceptability of seeking, testing and treatment, but I think we’ve got a long way to go.

Having said that, when we talked to our university students about our research and we ran a free sexual health clinic with the doctors, not with our researchers in the campus. The doctors say that lots of young people on university campuses will openly say I’m here for my sexual health checkup. So maybe we’re getting there with some populations.

Nerina: Why did you decide to research this topic? Is it personal?

Willa: I’m really passionate about women’s health. I think that women’s health and particularly the kind of you know that the “vagina” and the reproductive tract are neglected. I think we need to pay them some more attention. You know I think people feel uncomfortable about honest conversations about sex and about reproductive health particularly for women and therefore we do not know as much and I think we need to change that and we need to change the conversations and our comfort levels around talking about our vaginas, our cervix and our own health. It’s deeply important to us at some point to many of us, not to all of us but at some point many of us will deeply care that we would get to reproduce or that we get to be involved in parenthood and so fertility it’s a really personal issue.

It really matters to me that that our research can actually make a difference to individuals that something is so fundamental to many people that is really confronting when they find out they’re not, they’re infertile or they need fertility treatment. We spend a lot of our lives trying to control the pregnancy and plan for pregnancy and prevent pregnancy until we’re ready and then it’s really shocking to some women to find out that they’re not fertile or they’re going to need treatment to achieve their pregnancies and so it is personal.

Yeah, it’s personal. It’s something I am passionate about and I think as a mom and I also I had fertility treatment for my children. My cause of infertility is still not really clear and just as a woman I think that all of those things matter. For me research is something that I really need to care about, I do care about a lot and that’s why I do it.

Nerina: How important is it in your opinion, to have a conversation about women’s bodies?

Willa: I think it’s critically important that we start having open and frank conversations with men and women that we bleed every month, we have pain every month. Some women have very serious pain every month. We go through a normal biological process where our body changes throughout that month and that’s all normal and we quietly hide it. Why? You know it should be celebrated. Can you imagine if men had periods they would be driven through tampon vending machines, they would be at the bar. You could order your gin and tonic and your tampons.

So you know I just think it’s a symptom of patriarchal society that all of a sudden menstrual blood is icky and that we don’t talk about periods and we don’t admit that we are having a bad day because we’ve got period pain but it’s quite fine to say that we’re having a bad day because we have a headache. You know I think it’s really important and I think by keeping it sort of a secret thing that we can’t talk we’re giving some kind of message to our young women that that’s kind of wrong, but it’s not wrong, it’s biology, half the population goes through it. So for me it’s really yeah… I can go on about it for ages. I think it’s really important that we change the conversation and we’re enabling a better attitude to our health, but I think we’re also enabling a better attitude to women as functional, important members of society we just have a different biology.

Nerina: Equality between men and women should not mean that women should become like men, right?

Willa: Absolutely. If we think as a society we can achieve equality by “fixing” the women and making them more like men and fitting in the patriarchal constructs that we’ve made we’re not going to benefit from that. The women will be less happy than they already are and we’re not actually gaining the biological and the wonderful differences that we give and won’t be gained because they’ll be trying to hide them in pretending to be like men. So now I completely agree that yeah I think we just need to really push some pretty uncomfortable and hard barriers around women are different and it’s a really great and you know period blood it’s everywhere, we all have periods, it’s fine. It’s actually fine look at us we’re here. It’s not the scary thing that you think it might be.

Nerina: You’re interested also in equality in your team. Could you tell me more about this?

Willa: Absolutely. So in my work I’m very conscious of those – the gender differences. Equity and diversity in my sector has a long way to go, diversity as well as equity. So the classic white male or even the classic stereotypically math or computation science may be even an Asian male is viewed as being smarter or whatever it is. There are always horrible stereotypes.

So in our team we talk a lot about that, we talk a lot about the fact that our cohorts of participants need to include diverse participants, indigenous participants, people who identify in the LGBTIQ spectrum there needs need to be represented and in our team we’re always open about people who come who have different identities. Whether that’s with respect to their identity or they heritage – ethnic heritage and we’re lucky in fact, that we have a very diverse team of researchers and all those voices in the room creates an amazing, challenging atmosphere, but also it brings so much. It brings us all so much further forward.

We also have a lot of activities in my faculty around championing that diversity and so in my other role within my faculty I am chair of our Equity and Diversity Committee. So we’re constantly calling out for new behaviors and new activities and new ways to change our culture in our sector to support a broader inclusivity within a sector of these different groups and women, but not just women and not just white women it has to be in intersectional approach.

Nerina: You’re really passionate about outreach. Why does outreach matter?

Willa: So I think outreach is a way of giving back to the community. I’m in a position of privilege, I have a permanent university job, I get to do research, and I get to teach undergraduates and postgraduates. I outreach by going into high schools, I outreach by social media and communication. I contribute wherever I can to Internet forums or you know profiles on Internet things like these because I feel if… A, I think the broad exposure of research matters. The community needs to know what research dollars are being spent on in a way that they can understand it so that they see the value of research.

So that’s one reason for doing it, but one of my really main reasons for doing it is if you can’t see role models ahead of you doing things that you think are interesting then how do you know to go into that field. So I think for young women and girls going through high school if all they see in the media which largely they do is men with beards in lab coats then science doesn’t seem like they belong. And so if what if when not out there, pushing ourselves out there how do they know that they belong in science? And so for me that’s why outreach matters.

Nerina: Where do you see your research in 10 years?

Willa: I think I see my research becoming much more holistic and much more engaged with women and looking really at chlamydia and other infectious agents still in the reproductive space but really whole approach it and the whole package. Social factors, their immune response, their body, maybe their genetics and how all of those come into play in some women to have the consequences of infertility and how we can work with the whole woman better earlier to understand her risks and work with her to help prevent her risks of becoming infertile later or knowing that she’s at quite a risk and she can consider how to protect herself.

Nerina: Is there one thing that people should know more about chlamydia?

Willa: I guess the one thing which is that I want people to know is that it’s not their fault, even if they’re positive it’s not their fault. It’s okay, come back for more testing and treating. Don’t hideaway if you think you’re at risk. It’s not your fault. It’s okay to have an STI it’s just better if we can treat you more quickly and prevent it from spreading further but also maybe prevent the disease from getting worse for you.

Nerina: Is there a key message that you would like to tell your children?

Willa: Don’t forget who you are. There’s so much in society that tells you who you should be. Who you are and what your core values are just hang onto that and stick to those and do what you want to do that you feel is the best and the right thing for everyone around you but take who you are into that.

Nerina: Thank you so much Willa for this conversation.

Willa: Not a problem. Thank you. I hope that helped.

Nerina: And thank you for watching. See you next time, bye ciao.


Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

Marie Elisabeth Müller

Marie Elisabeth Müller
Professor of Innovative Content Strategies

at Stuttgart Media University in Stuttgart, Germany. Journalist, speaker, writer and mobile and multiplatform communication expert.

“Now Age Storytelling equips journalists and storytellers best for the fragmented digital media age. It is the great enabler to fully understand and apply digital methods within an integrated multi-media digital workflow.” – Marie Elisabeth Mueller

Why storytelling can change communities & mobile is a real gamechanger

In an increasingly connected but divided world, how can mobile storytelling help us share our stories? What opportunities does mobile technology have for social change and information sharing? What does it mean to produce content in a content-overloaded society, and how can increased media literacy help us to protect democracy?

Marie Elisabeth Muller, a Professor of Innovative Content Strategies at the University of Stuttgart, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her work on mobile communication and storytelling. As a journalist, Marie is passionate about new opportunities for content creation using mobile technology, and believes that with proper media literacy, social media can help us to become more engaged, critical, and open people, better able to share our own stories and connect around the globe.

For her, social media doesn’t have to mean ‘dumbing down’, but can instead be a learning area in which we all have the chance to look beyond our own narrow views, and share our stories with the world.

Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Marie Elisabeth Müller's Video here

Marie: My name is Marie Elisabeth Mueller. I am Professor of Innovative Content Strategies at the Media University in Stuttgart and I work at the Department of Media and Management focusing on mobile communication and storytelling with immersive technologies.

Nerina: Maria Elisabeth innovative content strategy for whom? Who are your students?

Marie: That is a very interesting question because from my background and also from my perspective I work with journalistic storytelling: the true stories, with verified stories and my students are not journalistic students. Most of them go into content marketing, go to agencies later they have a wide variety of professions in the online media and the digital media industry for them. So I work with them on story telling that is credible, that brings value to the user and it’s from the start we look at the benefits of the user and what is our relationship and what could be of value for both of us.

Nerina: What is in your opinion the most important message that your students get out of your lectures?

Marie: Yeah, mobile is first. With nothing else other than our smartphones in our pockets which are fully equipped media house, it’s a fully equipped publishing house. So that is the first thing you have to understand when it comes to mobile. The whole topic of mobile communication that is really a paradigm shift with respect to everything: workflow distribution, revenue payment model, the whole industry that is really upside down and that is new. Still we can see a reluctance within the industry and you see it more also at the universities.

So that is something that may be most important is just to raise awareness and to teach the application of mobile communication, working with mobile devises, thinking mobile, mobile is also about mobile mindset we often explore and I think that is my message. Open up for mobile because I believe we are already on the trend from mobile to variables. So I think that there’s an urgency to think about how mobile works, how does it really affect the industry, where are the pros, what can be the benefits, how can we manage to find a way to build up revenue by mobile it’s a completely diversified products line also. So all these things it’s very complex, it’s challenging our world and the innovation speed we live in and that is where I want to take my students.

Nerina: What does it mean to produce content in a content overloaded society?

Marie: Internet is online, online is social media, and social media is mobile and with mobile you reach out potentially to like four billion people and that is increasing. So it’s a lot of noise. Social media and mobile live from credibility and from credible people speaking content, being interactive, developing content maybe together interactively and in live format with these users. So content becomes much more of a story. Somebody tells a story and the person telling the story is a guide and he’s not somebody who sells something or who wants to bring a message across and that’s the end of it, you’re not talking down to people. Content becomes an interactive story pattern. Even if you want to just really inform or bring across a product you have to connect it with a story how it is useful for people, for real life people. It has nothing to do with former ways of marketing I think that changed a lot. So content basically is stories.

Nerina: What kind of skills do you think your students are going to need the most?

Marie: That is also very interesting for me because the longer I work at the university and now it’s in my fourth year I understand that journalistic skills are relevant for every story teller today and everybody is a potential story teller. So you need from the start to know how to verify content, photos, videos, interviews, how to verify your sources and the material, how to report, how to tell a story it is very important to know how to do it, but then don’t forget data.

Today we start when you want to be successful with your stories out in this noise, the environment of four billion potential people then you have to analyze before you find the story and before you produce the story who is interested in that and who do you want to reach out to and which platform demands which format, which tools are available. That in itself is innovative and that is something that is also facing a lot of resistance and reluctance within the journalistic and also the marketing industry. Because I think in the past all the professional profiles were clearly distinguished but if we talk about mobile and content stories we talk about maybe one person who can do it all or a newsroom backing up this data analytics and also helping with the distribution. But producing the story is up to one person with his or her mobile. So these are really valuable and new skills and everything develops so fast and that is why we have to be open and innovative on the fly.

Nerina: You’re really passionate about mobile storytelling and you have also a new website and you write articles on medium. Where does this passion come from?

Marie: I am so passionate about that maybe because in my own professional biography and in my own life I am a timeline of media evolution. My grandfather bought a printer, my father was the first printer and in the Second World War he learnt how to print. I have worked for 15 years for a German public broadcast station and for many other media as well and my focus was on radio. So I learnt that not use I, not to use the first person, I learned to talk down on people and that’s it. You tell a story and that’s it, end of the story.

In German we have a saying like it is “versendet”. It went on air and bye, bye you never hear from it again and readers, users and listeners who came back and wrote letters also they were ridiculed, nobody would take them seriously. So that changed dramatically and that is why I am so passionate about it because that has the potential but I see that it breaks down walls and I am very passionate about fairness, equality, also gender equality. Giving underrepresented groups a voice or make them aware that they can become their own spokespersons today everybody has a mobile right now. So this potential to open the eyes and the minds for it that is what I am very passionate about and also my experience.

I have done a lot of work shops now internationally in India, also in the US than here in German, also in communities not only at the university and the feedback we receive and I receive is overwhelmingly positive. When I go there and explore and produce stories on this mobile my workshop participants most often the first time that they hear something positive about using social media for their stories, for credible stories and I think that made me also very passionate to give that to the people not to warn all the time. When other media were invented and introduced to the masses a lot of warnings came up: it’s dangerous, you will become a stupid person basically.

But I think it’s important that we learn how to use them in our own way and also about the negative side but how can you prevent, how can you work with privacy setting and how you can figure out what is a verified photo and what not. So we have all these tools and if you increase media literacy even in the primary schools I think we should go and not warn the kids about using their smartphones but train them to use them right so that they have this powerful means. Then it would protect also our democratic societies. If you don’t learn how to work with mobile and social media they know it and they will manipulate people a lot. So there are plenty of reasons why I am so passionate about it and it’s very, very important for the future of our societies to learn how mobile communication works properly.

Nerina: On your website there is an amazing picture of you being interviewed by a very young reporter. Could you tell me more about this?

Marie: That was the most touching experience for me in my experience with mobile communication. In last February I went to India and then I spent one week in Kerala and I visited a primary school who could produce without any external funding a news show with mobile only on YouTube. They highly appreciated that I made the effort from their perspective to go there and to encourage the children and to tell them how relevant it is and I am convinced, I believe that these children are the youngest mobile reporters you will find in the world and it’s their own initiative. The teachers are great, the children are great so they built this newsroom and I think that is what I love to support.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learnt from this experience?

Marie: Maybe it’s visible in this experience that is typical from my experience as well in the digital space that it’s a very wrong approach if you think that you’re isolated with your smartphone and then you chat to strangers and foreigners but you never really leave . No this is prejudice. No, I am a model to show you can get in touch through a smartphone, through social media and then you will also meet and even if it’s 7000 KM away or 4000 KM away you will meet.

I see it in my young students also here in at the German Media University that they don’t see the opportunity to “just” chat or to just do an interview by using Twitter. So we started this and it’s really makes them very excited about it, they think they can really make a difference. That is what they feel in one second that they can reach out and then even famous influencers or journalists come back. They do a quick Twitter interview in 15 minutes they take the time and then they are connected and knowledge has been shared and it’s published. So that is a very exciting experience and you could never reach out and make this experience in some groups and also powerful movements if you were not using mobile. With this mobile communication you can reach out to everybody literally and I think that is a very powerful message.

Nerina: Why did you become a journalist?

Marie: I personally want to make a difference. I’ve always wanted to work with people. I had the opportunity to stay in the university for example but I wanted to go out and talk to the people and that is also what you could see in this radio and now this mobile it’s very oral, it’s a very intimate approach so to speak. When I say from a spatial perspective you don’t talk down to people and now users are also brought into the story, immersed into the story. Journalism is becoming much more of a service.

Content marketing is also a service. You don’t want to talk people into buying something that they don’t need that’s old, it’s old fashioned, and it’s over. People are much more aware now of what is happening and they want to be taken seriously and that was obvious. It’s already been about the little child. I like to talk to people, go out, find out more about them and so maybe I’m not used to talk a lot about myself. It’s not so much about myself it’s more like about connecting and talking to other people that’s really relevant to me.

Nerina: Is there somebody who inspired you?

Marie: I think the story of my grandfather who I never met, he died before I was born. So my grandfather came from Poland, from Poznan and he literally walked to Hamburg and then went on to Duisburg and opened a printing enterprise and I am very proud of him and his family. Because I think it’s bold; it is the media enterprise and also it was very innovative at the time and print means a lot to me. Everything started with printing in the media industry so I value that but I also think that it’s time to go ahead and embrace mobile and wearable and the marvelous technologies now.

Nerina: Are we going to read paper books in the future?

Marie: I think we will always read and people always listen to podcasts for example. So for a lot of words. Words are relevant not only visuals but books maybe it is something that’s becoming exclusive. I don’t think they will completely die out but I think just for practical habits, yeah I’m also used to reading on my mobile and books will be exclusive products in the future.

Nerina: Do you have a favorite book?

Marie: If I would mention a favorite book I would mention two books because I don’t want to mention only men. I have made it also one of my goals is to always create equality in perspective. So I really love Julian Barnes and his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. There’s a history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters which l love this book very much. I am also very fond about the literally report about Hanna Krall, the Polish writer and journalist, she is both and she’s a great model for me.

Nerina: Why is she a role model for you?

Marie: Because she is a woman and she fought her political fights and she also managed to write about very painful historical periods and persons. She created this culture to picture lives of victims from the nazis times where the nazis managed to destroy all the documents. That I think is really a role model that she managed to create a credible story telling about lives which are not documented. Which is very difficult to write about it and not to write like in a fictional way but to make very distinctively clear this path is something we don’t know but it could have happened like that, it’s very realistic and this is what we know and then to match that to a very igniting story. That is very, very important and these skills are relevant today for social media as well. When it’s a content story stories have to be short and igniting and we always have both sides. Sometimes we act in a way that is fictional or poetic or we create and the other things are the facts and really the reporting side of things and if both come together in a story I think that is breathtaking.

Nerina: What is the future of stories? What do you think that innovative communication will look like in 10 years?

Marie: I do hope it will be affordable and accessible. If you talk about equality it always has to do with access and access to these stories, access to the technology that enables these stories that is the most important and I fear that it might be very expensive for a big part of the population on earth to afford that. But I would like to make a difference and show with my passion for mobile how to work with low key technology and affordable technology for everybody with these stories.

I see the future when I look at it in my optimistic perspective I see it as a crazy future. We don’t need any devices in our hands everything will be screens and we can project 3D and artificial intelligence objects and data visualisation and everything on the fly everywhere and it’s very personalized. I am looking forward very much to this personalized content and knowledge. We can activate everywhere where we go and walk and communicate about it and that is very exciting.

Nerina: Don’t you think that perhaps we will keep even more storytelling, sharing and listening all in our groups. Do you think that we’re going to be able to communicate outside our bubble?

Marie: Yeah, I am optimistic that we can do it. It comes down to media literacy. If you know how to share and to create and to reach out to communities who want to connect with us then everything is possible. No, I am not pessimistic about it because history tells us the filter bubble started not with the social media or mobile it was there always and it was much worse in the past. People would only vote for the same party for their whole life, they read one newspaper for their whole life and so is that not a filter bubble? An extraordinary filter we’re coming from. So the opportunity to reach out to diversified audience and to make use of our power in our pockets that’s here but we have to teach and to learn how.

Nerina: You said that you would like to make a difference. What is the most important difference that you would like to make?

Marie: From today I would say I would like to make a difference really for underrepresented groups and also for equality; for gender equality. I am tired, I am so tired of hearing all these excuses why there are only one or two women on the podium and six or seven men and to always see this inequality in representation of women and men in the media for example. I’m so tired and it all boils down to human rights for me and to interests that is interests against women rights and I would like to make a difference here.

Nerina: What do you like doing when you are not working and dreaming about mobile story telling?

Marie: Writing. I am writing whenever I have time and that gives me complete peace and peace of mind and I can forget everything if I am able to write.

Nerina: What do you write?

Marie: I write true stories.

Nerina: A little bit more? I am curious.

Marie: I write novels. I haven’t published a novel yet but I am writing on a very personal story about my family and I am writing about a sweet girl in Berlin which is a more entertaining novel. So I have several projects and I have been a writer since I could sing, since I was girl.

Nerina: I am really looking forward to reading your novels in a real book. Thank you so much for this conversation Elisabeth.

Marie: Thank you Nerina. It was a great pleasure.

Nerina: And thank you for watching. See you next time again. Bye, ciao.


at Stuttgart Media University in Stuttgart, Germany. Journalist, speaker, writer and mobile and multiplatform communication expert.

“Now Age Storytelling equips journalists and storytellers best for the fragmented digital media age. It is the great enabler to fully understand and apply digital methods within an integrated multi-media digital workflow.” – Marie Elisabeth Mueller

Anne Murray

Anne Murray
Artist and curator

Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Can art change the world?

What is ‘art’? Why do we need it? How have artists throughout history been drivers for social change, and how can they continue to be so in a world that’s rapidly changing?

Anne Murray, a nomadic artist and curator, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her work connecting artists around the world through her platform Cloud Conversations. As an artist herself, Anne has exhibited her work globally, and is passionate about helping artists to tackle issues such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, and other social concerns in their work, by setting up spaces where they can communicate with each other and grow.

For her, art serves many purposes, from helping people to see they aren’t alone, to giving a voice to the feelings we all have as human beings. Through Cloud Conversations, she’s preoccupied with how people can use their knowledge and experience of art to look beyond current world situations, find solutions, and help to create dialogues for change.

Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Anne Murray's Video here

Anne: My name is Anne Murray and I’m an artist and a curator. I’m working on the curatorial research project that is called Cloud Conversations. I am a nomadic artist. So, I don’t really have a home base but mostly I return to Barcelona. So, I guess that would be my home base.

Nerina: Could you tell me more about this project?

Anne: Yes. The project is connecting artists from different parts of the world, they’re working in different disciplines, different media from: video art, photography, painting, sculpture, installation work, music, all different kinds of art forms and they’re working on different themes. The themes are to do with xenophobia, sexism, racism, Islamophobia and all kinds of global issues including climate change.

Nerina: How did you become an artist?

Anne: I don’t know if I would say that I became an artist. I would say that always throughout my life I was very curious and reflective and I spent a lot of time isolated, alone, just creating things and people started to call me an artist and that’s how it happened. And how I became a curator was really I had an interest in connecting different artists together because I saw that when you put the different artists’ work together it’s like the work itself has a conversation amongst other works. I thought it would be interesting to start to connect the artists and have them have conversations and it stimulates new work and also makes artists feel like they are not alone. They’re working in different parts the world on similar themes and they feel bolstered by that, they really feel more support.

Nerina: Are there some moments or some experiences that really determined or influenced who you are now? 

Anne: I was the only girl, I was the youngest and as I said I spent a lot of time alone because also my brothers were a lot older than me. I think that when you live like that you spend a lot of time reflecting and thinking and kind of developing different ideas. My father read poetry at the dinner table a lot and I really loved poetry and I guess that really influenced my development of the way that I thought and interacted with the world and reflected upon it.

My father died when I was 13 and I think that that really changed my life a lot because it made me realize how important it was to actually seek the things that you really care about and to try new things that you’re afraid of because life is short and it really made me aware of that and aware of the fact that the only thing that we can really rely on and count on in life is change. Things will change, people will live or die, or nature will change, everything around you will change and once you embrace that it really makes life a bit simpler and easier. Because even if you’re in the most difficult turmoil you know it can’t happen forever.

Nerina: Who are you as an artist?

Anne: I create video poetry. So I often go to different countries, staying in artists residencies. I make proposals for different ideas that are related to different things that are going on in current events in those countries, sometimes political issues, sometimes more personal issues and I write poetry. I record my voice and I put that together with imagery and the imagery often has an abstract connection to the words so it leaves room for interpretation and room for a bit of your own interaction, what you bring to it. It’s a little bit more free. It’s not so determined like a play or a movie it gives you a chance to enter into it and leave and enter again like poetry itself. I feel like poetry when you read a line and you read it again you see it in different ways each time you experience it and that’s what I’m looking for in my work.

Nerina: Why video poetry? What does video add to poetry?

Anne: I have always been as well a visual artist as a writer and so it came about naturally. I mean I started I was doing really large-scale drawings, painting on drawings and I started just writing phrases. I didn’t really think of them as poems at first but they became poems and I realized later of course because of my dad I had been exposed to a lot of poetry. Eventually I took… in my very last semester of graduate school, I took a video class and I made my first video poem then and I really loved that combination of things. It really for me it gave me everything I needed in the experience of creating a work.

Nerina: You are a nomadic artist. Why nomadic? 

Anne: It is a good question. I think that what happens when you live in different kinds of environments you’re constantly challenged and challenged in a way where you have to see yourself from the outside and the inside at the same time. Because you see the reflection of yourself in other people; how they react to you, how you behave and you start to have to accept that not all things are the same and your way is not right. It might work in some places, but it doesn’t work in all places and I really, really enjoy this metacognition and having an awareness and making changes and it really sparks my ideas tremendously about how I want to create work. I am fascinated by the interaction that I’ve had with so many different people from different cultures. I feel that it is expanded my mind tremendously. That you actually have many different options as a human being about how you’re going to interact with people, how you’re going to depend on them, how you’re going to you embody and embrace the idea of working as a community and I love it, I love that. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a place where you have felt a special connection to? 

Anne: Most recently I was just in Algeria and I really loved it. I was there for the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art in Oran. I had a work exposed there and I was really impressed by the generosity of people and their curiosity and also that they really felt it was important to understand from the artist what their intentions were and they asked a lot of really great questions when I was at the exhibit. It was very inspiring as an artist because often you can have an exhibition and maybe people come to an opening and they’re a little bit afraid to ask questions. Maybe they are intimidated by the art world, but I didn’t find that there. I found there was a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for an idea of what art could be and how far it could go and how it could connect to their own lives and I loved it.

Nerina: Which was the question that impressed you the most?

Anne: Somebody asked me about how I came up with the idea for the piece that I showed. The piece that I showed was called Exquisite Exodus and they really wanted to know why personally I had made the choices of the poem; the things that I said in the poem. Because in the poem I talk about the blue sky and it being a point of reference and something that makes me feel a sense of home.

Because the pieces about the Exodus of course from Syria and it’s relating my own life and my own experiences to what people go through when they have to leave there homes. I was thinking about having lived away from any sort of home for many years and traveling from one month to the next to do these projects of what is my focal point, where was the place where I call home and what can remind me of that and what would it be for somebody who had lost everything that was their home. Even the buildings, the cities are destroyed in Syria and so I thought it’s the blue sky.

When you look at the blue sky from anywhere in the world you can feel a sense of the grander scale of things and a sense that you have some constancy and some degree of change. So that for me gave me a sense of home and I related that to what perhaps if you are someone who has lost her home what you might think of or look at to have a sense of security.

Nerina: Why do we need art?

Anne: This is probably the biggest question every artist asks themselves, and many people and communities ask. I think that art serves many purposes and it can function in society in a lot of different ways.

For myself the way that I’ve started to use art is to help people to see that they aren’t alone, that there are connections between things, to give a voice to the feelings that we have as human beings that we often have trouble expressing and that we can relate to when we in theater and music and visual art. When you see those feeling expressed you can expel them and you can move onto the next thing and really that cathartic element of art is very, very crucial.

But another element of it is also how you can use your knowledge and your experience of art to look beyond current situations and to find solutions. Because art can connect people, you can create community projects and you can connect artists from across the world and find solutions for problems. Problems such as: xenophobia, sexism, racism. How do we address these problems? Artists find creative ways to do that and to create dialogues and so art serves a purpose where we have a gap in society.

Where there are many things that we look at in the media and we feel helpless. What can we do or what do you do? This is just human beings. These are just things that happen over and over again in history. It’s not true. Actually, if you look at history it’s often people who have looked at things from the outside, from a bit of distance, from a creative effort in any way with some different sense of logic that have created a way and a path towards change. So art’s purpose really is to create change and to embrace change.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from this project? 

Anne: The most important lesson that I have learned is to have compassion, to really understand what it is to be compassionate. From living in different cultures, from experiencing different cultures and creating works that are related to a whole different cultural background in different countries I have learned so much about compassion. About how when we see things and perceive things the window that we are looking through can be very narrow and that compassion is actually looking at something from multiple windows and that that’s really beautiful.

Nerina: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Anne: This is a tough question. But of course I would like to have a pavilion at the Venice Biennial and I think I would like to have an in four years. Maybe that’s not enough time and after that I hope that I will still be working on this project; the Cloud Conversations research and doing curatorial work and also as a fine artist: as a video artist, a video poet. I hope to be in different museums around the world.

I want to be an artist like Marina Abramovic. I really admire her work. I got to meet her recently at the Serpentine Gallery. It was actually about three years ago, but it really impressed me. Her compassion and her kindness and actually we both cried when we met. She hugged me and she handed me a tissue. I was so amazed and I thought wow you know when you become a star, an artist star it doesn’t have to mean that you lose your sense of self and your sense of kindness and that really gave me the drive to keep going and to feel that I could also be one of these great artists in this century.

Nerina: Why is she your hero?

Anne: You know, at first when I was younger I didn’t understand her work. I thought maybe it was a bit crazy you know to allow people to take weapons and cut her. Like she put them out on the table and people had the option to do whatever they wanted to her in one of her performances and I didn’t really understand and now I completely understand. I think that to expose yourself, to be as vulnerable as possible to humanity is probably the bravest thing that you could ever do and the biggest trust and faith in people and that’s why.

Nerina: What keeps you going? What motivates you?

Anne: Sometimes it’s hard to keep going but I have this incredible drive. I think I have this passion that it’s unstoppable and the more momentum I gain the more I keep going. There’s a lot of times when I realize that people come to me there is a moment when maybe I feel like it’s a little bit too hard and always, always there’s somebody who comes to me and says something about how meaningful what I’m doing is and how important it is and it’s like a treasure.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Anne: I want everyone to have that openness to experience life and to accept that all the different perspectives are important, and because of that you can experience life with the utmost richness, a depth beyond anything you can imagine.

Nerina: There are people who say that they do not understand art or they do not understand poetry. What would you tell them?

Anne: Every piece and every moment is a piece for you to experience. Because for myself there has been work like I talked about Marina Abramovic’s work. When I was younger I didn’t have the life experience really to even understand what she was doing and a huge part of that wisdom that comes from your life experience is what helps you to access and understand and indulge in art. It’s something that you indulge in, that you take a moment and it’s like eating chocolate. It’s like you can take that richness in and remember it and it’s not for everyone at every moment but there is something to be taken from art for everyone.

It’s just that you have to accept and understand that perhaps you need to also give something in the experience of looking at a piece of art, as a viewer you have to read and educate yourself and understand and try to look at what’s the perspective, the context of a piece of work is. Like reading a book the literature that you read you look at what country the person was from, what with her political situations, what was the culture like when a book was written. You have the whole context of life experience it’s the same with any person when you meet somebody. A lot of people maybe you like right away but then there are other people who are more quiet and you’re not sure, and those sometimes are the people that you really should spend time with because they have so much hidden inside and it takes time to know them and a piece of art is like that. You need to spend time with it like you would spend time with a child or a friend or a grandparent.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are these kinds of connections of artists so important? 

Anne: It’s interesting because when I was in art school I didn’t feel this. I felt that a lot of times our differences were highlighted as artists instead of our connections. When you finish school and then you go out into the world and you’re alone in your studio it’s hard, it’s a difficult process to then connect and understand things. And I think that it really helps artists when they connect with each other, when they see how they see things, how they examine things, how they reflect on the world is similar and that those things can as a community working from around the world create and can be a catalyst for change in the world, for society, for good in the world.

I mean, of course, you can use it for something negative too; it’s a very powerful thing to create a piece of work. We know that, we see that, we see how in some countries artists are put in jail for creating a painting. It’s happened in Turkey to a young woman. She also got almost three years in jail for doing a painting. Art is powerful. It’s something that we know it’s powerful because it taps into and connects with something that’s so much from inside our humanity of the core of who we are as human beings, it taps into our emotions, our life experiences, all of the things that we care about and because artists are alone in creating we need to help them. We need to give them the chance to connect with each other so that they don’t become too fearful and give up or die you know from lack of attention really. It’s so important because they are like the shamans of society, they can bring to us something that we wouldn’t have in our lives without them.

Nerina: Why does Anne need poetry? 

Anne: I need it because without it I have no way to express my life experience and I feel this need. Perhaps it’s a human need, maybe it’s a selfish need or something that we need to capture our life experience and give it some kind of precious attention. So when I create a poem it’s sort of like a talisman. That talisman holds within it my feelings, my emotions, my perception at a particular point in my life that I can go back to again and I can feel it again and I can feel it in the same way that I felt it in that moment and otherwise I can’t.

You know, when I look at a photo it doesn’t have quite that quality but with words I feel it. Because I’m very, very selective about my words and there’s a richness in poetry that is very visual and it can capture the vision of an experience, the essence of something for me in such a powerful way that I really treasure being able to read it again. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a poem that you like in a special way? 

Anne: Perhaps I can read something. Can we stop then I can take the line?

Nerina: Oh, please it will be great. 

Anne: Yes, I’ll read a line from a poem it’s called A Weary Thing It Is. It’s about the boundary between love and friendship and kind of questioning that.


Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Bart Kolodziejczyk

Bart Kolodziejczyk
Nanoscientist and Enterpreneur

Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Do you know what nano-waste is?

Who is responsible for establishing whether a new nanomaterial or nanoparticle is dangerous? How do we dispose of and recycle these products safely? And how early in the production process should we ascertain whether or not these materials are toxic?

These are some of the questions that preoccupy researcher Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk, a material scientist and technologist based in Melbourne, Australia, who’s at the cutting edge of policy making and research regarding nanotechnology.

His most high-profile focus is on how we should dispose of nanowaste, and on examining its long-term effects on biodiversity and human health, at a time when more and more consumer products are beginning to make use of nanoparticles and materials.

In recent years Bart has written several policy briefs for the UN and the G20 on these topics, but just what is nanotechnology, and how vital will it be in our future world? Watch our interview to discover the ways in which this new innovation is bringing with it even newer challenges; and learn about the people who are already trying to tackle them.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Bart Kolodziejczyk's Video here

Bart: My name is Bart Kolodziejczyk. I am a material scientist/nanotechnologist and I’m based in Melbourne Australia.

Nerina: And I’m Nerina Finetto. I welcome you to our video podcast. Today we’re going to speak about nanotechnology and nano waste. How did you become a nanotechnologist Bart? 

Bart: I guess it was a long journey because my background is in mechanical engineering and mechatronics. So back in Poland where I am originally from I did that as my bachelors and then I continued for Masters. Then I did another Masters in Renewable Energy because I got interested in renewable energies. I want to explore this field; I wanted to develop new catalysts for solar cells, fuel cells, batteries, etc. Most of these materials are actually nanomaterials and that’s how I became a nanotechnologist. Nano scientists I guess.

Nerina: What is nanotechnology? 

Bart: Nanotechnology deals with very small objects. So nano objects which 10 to -9 of a meter. So they’re very small, you cannot see them with our bare eyes and because of that you need to use very sophisticated equipment. So you want to see a very small world but to do that you need to use large equipment. So it’s quite a paradox. Nanoparticles or nanomaterials behave very differently on such a small scale. So we can develop new functionalities in very old materials, materials that you use every day. They can basically behave very differently if you scale them down to nano level.

Another thing is that dealing with nanotechnology is basically scaling something down. So instead of using big bulk systems you can actually scale them down and achieve the same functions on a much smaller level. Because of that for example your microchips can be the same size but more powerful.

Nerina: The solutions and the opportunities nano technology presents seem too unlimited. But are there any downsides?

Bart: Basically doing research is nanotechnology at one point I realized that this is amazing. We develop all these new things, new solutions but there will be a problem in the future. How do we basically manage nano waste? So waste that originates from nanotechnology. Because nanotechnology and synthetic biology they can potentially change our lives, virtually many applications but we need to think about how we use it. We have to use it safely; we have to dispose it safely.

Nerina: Is this a new situation?

Bart: The story behind nanotechnology can be compared to the story behind computers. We developed computers. We’ve been talking about them for many, many years but it took some time until we actually got our PC. Similar story is with nanotechnology. We’ve been hearing about it for many, many years but that was at laboratory scale mostly. But recently we started seeing products that are based on nanotechnology or nanomaterials.

The tech industrial revolution which is also called e-revolution or electronic revolution brought many different electronic solutions: computers, solutions in telecommunication etc. but we over flooded by e-waste or electronic waste. It’s just too expensive and too complex to basically recycle it or reuse it. I mean we simply dispose it. Unfortunately even if we want to we cannot do the same with nanotechnology. So once nanotechnology product reaches the end of its lifetime we need to think how to dispose it safely and we need to think about it right now because later it might be too late.

Nerina: What makes nano waste so dangerous? Why is there no urgency in this? 

Bart: Many of these nanoparticles and nanomaterials are very chemically active, some of them are even toxic to the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health and they are also invisible for the bare eye. So they can change entire ecosystems or affect our bodies and we won’t even realize why because we simply cannot see it.

So we basically need to think of solutions of how to safely dispose these products when they reach the end of their lifetime or better recycle them if possible. But to do that we need to basically reinforce some regulations and this has to be done using top down approaches. So basically governments need to step up and say, “Oh, we are basically developing this new technology, it is very promising but we need to regulate it. So how do we dispose safely these products? How do we recycle them?”

Nano waste will be growing rapidly with our use of nanotechnology. It is a very different issue to electronic waste or just general waste because you don’t know if it is there but it is there and it’s changing the environments because of the high chemical reactivity and many of them are highly toxic as well. So this our new challenge, completely new type of challenge that we have never come across.

Nerina: How are you involved in this topic? 

Bart: I started getting interested in this topic of nanowaste, management of nanowaste, disposal, safe disposal, recycling etc. and basically I started actively urging the governments and different international organizations trying to develop efficient ways of disposing nanowaste. So I’ve written several different policy briefs and policy papers and I try to basically introduce them to UN, OECD, and European Commission. Secondly I worked with G20. So basically I am a policy maker that acts form bottom up. So I just come up with these ideas and solution and then try to basically introduce my ideas to organizations that can make it happen.

Nerina: What kind of suggestions did you make in this policy papers? 

Bart: I have created a few different policy papers. So different policy papers discuss different issues on the same problem. In some I kind of established debate, in some I proposed specific solutions. So some of the things that I’m asking is who is responsible for establishing whether certain nanomaterial and new nanomaterial is dangerous or not, how toxic it is, how to dispose it safely. So will it be a researcher who develops this material for example in the lab or will it be a company that later on uses this material in commercial products? How early do we have to establish whether this material is toxic, etc.?

And also some of the things that I mentioned in policy papers is that there is a lot of funding to basically take nanotechnology further, to develop new nanomaterials, new applications for them but not much money is put into establishing whether they are safe, how chemically reactive they are etc. We need to establish that. How they basically react when we leave them in the environment? They can react differently to different environments. So for example different environmental conditions will cause different reactions in nanomaterials. If it’s dry environment, if it’s wet environment, how sunny it is etc. all these factors play a role in establishing how these materials can affect our health and ecosystems. So basically my policy papers are more of I try to push a debate and discuss all these issues rather than proposing specific solutions.

Nerina: Could you give me an example about how nanomaterials behave in a different way than normal materials? 

Bart: So when we basically scale one material to a nano level they behave very differently. They have different properties both mechanical, chemical etc. For example, when we speak of silver; we use silver in bulk to basically make different types of jewelry. But when we scale it down silver can become very chemically reactive. So silver nanoparticles are actually used as antimicrobial kind of treatment. So there are for example already socks in the market that have some kind of silver nanoparticle coating and because of that they don’t smell. So you wear them but they don’t smell because they kill all the microbes that produce this odor.

And for example there is one facility in China that produces silver nanoparticles but the safety standards are not that great in this facility and basically everything around this facility is kind of dead. It’s a bare land because silver nanoparticles killed all the microbes, microorganisms in the soil. Without them basically other plants and animals cannot function because these microbes produce some substances that are essential for other forms of life to exist. The entire area around the factory is basically bare land that’s because silver nanoparticles killed some microbes that are actually beneficial for the soil, soil microbes.

Nerina: As a consumer can I see if they’re some nanoparticles in the products that I’m using?

Bart: There is no specific kind of sticker that is put on them saying that nanotechnology inside or something like that. So you really need to be a chemist and read the description, ingredients to distinguish whether you’re dealing with products that contain nanomaterial’s, nanoparticles or not. So for example many people use toothpaste or sunscreen but they’re not aware that there are nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide, Tio2.

Nerina: Are there any studies about the dangers to our health?

Bart: So for example, the recent studies several of them actually show that Titanium Dioxide can cause cancer or affect our nervous system but no one has banned it as yet. So there’s no governmental policy to ban Titanium Dioxide even though it’s widely used in toothpaste, in sunscreens, as an artificial sweetener for our food products etc. I have not heard so far that any government has basically stepped up and said, “Oh we should ban Titanium Dioxide.” We are using Titanium Dioxide broadly but we’ve never realized that there might be issues associated with that.

Nerina: What has to be done in your opinion? 

Bart: I guess one way is to raise awareness. It has to be a more kind of consolidated action because by myself I cannot do much. It has to be driven by more people and there are actually organizations that are already exploring these issues and trying to address it but the process is slightly slow. Maybe too slow than it should be but previously that was the case with asbestos. So we realized that it is highly toxic, it can cause lung cancer and basically one government after another followed and they banned it. So I guess at one point it will be a similar case with Titanium Dioxide. So basically raising awareness is one way.

The other way is to basically develop effective and efficient ways of disposing different nanomaterials and this has to be regulated with some sort of policies.

Nerina: What would you like the researchers to do, that policy makers do, that consumer do?

Bart: I guess whenever you develop new nanomaterial or new nanoparticle a part of your responsibility is also to at least some basic tests how these new nanomaterial’s can effect environment in different environmental conditions and what can be basically health issues associated with these new nanomaterials, just basic. That will give ideas to whoever wants to use it further to basically to do more in-depth tests. Policymakers to regulate the field, to work together with scientists to develop effective ways for disposing all these nanomaterials and consumers to be more aware and more educated. But again these awareness and education have to come from our scientists again.

Nerina: What will Bart do in the future? 

Bart: I kind of got intrigued by this science policy field, science advice and I now realize it’s very different to just doing scientific research. It is more interdisciplinary because you need to have knowledge in both law and regulations and also your specific field of research. So in that case it is nanotechnology and also synthetic biology because synthetic biology has similar problems to nanotechnology. So we kind of try to explore both.

That was a great journey, just another journey, very different one. But the output and what I’ve read from all these organizations that I worked with was very encouraging. So basically I got really into it, I really got into science policy field and science advice. I’m very interested in science law these days so that’s something I would like to continue in my free time. I do all these nanowaste and synthetic biology kind of activities in my free time. It became in a way my hobby, it’s a bit weird to say my hobby is science policy but I guess that’s what I do in my free time.

Nerina: What do you focus on right now in your research? 

Bart: Well I guess there are many opportunities that arise from research. You have this idea, you develop this idea, you come up with certain solutions. So it’s not only about doing research but doing applicable research that actually helps us to develop further as a community. So I guess that’s why at one point I decided to leave. I’m still kind of doing scientific research but its more hands on, more applicable.

I’m currently with a Singapore based company that manufactures state-of-the-art electrolyzers. Electrolyzer is like an electrochemical basically cell where you apply electricity. You have two electrodes and in our case we are into hydrogen production. So we put these electrodes into the water and we split water particles and on one electrode you get oxygen, on the other one you get hydrogen. So we’re trying to make a shift towards a hydrogen economy.

In our company there is also quite a bit of research, it’s very exciting, very noble. So yeah that’s what I do currently.

Nerina: I guess we have to have one more conversation about this project and the future of energy. Do you see yourself as a change maker? 

Bart: I guess I don’t want to think of myself as a change maker. I do make some change but I get there using very small steps, so step by step and eventually you will get there. So slowly but systematically I guess. In a way you bring change but it’s not like you don’t make a change over a day or over a period of a week but eventually you will make it.

Nerina: Who inspired or inspires you?

Bart: I guess my mom was one of them because she gave birth to me. She was always there when we were young to support us, she was very protective, and she kind of ignited this curiosity in us; I mean in me and my brothers. The second very important person in my life was I guess my PHD supervisor. I have massive respect to him, to my supervisor. He was really like a father to not only to me but also to other PHD students. But I guess right now the most important person is my fiancée Ranthini. We are getting married next year in Malaysia. It will be a Hindu wedding so there’s a lot for me to learn. All the different cultural rituals, all the wedding rituals are very different compared to my European culture, Christian culture. So that will be interesting.

Nerina: Good luck on all your projects and I wish you all the best with the wedding preparations. 

Bart: Thank you Nerina for having me and for your time.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation Bart. 

Bart: Bye.

Nerina: And thank you for watching.

#followup with Bart Kolodziejczyk | Synthetic biology and gene drives

Here a follow-up video with Bart Kolodziejczyk speaking about synthetic biology, gene drives and the need of regulations.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:

Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Jason von Meding

Jason von Meding
Disaster Risk Reduction

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

When disasters are beyond natural

As long ago as the 1970s, scholars were already of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a truly natural “disaster”. Instead, there are simply conditions that allow for certain areas of society to be disproportionately harmed by natural events.

So, just how can we reduce the risk to human life during these occurrences? To answer this question, researchers like Dr. Jason von Meding at the University of Newcastle, Australia, are applying the scientific method to social, political, and environmental issues, and asking how humanity will be able to support itself in an era of increased consumption, and finite Earthly resources.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Jason von Meding's Video here

Jason: Hi Nerina. My name is Jason von Meding. I’m a senior lecturer at the University of New Castle, Australia and I generally say my area of research is disaster science or disaster studies, but specifically in my field, we talk about disaster risk reduction.

Nerina: You wrote that there are not any natural disasters. Could you tell me more about this? 

Jason: Disasters are sometimes seen by both the people that are affected by them and by scientists, by decision-makers, policymakers as something that could really be avoided, which is nobody’s fault, which is an act of nature, which is maybe an act of God. They start to approach disaster in this way which takes away any culpability from the people who create the conditions where people are vulnerable to a disaster. A lot of us in that field are committed to fighting against this terminology because I think it creates this context where nobody is responsible, where nobody is accountable for the people that are impacted by disasters.

Nerina: Who is affected by disasters?

Jason: Disaster impacts affect the poor, they affect the marginalized, and they affect the people who are most unjustly treated by the conditions of the society. You will be able to find some examples of a disaster which only affected a small number of rich people, right? So there will be exceptions but they’re exceptions to the rule. The rule is that disasters affect the most vulnerable in society because of their structural conditions which are not an accident, they’re by design. So the way our societies are structured is to benefit a few people at the expense of the others and these are the things which you don’t get to talk about if you use words like natural disasters.

Nerina: How did you get into this topic? 

Jason. I think when I was about 12 in school I really started to feel like I wanted to pursue a career as an architect and right through school that was my one focus. When I went to University to study to be an architect, I started to work in the practice. When I was just finishing off my postgraduate studies I had the chance to do a research thesis and at that time Hurricane Katrina had just affected the US. So I was born in the US, from Chicago originally. So I put together a proposal to go and do some field study there looking mostly at how a hurricane affects buildings. So of course, I was interested in buildings and design, materials, structures. So I went to the Gulf Coast of US and did a very, very simple study.

You know I was affected by the stories coming from Gulf Coast of how people were impacted. I ended up doing not only a study of buildings but of people. So I started to talk to people about their experiences. I started to talk to design professionals but also just residents who are affected. So that fed into my thesis.

Nerina: You decided to change your career from being an architect to a researcher. When was the turning point?

Jason: I think when I went to Southeast Asia to conduct fieldwork for my Ph.D. I went out there with the intention of helping or producing knowledge to help NGOs manage disasters better or become more efficient as organizations. I was mostly collecting data from project managers within these NGOs. I heard stories through them about what it was like for people to experience disasters, but when I got the opportunity to actually hear directly from people who are impacted then it really started making me think about the structural problems that people were suffering from.

Because when I heard from people that were affected by this tsunami in Sri Lanka or by cyclones in Bangladesh they started to tell me about the conditions of vulnerability which they were forced to live in and those were the things that cause them to be affected by disasters. They didn’t feel like well it’s was just a natural disaster that has destroyed our homes or has killed people very dear to us. They felt like they were put in a position of vulnerability by conditions in their society, which were not fair. So they were poor, they were very marginalized and this is why they were affected like they were. So that really changed the way that I thought about disasters because it made me think much more about the social constructs which determine how people experience disasters. That really maybe shifted my research agenda for my career.

Nerina: What are you focusing on right now in your research? 

Jason: A lot of our research is on the social science side. So a lot of the time we’re working with vulnerable communities to understand how they experience vulnerability, how they experience hazards. It’s important to distinguish between disasters and hazards. If you have an earthquake which occurs in a location with no people who are vulnerable then you don’t have a disaster, you just have a hazard. What we try to in my group is to conduct scientific research to better understand the conditions that people experience and produce by their knowledge to present to the public, to present the policymakers, to the whole range of stakeholders in this field to try to convince them that we need to think more about the real courses of a disaster which are rooted in the way societies are constructed. So that’s how I try to explain my research to people.

Nerina: You wrote that disaster risk reduction should be everybody’s business. Should it be and why?

Jason: A lot of people when you speak to them about disasters will not necessarily be thinking about the social and political and economic angle. Of course, if you say economic system or politics is everybody’s business. That’s alright, yeah okay, but if you say disasters are, then not everyone understands the connection. So that’s something that I feel quite strongly about and it’s something I’m working on is how do we communicate the importance of involving stakeholders from across the spectrum in the discourse about disasters, connecting all these disperse interests and actors in this discussion about reducing risk. Because reducing risk is really about addressing the vulnerability, addressing structural injustices which often have its roots in historical events or historical developments. So I think the critical thing is really connecting all of those social constructs which everyone accepts as being part of something everyone should be involved in with the understanding of disasters. That’s what I’m trying to do through my kind of public advocacy and position as an author, as a communicator.

Nerina: What has changed in this field of research over the last few decades? 

Jason: The field has been active for a long time, 50 years. You know that it has very much progressed from a traditional understanding of disasters. In the 1980s you had efforts to manage disasters better; really that was kind of the approach. When the UN got involved it was to manage disasters and then to reduce disasters and then as we progressed over time you start to talk about reducing the risk of disasters. So, there’s been this progression in the language that is used in this. Although even in the 1970s top scholars were saying that we need to appreciate that no disaster is natural. So that’s a long time ago and we’re still having this debate.

So in some ways, things are still the same but we’ve learned so much more in many fields and we definitely learned a lot more about the real causes of disasters. In the last 10 years, that’s been really driving a lot of great research. So in 2015, we had significant global frameworks on climate change, on sustainable development and also on disaster risk reduction. In Sendai in Japan, we had the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015 which was agreed by the nations of the UN; which was really a global commitment to adhere to certain principles.

Nerina: Are we on the right path in your opinion? 

Jason: When I go to some of these international forums which are said to represent the international community… I mean now in 2017 we have a pretty good representation of stakeholders from different segments of society. So, you have your government representatives, your NGOs, the UN bodies, the community activists. You know the UN and different UN agencies have really taken the lead on bringing governments, bringing scientists and communities together to talk about these key issues.

So on paper, it all looks like a pretty good representation of the diversity of voices, but when you actually look at who’s speaking, who’s on the panel, who is in the small room at the side or who is on the preliminary stage then you start to see where the real power is. The voices that are given the most space are those who have the existing power, who represents the interest of maintaining the status quo and this is a big problem at that international level. It’s that we’re not putting the issues that really need to be discussed in the primary position.

Nerina: Which are the issues that need to be discussed?

Jason: Some of the things which are kind of unquestioned are this idea that we can have economic growth forever, and maybe through our innovation, we will find a way to stop damaging the environment, while still growing. But it comes back to the ideology that we actually need economic growth. There’s lots of literature out there which challenges this assumption but I think in terms of disaster risk reduction community it’s not really being challenged vigorously enough.

I would say that most of those in the scientific community, certainly most of those in large global institutions move ahead with that assumption. Maybe they agree that we should challenge but they think argh it’s just too difficult, it is not the right time. You know we have to work within the limits of like where we are in this time and space.

The other one that I really felt strongly about recently was this idea that we can continue to consume to the level that is expected by developed societies, highly developed societies. If you’re going to developing countries and you start to talk to people about what their idea of success or of a healthy society would be. They usually point to a country like the US or they point to Europe and say if only we could be like them, then we would be developed and we would be successful. As a global community and led by Western culture, we’ve become addicted to trying to consume and trying to accumulate as much as possible. The reality is that we’re on a planet with finite resources and already we consume far more than the earth can replenish. Only a small part of human society has reached developed or highly developed status.

So, when you start to let your mind think ahead to what would it mean for humanity if 5 billion more people join the middle class and start to consume the average American. That’s really a crazy thought and that’s a very scary prospect because it is just not possible. So, we need to start talking about this much more seriously. We need to start not only talking to developing nations and say well maybe that’s not the trajectory for societies to go in. But we have to challenge our own conception of what’s we are entitled to. Are we in highly developed countries entitled to consume like this forever when everybody else can’t or you know we can’t really say that. But on the other hand, are we really prepared to give up what we’re used to. It’s a big challenge.

Nerina: Yes indeed and what kind of world do you see these for researchers?

Jason: So in my position as a researcher, as a scientist, I try to think about what kind of knowledge I can generate, can I build which will actually help people to fight against injustice, which will help people to mobilize to move ahead, to build momentum to create change. So that’s kind of where I think I can best use my time and my efforts is by using my position to speak, to create this discussion to refocus people on they’re the real problems. They not only need to understand why but they need to understand how, like what they can do. I think there’s an important role for academics, for scientists to generate change.

Nerina: What kind of change do we need?

Jason: I’m making a documentary movie which is called Deviate and it’s really trying to express, articulate a lot of these issues which I’m interested in, which are connected to disasters. In the making of this movie, I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are part of movements or who are kind of influencers in different ways of change. I am hearing stories about how people resist structural injustice in their society and how they generate momentum for movements for change. So, there are different ways and I think we need a coordinated effort in all these different spaces. I mean there is no panacea, there’s no one way to get to a better society. But we need to advocate for all of these strategies as a coordinated movement for change which is inclusive because there’s no one way that we can make things better.

Nerina: Is there something that everybody can or should do? 

Jason: I think we need to really go outside our comfort zone in our own sphere of influence. We need to really make a robust challenge to the existing status quo, which tells us that we need growth, we need to increase consumption, and we need to accumulate stuff. Like we not only need to challenge government decisions, we need to challenge like our friends and our family about the choices they’re making and the ideas and the myths sometimes of which they’re so attached to. So we need to be willing to go, move outside our own comfortable existence. Of course, I speak is a very privileged person.

At the core, I think we need to develop a more human understanding person-to-person across those divisions in society and in international borders and so on. To understand that we have shared values, shared space of this planet and it’s the only one that we have. Anyone who speculates that we might just move on someone else’s is probably a little too optimistic.

We need people to understand, especially people in privileged position that there is actually value in caring for the people who are on the margins. Making the world better for everybody not just for us, not just for you know my family or my friends. It’s actually expanding what we care about beyond our little groups, beyond our social groups, beyond our national border. The solutions will not really happen if people in positions of privilege are willing to recognize that the way that they’re privileged is not fair and for them to be privileged, other people have to lose out. When you realize that then you can start to bring yourself to a position where you say oh I don’t need all these things and how can I be happy if other people are not happy. When we start to do that we start to humanize each other, we start to humanize the most marginalized in society.

Nerina: If you had the power and if it would be possible is there one thing that you would like to change tomorrow?

Jason: Oh wow. I would like to change the behavior of people that exercise power over other people in a negative way and change their behavior… change their mindset so that they understand that actually there are alternative futures. There’s a different way to do things where we can set up a society which functions well around shared values and around respect for each other, you know, around love, around trust and that’s actually powerful as well. If enough people come together around those values we can have a different society, but as long as the way that society is constructed is based on an oppressive type of power, like power over others I think that it’s going to be very difficult to resist that. Because a lot of times people become very obsessed with taking over the power, but as we’ve seen through history many times when a really revolutionary movement or individuals take power, they just end up oppressing other people.

I think there’s a problem with how we use power in the world and if there one thing I could change it would be to eradicate that behavior and that ideology of using power oppressively.

Nerina: What drives you? What motivates you?

Jason: I have five children you know quite young. When I got into this field when I started to read broadly and really understood the gravity of our situation with my limited understanding of science you have to think of the future. You have to think like what is the world going to be like for my kids or for their kids. The thing that motivates me is the concern of course for my children, but also all of the positive things that I see happening around the world.

The more that I meet people who are really on the frontline of the fight against injustice I realize there are more people than I thought that really want a better future. What gives me hope is that the majority of people do want a better future; they do want a future which is sustainable. The majority of us want a planet where our kids will be healthy and will be able to enjoy life.

Nerina: What is your dream? 

Jason: My dream is that the people who are trying to build change movements are successful and actually reach enough people to generate the power of the masses to say the world we want to live in is very different than what we have. So we’re going to dismantle the status quo and we’re going to build something different.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Jason, for this conversation. 

Jason: You’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Nerina.

#followup with Jason von Meding | Deviate - the movie about disasters

Jason von Meding, senior lecturer in Disaster Risk reduction is making a movie: Deviate. Disasters are not natural.

We spoke with him about his motivation, the purpose of the movie, some myths about disasters, the challenges, and the experiences during the shooting in Vietnam.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

Traces&Dreams AB

c/o Impact Hub
Jakobsbergsgatan 22
111 44 Stockholm Sweden
Org. nr: 559336-2196

Join the community

Subscribe here to our newsletters and learn more about narratives, futures, and positive change.

Copyright © Traces&Dreams AB 2023

Privacy Policy