A promise renewed
This has been a time of inspiration. Perhaps this is unwarranted, because it also has felt like a time when the sands of opportunity seemed to be avoiding my grasp as they slipped away through my fingers.
Trying something, and it not working. It is a very common experience. A quintessentially human experience. Is it strange that we have forgotten all of the failures from the early years of life during a time when walking might have seem to have been an impossibility? Perhaps it is stranger that we can get so hung up on a point in time when it would appear a plan has ended in failure. Not that we can remember, but if we were to think back to childhood, we would know that through perseverance we would eventually overcome.
I’ve been caught up in the words of a Brazilian philosopher called Roberto Unger recently. The title of this blog comes from a quote of his that I like:
“Change requires neither saintliness nor genius. What it does require is the conviction of the incomparable value of life. Nothing should matter more to us than the attempt to grasp our life while we have it, and to awaken from the slumber of routine, of compromise and prostration, so that we may die only once. Hope is not the condition or cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. And those who fail in hope should act, practically or conceptually, so that they may hope.”
This post is an update about an epic quest I undertook in 2010 and have yet to complete. I called that quest the 10 City Bridge Run. The purpose of the quest was to address an ambitious question through a conversation asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” The method was all the more ambitious to the point of ridiculous: I proposed a stunt to highlight the conversation about child survival where I would run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries.
Long story short, I have completed the stunt, but not yet done justice to the conversation. And in between these two events there is a book I am yet to publish and send to my supporters. That book is to be called Life Bridge, and will feature a photo essay with 100 pictures of human bridges to illustrate that it is through our connections that change can take place.
I am very aware of ways this could have been simpler, or ways the execution to date could have been more effective. It has been lumpy in parts, but that too is part of the journey.
And so that brings me to this point about failure, about inspiration, and about hope where I began the post. A reasonable person would at this point in time cut their losses and apologise saying that it was all too much trouble, and that they were not up to the task. As I write that, I know that I cannot accept this as failure, and hear the words of George Bernard Shaw. You know the ones: “the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”
And so yes, I have been staring down failure as I interpret what this journey has meant.
Staring down failure because there is inspiration. Inspiration from the fresh initiative called the Sustainable Development Goals which will replace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals when they expire at the end of this year. Inspiration because I know there is purpose in holding this conversation, and that hardship is part and parcel of trying to achieve difficult things. And inspiration from a conversation I had in Newcastle recently where someone challenged me to look again at what I had achieved.
Let me explain this incident from Newcastle briefly. Back in 2009, I ran what was the initiative that preceded this 10 City Bridge Run initiative. In 2009, I called it the 9 City Bridge Run, and it was undertaken in response to the suicides of many friends as an effort to show that resilience and community wellbeing could be counterpoints to the conversation that was prevalent about depression and suicide. Long story short, that journey was personally a success, but a complete failure in attempting to have some impact on an issue which I considered to be important.
Unger refreshingly argues that change can be piecemeal, fragmentary, gradual and experimental. His words help to reframe our perspective: “we should not associate radical change with wholesale change, and gradual change with inconsequential change.”
The strength in Unger’s words to me is this: “To grasp what it can become” is necessary to embrace is we are to overcome the failure of structural imagination. To be sure, I have take Unger’s words out of the context they were written for, but I believe that remain entirely relevant to this situation.
And so from that conversation in Newcastle, I realised a few things. And this is where you come into the picture.
I realised that my efforts have been too much me pushing. As valiant as that might be, it leaves little room for the ‘us’ to truly collaborate on this epic quest.
I realised that concluding this quest through the publication of the book Life Bridge and the holding of a series of Design Forum to address this conversation about child survival required more input from others. It was possible, but it wasn’t just a matter of pushing harder from where I am now. I need to relent a little to invite others in to this space.
I also realised that what I achieved in 2009 and in the recent 10 City Bridge Run was worth exploring further. And this has pointed me to the next steps. And I’ll come to that shortly at the end of this blog.
Mao famously had a quote to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ which was actually a ruse to out the intellectuals within Chinese society so that their influence could be purged by “enticing the snakes out of their caves.” I think that Mao was definitely onto something. Not the crackdown of dissidents, but an openness to others being involved.
One of the last acts of the 10 City Bridge Run involved me delivering a letter to The Hon Julie Bishop MP, Australia’s Foreign Minister, asking her to be the champion for this initiative. Her staff replied in time, and I recorded a video when I was in Korea earlier this year just after receiving their message. Watch it below:
And this is where you come in. I’m asking for some help. I’m inviting 100 people to be our champions of change, to pick up the slack where Julie Bishop is unable to put her shoulder to the wheel. Returning to Unger, I note his words: “Great ideas are not beyond the reach of ordinary people.” So please note that I am looking for 100 champions of change, and you could be one. There will be more on that in a later blog post.
But here is the final comment, and the point of this blog post. Hope is the consequence of action. What I am proposing is to return to my initiative from 2009, and next year in March 2016, to run 16 runs in 16 towns across NSW in 16 successive day, and in each of those towns it is conducted where there is a group, individual or organisation that is prepared to host a Design Forum. The issue will be the same one I championed in 2009 which was to address the taboo issue of depression and suicide. The reason for this activity in March is to provide a rehearsal for the big event in September/October 2016.
So then in mid-September through until mid-late October over the course of a month, I undertake to run 17 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 17 cities across more than 10 countries. In both the March and the September/October dates, I will be inviting others to run with me, and more about that later. And importantly for the September/October event, in each of the cities, and in other cities even where running doesn’t take place, I will be asking people to organise these Design Forum for me. Why 17? Because that is the new number of Sustainable Development Goals. What about child survival? That remains a key focus, but also we will be taking a holistic focus in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
Many friends have given me very good counsel about my execution of the 10 City Bridge Run, noting my shortfall on a reliable team, social media strategy and media coverage. Those are all very good comments, and I completely accept the need for improvement in those areas as well as many other. We now have an opportunity to get this right, but I seriously need the help from others.
We are at a Turning Point where Hope is the consequence of Action. And to achieve this Turning Point, it is necessary for us to take The Next Step, together.
The Lansdowne is closing.
It is a venue which much history, known to many for a thousand and more personal memorial and recollections. Memories that are often grounded in the performance of a certain band, rather than specific moment in time.
My memories are from different venues, actually multiple venues, and bands that defined a moment. As I think through the list, the memories become more and more lucid, and the list grows longer and longer. Hunters and Collectors, The Angels, Machinations, INXS, Divynals, and on and on the list grows.
Many of those venues where those memories are from are either closed, or it was so long ago that what happens there bears absolutely no semblance to what went before. The place has lost that magic from that night many moons ago. This is not about nostalgia or showing my age. Rather, it is recognising that things that went before make us who we are now, and they are very much in the past. Not to be returned to.
And so the Lansdowne is closing. And it will close. And in many respects it has already entered into that place of ‘remember when’ for many. That is not good or bad. It just is.
It will close, and something else will open. Now, we are being told that a student accommodation facility will stand in its place. It is less the sign of progress, but more the allure of profit that drives this decision.
Speaking to the staff the previous weeks, their disappointment is palpable. Their morale is shot, in part because they will be looking for new jobs, but I would say that it is more because they are grieving the loss of a friend.
My friend Fay tells her stories of being a barmaid in the Lansdowne in years before many of those staff were born. It is the same venue, and no doubt she will feel the same sense of loss knowing that the taps will be shut off and cleaned for one last night in the coming week.
But let’s make a distinction. This is something that is closing down, not a last stand.
A last stand invokes a sense of defiance. It is a gnarly expression of resistance to the inevitable, It is a critical and defining moment in time.
I had launched the 10 City Bridge Run at the Lansdowne. To be honest, the launch was pretty crappy compared to what was possible. That was my fault and no a reflection of anyone else. At the time, there was a lot of stuff going on that was distracting me from doing my best in other areas. Stuff that doesn’t need to be explained or discussed here. Just stuff.
But launch the 10 City Bridge Run we did. And without the people who attended, it would have been crappy, but they made it special. It is always the people who make it special.
When I learnt that the Lansdowne was closing I was in Seoul. It had been many months since I had concluded the 10 City Bridge Run, at the conclusion of which I was exhausted. It took a few months to make sense of what I had done. Much like the launch, many parts of the 10 City Bridge Run were also crappy, but in its entirety it made something that was worth noting.
I explored a decision to hold a ‘Last Stand’ gathering at the Lansdowne. The idea was a little half-baked, but worth pursuing. The response from people was good and supportive. The venue was receptive, although the manager seemed to be accommodating but less than enthusiastic. I considered the time I had available to me. Not enough, but I wouldn’t really know unless I tried.
Good friends who are hip hop artists were behind the idea, and willing to perform. The delay seemed to be in the response from the venue manager. I was left uncertain of some arrangements that we had emailed about. My hesitation in following up the email conversation was perhaps a reflection of the circumstances.
This was going to be an afterparty for the 10 City Bridge Run. Not a wake. It was not a Last Stand.
No, this is not a Last Stand. The afterparty for the 10 City Bridge Run is going to be a celebration. A celebration of the next steps ahead in our pursuit of delivering on the promise to improve child survival.
So, this is a long winded apology for a half-hearted effort to gather a performance at the Lansdowne on 10 September. It is a Thursday night, and I will be there. You are welcome to join us too, but it is likely to be a quiet night.
My secret hope is that a few people with guitars might turn up, maybe even a melodica. The stage is ours for the evening if we want it. But at this stage, I think it will be a few people sharing a few laughs around a bar that has seen better days.
There will be a long-overdue afterparty for the 10 City Bridge Run on 10 October, and more details will be coming soon. It won’t be half-hearted, and won’t be crappy. And I hope you can join us as we take the first of many next steps ahead.
But for now, the Lansdowne is closing. I’ll be there on Thursday night. Join me for a beer, and to share some stories. If we can gather some interest, who knows, there might even yet be a Last Stand to be had.
2010 was the year an idea about challenging the action that was being taken to address child survival was conceived. The idea was bold, and from the beginning sought participation from others.
It was grounded in a plan to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries as a stunt to open a conversation asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”
The reason for running 24 km was in response to the emphasis made by many organisations in 2010 promoting the 2008 figures of child death per day which had been released by UNICEF. The figure was 24,000 children dying on average daily. A wholly unacceptable figure, which has since been reduced by a third, and progress for the future shows signs of being promising.
I wasn’t an expert in the field, and it struck me that few were. Canvassing my friends about the importance of the issue showed the effectiveness of marketing campaigns from institutional aid agencies, but apart from that little more knowledge. I thought that in a networked age where communications and health infrastructure was better than ever, was there not more we could do to crowdsource and then implement some form of solution or positive intervention?
This was the point of the running stunt. I would run in 10 cities, simply to highlight the year 2010, and conclude with what I had loosely defined as a ‘Design Forum’ at the end to address the issue. There was no budget, no institutional backers. Just a mad Australian with a little bit of passion, who had been given legs by many friends each contributing a small amount through a makeshift crowdfunding campaign.
I took the idea to several institutional aid agencies and charities who had a vested interest in the idea. Would they partner, or was there somehow I could support their efforts? I wasn’t asking for money, and it just have been evident that perhaps lacked some experience in that sector. Their response, especially in hindsight having now completed that journey after much tribulation, was astounding. I was met with the same response, and that surprised me: “sorry, that is not consistent with our messaging”, “we can’t quite see how it ties in with our fundraising efforts”, and other such words that effectively closed their door to my invitation.
I was at a loss as how to respond to this response from the aid agencies that so effectively had appropriated the issue of child mortality. Was I mistaken, and maybe my ideas were ill-conceived and ridiculous?
Reflecting on their response, I remembered back to Boxing Day 2004 when a catastrophic tsunami would smash against Aceh and many other towns in the Asia Pacific. It was an unprecedented event. At the time, I was still serving as an Australian Army Officer and then had a responsibility for planning emerging operations across the region. From the moment the first phone call was received on Boxing Day afternoon and being probably the first person in Australia to hear about the incident, we spared no effort for the following weeks with literally no rest or respite so as to respond with critical support to assist the logistical, recovery and humanitarian needs which were many.
Aid agencies of every manner were part of what I describe as a third wave of tsunami after a second wave of tsunami crashed around the world as the general public awoke to the horror of what had happened. Many aid agencies were quick to adjust their messaging to receiving funding from an empathetic public.
A short while later, reports in Aceh were of degraded roads and bottle-necks from the inundation of traffic of aid agencies wanting to be the first organisation to be seen to arrive and distribute food and blankets. This hampered getting water and other critical supplies to remote areas. It would have made more sense for the aid agencies to coordinate their efforts in Kuala Lumpur and deploy as a collaborative effort without concern for which person from what organisation arrived first.
Now, a decade on, we look back on Aceh. There are questions about where some aid money ended up. Such questions are worth examining, but not too pointedly perhaps. The generosity that allowed the aid in the first place does deserve accountability, and that is a separate issue from that which is being raised in this post.
Child survival is an issue which has been strongly advocated for, from politicians such as Hilary Clinton to actors the like of Ben Aflick. All have spoken with the same staunch plea, demanding urgent attention, mirroring the words of Tony Lake the Executive Director of UNICEF who in 2012 rightly described child mortality as a “moral obscenity” and a “moral abomination”.
Earlier this year, we saw a very positive report from Bill and Melinda Gates in their Annual Letter which has taken a different approach to the ‘alarmist’ view of an appalling situation that has underpinned the messaging of institutional aid agencies to date. We have turned a corner. He future looks bright.
There is no better time to conduct the Design Forum for an issue like child survival. Just because the future is painted as a bright place to visit, it doesn’t mean the road is downhill from here. There is still a lot of work today, but through collaborating with those interventions that we know work and learning from interventions that have been less successful.
The Design Forum is a conversation that will last nine months and beyond. Is picks up a conversation which has started many decades prior. And everyone is welcome. I expect many people will watch to see how it unfolds, and then get involved once it takes shape closer to May. In the meantime, there is a lot of information out there, there are many people with first-rate experience to draw upon, there is a lot of data.
There is no ownership in this conversation. It is a collaboration. Part of that involves challenging and questioning that which has been said in the past. Even Bill and Melinda Gates’ aspiration should be challenged in order to understand it better. Theirs is a bet. I don’t propose we refute it, but we definitely should examine and scrutinise it rather than just accept everything because it is already on the interwebs. What better form of respect can we give reasoned thought than to challenge it with our own intellect, rather than just accept it blithely?
We are breaking new ground in a conversation that is long established. We give ourselves permission to question everything, even the experts.
This year in their Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates included a short phrase which I think underpinned the whole of their document seeking the dispel three myths of development: “Things can be better.”
It was a clear signal of optimism, and the leadership Bill and Melinda Gates bring development is far and beyond the capacity that is afforded through their financial clout. Having money helps, but shaping the conversation through influence counts for much more.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Tony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, in a post recorded for the ‘A Promise Renewed Initiative’. You can see it below. It is only short and goes for less than two minutes.
Tony Lake is an interesting character. I have never met him, but would love to sit down over a meal if ever I had the opportunity. Search his name on wikipedia and you will see he has a very interesting past. Kudos to him for turning his energy to addressing the needs of those most in need.
His statement: “We gotta do better”.
These statements actually rely upon each other to be complete. They are almost the same message, but not quite. Without both of these, it is either a case of striving without a sense of what is possible, or a view of what could be without the driving motivation to act.
We are very lucky to have Bill and Melinda Gates and Tony Lake expressing so much passion for a worthy cause.
Is it just me, or does this message seem a little hollow?
Last year, a positive campaign was launched in partnership with UNICEF called ‘A Promise Renewed’. It resonates and is a strong message.
My concern is that corporate communications are often unintentionally sucking the life out of a human message by sanitising things to such a well-read script that there is little in the way of a sense of personal engagement with the person delivering the message.
Government and bureaucracy play an important role in addressing child survivial. Very important, and this should not be diminished. The problem I see with addressing child survival is that meaningful citizen-led initiatives are hard to come by. I am sure they are out there, and most probably go unseen because they are busier doing the work than pushing out well crafted videos.
The 10 City Bridge Run exists to amplify and improve upon efforts like this. Not to compete, and not to reinvent the wheel. But there is loads of potential that goes wanting that can be engaged through a wider citizen movement.
Watch this video, and ask yourself: what is good about this, and what can be improved? I would love to hear your thoughts.