New York

On Becoming An Artist, Part 2

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“Order To Disorder” by Matthew Courtney

“All it takes to become an artist is to start doing art.” 

With these understated and at the same time profound words, my friend Dr Ellen Langer began her 2005 book ‘On Becoming An Artist”. It is an instructive and inspiring book I have read through cover to cover about four or five times now. Dog-eared and underscored, this book provides a reflective conversation that lives up to its subtitle: “Reinventing yourself through mindful creativity.”

I first met Ellen in Toronto back in 2007 when attending a conference at Rotman Business School. Roger Martin who I knew from attending the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship had invited me to participate in a conference he was convening about thinking. I knew there were great thinkers in Toronto before I arrived for that conference, but it was when I was attending I saw how alive that city is with fresh thinking, design and creativity. It was for that reason I decided to run there during the 10 City Bridge Run, and especially why it will be included as part of the Design Forums that will follow later this year.

Ellen is a big thinker, but not your usual academic or thought leader. She is an elegant woman who would seem to be more at home at Largerfield’s next Chanel showing in Paris, but she is just at home with big ideas and the opportunity to ask you to stretch your mind more. I was fortunate to spend time with her again in Melbourne in 2011 at the Australian Davos Connection ‘Future Summit’ which I am alumnus to.

She is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and is qualified to speak on matters concerning the mind. The book is a case study of her own experience from picking up paint brushes through Untaught Art and becoming an artist. She uses the writing to paint metaphorically a discussion beyond her earlier writing about how rampant and costly living a life mindlessly can be, to address how mindful creativity enriches and enhances your life.

Re-reading the book now, I find at this is our intention as we set about the Design Forum for the 10 City Bridge Run to ask “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” We will together tap into a process of engagement that will enrich our own lives, and through doing so we will be helping to literally save the lives of millions of people over the coming decades as part of a broader collective effort.

The photo is from a friend in New York, Matthew Courtney. He too is an artist with a colourful past I know little about. He lives in Brooklyn, and travels into SoHo to sell painting and drawings he has made. Most people are too busy to stop and look or to talk. Much like existing conversations that sometimes overlook dysfunction in making change happen in child survival, Matthew experiences a phenomenon that Ellen writes about observing people and critics flocking to “official art” with excessive emphasis on evaluation. Ellen writes:

“People don’t give up their current preferences or ideas easily.”

These are big ideas Ellen is playing with. It is not suggesting you throw away your bible, figuratively or literally, and I for one would encourage you to hold onto your values and beliefs. But importantly, learn to look anew, see with fresh eyes, and think again. This is the process we will embrace during the Design Forum. Please join us on this journey!


I Began Questioning

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imageWhere does your journey begin for making a difference that matters? We all have the same amount of time, and each are gifted in some ways, some more gifted than others. I’m interested in this question of when and why people chose to make a difference, rather than how much of a difference they might have made which is a very subjective measure of contribution.

I was delighted to meet up with an old friend Cynthia Smith in New York the previous week at the conclusion of my epic running stunt where I ran 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries. Many of you know already that the running was a stunt to thread a common narrative through 10 cities where an important question will be explored through a nine month period this year in a series of Design Forums asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”

With Cynthia in front of the centrepiece of thought-provoking exhibition about tools and design
With Cynthia in front of the centrepiece of thought-provoking exhibition about tools and design

Cynthia is a curator of design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in what was once Andrew Carnegie’s home.

Cynthia Smith is a remarkable lady who has led a movement examining ‘design for the other 90%’. The idea is that most design is made for that 10% of the global population that can afford to live in homes, drive cars, enjoy discretionary entertainment, and then still have money left over for fashion, holidays, pets, and everything else that we seldom stop to think twice about.

There is a quote in a book she curated which I read once and carry with me as an inspiration. The quote talks about a decision to make a difference, rather than worrying about how ready we are to make that difference. She wrote:

As a result, I began questioning: ‘In what ways could I, as a designer, make a difference?’

imageWe met for breakfast, and afterwards spent some time at the collection at the Cooper Hewitt. After saying farewell, I spent some time wandering around the collection myself. What impressed me most was the idea of accessibility of being a designer. One exhibition was about Human Centred Design, and was essentially a call to action for everyone who walked into the exhibition in the old library of Andrew Carnegie to become a designer.

So what does this mean for you and I? Are we any different to Cynthia? After all, she is a ‘capital D’ Designer. You know, a real one.

imageI think what it means is that you need to read her quote above and own it for yourself. Take ownership of becoming a designer. And start by asking ‘will you decide to make a difference?’

If is not a new thought to you already, then there is one thing I want you to do for me. Share this post with someone who is ‘just ordinary’, but let them know they are far from ordinary. We need them as designers to make a difference. Maybe not in a big way, but with some sense of conviction that they can actually make a difference.

The centrepiece exhibition was about tools, and was thought-provoking. It took the ordinary and showed how everything has in some way been designed.

I like this thought because it comes back to the Design Forums I spoke about earlier in this post. In every city, we will have a particular focus. When we arrive in New York which I believe will be in May, I would like to pick up this theme of tools as it relates to child survival. It is a conversation I want to pick up with Cynthia, and in some ways I am opening up that thought with this post.

Carnegie's garden that flourished with sunshine rather than shade because of the church design
Carnegie’s garden that flourished with sunshine rather than shade because of the church design

In a stroke of serendipity when we were walking to the Cooper Hewitt, we passed the church that is adjacent to the museum. Apparently, Carnegie’s wife gifted the land to the church knowing that the highrises of the city were starting to be build closer and closer to her house. It was an ingenious was to create a buffer to allow her garden to receive sunlight. That the church doesn’t have steeples confirms this story.

I visited the church the Sunday after we met as was totally inspired by the vision of the Minister who had created a real culture of questioning in what ways could the church make a difference to the local community. So my intention is to speak both with Cynthia and the membership at the church to ask, together in what ways could we make a difference?

But the person who I most want to engage in this conversation is you. In what ways as a designer could you make a difference?


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imageCooper Hewitt’s Curatorial Director, Barbara Bloemink, at the New York Museum of Design which is now part of the Smithsonian collection has a great quote:

“Human beings have always used ingenuity to solve problems.”

It sounds pretty straightforward, but it is worth reflecting on for a minute. It is saying that we tap into a genius mind when we solve problems. That is profound.

We take solving problems for granted. We should see every problem that has been solved, resolved or reframed as an achievement worth celebrating. Do you?


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“Warm your hands with the invisible fire of hope!!!” Anonymous New York scribe on New York’s Mott Street in Chinatown

I friend reminded me of the humourous epitaph written by Walter Savage Landor on the weekend:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.

Nature I loved, and, next to nature, Art;

I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Strove is the past tense of to strive which means “to make great efforts to achieve or obtain something”. 

Hard work and the ability to persevere are their own reward quite often. After completing the first phase of the 10 City Bridge Run, having run an impossible journey around the world. I can say that I strove.

The Design Forum which mark the next phase in this epic quest are an opportunity for us to strive together.

Landor was most likely being idiosyncratically facetious with his short poem, and without getting lost in borrowing from the meaning of the poem, I can say that I want to strive with all of you, as the issue we are contending for is well worth our strife: improving the delivery of child survival.

Last week, I stumbled across a graffiti scrawled outside one of the many Chinese markets on Mott Street in New York. I don’t know if the author intentionally departed from Landor, but I think his inspiration is one we can share in together moving forward. You can see it at the photo on this page, and it reads:

Warm your hands with the invisible fire of hope!!!

So, please join me. Let us strive together, so that we can look back and say that we strove for something worth our strife.

What I Am Still In New York?

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IMG_3421It would be understandable that some people might be asking what am I still doing in New York now that I have completed the running stunt framing the 10 City Bridge Run. Or to put that another way, what happens now that the running is concluded?

It was my intention to have already left New York so as to travel to Melbourne where I need to spend some long-overdue time with my family in the wake of my brother’s death. It wasn’t my plan to be away this long.

There has been a delay, as if there weren’t enough delays already encountered with getting the 10 City Bridge Run to this point. Right now, I am waiting for the dispersement of funds raised during the final legs of the 10 City Bridge Run to be deposited into my bank account. The fundraising concluded on the evening of 1 January (US time), but the dispersement wasn’t put into effect until about 24 hours ago. Put simply, those funds are needed to enable me to take the next steps, which includes leaving New York. In many respects, and in a very real sense, I am stuck until that money clears.

IMG_3493But just as delay and obstacle encountered during the running stunt of the 10 City Bridge Run gave rise to opportunity in unexpected ways, I am likely to return to Australia a little later than anticipated again, and travelling via a circuitous route that goes via Osaka and Seoul.

One reason for the extended route home is that it is cheaper. It actually works out cheaper (and less painful in terms of flying hours) to travel with a broken journey via Asia. The cost is slightly less than a single flight from New York to Australia.

How this opportunity to travel via Asia to Australia rather than going direct from New York came about was trying to resolve how I might attend a scheduled appointment I have in Seoul on 21 January. Additionally, my concern was how to best coordinate planning for the first of the Design Forum to be held in Osaka during the period 10-12 February 2015.

IMG_3589Talking about something as a foreigner to that city might sound interesting, but it needs to be followed up with credible action for people to take you seriously. Having the opportunity to return to Osaka for a couple of days allows a requisite degree of consent and consensus from the host organisation in Osaka. It would be entirely unreasonable to fire off a couple of emails and expect for things to fall into place.

I will fly to Seoul after Osaka, which will be an opportunity to build some interest among possible satellite organisations who could participate in the first Design Forum from a location other than Osaka. Having one organisation agree to participate creates a model for others to follow.

Seoul is also the location for the final Design Forum, and so provides an opportunity for meaningful discussions around what might be possible and what might be needed to make the possible happen.

This first Design Forum is important to build momentum and a sense of identity for the conversation that follows. In the coming days, I will frame my vision of what that might look like, and welcome your involvement, steering and participation to make it a good event.

My friend Mary raised an idea a few weeks ago which was to explore ways of schools getting involved in the Design Forum. I think her idea is brilliant, and we are looking for other opportunities like that to expand and grow the opportunity for the Design Forum as a coherent and scalable conversation to address the important question driving this process asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”

In the meantime, I have very cheap digs at an idiosyncratic New York flop-house, and will be using the few days I have remaining in the city to build support here and other cities as we move forward towards achieving this epic quest.

You Don’t Have To See The Whole Staircase

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IMG_2989One of the many great quotes from Martin Luther-King Jr came to mind earlier this week. I was remembering a conversation I had with my good friend Kelley from New York when she was visiting Sydney. It was back in 2010 and we had just met through a mutual friend who asked me to show her around the city. Over coffee, I spoke of my hesitation with releasing a new website for 10 City Bridge Run. Characteristically, she scoffed and told me in the most kindhearted of ways to get over myself and just start.

Now I am looking at what that final leg in New York might look like. And then together we will begin a new journey with a series of Design Forum. Actually, we will have more gaps in our knowledge than certainty, so will have to follow the advice from MLK:

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

From one month to three legs

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English: United Nations General Assembly hall ...
While I don’t think I will be attending the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City come September, I do plan to be in the city at that time as the 10 City Bridge Run culminates. Consider this: the General Assembly as an extension of our networks, rather than a ‘special place for the elite’. Does that help you think differently about the question we are asking: “how might we use our networks to reduce child mortality? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did a good job tearing my calf muscle before New Year. More than just a few strands, I was seriously stopped in my tracks for longer than I expected. This is my first post for some months since that injury.

A bit over a month ago, I found myself unconsciously running to cross a street, or get to a train on time. Coming back from injury, it is a strange feeling when you catch yourself out doing activity that the day or week before you were consciously guarding yourself from undertaking, but it is a good feeling too. Signs of recovery.

I haven’t been back to the physiotherapist since coming to Korea, but the range of activities I have been doing would indicate that I am now fit to run. There is still more swelling and fluid than I would prefer, but that is also subsiding.

My running coach, Bob Williams based in Portland, gave me some frank and very helpful feedback after the injury. He asked why was I wanting to undertake the 10 City Bridge Run (the 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries) all inside of one month?

Imposing time constraints on performance added nothing to what I was wanting to achieve, he argued. This was in addition to the need to recover well from injury.

Serendipity came to play a part in all of this as well. Only very recently, I was selected to attend an initiative called the ‘Commonwealth Study Conference’ which for me will be conducted in UK and later in Mumbai, India. The costs involved are small, and I am largely responsible only to meet airfare expenses, so in that respect it is not a large financial burden. This is an opportunity to good to pass up on, and what’s more sets the scene to start the journey for the 10 City Bridge Run.

Considering dates for the year, I broke the journey which I had early considered completing in under one month into three different legs. The whole journey, and each of the three journeys, and indeed each city I will run all play a part in shaping the narrative to helping us to better understand child mortality and how we might use our networks to help reduce under five-year deaths where they occur at their worst.

  • Leg 1: London, Seoul, Sydney (Late March to each May)
  • Leg 2: Mumbai, Beijing, Madang (or Port Moresby…probably stay out of running in POM due to security issues). (June)
  • Leg 3: Kinshasa, Lagos, Freetown, New York (September).

The good thing is that by breaking up the journey, it not only helps to consolidate the experience of the shorter leg at that time, but more importantly to use that as an opportunity to strengthen the interest and momentum in the conversation.

The conversation is going to begin small, and that is okay. It will end after the UN General Assembly meets in New York with the Global Design Forum being convened. How big that is, what it will look like, who will be involved: I have a good idea of what these will be like, but there are many conversations to take place first.

The good news is that the idea is developing. And we are moving forward. Later than planned, but in a better fashion than could have ever been imagined in 2010.

They said it could never be done. How often were they wrong?

New York- UN MDG Summit Offers Hope

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United Nations

This week in New York, a United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit is underway.

10 years after the Millennium Development Goals were first announced, this is an opportunity for the world leaders of 150 countries to come together and review progress.

Australia is represented by our Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd.

What can we expect from this conference? The news bulletins have rung with the sounds of billions of dollars expenditure, and initiatives for improving education, health and eradicating poverty. What happens once the bureaucrats and politicians have finished on Wednesday? Is it really that easy to solve extreme poverty?

Translating the media spin into meaningful action is important. But it is good this Summit is being received with such optimism offering a hopeful future. A big change from Copenhagen.

See what AusAID, Australia’s Aid Program had to say here.

Please support the 10 City Bridge Run to highlight small actions which will make a big difference in showing that the impossible can be possible. Please sponsor me with $24 here.

24 hour Crowdsourcing Challenge

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Make Up Your Own Mind

Please help make the 10 City Bridge Run a reality and become a sponsor through pre-purchasing the book “Above the Line” through the Social Alchemy website as part of our 24 hour Crowdfunding Challenge.

10 City Bridge Run: I start running in Newark on 24 September at 10:24 am heading toward Harlem. Can I successfully achieve the impossible with the 24 Hour Crowdfunding Challenge before 10:24 am 14 September in New York (midnight tonight)?

Special thanks to the friends and supporters who have sponsored me to date. Like everything in this creative process of inquiry, the stakes are real- it is not just talk. I take the death of the 24,000 children who die everyday seriously, and I want this to be perceived by everyone else who comes with me on this journey.

What about you: what do you think? Is the seemingly impossible possible?

Commencing tonight in Australia (13 September), and over the next 24 hours, we will find out, at least as it relates to a small matter of raising a few thousand dollars.

Please read the Sponsor page to learn more. Will you take action or leave it up to someone else?

United Nations Millennium Development Goals

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2015 marks an important time horizon for the United Nations: reporting on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). These are eight international development goals that all 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organisations agreed to achieve by the year 2015.

Speculation exists whether this will be possible. Is it time to make excuses and analyse “what went wrong”, or is now the time to create massive change and set a determined course to achieve the goals successfully?

Talk alone will not have the necessary effect. How is it possible to translate this objective from the United Nations in New York into meaningful actions which we as a global community can engage in?

With only five years left until the 2015 deadline to achieve the MDG, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on world leaders to attend a summit in New York on 20-22 September 2010 to accelerate progress towards these goals.

I recently conducted an informal survey of contacts I met across five countries between March and May this year. I was surprised that most people had never heard of these MDG. Even so, every person I spoke with was fully engaged when presented with the statistics on child mortality.

What will it take to move action forward on the MDG? Will a conference of leaders in New York this September cut it?

I contend that action needs to come from the global community, with people acting as bridge builders. What might this look like? I am not sure, but through the 10 City Bridge Run I intend to stimulate discussion to identify a crowd-sourced list of 10 actionable items that people can engage in to make a difference. Is this naive? Possibly, but nothing ventured, nothing changed. Two-thirds into the first time period for reporting on the MDG, progress is slow and maybe falling short. Maybe it is naive not to try all options which we are presented with, regardless how facile they might seem.

For my previous experience with the Australian Army assisting in Timor Leste and later in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami, my instinct says that just giving money and leaving it to the bureaucrats is not the answer. It will help, but there has to be more we can do.

What do you think?