Tuesday, 11 November 2014

How Power Shapes our World

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moisés Naím (Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela and Executive Director of the World Bank) and Admiral James Stavridis (Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO). We discuss the fundamental nature of power, how it shapes our world economically, politically, socially and how it impacts the lives of every single individual on the planet.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, November 2014

To understand the story of humanity is to bear witness to the story of its greatest paradox; power. This phenomenon creates the constraints in which we operate, yet is responsible for the structures that bind our society together.

The exercise and accumulation of power is endemic to humanity. In the 20th century alone, this phenomenon has been responsible for over 200 million deaths through war and oppression, and has concentrated over 50% of the world’s wealth into the hands of just 1% of the world’s population meaning that billions of our global family have been subjected to hunger, thirst and disease. Power has also enabled social movements that have brought rights, freedoms and opportunity to many billions more.

The unrelenting growth of technology in the past quarter-century has brought with it conceptually challenging notions to our incumbent ideas of power. Facebook, with more than 1.3 billion users is now (perhaps) as powerful as many sovereign states. Diffuse communications networks have also enabled hundreds of millions to come together in revolutions and acts of protest; in some cases, dismantling power structures that have been incumbent for hundreds of years. Even the most abstract seat of power- knowledge- is being challenged as the Internet democratises access to the total sum of human insight. Technology has also allowed the world’s governments to infiltrate our lives ever more deeply; being able to monitor, analyse and consume unimaginable quantities of information on the daily lives of citizens and entities, and build weapons to destroy them in more astonishing ways. “We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world - or to make it the last.” - John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Regardless of whether we stand on the opposite plinths of that which is considered the moral good or evil, we must agree that every major advancement and challenge our species has experienced has been as a result of the ebbs and flows of the great forces power projects into our world. As Michel Foucault comments, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society."

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Moisés Naím (Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela and Executive Director of the World Bank) and Admiral James Stavridis (Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO). We discuss the fundamental nature of power, how it shapes our world economically, politically, socially and how it impacts the lives of every single individual on the planet.
Moisés Naím is an internationally-syndicated columnist and best-selling author of influential books including the recently-published The End of Power, a startling examination of how power is changing across all sectors of society, and Illicit, a detailed expose on modern criminal networks. In 2011, he launched Efecto Naím, an innovative weekly television program highlighting surprising world trends with visually-striking videos, graphics and interviews with world leaders which is widely watched in Latin America today. Dr. Naím gained international recognition with the successful re-launch of the prominent journal Foreign Policy and, over his fourteen years (1996-2010) as editor, turned the magazine into a modern, award-winning publication on global politics and economics.

His prize-winning work is highly influential in the world of international politics, economics and business. In 2005, Illicit was selected by the Washington Post as one of the best nonfiction books of the year; it was published in 18 languages and is the basis of an Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary. Of his recent book, The End of Power, former US president Bill Clinton said it “will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.

Dr. Naím’s columns and media commentary have a worldwide audience. He is the chief international columnist and “Global Observer” for El Pais and La Repubblica, the largest daily newspapers in Spain and Italy, a contributor to The Financial Times “A-list”, and an associate editor at The Atlantic. His columns are also carried by all leading newspapers in Latin America, and have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Business Week, Newsweek, Time, Le Monde and Berliner Zeitung. In 2011, he was honored to receive the Ortega y Gasset prize, the most prestigious award for journalism in the Spanish language . In 2013, Naim was named one of the world’s leading thinkers by the British magazine Prospect and in 2014, Dr. Naím was ranked among the top 100 most influential global thought leaders by GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for his work on The End of Power.

Dr. Naím is a distinguished fellow in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the Group of Fifty (G50), which brings together top-flight progressive Latin American business leaders, and a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, Population Action International, the Open Society Foundations as well as several global companies.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Naím served as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry, as director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and as executive director of the World Bank. He was previously professor of business and economics and dean of IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school. Dr. Naím holds MSc and PhD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in Washington DC.

Admiral James Stavridis, is the 12th leader of The Fletcher School since its founding in 1933. He holds the title of Dean of The Fletcher School, Charles Francis Adams / Raytheon Dean's Chair

A former Admiral in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander. He also served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for all military operations in Latin America from 2006-2009. A Fletcher PhD, he won the Gullion prize as outstanding student and has published five books and over a hundred articles. His focus is on innovation, strategic communication and planning, and creating security through international, interagency, and public/private partnerships in this turbulent 21st century.

Admiral Stavridis served as Supreme Allied Commander, NATO and commander of U.S. European Commander (2009-2013) and is currently Chair of the Board, U.S. Naval Institute (2013-present). He led U.S. Southern Command in Miami (2006-2009), served as Senior Military Assistant to Secretary of Defence and Secretary of the Navy and was first commander of Navy’s “Deep Blue” strategic and tactical think tank after 9/11 Pentagon attacks (2001-2002).

Admiral Stavridis is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including Intrepid Freedom Award, Athenagoras Human Rights Award, Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, Alfred Thayer Mahan Award, John Paul Jones Award, Arleigh Burke Award, 38 US and international military medals and the Gullion Prize (Top in class), The Fletcher School, Tufts University

He holds a PhD and MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a BS from the U.S. Naval Academy. Stavridis is also a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2014, he released a book of his story, "The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO"

Q: What is power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The classical definition of power, commonly used by political scientists and others, is that power is the capacity to get others to do or stop doing something now, or in the future.

Power is also a source of order, and a source of comfort for some people. Remember that the extreme situation where nobody has power, is anarchy… and Anarchy is an inferior Hobbesian society and leads to inferior social outcomes to societies where structures and entities that impose power, limits and rules to create stability and prosperity. Some neuroscientists have even argued that power is hard-wired into our brains, and evolutionary psychologists have similarly argued that power (and the quest for it) is an evolutionary trait- an instinct.

[Admiral Stavridis] There are several centres of powers that drive society in a broad sense. First and foremost we see demographics; human capital, the people and population- tied to which we see their education levels and productivity. Traditionally, we also talk of military power- albeit I think this is suffering the law of diminishing terms as in our current global society, huge force on force confrontations are less-likely, though not impossible. Increasingly cyber or information power is also extremely significant, and I would tie this to the idea of 'idea' or 'message' power, which is society's ability to influence other parts of the world in the power of its messages. I would argue that western society, over the past several centuries, has been able to move the ideas of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of education, freedom of assembly, gender rights, racial equality and more. Given the centre of power can be seen as your ability to produce or convey influential ideas; this is certainly important. Cultural power is also significant, the degree to which your society's popular culture; films, books, art, theatre, music and sports are received nationally and internationally. Separate from this is political power which, in many ways, derives from all the other things I've spoken about. Geographic and resource power are also fundamentally important, and are derived from not just the size of your country, but how much water and energy you have access to. Innovation power is also very important; the creative spark your society has.

All these factors taken together will determine how influential a nation is at influencing the behaviours of other nations and organisations.

Q: What are the dynamics that influence power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The sources of power have changed, and the ability of incumbents- those who already have power- to maintain it, is diminishing. Power is decaying because it has become easier to acquire, much harder to use, and thus easier to lose.

Q: Is it inevitable that power will concentrate?

[Admiral Stavridis] Today, sociologically speaking, we are seeing a broad diffusion of power. Look at the way that individual ideas, groups and individual people are able to exert power using communications technology. This could be violent or extreme groups, and also groups who are doing wonderful things for sustainability, the environment and ecology. Groups are forming, and power is diffusing away from nations and moving more toward sub-groups. The recent referendum in Scotland, the potential Catalonian split and the break-apart of Ukraine are all examples of power diffusions. Counterbalancing this, it's worth pointing out that power is concentrating in Europe; through the European Union. I believe this is in a state of tension however; and generally power is diffusing.

The most important form of power is human capital, people.. and their education. In today's world it is easier for people to amass education and communicate their ideas than it has ever been before. Education is still withheld from vast portions of the globe, but these individuals will get there. Today, education constitutes around 10% of what moves the internet. When that number moves up to 20, 30 or even 40%, more people will be educated and have access to technology. Over time, this will cause power to diffuse even more.

New corporations such as Google and Facebook are also examples of power diffusing from nation states and moving to new forms of entities. Technology will only accelerate this trend.

Q: What are the instruments used to maintain power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The instruments to maintain power vary between sector and activity. If you are a church, power sits in the number of your followers… If you are a political party, power sits with the scale of your voters and your ability to fundraise… If you are a company, power is your balance sheet, your brand, your unique selling points and technology… If you’re an army, power is your resources; your troops, ships, tanks and technology and if you are a nation, power is a combination of demographics, resources, military capability and so on.

Q: How do those with power defend their positions?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The Historically, size was very important. We came to equate power to size; the larger your balance sheet- for example- the more difficult it was for challengers and rivals to displace your market dominance. If you were an army and had huge expenditure, budgets, weapons and technology- it was difficult for others to fight you. Now everything has changed. In the case of the military, we have relatively small groups like Al Qaeda, The Taliban and the Islamic State who are capable of challenging the mightiest and most advanced militaries of the world. In the commercial space, we have also seen how small start-ups are able to contest- and even displace- the dominance of centuries-old multinational corporations. We have also seen how new churches are attracting believers that have traditionally been faithful of other religions. Size continues to be important, but is no longer the main factor shielding the powerful from the challenges of newcomers and new arrivals.

Q: How can power be dismantled?

[Admiral Stavridis] How power can be governed is one of the most fundamental questions of the 21st century. Most of what passes for crises is- in reality- about governance and the ability of some entity (usually a nation) to contain and shape behaviours by sub-groups; some very small violent extremists, or large corporate entities.

If nations are not going to be able to exert governance, who will? The answer to this question is unclear, and whether this Westphalian state that emerged in the 1600's will continue to be the dominant governance structure of society is in doubt. Long term, my intuition is that society will have different organising features. Just think about this... What is a global citizen? We think today about passports, and we treasure our individual national passports that allow us to stride boldly from country to country, and yet in a century it may be more important to understand what it means to be a global citizen. I suspect that Bitcoin or some variant of it may have grown to become a global currency; and by that time, technology will allow us to speak commonly- although we may hang onto the precious nationalism of our languages for a long time. All these trends will slowly start to create the idea of global citizenship as distinct from what we think of today, which is state sovereign citizenship.

Q: How is power changing in our world?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] The definition of power has not changed, but the ability of those who have it to retain it, and the ability of those who want it to acquire it has changed. The common wisdom says that these changes have mostly occurred due to the Internet; personally, I question that. I don’t doubt that technology has an important role, but I believe that role is far less defining.

The barriers to entry that have previously defended the incumbents are getting significantly less protective. The forces that are weakening those barriers are many, manifold and diverse- but I group them in three large categories. The ‘more’ revolution, the ‘mobility’ revolution, and the ‘mentality’ revolution.

The ‘more’ revolution tries to capture the fact that ours is an age of profusion. There are more people, countries, cities, political parties and armies. There are more goods and services, and more companies selling them. There are more students, and more terrorists, more preachers and more criminals, more medicines and more food. The world’s economic output has increased five-fold since 1950, income per capita is 3.5x greater than it was then. There are also two billion more people than just two decades ago. By 2050, the world’s population will be 4x larger than a century before. The ‘more’ revolution has progressed in the face of terrorism, repression, earthquakes, economic recession, repression, civil wars and environmental threats. It’s much easier to wield power into smaller and less-educated, less nourished, populations than to apply it to larger- better educated- and better informed peoples.

The ‘mobility’ revolution looks at the fact that not only do we have more of everything, but… we move more. Products, goods, services, ideas, criminal entities, terrorist enterprises, religions, political parties, universities, companies… they are all moving more. Borders are no longer the limits in which activities take place, everything is going global. Power needs a captive audience, and given the erosion of distance- and the lower costs of communication, coordination, transportation and interaction- the ‘mobility’ revolution has an impact on weakening historically strong barriers. Here; the Internet and communications revolution play a part, but they are just one factor.

The ‘mentality’ revolution is important. We live in a world where the aspirations, expectations, assumptions and values of populations change. People no longer stay in the religion of their fathers or forefathers, ideologies are no longer stable, and traditional sources of power such as the assertion that, ‘you do this because it’s always been done this way…’ no longer hold water. The traditional psychological forces have weakened, and people are more willing to question authority and less willing to tolerate the behaviours and obligations that were expected of them in the past.

The ‘more’ revolution overwhelmed the barriers that protect the powerful, the ‘mobility’ revolution helped people circumvent those barriers and the ‘mentality’ revolution undermines the barriers themselves. Together these forces interact to create a situation where power is easier to acquire, harder to maintain and easier to lose.

Q: How will our notions of leadership and diplomacy change in the future?

[Admiral Stavridis] My hope is that the future will see more of what I have coined 'Open Source Security.' Over time, the answer is collaboration. At the moment, collaboration is primitive; it's NATO, alliances, coalitions such as those we have in Afghanistan and loose partnerships. Over time, this idea of global citizenship and collaboration will lead us to a very different kind of governance construct; the trends are already pointing in this direction.

Asserting control by letting-go may sound paradoxical, but societies that try to exert enormous levels of control will create bodies that will blow them apart. Nations that embrace the idea of open-source diplomacy, collaboration and sublimation of nationalism to larger ideas and causes will be the nations that have a better chance at attaining and maintaining the loyalty of their citizenry.

China is a prime example of a nation that has a better chance of succeeding by easing back on the throttle of control. Whether they do that or not remains to be seen!

Q: Do citizens understand the influence of power in their lives?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] Increasingly, broader populations are aware of the impact power plays in their lives. There is so much to applaud in the trends we are seeing. This is a world with more opportunity, and where those who have been excluded and disempowered can shape their own futures and change their conditions. This is a world where authoritarians have a hard time holding onto power, and where those who want to create a political movement, a company, an religion or NGO; have a chance to do so.

I’m not saying that power concentrations exist. There are countries, companies and individuals who continue to possess immense owner. From Vladimir Putin to the Head of Goldman Sachs, and from the Editor of the New York Times to the head of Google and even China’s leader or Pope FrancisThe Vatican, Pentagon, Kremlin and even Mountain View (the headquarters of Google) are all immense centres of global power. All of these centres do- however- have a harder time wielding and retaining their power. Their ability to perpetuate power is significantly less than the past.

[Admiral Stavridis] The vast majority of our citizens enjoy their lives, face the challenges of the world, struggle or are entertained by what happens, are occasionally threatened by it or- if they're unfortunate to live somewhere like Syria, they will feel it very extremely and tragically. Most people however, do not spend time focussed on these larger questions. 

Leadership matters. In a democracy, we select somebody to worry about the big problems for us. We criticise them, support them and maybe tire of them and throw them out of office.

We- as a people- do not spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about big problems, we outsource that to our leaders and use tools to shape the outcomes for our country. Democracy has a better chance overall of being the long-term solution, it creates a safety-valve. If you don't have democracy, if you don't elect a leader and 'put some of your skin in the game...' the pressures build up, and this is what we're seeing in China right now. People there do not have a say in the election of their leaders, and while they were content when growth was in double-digits... when that growth slows and leaves debt overhangs, environmental damage, inequality and corruption- they are found without a safety valve. This can play out very broadly in a society where there is no buy-in with a system like democracy. While the Chinese may argue the counter and say that democracy is messy and cannot be used to make decisions; I would point them to Winston Churchill who said, "Democracy is the worst system of government, except for everything else...."

Power is more diffuse in democracy, and that allows those at the centre to let-go a little bit and allow power to be more equally shared through the population.

Q: What is the power of the illicit economy?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] I was previously the Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine. The remit of this publication is to understand the consequences of globalisation, and to detect the unintended consequences and surprises from the new ways in which the world is connected. That role led me to discover that international traffickers of money, people, drugs, weapons, human organs, counterfeits and so-on are at the frontiers of globalisation. These transnational networks are faster and more effective than anyone else in detecting and exploiting the new opportunities created by globalisation.

There are significant asymmetries faced by traditional Weberian bureaucracies when they have to confront and compete with decentralised fast-moving networks. Governments therefore face huge challenges (which they often lose) when tackling these transnational criminal networks. Interestingly however, the same challenges to power faced by governments, and other institutions, are also faced by transnational criminal networks. If you look at the traditional Russian mafias, the Yakuza, the Columbian drug-traffickers… there’s no doubt they still wield power. There is no doubt that huge drug cartels exist in Mexico, and it’s common knowledge that Russia is deeply penetrated by organised crime and that China and Japan, criminal organisations hold significant sway. If- however- you look in detail at who they are, how they work, and their challenges- you discover that they are also part of the story… They have more contestants, more challenges and the barriers that gave them power are no longer as protected as they used to be.

Q: Will the changes occurring in power impact our notions of sovereignty and identity?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] Just look back at the Summer of 2014, you see there is weakness everywhere. Analysis has shown that even Putin who is looking like Russia’s new Tsar- who has an ability to grab territory across borders and impose views- is experiencing weakness at home. He is using nationalistic land-grabbing and expansionary 19th century tactics to boost popularity at home. He is succeeding, but just in the short term- he has brought sanctions against an already frail economy. He hated NATO- it was one of his most despised institutions and was (frankly) on its way towards irrelevance. Thanks to Putin’s moves in Crimea and Ukraine, NATO has a second lease of life and Putin has therefore revived his mortal enemy. He has created a more-unified set of alliances against Russia. This is a clear example of how power is changing political sovereignty; we also in this sense see the impact Islamic State is having in challenging the US government to re-enter conflict in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. 

Many have argued that technologies have created virtual environments capable of challenging the notion of statehood, but I am not in this camp. I do not believe the nation state will be in decline within the next 100 years. We will have states that must create new ways of relating to their citizens, new political institutions and changed interactions with the real and virtual economies. There are many challenges ahead, and many sovereignty eroding forces at work such as the creation of Bitcoin- the first time that the creation of money is delinked from central banks… and onwards to communication structures and even criminal and terrorist networks. The state is being pulled in all kinds of directions. Trends like decentralisation and fragmentation are very real in this regard; we are speaking today in the week that Scotland is voting for independence. Regardless of the outcome, this shows that power is eroding. Nation states are also pulled by supranational forces- that can guide them in many other directions. Unfortunately however, most states are unable to respond to these challenges- as governing structures are stagnating in terms of ideas, organisation and ways of operating.

Q: What are the opportunities created by changes in global power?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] Depending on the sector and country you’re in, the changes of power have created differing effects. For many people and many countries, it has created fantastic new opportunities for participation, economic growth and social creation, dynamism and more. In politics however, we have seen extreme polarisation, fragmentation and paralysis and gridlock. 

We live in a world of innovation. For our waking hours, and even when we’re sleeping, our lives are touched every day by innovations of the past 20 years. Innovation has transformed our lives in almost every aspect- aside from how we govern. In government, politics and governance- innovation is stagnant- especially in political parties. We need to bring the spirit of innovation, disruption and empowerment into government and political parties.

Q: What will be the shape of our geopolitical landscape over the next quarter century?

[Dr. Moisés Naím] 25 years is a very short time in geopolitics. I do however think that China will have overtaken the USA in terms of GDP; but China will also exhibit deeper frailties and will be rocked by social and political upheaval in more ways than we have ever seen before. If you ranked countries in terms of where the more, mobility and mentality revolutions are happening in greatest effect? I will bet you that China is at the top of the list. This will have important consequences for the rest of the world. I feel will also see a Russia that will be beset by economic problems, and perhaps greater political frictions. 

The two most powerful forces that will reconfigure the world over the next quarter century will be the energy revolution taking place in the United States and elsewhere. We are looking at an incipient new world energy order. The Summer of 2014 witnessed plummeting oil prices at a time when- historically- oil prices ought to have been soaring. Conflicts in the Middle-East, Russia, Ukraine and many other factors should have lifted oil prices and made them skyrocket. Instead of this, oil prices came down. This is because the United States is now the world’s largest producer of oil. July 2014 saw global production of oil reach the highest figure since 1987. We are looking at an incipient new global order where the key players in Carbon Energy may not be the usual suspects. The United States now produces more oil than Saudi Arabia and Russia for example. Just imagine a world over the next 25 years where oil- instead of being U$100 per barrel is in the band of U$80-70. That changes geopolitics and country interactions in profound ways. The other powerful reshaping force is climate change- which is giving us climate accidents, extreme weather and severe, often catastrophic, changes to our human environment.


Understanding power requires the same philosophical rigour we apply to the question of free will. The author Sam Harris notes that, "The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment - most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not 'deserve' our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high..." (Sam Harris, Free Will, 2012)

If we consider power through the lens of free will, we quickly start to understand its relative shape and form. On the (fair) assumption that we (as humans) are beings of (relatively) free will, we can see power in abstract as being the perimeter of the environment in which that will is allowed to exercise; or- to put it another way, power defines the boundaries in which we are allowed to be free.

For those wielding the power however, Newton's second law (from his work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) is more relevant. Here, Newton states that F=ma where F is the vector sum of forces on an object, m is the mass of the object, and a is the acceleration of the object. Power, when applied in a sociological sense follows a similar structure whereby the amount of power exerted by an idea or ideology (F) is directly equal to the gravitas of those who support it (m) multiplied by the pace at which it is accepted (a). One need only look to the Arab spring as proof of this where a hugely influential public movement (m) spread the idea of freedom incredibly quickly through the population (a) and as a result had the power (F) to topple governments.

Ultimately we need to cease referring to power as being a phenomena that exists outside us, akin to the weather. Power is a human phenomena; it is the manifestation of our collective will, and a reflection of who we (as a society) want to be; and that's profoundly impactful.

"All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come" - Victor Hugo

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Learning To Be Who We Are

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Marina Abramović (internationally acclaimed performance artist), and Sir Ken Robinson (widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on creativity, innovation and human resources in education and business). We question the fundamental nature of learning and education and discuss the life long journey of understanding our purpose and who we are.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, October 2014

Inside your head is a 1.5-kilogram object, which, as far as we know, is the most complex entity in the known universe. Your brain is a collection of 100 billion nerve cells, intricately wired together with over a million billion connections; creating a system more complex than anything mankind has ever made.

The gestalt nature of our brain is therefore clear. Here is a system capable of delivering the functional aspects of mind, but also attributed to being the centre of consciousness itself. Without the ability to learn however, the system would be useless. From before we are born till the moment we die, our mind is engaged in the process of learning, forming associations that modern science still cannot understand, which allow us to make meaningful perceptions of our place in the world, the contents of that world, and the relevance of our existence within it.

The philosopher Nicola Abbagnano identified that, “…the fundamental revealing fact of the nature of existence is that man should be compelled to ask himself what he is and what he should be (what beingness is). This fact excludes the possibility that existence should be beingness and implies on the contrary that it is a research of beingness. It excludes also the possibility that man should be infinite and shows that man is finite…. Man is finite, not because he excludes other things from himself, things which he may know and understand beyond any fixed limit; he is finite in the sense that his very beingness escapes him and therefore he must strive to attain it with his research. With his thought, man may embrace the entire world and for this reason he does not live in that corporal exteriority in which things exclude each other mutually. But even when his thought extends to the extreme limits of the universe, the question about what he is and what he should be still presents itself to him with the same urgency, and still implies on his part the necessity of a decision and a choice.” (Outline of a Philosophy of Existence, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 9, No. 2 Dec, 1948).

The underlying assertion that Abbagnano makes is that whatever learning we undertake, ultimately tends towards answering those great questions of our existence; and for that reason, we must consider the story of learning and the story of ourselves within the same discourse.

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Marina Abramović (internationally acclaimed performance artist), and Sir Ken Robinson (widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on creativity, innovation and human resources in education and business). We question the fundamental nature of learning and education and discuss the life long journey of understanding our purpose and who we are.

Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Since the beginning of her career in the early 1970s when she attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, Abramović has pioneered the use of performance as a visual art form. The body has been both her subject and medium. Exploring the physical and mental limits of her being, she has withstood pain, exhaustion and danger in the quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. As a vital member of the generation of pioneering performance artists that includes Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, Abramović created some of the most historic early performance pieces and continues to make important durational works.

Abramović has presented her work with performances, sound, photography, video and sculpture in solo exhibitions at major institutions in the U.S. and Europe. Her work has also been included in many large-scale international exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (1976 and 1997) and Documenta VI, VII and IX, Kassel, Germany (1977, 1982 and 1992). In 1998, the exhibition Artist Body - Public Body toured extensively, including stops at Kunstmuseum and Grosse Halle, Bern, Switzerland and La Gallera, Valencia, Spain. In 2004, Abramović also exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York and had a significant solo show, The Star, at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan and the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan.

Abramović has taught and lectured extensively in Europe and America. In 1994, she became Professor for Performance Art at the Hochschule für Bildende Künst in Braunschweig, where she taught for seven years. In 2004, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Art Institute in Chicago, The University of Plymouth and Willams College.

She was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale for her extraordinary video installation/performance piece Balkan Baroque and, in 2003, received the New Media Bessie award for The House with the Ocean View‚ a 12-day performance at Sean Kelly Gallery.

In 2005, Abramović presented Balkan Erotic Epic at the Pirelli Foundation in Milan, Italy and at Sean Kelly in New York. That same year, she held a series of performances entitled Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. She was honored for Seven Easy Pieces by the Guggenheim at their International Gala in 2006 and by the AICA-USA, which awarded her the Best Exhibition of Time Based Art designation in 2007. She was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist is Present, in 2010; the following year, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, Russia also presented a major retrospective of Abramović's oeuvre. Abramović's work is included in numerous major public and private collections worldwide.

In 2011, Abramović participated in visionary director Robert Wilson's, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, the critically acclaimed re-imagination of Abramović's biography, which continues to tour internationally. The feature length documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, premiered in January 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival and has since received widespread critical acclaim.

Abramović is currently developing the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) in Hudson, New York, an interdisciplinary performance and education center dedicated to the presentation and preservation of long durational work and the fostering of collaborations between art, science, technology and spirituality. Special thanks to Giuliano Argenziano, Allison Brainard and Sidney Russell at ABRAMOVIC LLC

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere. The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries. His 2006 talk is the most viewed in TED’s history. In 2011 he was listed as “one of the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation” by Fast Company magazine, and was ranked among the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thought leaders.

Sir Ken works with governments and educations systems in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report) was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was the central figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, working with the ministers for training, education enterprise and culture. The resulting blueprint for change, Unlocking Creativity, was adopted by politicians of all parties and by business, education and cultural leaders across the Province. He was one of four international advisors to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.

For twelve years, he was professor of education at the University of Warwick in the UK and is now professor emeritus. He has received honorary degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, the Open University and the Central School of Speech and Drama; Birmingham City University, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and Oklahoma State University. He was been honored with the Athena Award of the Rhode Island School of Design for services to the arts and education; the Peabody Medal for contributions to the arts and culture in the United States, the Arthur C. Clarke Imagination Award, the Gordon Parks Award for achievements in education and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Royal Society of Arts for outstanding contributions to cultural relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2005, he was named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’. In 2003, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.

His 2009 book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything is a New York Times best seller and has been translated into twenty-one languages. A 10th anniversary edition of his classic work on creativity and innovation, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative was published in 2011. His latest book, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life, will be published by Viking in May 2013. Sir Ken was born in Liverpool, UK. He is married to Therese (Lady) Robinson. They have two children, James and Kate, and now live in Los Angeles, California.

Q: What is the relationship of our body to our environment?

[Marina Abramovic] We treat our body like a rubbish-can, and it's become worse and worse... I always ask myself the same question; why do we like junk food more than good food? why do we not like to exercise and instead sit in front of the television? why are we not good to ourselves? It's like we try to make the wrong choices!. If we treat our body in the right way, our consciousness will change.

Q: What is the relationship between our minds and our bodies?

[Marina Abramovic] There are so many different philosophies and cultures, and every one of them answers this question differently. The most important thing is balance between mind and body. In western culture, people live for the mind and neglect the body completely. See how philosophers look, with their big fat bellies? and scientists... they look like their bodies have been neglected, but they have an incredible brain...

For most of my life, I thought the mind ruled the body. Only in my later years, when I was introduced to Brazilian Shamanism; I changed the relationship and realised we have to listen to our bodies. Our bodies create certain rules which the mind must obey. The mind always moves-off with willpower, and we just push ourselves. The body is an incredibly precise machine, and it gives us specific and clear signs. It tells us when we need to rest, when we are overworked, when we are stressed, when we are about to have a heart attack... If we listened to our body, our relationship to everything would be different. We are talking of a microcosm that reflects a macrocosm.

Q: What is the role of education in society?

[Sir Ken Robinson] Education has four key roles in society, each of which is connected.

Firstly; education serves an economic purpose, something which is often disputed. In the history of the philosophy of education, there have been many discourses and arguments about whether education should have any extrinsic purposes or whether it is an inherent good and should be done for its own sake. At every level, people do consider- however- that becoming educated will bring economic advantages to them personally- and that if their kids go to school and do well, they will be in a better economic position than they would have been otherwise. This is one of the reasons why governments invest so much money in education, they (correctly) assume that a well-educated population will be in a better position to contribute to economic prosperity. The big issue of course is to understand what kind of education we need to meet economic purposes these days.

Secondly; education plays an important cultural role. One of the reasons that we educate people- particularly our young people- is to initiate them into the cultural values, traditions and ways of thinking that characterise our communities. This is one of the reasons why there's such a heated contest over the content of a curriculum. Whenever people try to create divisive standards or curricula, it quickly becomes a very heated discussion. I remember when the national curriculum was introduced in the UK, there was a lot of debate not about whether Shakespeare should be included; but which play. Education is a high-stakes cultural process, and this is something we have to recognise given how important cultural identity is in a precarious world; indeed many of the major conflicts that continue to plague humanity have cultural origins rather than economic.

Thirdly; education plays an important social role. We expect education to play a role in helping students understand how their societies work and how they can play a part in them. Particularly within democratic societies, as John Dewey once said, "every generation has to rediscover democracy." I live in Los Angeles, we recently had a mayoral election- millions of dollars were spent, and we only had a 15% voter turnout. Many people are losing confidence and interest in democratic institutions given how easy it is to take for granted the rights that we've inherited from previous generations that they fought, and even died for. Education has to pass on the knowledge, understanding and willingness to participate in social institutions, that's not to say that people must accept the status-quo, but more that they must understand the principles upon which our society operates.

The fourth area is personal. Education should be about helping individuals discover their talents, their purpose in life, their sensibilities, their interests and to enable them to live a life that's purposeful and fulfilling in its own right. In America just now, there's been a problem where kids have not been completing high-school- I hesitate to use the word drop-out as this implies they've failed the system where, in fact, it's often the other way round- kids are just disengaging. As soon as we treat education as an impersonal process... a mechanistic and data driven process... as soon as we lose sight of the fact that we're dealing with living, breathing human-beings then education ceases to be anything worthwhile.

Q: Is there a unique relationship that we have with other individuals?

[Marina Abramovic] All human beings are different, but this in itself is a contradiction. In one way, we are all different- we have different DNA, different social backgrounds, different religions, different beliefs, races and so on. Yet... we are all connected by the very fact we are human beings. In that diversity, we have to find a way to communicate and live together.

Q: What is the real role of the teacher and the student?

[Sir Ken Robinson] There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes around teaching. For quite some time for example, I've been hugely interested in having creativity at the centre of education. I often hear people assert that you can't teach creativity; the truth is that you can! Understanding that you can and how you can relies on having a proper understanding of what creativity is and how it works, but also relies on a proper understanding of what teaching is and how it works. People can often slate teaching with instruction- feeling that it's simply a matter of telling people what you know, so that they know those things as a result.

Instruction is part of the repertory of any great-teacher, sometimes things do need to be set out and explained by someone who understands the issue better than the learner... but teaching is much more. Really good teachers insight curiosity, provoke, set puzzles, stir the imagination and excite people so that they will learn. Learning is a hugely personal process... you can't make people learn... you can threaten them with the consequences of not learning, but if you really want people to flourish as learners, enjoy learning and feel they can carry on being independent and creative thinkers... then you have to excite them in the process of learning.

There was a recent book called "The Empty Space" published by Theatre Director, Peter Brook. In this book he describes how his commitment is to make theatre the most powerful experience it can be, rather than a passive evening. This starts with understanding what theatre is, and breaking it down into a thought experiment. If you take an average theatre performance, what can you remove from it and still have theatre? You can get rid of the costumes, script, director, stage-crew, the building and more. All you need is an actor in a space, and someone watching. The actor performs a drama, and theatre essentially describes the relationship between the performance and the audience. That relationship is the one we have to focus on, and we shouldn't add anything to it unless it improves it; we should keep it away. There's a very clear analogy there with education. The ultimate purpose of education is to help people learn; and there's a difference between learning and education. People are always learning, and we learn things everyday without being taught them. Children are born with a voracious appetite to learn which begins even before they're born, they are constantly absorbing information and putting things together. Most of the really remarkable things kids achieve, they achieve with no instruction. Imagine how hard it is to learn how to speak? You encourage them, mentor them, but you don't teach them. Children also pick up all the cultural nuances, patterns and relationships in their world without being told. Education is simply an organised version of this; an organised programme of learning underpinned by the belief that there things students should learn that they may not ordinarily come across and that we can help them to learn more effectively than they would be able to do so on their own. What always interests me is that very often, kids who go to school with a huge appetite for learning, lose that appetite by the time they get a few years into their journey. They become bored and disaffected.

The heart of education is learning, it's not warehousing, discipline or supervision- it's learning. If you think of medicine, that is about helping people be well and get well. If hospitals ended up as centres for disease themselves and contributed to high mortality rates, they would not be doing what they were designed to do in the first place. Schools should be there to help people learn, and at the heart of this is the relationship between the teacher and a learner. The conceit of teaching is that we can help people learn; and we have to focus on the relationship. Much of what has happened in education in recent years has distracted from this relationship and focussed on testing, data-driven outcomes and so forth. The consequence has been that the relationship between teachers and learners has become impoverished; this has disaffected teachers and students alike.

Teaching and learning are not two hermetically sealed processes. The great teachers learn from their students, the great students also learn from each other. It's a multi-faceted relationship. Several years ago, I did an event with the Dalai Lama- one of the world's great teachers. He was asked a question in a room with around 2,000 people; followed by which there was a very long pause. We were all sat there expecting a fantastic insight, but in the end he said, "I don't know.." People were shocked and many commented, "what do you mean you don't know!? you're the Dalai Lama" but he responded to the audience, "I've never thought of that, what do you think?" The great teachers know they don't have to know everything, they are there to guide learning; often their students know more- or know better. I'm not a religious person, but I'm told that in some religious services, the priest or officiator faces towards the congregation. In some religions, the priest faces forward in the same direction as the congregation; the premise being that they are all learning together.

Q: What are the consequences of a dysfunctional education system?

[Sir Ken Robinson] If you go to either end of the system, you will find an increasing problem of graduate under-employment (people who are doing work for which they are overqualified, or for which their qualification is not relevant). That is very significant. The current system of education is based on a very linear view of the relationship between education and the economy. The origins of mass public education lie in the industrial revolution; it was designed with explicit economic purposes in mind. This is why we have a broad base of elementary education, a narrower base of secondary education and so on. It was originally that a very narrow apex of university education existed because the vast-majority of people were destined to a life of overalls or factory work. A smaller group of people were needed for clerical roles, and an even smaller group for professional roles... Education was designed with this economic model in mind and for the most part, it worked well; albeit many people who were perfectly capable of achieving great things in education were never given the chance. In the post-industrial era however, it doesn't work at all. In the industrial era, 1:20 people went to university now it's nearer 1:3. Politicians opened the sluice gates to university as we now live in a knowledge economy. President Obama recently made a speech where he pointed out that many of the most 'basic' jobs in manufacturing now require quite substantial amounts of IT literacy. 

When I was at college, the idea that you would not be able to find work with a college degree was preposterous; the reason? relatively few had a degree. Now every other person has a degree and so it's not as valuable as it used to be as a currency. Most countries have focussed on pumping out more and more graduates, and this has had big consequences. China has far too many graduates now; many who have worked hard to get advanced degrees are returning to their villages unable to find work, or are doing jobs they are far too qualified to do.

Unless you work on the supply and demand mismatch in education, you will have problems. The world moves far more quickly than you can adjust the system to cope with.

The people who don't go through college or higher education are finding themselves in a skills-gap where jobs exist, but they simply don't have the skills to do the work. You also have an achievement gap which shows how these factors play out across different cultures and communities. It's often the case for example, that African American's are not graduating from school at the same rate as White kids and so forth. This all contributes to the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.

In the USA 1.2 million kids leave high-school before they graduate each and every year; many go into education later in life, or may choose another path. What is true however, is that a significantly high proportion of people on social welfare programmes did not graduate from high-school and a very-high percentage of people in the correctional system did not graduate from high-school. If you add up the savings in social programmes and add the increased taxation income from people in work, if we could halve the non-graduation rate in US high-schools, it would create a net gain to the US economy of over U$90 billion a year; or around U$ 1 trillion over a decade. That's worth paying for.

Education is based too much on standardisation, and is not allowing people to adapt and have a sense of purpose, direction, and a life that has meaning for them and their communities.

Q: What do we- as human beings- strive for?

[Marina Abramovic] The most important thing to develop in human beings is a sense of love, and an understanding of unconditional love. I'm not talking about the love towards a specific person, but love in a general sense; for life, for the planet, for purely existing. We completely forget how temporary we are. From the moment we are born, we are closer to death- and death can happen anytime, anywhere, unexpectedly; you don't need to die from sickness, you could just go- that's it... This uncertainty should make our lives more beautiful, appreciated and rich, but we forget this- and instead, we spend our time on bullshit. We spend our time wasting time instead of understanding our purpose on the planet.

People, especially the younger generation, are losing purpose. They don't see clearly. Everybody is here for a reason- and sooner or later, we will find that reason. If someone was born to be a great baker and make the best bread in the world, that is purpose! If someone was born to be a mother, that was purpose! same for someone who was born to be a politician, gardener or artist. The Dalai Lama once summed up the problems of the western world to me... He described how we go to the supermarket to buy toothpaste, and we are confronted with hundreds of choices; and we can spend our whole lives trying different brands... It's the same with religion... Right now, there are hundreds of spiritual and personal-development agendas, and you will constantly lose your time trying to find the right way. Whatever you find though, you have to go for it...

Anyone can find their purpose in life, you just have to look deeply inside yourself. We don't look deeply enough because we are so overwhelmed with our culture. The world turns us into consumer junkies, we consume too much of everything... too much television, too much internet, too much phone and text, too many goods we don't want or need. This gives us such little space to be with ourselves, that it's hard to find purpose.

Q: Why does art exist?

[Marina Abramovic] It's interesting to find the reason why cavemen had to make drawings in the middle of caves inside deep mountains... It looks like human beings, from the start of our existence, had to be expressive. The need to create is in our DNA... Hundreds and millions of people without art, but I believe it's the oxygen of society. Good art has many layers of meaning... It can predict the future, it can ask the right questions (though it may not answer them), it can be disturbing, it can open your consciousness and really lift your spirits. Good art is a generator of energy, it's beautiful. People need to share this beauty with each other. Life can be so grey, and art gives it a touch of something else. If the artist is connected with divine energy, then the spiritual element can create immense power.

For me as an artist, I see the public as an engine. I provide the key for the motor, but the audience become the work; and function without me. I create without even being aware of the consequences and possibilities. We are so lost right now, we have lost our spiritual centres. Just looking at art is not enough anymore, we have to be part of it.

Q: Is there any aesthetic in dark experiences?

[Marina Abramovic] To look at someone being decapitated on the internet for example, is hugely disturbing- there is no aesthetic. I simply feel incredible sadness that here- in the 21st century- human beings still need to kill each other and commit these terrible acts. We have so much pain expressed in the world through the hell of war, and I am much more interested in changing the human spirit.

The Dalai Lama once observed that only when human beings learn to forgive, can they learn to stop killing. This is what we have to do... we have to learn to forgive and stop these messes. Look at our politicians? We don't have figures like Gandhi or Mandela anymore; we are voting for terrible people and reflecting our imperfections into them. Why can't we create something else?

Only individually, if every human being can change their consciousness, can we change the world.

Q: What is the role of sex and love in human experience?

[Marina Abramovic] I'm tired of looking at art as only being a reflection of reality. Our reality today is fucked up, I don't need to reflect it; I can see it on television and in the papers. I'm only interested in what I can change and what I can bring that's different.

Human life always has the same themes: First, we are temporary- and afraid of dying, we are scared of pain, we fall in love, we have melancholy, and we seek out sex. If you look at art from beginning to end, you find that many artists find their own way to express these same subjects.

Q: Can every life have meaning?

[Marina Abramovic] I hope that everyone could wake up in the morning and wonder what their purpose is. This is the main question of our existence! So many people are lost, taking anti-depressants and drinking, and often because they don't want to face this fundamental question, or because they don't have time to face this question. It's often easier to take anti-depressants and become a zombie instead of posing this question to yourself. Life is a miracle, it's the most beautiful gift in the world, we're temporary visitors to this planet and we have to be happy... And to be happy, you have to understand that death can come at any moment, at anytime. Once you accept that, you see that every moment is precious.

Q: What are the roles of intelligence, success and failure in education?

[Sir Ken Robinson] Intelligence is obviously a central concept for education, however most education systems perpetuate a very narrow conception of it. There are two western derived systems that dominate the cultural ideas of intelligence; the first is IQ and the other is academic ability. Both of these are important and interesting. IQ was an idea developed in the early 19th century, building on the work of Sir Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin) who was accounting for a way of accounting for the different circumstances of the wealthy and the poor. He observed that wealthier people seemed to be more intelligent than poor people and wondered if there was some causal relationship between these two things; and looked for a way of measuring intelligence. What he overlooked of course was that wealthy people could afford to educate themselves! Separately work was being undertaken by Binet in Paris who was looking to help kids who weren't doing well in education because of special needs of various sorts; he was looking for ways of commenting objectively on different levels of ability. Historically, this idea of an intelligent quotient was picked up by other people (and institutions) very quickly and became a measure for social-processing, coinciding with the growth of mass public education. Versions of IQ tests were used as screening tools for people that wanted to migrate to America at Ellis Island; and also for the military. Because IQ has become part of the public-conversation on intelligence, people tend to think it's an unproblematic idea and feel that if you take the test, and answer a set of questions over half-an-hour, that you can determine how much intelligence you have, and give it a number! Well of course, this idea is absurd... there are all kinds of ways that intelligence can manifest, quite apart from those measured by IQ tests. I know all kinds of wonderfully smart people who don't do terribly well on these tests, and others who do very well in these tests but who aren't very smart in other ways. IQ is a measure of something but people do treat it like a blood-test; which (unlike IQ) gives you biological facts.

The idea of academic ability is also important. People, often in America but also in Europe, use the word academic as if it were a synonym for intelligence. Academic ability is very important... I taught in universities for years, and I'm not here to say it's not... however- it is very particular. Academic intelligence refers to the capacity for certain types of deductive reasoning, and is rooted in propositional knowledge, analysis and certain types of discourse. It's mostly conducted in words and numbers; and that's important. If all we had as human beings was academic intelligence, then most of human culture would never have happened. 

Intelligence is wonderfully diverse, we think about the world in all kinds of different ways. There are some things we can only think about in words and numbers; it's a point Richard Feynman made when he noted that you need mathematics to understand quantum physics- you can't get to it in blank verse. If you want to tell someone how much you love them, for example; write them a poem! don't give them an equation! We think in sounds, images, movement and in all the ways our senses and mind allow us to conceive.

I was at a meeting with a senior education official in Austria, and was talking with him about the diversity of intelligence. He asked for the evidence of this diversity! I told him to look around him! We were sat in a beautiful 17th century building, in a room that was ornately panelled with Oak and adorned with fantastic paintings with Mozart playing in the background. Our meeting took place around an intricately designed Mahogany desk, sat on a beautiful woven carpet... and on this desk was an iMac, we also had a multi-channel high-definition television on the wall and I said to the man, "...where do you think all this came from? this isn't the result of essays! these are things people have conceived of, made, designed and brought to together with a tremendous array of intellectual capacities, aesthetic judgements, skills and traditions..."

We have ended up dividing the world into academics and non-academics, and this means that people who feel disengaged with academia are classed as 'non-academic' which is often used as a synonym for not being very 'bright.' This is why so many people go through education thinking they're not very bright after being stigmatised at school for not being good at the things that schools have come to prioritise.

Success and failure are important concepts. I'm not living in some wacky romantic commune here in Los Angeles where failure doesn't exist, there are of course things that don't go very well! There are catastrophes, problems and allsorts. In most processes however, and in most practical purposes, having a harsh distinction between success and failure often isn't terribly helpful. I chaired a national commission in the UK on creativity and education. One of the people on the panel was Professor Sir Harry Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on nano-chemistry. I asked him once how many of his experiments failed, and he reckoned around 90%! He said that failure wasn't the right word, what you are in fact doing is discovering what doesn't work. All scientific processes involve trial and error, nobody gets it right the first time unless you're lucky. It's a recursive incremental process led by hypotheses, it's what Karl Popper described as being a process of conjecture and reputation, what Thomas Kuhn described as shifting scientific paradigms; we don't always move in a straight line, but convulsively from one way of seeing things to another in heuristic leaps. Michael Polanyi talked a lot about how the heart of science is a leap across a heuristic gap which you don't cross logically, but jump across with intuitive acts of imagination which are then back-filled with experiments and testing. 'Failure' is an inherent part of this. Have a look at the manuscripts of musicians, they're laden with crossing-out and reworking, this is why they invented the cut and paste feature in Microsoft Word. Trial and error is a good way to think about thinking. Thinking in terms of success and failure misrepresents the real way that people think, work and the way that progress always comes about.

Q: What would be your advice for the next generation?

[Marina Abramovic] Everyone has their own path and their own truth to follow, and we become the product of many things- our parents, our environment, and so on. It's very important to make sure that you understand, as early as you can, who you really are- and what you want to do in life.

You can't follow the wish of your family, or fashion. A young kid came to me and said he wanted to become an artist, I told him you are not an artist... You cannot 'want' to become an artist, you either are- or you are not- it's part of your DNA. There are so many professions where you feel that way, and you have to be in touch with yourself to find it.

I would very much like to introduce meditation into the school curriculum, and to engage this whole different way of study. I want to show people the truth about society, how perverse our advertising is... I want to show children the truth about life, which is often masked by the kaleidoscope of their existence.

You have to be a very strong character to survive life. How can a child, with such little strength, fight a world that is so fucked up? We can't change the child, we have to change the world and realise that we're born alone, and we die alone.

[Sir Ken Robinson] There are very few things that set us apart from other forms of life on Earth. Other creatures are not on telephone calls like this, surrounded by technology and speaking in articulate languages. These are things that human beings get up-to...

Human beings have very powerful imaginations; and we don't live in the world in the same way that other creatures seem to. We don't live in the world quite so directly, we live in the world of ideas... we have concepts, artefacts, languages, music, images, theories, philosophies, faiths and values which we work-on, inherit, construct, challenge, change and form. We end up living in the world virtually through the ideas that we conceive. These powers of imagination manifest in all kinds of creative outcomes. Creativity is applied imagination, it is the process of putting your imagination to work. Every human being has creativity, it comes with the kit! It does however, need to be worked on.

Every single human being on the planet, since the first emergence of man, has a unique biography. We all create our own lives which, in turn, are the most important act of creativity we ever undertake. We create our lives through the judgements we make on the world around us, we constantly reframe and remake our lives and we can recreate too. The Psychologist George Kelly once said that nobody need ever be painted into a corner by their own history, nobody needs to be a victim of their own biography. The great march of human history has been the development of new ideas and seeing things in a fresh light. Our species is now more connected than ever before, this brings benefits but also fragility; there are countless examples of how much more interdependent we have become, and how fragile our civilisation now is- these are challenges we have never faced before. We are 7 billion people, heading for maybe 12 billion by the end of the century. We will meet or not meet these challenges by the power of our imagination, courage and insights.

We create our lives, and we can recreate them too. Your biography is not your destiny.


The disconnect between education and self-discovery came largely as a result of socio-economic pressures that required the world to produce a population with the prerequisite knowledge to function productively, as a collective. Deep thinking and self-discovery were tasks largely left to the intelligentsia and societal leaders in the spheres of religion, politics and nobility.

As our species has progressed technologically, it has also become protean in nature. A citizen is no longer defined by ‘what’ they do; but rather exists as an individual who is able to learn, to question and to grow. Our new diffuse culture has also created the opportunity for humanity to innovate; we can explore who we are and what we are capable of in more dramatic ways than could ever be imagined. In the 1950’s for example, it would have been impossible to conceive the total sum of human knowledge being contained within a man-made computer network, that we would have the technology to decode our very DNA, or that billions could be educated digitally in communities that still lack basic access to food and water; but less than half a century later, those things are taken for granted. The pace of change socially, culturally and technologically in our world is increasing rapidly, meaning that the shape of humanity even a decade from now will be significantly different to today; and invariably will require a different set of cognitive, emotional and spiritual apparatus to that which we wield today.

Even the fundamental question of what we are when we refer to ‘I,’ is fraught with doubt. Every day our body is changing and regenerating (physically) and developing (mentally); it’s unlikely for example that you have many cells in your body now which were present at your birth, and the connections in your brain will be vastly different now than even a decade ago. When you refer to the self, you are really talking of the experiential continuity that has brought you to this present moment; you are in effect the result of your own idiosyncratic path through the gamut of reality, and the fact that those experiences are unique to you creates the self as an individual- the you- that exists as a phenomenon in time irrespective and apart from any other individual. “We are born, we die, and our lives are constituted by what we do and experience in the time between these two termini.” (Self: Philosophy in Transit, Barry Dainton – 2014)

Understanding the self in this way is important. You are a unique and beautiful living experiment that is conscious enough to observe itself. The experiment of you is informed by a constant process of learning, given context by our education.

To put it another way: we live, we learn

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Disability & The Injustice Facing over 1 Billion People

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Javed Abidi (Chair, Disabled People's International DPI), Sir Philip Craven MBE (President, International Paralympic Committee IPC) and Professor Hugh Herr (Head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab and Founder of BiOM Inc). We discuss the human rights and social injustices faced by the those living with impairments and disabilities around the world, look at issues ranging from economics and politics to culture and sport and discuss opportunities for the future and whether technology could even end disability.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, July 2014

More than one billion people in the world today live with some form of disability; that’s one in seven of all of us. Almost everyone alive on the planet will, in his or her life- experience temporary or permanent disability of one form or another.

With that in mind consider that in our supposedly advanced society, people with disabilities are subject to economic and social inequalities, violations of dignity and in some cases denied their very autonomy. Whilst the levels of such basic rights violations may vary from place-to-place, the truth is that they occur everywhere from the richest countries in the world (where buildings and transport systems may not be designed with the disabled in mind) to the poorest (where people may be subject to violence, prejudice or imprisonment).

Before we progress however, it’s important to realise that the term disability is misleading. Human beings can become impaired through physical, mental or sensory limitations; but that does not become a disability until that impairment stops them from participating in community life. The term is also used (wrongly) as a broad catch-all for a diverse group of people, and used with the conviction by which we categorise gender. We say (usually) with some certainty that a given person is male or female. Unfortunately, we are also just as quick to categorise an individual as disabled or not. By doing this, we oversimplify and perhaps trivialise the fact that disability – rather than being something looked upon as a ‘condition’, is really a phenomenon that occurs at a complex intersection between our humanity, policy, society, culture and the environment. The complexity of the topic combined with significant political and social blindness towards it, has led to disability becoming one of the most significant un-addressed issues of modern time.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on 10 December 1948 supposedly expressed the baseline level of rights to which all human beings are entitled. For many groups who were marginalised, even this was not enough to defend them. Specific conventions defending against discrimination on the basis of race, gender and youth were adopted in 1969, 1979 and 1989 respectively. It wasn’t until the 21st century however, in 2006, where the United Nations formally agreed on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with the aim “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

So what is the current state of the world faced by those living with impairments and disabilities?

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Javed Abidi (Chair, Disabled People's International DPI), Sir Philip Craven MBE (President, International Paralympic Committee IPC) and Professor Hugh Herr (Head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab and Founder of BiOM Inc). We discuss the human rights and social injustices faced by the those living with impairments and disabilities around the world, look at issues ranging from economics and politics to culture and sport and discuss opportunities for the future and whether technology could even end disability.

Javed Abidi is Chairperson of Disabled People’s International and Honorary Director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

Javed was affected with spina bifida at birth and has been a wheelchair user since 15. After graduating summa cum laude from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A, he came back to India to pursue a career in journalism. He made his foray into the Indian disability sector after a chance meeting with Smt. Sonia Gandhi. This led to his appointment as the Programme Officer in charge of the Disabled Persons Welfare Unit at the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. He served there for five years from 1992 to 1997.

In those five years, several pathbreaking initiatives were launched, the most noteworthy being the Lifeline Express Project and the Motorised Tri-wheeler Scheme. It was during this period only that work began specifically on cross-disability issues, particularly the drafting and passage of the Disability Act 1995.

In 1993, he founded the Disabled Rights Group (DRG). He was also instrumental in setting up of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in 1996 and has been its Director since 1997. As an impassioned advocate for India’s disabled citizens, he has given voice to an “invisible minority”, one that has been denied to them by both political and social sectors for decades.

He has successfully led several path breaking advocacy initiatives in India. This includes filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India in 1997 regarding the non-implementation of The Disability Act. The case continued for over a year, at the end of which the Court directed the Union of India to undertake several measures, for example the appointment of the State Disability Commissioners, etc.

Abidi has also drafted the chapter on disability which has been reproduced as it is in the 11th Five Year Plan (2007 – 2012); catalysed 3% reservation for disabled people in Indian Administrative Services; ensured inclusion of disability as a category in Census 2001; facilitated the 2005 Inclusive Education Policy for Children and Youth with Disabilities to ensure education will be disabled friendly by 2020; played an active role in creating awareness and expediting the ratification process of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Other successful advocacy campaigns include ensuring the inclusion of disability in the Right to Education Act; revision of Guidelines for Indian Government Websites mandating WCAG 2.0 compliance; proper enumeration of people with disabilities in Census 2011; inclusion of people with disabilities and disability experts in the various Steering Committees formulating the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) to ensure that disability is looked at a cross-cutting issue and the creation of a separate Department of Disability Affairs

Has formed the one and only cross – disability network across India called National Disability Network (NDN) with a reach in 324 districts, He is an Ashoka fellow and has been awarded the IBN 7 Bajaj Allianz Super Idols – Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sir Philip Craven has been passionate about sport all his life. He was born in Bolton in the north of England, and educated at the University of Manchester where he graduated with honors in 1972.

Sir Philip is an accomplished five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball (1972 to 1988) and swimming (1972). He won gold medals in the Gold Cup - World Championships, European Championships, Commonwealth Games, and the European Champions Cup.

His many astounding contributions to Paralympic sport led to his election as President of the International Paralympic Committee in 2001. Following this he was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee in 2003 and a board member of the London 2012 Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He was President of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation from 1998 to 2002.

Away from the basketball court, Sir Philip was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to Paralympic Sport in 2005, awarded a Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Nottingham University 
in 2007. In 1991 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to wheelchair basketball.

He is a keen amateur de vin and has been awarded the highly prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Croix de Bourgogne (2007). Sir Philip and his wife, Lady Craven, enjoy gardening, sports, and travel.

Hugh Herr directs the Biomechatronics group at The MIT Media Lab, and is the founder of BiOM, which markets the BiOM as the first in a series of products that will emulate or even augment physiological function through electromechanical replacement.

His research program seeks to advance technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine, including device architectures that resemble the body’s musculoskeletal design, actuator technologies that behave like muscle, and control methodologies that exploit principles of biological movement. His methods encompass a diverse set of scientific and technological disciplines, from the science of biomechanics and biological movement control to the design of biomedical devices for the treatment of human physical disability.

His research accomplishments in science and technology have already made a significant impact on physically challenged people. The Transfemoral Quasipassive Knee Prosthesis has been commercialized by Össur Inc., and is now benefiting amputees throughout the world. In 2006, he founded the company iWalk Inc. to commercialize the Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis and other bionic leg devices. Professor Herr’s work impacts a number of academic communities. He has given numerous invited and plenary lectures at international conferences and colloquia, including the IVth World Congress of Biomechanics, the International Conference on Advanced Prosthetics, the National Assembly of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, World Economic Forum, Google Zeitgeist, Digital Life Design, and the TEDMED Conference. He is Associate Editor for the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, and has served as a reviewer for the Journal of Experimental Biology, the International Journal of Robotics Research, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. He has been invited to participate in joint funding proposals from other universities and corporations, and has served on research review panels including the National Institute of Health, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2007, He was presented with the 13th Annual Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment.

His work has been featured by various national and international media, including Scientific American Frontiers, Technology Review, National Geographic, the History Channel, and

Q: What does the term 'disability' really mean?

[Javed Abidi] Disability is an impairment, but an impairment is not necessarily a disability. The interaction of an impairment with the social barriers that surround you may or may not turn that impairment into a disability. For example; I am a wheelchair user, and If I see a building in front of me with three steps, I cannot get into it. If I cannot get into it, it's not because I'm on a wheelchair; it's because the building has 3 steps. If the same building had a ramp, my wheelchair would not be an impairment and I could easily get into the building.

[Sir Philip Craven] The word disability is the embodiment of pure negativity... and when it's used as a catch-all such as 'the disabled,' it's even worse. Everyone is an individual, and those individual personalities should shine through, not the labels.

Ask a person who's getting a bit older and may have a visual, hearing or mobility impairment if they're disabled? They'll throw that title off with vehemently! They view disability as being a community they don't belong to.

I'm Philip Craven, I'm me... the fact that I use a wheelchair is immaterial. I am what I am.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we were staying at the Westin. They had an 'adapted bathroom,' with a little sink that never emptied. I called one of the hotel team who pointed out the sink was on a siphon, and that siphon had to be half-filled with whatever you had spat-out into the sink before it emptied. I told the hotel it wasn't acceptable to have something this crude in a 5-star hotel, and the response was... "well, what do you expect... it's a disabled sink in a disabled bathroom..." This clearly illustrates the way people think- assuming we want something different- when we don't!

If you're told you're disabled long-enough you start to feel it. I sometimes get asked if things changed for me after my accident. They didn't because I damn-well made sure they didn't and fought against it... You have to throw off your impairments, and make sure that you have the confidence to decide your own destiny- rather than allowing others to decide it for you because you're disabled.

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Sometimes people view disability as something permanent when, in fact, our bodies are malleable with technology. One could be disabled for a portion of one's life, and then not be for another; the body is malleable and transformable with technology. Disability is not a fixed condition, it's fluid. This is good news- it means that we can ultimately eliminate disability.

When I was first sent to the rehabilitation centre after my legs were amputated, I was fitted with my first pair of artificial limbs. The rehab Doctor asked me what I wanted to do and I said that I wanted to return to mountain climbing, ride a bicycle and drive a car. He told me I could drive a car with hand controls, that I may be able ride a bicycle, but that I would never be able to return to mountain climbing. When I was going through this transformation from a 'normal' body to an 'unusual' body, society communicated to me that not only was I to be pitied... but the aids and prostheses that the medical establishment gave to me were to be accepted and that was that. That's an emotionally troubling and inaccurate message.

I've spent my career convincing people that they can flip this message and push the boundaries of technology and society.

Q: What is the true scale of discrimination faced by people living with impairments and disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] There is gross discrimination taking place, and to deny it would be like pulling wool over your own eyes. Historically, disabled people have been discriminated against across the world; not just in the Global South but also in the 'so called' developed world.. It was only in the late 1960's and 70's that a movement began in certain parts of the world. America and some of the Nordic countries gained an advantage over others. Even in a country like the UK, the first disability laws arrived only in 1995.

When we talk of disability, we are referring to over 1 billion people; 80% of whom are in the Global South, the poorer countries of the world. Here we are in the 21st century, and we have practically nothing in place for them to protect their rights when it comes to accessibility, education, social-living and more.

Historically, one of the biggest mistakes the world made was to look at disability as a pity or charity issue. If you go into the history of disability in the USA and Europe, and even today; money is collected in Churches for the welfare and wellbeing of people with disabilities. When you do that, you are automatically painting a picture of these 'poor, crippled, handicapped people... who are in need of your charity...' That should never have been the case. Disabled people never asked for anyone's charity, what they have asked- and are asking for more vociferously now- is a level playing field.

Let's look at the same question differently... If we go back to the 30's, 40's and 50's - if the world had looked at disability as a human rights and development issue and not a charity or a pity issue, we could have made sure that our transport systems and buildings were accessible by all. This would have ensured that disabled people were able to step out of their homes, to move around, to go to schools and colleges, attend universities, and go to jobs. Why was this so difficult to do? Disabled people are not asking for quotas, concessions or handouts- but simply the same opportunities as non-disabled people. Because of these historic mistakes, disabled people lost out on 40-50 years of global development in which most of the world's infrastructure of buildings, buses and trains, was developed. Disabled got left out of this 'progress' and a world emerged where- by default- disabled people are at a huge disadvantage. If people cannot get out of their homes, cannot get on transport, cannot get into an office building... If 90% of schools are inaccessible to disabled people... as they are in Asia.... then instead of levelling the playing field, it became very warped.

The majority of laws protecting the rights of the disabled came into effect from the 1990's and onward. The world is now slowly waking-up to realise that disability is a development and rights issue, and this is a paradigm shift.

The damage that has been done to the rights of disabled people is undeniable, and I feel that it could take 50-100 years to put that right.

[Sir Philip Craven] I personally don't encounter any discrimination that often, but I wouldn't go to places or meet with people again if they gave me that impression. That said, I'm sure that much discrimination exists.

The real way to change perceptions in society against these mythical 'groups' of people is through positive experiences, and not to just ram new laws down their throats. In some cases however these laws are necessary. Wider parking spaces for example, mean that people can get out of their chair into the front seat of their cars! Education is imperative in all formats to do this, as it allows people themselves to change their minds about others rather than being told they have to believe or act in a certain way.

Around 10 years ago in the USA, Paralympians were called 'super-crips' by some people in the communities they themselves were supposed to belong to; perhaps because people couldn't associate with them- but in truth, they are there to showcase what is possible when you really put your mind to it...

You only change perceptions by showing yourself as being what you are. People won't do it for you...

[Prof. Hugh Herr] There's rampant discrimination going on. Looking at my case, that of Oscar Pistorius and any other athlete that has unusual bodies you see this manifest. When you're an athlete with an unusual body (leg amputation, blindness and so on..) and you're not competitive against persons of normal physiology- you're called 'courageous.' It's not a word like 'talent,' courageous means you're performing because you try hard- it's cute, but it's not cutting-edge or state-of-the-art. There's been a few times in history where that person with an unusual body, as an athlete, starts being competitive with persons of normal physiology. The moment that happens- instantaneously- the attitude shifts from that person being courageous, to being a threat. That ultimately and typically leads to claims of that person not being a great athlete, but rather that technology is helping them cheat in some way.

Broadly across society, there is a discrimination around the perception that having an unusual mind or body is weakness- that you're weaker, that you're crippled. Technology is so important- it can change that social view to something far more positive wherein we will see a future world where that person with an unusual body or mind will be bionic. They're going to be powerful, attractive and won't be discriminated against. They will be equal members of a broader society

Q: What are your views on the perceptions of how disability occurs versus our views of the people themselves?

[Javed Abidi] Today, with our improved healthcare systems, people are living longer. It's no longer unusual for someone to get to 90 years of age in many countries of the world. As people age, they acquire disabilities. You don't acquire disability only out of tragedy... that's an ancient and stereotypical concept that has been woven into our history- that disability is something that befalls you when you do bad things. This is re-enforced in countries like India with social concepts such as karma, and the misinterpretation of concepts in most religions. Disability is a part of our life cycle. Each one of us will experience disability in our lifetime; not necessarily out of an accident or natural disaster, but even if you live in a very safe and healthy environment, and you're the richest person on earth who lives a responsible life and eats great food - you'll live longer - your body will age - and as your body ages, you acquire disabilities.

We need to shift our mindset, and the world needs to catch-up. The past cannot be wiped-away, but the future can be written. We have to make a pledge that no building in the world will ever be constructed without considering access. It doesn't cost a single penny extra, it's a design issue... The world, and our world leaders and opinion makers are yet to realise the full potential of universal design. We need to have a world with infrastructure, built environment and services that all of us whether old, young, tall, short, man, woman or otherwise can use with dignity and safety.

Q: To what extent is there political will to improve the situation faced by those living with disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] After all these years of making mistakes in the 30's, 40's, 50's, we have built a very unequal world that is meant only for the fittest. In India, until 10-15 years ago, we had a policy that said that any building up to 4 storeys did not need a lift. The working presumption was that the average Indian was healthy enough to be able to climb 3 or 4 storeys. A friend of mine who came to visit me a few years ago said that India was built for superman or superwoman because these idiots.. whoever came up with that stupid policy... thought they would never age. You have a lot of government colonies in India where you are allocated flats on 2nd, 3rd or 4th floor in the prime of your youth. You are- then- arrogant, but 20-30 years later you age. I have heard horror stories of people who are on the 3rd or 4th floor of buildings and who cannot even go down steps to the park because of mobility issues.

Finally, in the year 2007, the United Nations passed the Conventions on the Rights of People With Disabilities UN-CRPD. The United Nations had a convention on the rights of women, the rights of children and the rights of refugees, but even the United Nations- which is supposed to be the cradle of human rights- failed to look at the issue of disability with any seriousness until 2007. As we speak, around 140-150 countries have ratified it, and many have not. My concern is that while that convention has been drafted and passed, and while many have ratified it, there still isn't political will. I'm yet to see the issue of disability being taken up with the seriousness it deserves... the UN-CRPD has started a discourse, but progress is still very slow.

Unless there is political will, no change will happen. Most issues facing disabled people can be solved with the stroke of a pen, they don't even need resources. You need resources to correct the damage of the past, but I'm saying we should put that aside for the time being- all the buildings that are not accessible, let's put blinkers on- but why is it so difficult for any government to pass law that means that for the future - no public building will be constructed without accessibility. When you procure a new plane, a new bus or new transport system... why can it not be accessible.

The reason that politicians do not look at disability with the seriousness the issue deserves is because they don't see disabled people as a potential vote-bank. Historical failures mean that many disabled people are virtual prisoners inside their own homes. If you go to an average country in the Global South, you just don't see that many disabled people. If you go to a mall or station or cinema in India, Nepal, Pakistan or elsewhere- you hardly see any disabled people. Is it because they don't exist? are there less disabled people in the Global South than the USA? my contention is that there are more! Because the disabled are not able to step out of their homes, because they have not been able to access education they are unemployed, because they are unemployed they are not empowered. And that's 1:7 of all humanity that remains unseen, unheard and unaccounted.

[Sir Philip Craven] There's a lot more that needs to be done.

One year before the winter games in Vancouver, I met with the Governor General of Canada; the Queen's representative. I told her that when I travel around the world, I had used Canada as a country which- at that time- had made the most progress. I asserted they were about 30% there... She asked what I meant, and I explained it to her in very general terms and told her that the games could lift it to 70% but then she has the obligation to maintain it and create a legacy. All countries have done 30-40% of what needs to be done, maybe less- even zero in some countries. The west hasn't got all the answers however. If you give a different impression to government- who ultimately support the greatest change- and show them there is a positive way forward, rather than adopting the position of charitable beneficiaries- we can enable people to care and develop themselves.

In Britain, I was very pleased that what was the Disability Act now falls under the Equality Act. Some people may assert that not a lot has changed, but the change in terminology is very important. The United Nation Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability (2007) was similar. Countries had to first sign up to the principles and then ratify that convention. With our support, a world record 86 countries signed up to UN-CRPD on day 1! This wasn't just an IPC success, but all our members who in turn wrote to their members. A very senior UN individual told me in Sochi 2014 that they needed my help in convincing the USA to ratify the UN-CRPD and mentioned two other conventions they have not ratified. This goes to show that the most powerful country in the world decided not to ratify a detailed, well written and fundamentally important convention; meaning there is a lot of work that is yet to be done, and the USA is not alone in that regard.

There is only one paradise in this solar system, Earth. We have to give back and make this a home that works for all of us.

Q: What is the social, economic and cultural role of events such as the Paralympics?

[Sir Philip Craven] The Paralympics are a major sporting event, with great athletes who love competing in sport, enjoy the competition, and love winning (accepting that losing is just a step to learning how to win next time!). We have 4 key values: determination, courage, inspiration and equality. Athletes don't view themselves as courageous but other people do... and that's why we keep that one in there.

What's interesting is the effect that the Paralympics have on people- who could be sports fans or just people who want to come along and enjoy a major event, as they would a concert. At the Olympics and Paralympics, everyone had a great time and the positive experiences at the event and outside left a lasting experience. I was with the Chief Marketing Officer of a major worldwide company recently and he said that London 2012 changed his life... and that's the kind of effect that we want to have on people.

Paralympic athletes may not realise, but they are giving people something different to what they have seen for hundreds of years. They are changing perceptions and encouraging people to see that we all belong to one society.

Q: What is the role of the Paralympics when considering rehabilitation?

[Sir Philip Craven] Rehabilitation can be many things. Whether you lose mobility, become blind or otherwise gain impairment from a major accident, illness or congenital problems; you may be left thinking you have less than others, and question why 'it' happened to you. You may have had to go through painful operations, and so many other things which can challenge your outlook. After this? you need something that's fun again! Not everyone likes playing sport, but many people who don't enjoy sport have had a bad experience with it- a bad teacher, a bad coach, bullying or otherwise. Sport and physical activity, when taught properly, and when open to all to participation- can get the brain ticking.

Rehabilitation after a major injury, accident or illness is required; while physiotherapists and doctors may get you moving... it's up to you to rehabilitate yourself and get benefit out of it.

In 1966, I was lying in bed for 8 weeks, having broken my back. I got up into a wheelchair and went to the Gym. I was paralysed in the middle of my trunk and didn't have good sitting balance, never mind walking! In those days, the seating situation was that if you did not have good sitting balance- you would probably fall forwards out of your chair. They sat me in front of a mirror and told me to practice my balance by looking at myself. I didn't have a problem with myself after my accident, but if I did have and if I was depressed? the last thing I would have wanted to do is see myself in this new situation 8 weeks after I was running about. Just next to the mirror was a table-tennis table. In truth, this would give you subconscious ways of developing your balance whilst also having fun. that's just one example....

Two and a half years ago, I spent 3 weeks in a spinal unit in Southport where I had my initial treatment 47 years previously. I had broken my femur in Korea and don't feel the area where I broke my leg. I came back on 3 planes to the UK, and that's what they diagnosed that I'd done. General hospitals in Britain are useless at looking after paraplegics and tetraplegics from a bodily-functions perspective if they have to stay in hospital following a serious operation. My operation was wonderfully done by a surgeon, but I got out of that general hospital as fast as I possibly could- with blood still seeping from my wound- to the spinal unit. I spent 3 weeks in bed there, but made a few observations. Most of the people using wheelchairs had not been shown how to use them... there was also a purpose built swimming pool, but it was only accessible for patients between 7:30 and 8:30am because after that it was used by local schools. The money gained by this helped the trust to not make a loss! I asked more questions and found that where Sir Ludwig Guttman had brought sport and physical activity into rehabilitation for spinally injured persons in the 1940's and 50's, this was no longer done. It's a scandal, and we're now dealing with that through the Ministry of Health. There's no real re-integration into society for these people anymore, they are treated as a body that needs fixing rather than a person who needs to fix themselves.

18 months ago I was in Finland for a presentation. I had the chance to visit a spinal unit in Helsinki which seemed to be run in the way that most should be run in Britain. It had a man and woman, one of whom was a paraplegic and the other who was a tetraplegic. They were paid to work there to help get people moving; I was doing the same in France 40 years ago, working as a sports rehab trainer and playing for the local basketball team! The head physio was really humbled that we were so pleased with their facility, but told us they learned everything they know from the UK!

Q: Have the Paralympics empowered the development of technologies to assist those who are impaired or live with disabilities?

[Sir Philip Craven] If we look at mechanical and technological support for people who need to get about, there has certainly been a positive impact. If you look at the chairs that we had to play wheelchair basketball 40 years ago, they were a massive improvement on what was there previously, but they didn't move in the same way that today's chairs do. All the modern good-looking wheelchairs that people use in everyday life have been developed from wheelchair basketball. This didn't come from big companies, but from two sports people; Bud Rumple and Henk MaCkenzie. Bud Rumple developed the box frame that doesn't fold and has better cornering. MaCkenzie and Rumple both invented the chairs with camber on wheels, and a change to wheel placement to make the chair spin more easily. All of these innovations have come from sports within the Paralympic movement such as wheelchair tennis, rugby and more. People feel good about being in a chair that moves, rather than one which is designed for you to be pushed around in.

Companies are now making super lightweight incredible prosthetics too that are allowing people to not just compete, but also go about their day to day lives with greater ease. The Paralympics also encourages people to look into new ideas and move forward to execute those ideas.

Q: What are the key technologies that are transforming the lives of people with physical and mental impairments?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] One important set of technologies relate to the interface with the human nervous system. If you can get information in and out of the brain and nerve endings, that has very important implications for disability. You could- in principle- treat conditions ranging from severe depression to limb amputation and paralysis. Many other areas of science and engineering such as robotics are making profound changes too such as actuators that replicate muscle tissue.

Approximately half of the world's population have unusual bodies or mind. These disabilities exist because of insufficient technology, and cause a profound amount of human suffering. Using technology to eliminate disability is an enormous market with billions and billions of dollars of wealth to be created. These technologies will be drivers of the economy and will simultaneously mitigate human suffering. It's a wonderful opportunity.

Q: What are your views on the potential for human enhancement and augmentation through technology?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Through the mission of ending disability, society will develop technology that will serve as the basis of extending beyond normal physiologies. The same interface into the brain that exists to treat severe depression, could also be used to enhance mood, concentration or cognitive performance. The same bionic ankle that allows me to walk could wrap-around a perfectly normal biological leg and augment it. There is a wealth of technological platforms that will affect all of humanity regardless of their physiologies or minds.

Humanity will be pushed in philosophical realms to grapple with the question of what it means to be human. If you replace all four limbs of a human being, are they still the same human? normal people would say yes they are. If you start truly augmenting the brain, are they still the same human? some people would argue yes and some no. It's a fertile ground for philosophical debate.

Q: What are the ethics and policy challenges of human augmentation?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Like any new technological era, this raises ethical questions. There are ways of using technology appropriately and as-intended, and ways that are unintended and perhaps harmful. I think commensurate with the development of these technologies, that ultimately will be critical to ending disability, is the development of policy and law around augmentation technology. We need sophistication on technology and policy.

Technologists, scientists and all the stakeholders must be part of the committees that will look into these challenges. Often people that are not scientifically trained believe things are possible that are not, and believe things will be sooner than they will be. They may not even comprehend technologies that will be here in a decade or two, and the implications of those technologies. Scientists should be up front in that conversation.

We always need to choose policy that coaxes society in the direction of greater human diversity, and maintained individual freedoms. As an aside; we're not doing very well. We live in an information society and largely we don't own our own data- nor are we demanding it. We freely give away our own data. As citizens we need to be more careful as technology becomes more acute and pronounced.

There is a huge opportunity here. We can employ these new sciences and technologies to develop policy, law and culture where the individual is embraced and very powerful and has great freedom and authority. A society in which we have enhanced from our current state and widened human diversity. There's a real risk we could go in the opposite direction... for example; in the world in which we have the technology for parents to design their offspring, it would probably result in a massive mitigation of the diversity of our specie. Our culture's narrow viewpoint of what beauty and intelligence are would play into parental decisions on what their offspring should be. Another world that would enhance diversity would be to view the human body as malleable- as a blank sheet on which to create; somewhat like the genre of piercing or tattoos where the skin is a place of creation. Bionics enable you to do more than tattoo or pierce. If you want a third arm, you can have a third arm... What you are physically and cognitively could be flexible by your own design. That's an interesting world, a place where our notion of beauty could change. That's the future that I want, and the future we should drive toward.

Q: What would be your message to those living with disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] You have to live your life, and make it a full and wholesome life ...nobody is going to come and deliver it to you. It's a tough world for everyone, but a little tougher for us- with the additional difficulties we have. I myself am a person with disability, I am a wheelchair user. My condition- Spina Biffida- is congenital. I was only 'normal' for the first 8 years of my life. After my first surgery, I was left with a limp. I was on crutches till the age of 15, and since then I have been a wheelchair user- so I speak from experience. You have to fight, you don't have a choice. You have to go that extra mile to ensure you get that education and those skills. Nobody will give you a job out of charity or pity. It's an unequal world, to pretend otherwise would be foolish and you have to fight for your rights- you must demand them- and then go and get them.

[Sir Philip Craven] You have to be yourself and decide what you want to do with your life. If you have negative thoughts at the moment, you have to see what other people have done in your situation but realise it's you that will change your life with the support of others; not others that will change your life for you.

You have to get information in your mind about what's possible, but you need determination to go and get it, and if anyone stands in your way? fight them like mad!

Life's a fight, it's a struggle- and you have to take it to them. You are in a community with written and unwritten rules, but life is for freedom. You have to create your own freedom.

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Don't accept mediocrity. Don't accept what has already been accepted. We all have gifts to give.

I am a technologist, scientist and engineer - if that's what you inspires you, then jump in and start designing... there are so many initiatives and technologies that need to be developed. If you are policy or legally minded, there is a lot of work to be done there too.

Jump in the race to solve this massive human rights issue.


Think of the absurdity of a world where the colour of your skin would be considered an impairment, leaving you (in the eyes of wider society) disabled. Whilst the word disability was not specifically used, it was not that long ago in human memory where the colour of your skin, or your gender would- in very real terms- prevent you accessing the vast majority of opportunities in your community. It took a century of campaigning and advocacy in both cases to make the world realise the idiocy of such asinine views.

Think of a similar absurdity of a world where people are patronised for their life achievements in-spite of their skin colour or gender, "Oh..." they said, "isn't it brave how those [insert colour here] people are able to walk around society, even though they're [insert colour here]..." Most reasonable people would see these views as dehumanising and yet for the billion affected by impairments, such views are a day to day reality.

The human body is unimaginably complex. Each of us is the result of 3 billion base-pairs of genetic code that created a system of roughly 37 trillion cells, controlled by a brain with 1,000 more connections than the number of stars in the known galaxy. And there are over 7 billion of us roaming an environment which we have elementarily tailored to our fragile bodies. Whilst our cognitive apparatus is designed to categorise and segment; it is impossible to deny the inevitable diversity of mankind when confronted by the quantitative nature of ourselves. We are not a population of groups with set parameters, but a population of individuals exhibiting the beautiful gamut of biodiversity which our species is capable of.

The concept of disability is a word rooted in a society built on physical acumen, but in a world now powered by knowledge, the word is redundant. Professor Stephen Hawking's contributions to our understanding of the universe were not diminished by his physical impairments, they were wholly irrelevant to them. In his own words, he advised the world "Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically..."

We need to move on from disability, and move to a world where we embrace the variety of our species and commit to ensuring that every individual is able to maximise their contribution to society regardless of their physical or mental ability, their social or economic background or any other determinant you care to use.

As philosopher Bahá'u'lláh once said, “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

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