#17 The view from outside
To the United Nations
That for 75 years
Helped us break down frontiers
And wrote countless declarations.
This came to me while running this morning, on the 75th birthday of the United Nations. Apologies, I’m not a wordsmith. There should have been celebrations all over the world today. Instead, the anniversary is somewhat subdued. Online, I recommend the 75 stories about 75 years United Nations brought together by the Humanity House and UNICEF.
It is one of the last projects of the Humanity House in The Hague. This incredible ‘museum’ about human rights, migration, what it means to be a refugee, and all these other essential themes will close its doors on the first of November. A victim of political indecision and the COVID-19 pandemic, I will miss them and the team. I hope it is not a sign of times to come.
There is a question to all of you, halfway through this email, and I very much look forward to your answers. Why? Because your replies inspire me. The topic of today’s newsletter is the view from the outside in. When organizations like the Humanity House do their job well, they provide a view from a different perspective on your country, community, history, and future. Your replies do the same. Thanks so much for reading, subscribing, and replying!
An image from a visit to the Humanity House. I’m surrounded by people from around the world who’ve come to the Netherlands as refugees.
This week, I travelled to Hamburg for work. My first trip abroad since February. I received the most excellent treatment imaginable. Elisabeth Böhm and Ursula Richenberger had arranged a tour of the Peking, the flagship of the new German Port Museum. I did an opening keynote at the eCulture Salon event, focusing on storytelling and audience engagement in the post-Covid world. (And was interviewed for the German Museum TV.) On Wednesday, we did a collection and storytelling workshop for the German Port Museum. Then Antje Schmidt gave me a tour of the Freiraum at the MKG.
I’m very privileged that I have never actively experienced a world where borders between countries matter much. I must have crossed the border to Germany a hundred times. Covid has made it a real border again, with police and rules and regulations. I also experience these borders in my mind. It had forgotten how much I need to be outside of my tiny country to keep an open mind.
In the workshop at the German Port Museum, I was recommended a book by Maja Göpel — Unsere Welt Neu Denken. Göpel is an economist (or Ökonomin) who focuses on transitions, sustainability, and the future. I probably don’t do her justice if I call her the German Kate Raworth. Still, the analogy is meaningful for this newsletter. I’ll come back to that, after quoting Göpel from an interview:
“We need more people who are in a position to systematically question dominant thought patterns, to work out completely new solutions and to experiment with them. I mean, specifically, those thought patterns that are ingrained in everyday activities but are not laws of nature. The more players there are who can develop critical and constructive “futures literacy”, the better equipped we will be to respond quickly to crisis developments and to keep the realm of possibility for potential solutions wide open.”
I think that to question dominant thought patterns — and become future literate — one needs to be open to a diversity of perspectives. Much of our thinking about the future is dominated by the English language and thinkers who express their ideas in that language. That’s why we know Kate Raworth, but significantly fewer of us know Maja Göpel.
When I learned to speak Spanish, not just a language, but a worldview opened up to me. I will never get over the fact that in everyday conversation in Spain, you need to know hundreds of names of shellfish to get by. Until I lived in Spain, everything was a clam for me. I mostly used my Spanish to read fiction, sticking to English-language or translated non-fiction. Yet, being able to read about, for instance, Buen Vivir — South America’s answer to consumer capitalism — in the original language gives me the tools to challenge dominant thought.
If you’re from a small country such as the Netherlands like I am, and you speak a language spoken by only 23 million people, there are not a lot of ideas going around on the inside. It’s telling that a recent book about the future of the Netherlands written by a Dutch thinker was so thin it felt like we weren’t going to make it to the end of the decade.
To learn and innovate and explore the future, you are dependent on views from the outside. These may be the views newcomers bring to your country — from Spinoza to Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the case of the Netherlands. But they can also travel by book. Which brings me to my question to you: What is a popular or thought-provoking book (or video, podcast, …) from your country about the future?
I will try to read and study your suggestions as best as I can. In combination with the results from our current survey about a future vision on the Netherlands, I promise to turn this into a more detailed publication later in the year. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
Jose Torcal responded to my last newsletter with a story from the outside in. It began with some back and forth about the historical roots for attitudes to privacy in the Netherlands. Then, Jose told me about how his research comparing Dutch water authorities and Egyptian Sabils got sidetracked by an unexpected discovery:
“[W]hen travelling in Egypt I accidentally came across a story that changed my plan. I could speak about it for hours but will try to summarize in two sentences. They built a dam in the upper Nile in the 60s, between Egypt and Sudan. The construction itself was impressive because it was a chess game between Russia and the USA, in the context of the cold war. But what I did not know was that they had to move entire temples, stone by stone, so they did not flood.
“UNESCO launched a campaign (basically the birth of UNESCO) to rescue the monuments and four countries contributed most to this: the Netherlands, Italy, the USA and Spain. In return, each of these countries received an Egyptian temple — shipped to their country. And this is how Leiden ended up having an Egyptian temple. I had to leave the the Netherlands the day I was going to interview the curator from Leiden, but I still tried to finish the story here.”
Jose also shared a video from the UNESCO archives about the story. It is not just a view from the outside, but also from far back in time, and worth watching:
That’s it! Thanks so much for reading my newsletter. I hope to see you next week. This week, I didn’t write about any of the things I did in Germany in detail, about driving through a pandemic-struck continent, application writing, and a host of other things. All that in a future episode. Until then, take care!