The many benefits of forest bathing

forest bathing in WOluwe Park

I love forests. I don’t know how anyone could not love forests, they must be beyond salvation. Forests are the soul of our planet, they are what connects us to the larger web of life hosted on Earth. Every time I visit a forest I feel energized, I feel like I’m at the right place, at the right moment. I feel ‘rooted’.

This week I decided to go “forest bathing” before going to work. Forest bathing is a Japanese expression (Shinrin-yoku or 森林浴) and consists of a short, leisurely trip to a forest. Enjoying a walk in the forest has many health benefits, both physical and mental, largely demonstrated through research in both Europe and Asia (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Li et al., 2007). But traditional cultures didn’t wait for these studies to know the importance of forests in human well-being.

I woke up early one morning, welcomed by an amazing sunrise from my bedroom window, and after my morning chores I went to the nearby Woluwe Park in Brussels and soaked in the wonderful autumn hues and scents.

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What I didn’t expect was all the birds. And the morning mist! I really felt wonderful after these 10-minutes in the park, walking among the giant trees and contemplating the multi-coloured carpets of leaves.

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I said goodbye to the sun and moon and stepped into the tram taking my into town, knowing that there would be many more of these forest bathing mornings in the future…

What is your little feel-good morning routine? 

Net neutrality, the end of roaming charges, the migration divide and the 2016 agenda of the European Commission

27 October 2015 was a momentous day if you work in EU affairs. Today important decisions were taken and an interesting debate on migration took place during the European Parliament’s plenary session. These decisions will have a direct impact on European citizens’ lives or affect their lives in the short to medium term.

These decisions are:

1. The end of telephone roaming charges: roaming charges for calls from a mobile phone will cease to exist in the EU as of 15 June 2017. Consumers will pay the same price for calls, texts and mobile data wherever they are travelling in the EU. This decision seems to be widely applauded, although 21 of UKIP MEPs, including Nigel Farage, voted against the end of roaming charges in the EU (full list). Interesting to notice that no big European newspaper is mentioning it on their cover/homepage, as it had already been widely communicated to EU citizens in June this year.

Here’s a good infographic on what it means concretely:

End of roaming charges infographics

2. new rules for an open Internet: the rules enshrine the principle of net neutrality into EU law,  meaning that there will be truly common EU-wide internet rules. Whether the rules adopted actually correspond to “net neutrality” seemed to be the subject of much debate today on social networks, in particular on Twitter, where the details of the legislation were criticised on both political and technical accounts, including by the founder of the WWW Tim Berners-Lee.

Tim Berners Lee on net neutrality

3. the presentation of the European Commission’s 2016 work programme: it’s about “doing different things” and “doing things differently” and moving away from business as usual.

Here is a word cloud of the most used terms in the programme (cleaned to only display nouns).

EU debate on migration word cloud

4. growing divide among MEPs on migration, between those who support it and those who refuse it. Despite the divergences in opinion on the subject of migration itself, most MEPs and speakers agreed that the current situation had the potential to become a true geopolitical crisis reaching out far beyond Europe.

There is an excellent Storify of the debate that you can check out to learn more about what was shared by European Council President Tusk, European Commission President Juncker and several MEPs on this.

What piece of EU news captured your attention recently? Do you think EU citizens picked up on it? 

Development aid meets politics: a book review

Aid agencies have too often failed to grapple with the political complexities of the countries where they work and of the inherently political nature of processes of developmental change. (p.4)

My studies in sustainable development and natural resources management have put me in contact with both mainstream development concepts and critiques of those concepts. Yet it was only through the book Development aid confronts politics by T. Carothers and D. de Gramont, published in 2013 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that I realised my study books had missed out on the political aspect of development aid.

But what does it mean for development aid to be political or not? Is it a good thing? Hasn’t development work always been political by nature, through the socio-economic choices made by bilateral and multilateral aid donors?

The book addresses all these questions and invites us to explore the politicisation of development aid, decade after decade. It also a good synthesis of the main debates around political vs socio-economic aid: should aid be technical or political? Is democractic governance the most efficient type of governance?

I really enjoyed reading this book: it is informative and comprehensive, and brings new information in a nuanced and balanced view which lets the reader draw up their own conclusions about the extent to which development aid should be political.

Political means and political ends

There are two ways one can add politics into the development aid equation: by making the goals and objectives more political (e.g. taking clearly position for or against democracy as a form of governance) and by making the methods more political (e.g. by proposing development programmes on the basis of prior political economy analyses).

The book explores both avenues, from the 1960s to today. I’ve summed up the key development approaches and methods of each decade in an infographic below, together with key references and critiques. To put political aid in perspective, it still only represented 10 billion, roughly 10-15% of official development assistance (ODA) provided by the OECD donor countries, which constitute the largest group of donors worldwide.

The most interesting part of the book is when Carothers and de Gramont present and analyse the controversies around the introduction of politics into the world of development aid, and when they highlight the challenges ahead for development agencies if they want to continue on the path towards more political aid, both in its means and in its ends.

The intrinsic vs instrumental divide in development aid

Doing so, the two authors point to a fundamental divide in development aid as a conceptual framework. The proponents of development aid can indeed be divided in two groups:

  • those who think development aid is intrinsically good, focusing on the moral imperative to help others and support each other in times of hardship; and
  • those who believe development aid is instrumentally good, because a world where no one is left behind is more secure and peaceful, and offers more opportunities for businesses.

This divide also applies to political aid and even to political methods. A good example which the authors spend some time on is participation. Research papers abound on the positive outcomes of participatory development, and in particular how stakeholder participation overall increases the effectiveness of development projects (Reed, 2008). Yet, participatory development is also sought as an end in itself, because citizen participation is what you expect a modern, democratic political system to include.

The limits to political aid today

Although political approaches are not sufficient for sustainable development progress, there is good evidence that taking politics more fully into account is necessary. (p. 283)

While the book doesn’t offer a blueprint for embedding political into development aid as such, it does hint at concrete measures in order to achieve what aid providers call “governance integration“.

This includes the following recommendations:

  • development aid is a political process;
  • start from a local political context;
  • focus on function rather than form;
  • work flexibly to facilitate processes of change;
  • think of programmes within broader political systems;
  • link aid to an informed theory of change.

There is undeniably some progress on the political aid front since the book was written; after all, unlike the millenium development goals, one of the sustainable development goals adopted by the international community in New York in September 2015 is about promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16).

Despite increasing awareness, and despite the fact that any form or aid or absence thereof is in itself a political act, there are still too many development professionals who believe development aid is first and foremost about socio-economic progress, ie bringing clean water, soil and water conservation techniques, and other classics of development aid, to populations in dire need of help.

Carothers and de Gramont sum up the 4 main challenges to more political development policies and more politically smart development methods:

  • measuring and reporting the impact of integrated programmes;
  • thinking about politics in economic terms undermines the utility of political economy analyses;
  • relying too heavily on technology (e.g. randomized control trials)
  • putting pressure to simplify political insights and tools to be applicable more broadly.

If you don’t feel like reading the whole book – it’s quite dense – you can download my 10-page summary.

Do you think development aid should be more political in its goals and/or methods?

Change by design: design thinking and what it holds for the public sector

I read Change by design, a book by Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, who introduced design thinking to the world beyond Silicon Valley, over summer. Although I thoroughly enjoyed most of the insights and examples in the book, it also left me with an unnerving sense of frustration. Here’s why in this book review.

The coming of age of design thinking?

A recent post in the Harvard Business Review announced that design thinking had now reached an almost mainstream status in business. While I would love this to be true, I think it’s not the case, at least we’re not anywhere near mainstream over here in Europe. But let’s start with the beginning and get back to design thinking as epitomised in Tim Brown’s book.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a methodological approach to innovative product or service design that puts people and their needs first. The methodology can be summarised in 6 words used by Tim Brown throughout the book: insight, observation, empathy, ideation, prototype, synthesis.

But more than a methodology, design thinking is a mindset that pervades an organisational culture. Why? The core values of design thinking are:

  • to find a balance between desirability, viability and feasibility in any innovation
  • to shift from a problem to a project
  • to emphasis the fundamental human needs
  • to move from convergent thinking (making choices) to divergent thinking (creating choices), or to phrase it differently to move from analysis to synthesis
  • to design for experiences, in space (using prototypes) and it time (using storyboards and scenarii).

Why is design thinking so appealing to certain people, including me? It embodies the values of the free internet, the fundamental shift from organisation-centric  to user-centric world views, from hierarchical to networked structures of power, and the strong belief in the intelligence of crowds (or teams).

In the first part of the book Tim Brown skillfully describes the process and the steps to introduce design thinking into product or service design, but his book is not meant as a practical guide, more as an invitation to think about how to put in practice some of the ideas he puts forward.

Government, the next frontier for design thinking?

Tim Brown wrote this book in 2009. He makes an interesting personal statement in it about what (American) people expect of public service:

We might resign ourselves to the ponderous workings of government bureaucracies, but we should not forgive the companies we patronize for their lack of imagination” (p. 191)

Actually, I find this statement sad because it sounds like Tim Brown has given up on government and its capacity to innovate and modernise. Luckily since 2009 many governments and public sector organisations have shown us that innovation, design thinking and the public interest can go hand in hand – in fact, where would design thinking be more appropriate if it’s not in government organisations to serve the interests of ever-demanding citizens? Examples of existing innovation labs working in or for governments can be found on this great map created by the Parsons DESIS Lab in New York.

But to be quite honest, design thinking is still so marginal in government organisations that if you’re a civil servant reading this, there a good chances you’ve never heard of design thinking before, or not in your offices at least. Am I right?

I think there is great potential for design thinking in government or whatever you want to call the idea of putting people first and testing your ideas before you roll them out on a massive scale. The reasons why it’s not picking up yet are numerous, but I can think of three which may have motivated the negative feelings of Tim Brown towards public sector organisations:

  • There is huge inertia in public sector organisations, and radical change does not happen overnight (if ever they happen). Design thinking (putting the user at the centre) is one such radical change.
  • Design thinking requires skills that are extremely rare among civil servants today, and will most likely mean hiring external expertise to kickstart the phenomenon in the early stages of its spread across the organisation.</li>
  • A start-up culture – accept failure, work in small cross-functional teams, agile mentality – works best with design thinking. While some public sector departments demonstrate these traits, we are still light-years away from seeing these traits prominently engrained in public service culture. I’d love to be proven wrong though!

In the second part of his book Tim Brown shares examples of how design thinking can help solve the world’s ‘wicked problems’. But here, I’m not sure it’s the design thinking approach or methodology that’s really key in ensuring we respond to the pressing issues of our times. I think it has more to do with letting citizens themselves participate and engage in the exercise of identifying solutions to problems that politicians are having a hard time dealing with.

At a smaller scale, this is also what innovation labs in the field of development aid are attempting to do. Take USAID’s Global Development Lab, the UNHCR Innovation Labs or the UNICEF Innovation Labs.

So for anyone interested in innovation and human-centered design, I definitely recommend Tim Brown’s seminal book, and if you’d like to talk more about innovation in the public sector, you know where to find me.

The most important skill to teach your children

child in front of school window in Cambodia

As a parent we all have our views on how to raise children (ours of course, but those of others too sometimes). Child education is a bit like religion: we believe this or that is the best and probably only decent way of teaching them how to walk, to eat properly, to be polite, to write, etc.

Yet, all these skills are useless without the most important of skills, which is to make sense of the world around us. What do I mean by making sense? I mean the capacity to decipher the political and societal choices we make as humans, the capacity to never take something for granted or eternal, but to always remember it is people that make choices about how we live, how we think and how we evolve as a species on this Earth. It is about seeing the fine thread of the matrix, to speak in Wachowskian terms.

What’s really behind statistics?

Here is one concrete example which I’ve come across recently in my readings and which I tested with my children. It usually starts with figures or data. Remember how we always think data is factual, objective? Well, think again.

Today on the planet between 1.3 and 2 billion people do not have access to medicine. These are stats from the World Health Organisation (WHO), so let’s assume they’ve been collected in a credible and scientific way, and that we can trust them as reflecting reality. Now let’s put this figure in parallel with a figure from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO): there are 1.6 billion forest-dependent people who rely heavily on forests for their food, fuel and medicine. These 1.6 billion people overlap greatly with the 1.3-2 billion people mentioned earlier. But in one statement it is said they don’t have access to medicine, and in another one, that forests provide them with medicine.

Making sense of contradictory statements

The first assumption we need to clarify is what lies behind the use of the word ‘medicine’. In the first statement medicine is understood as modern, Western medicine. In the second statement, medicine is understood as traditional medicine, usually extracted from plants found in the forest. So the apparent contradiction between the two statements disappears when ones understands that there are two different forms of medicine.

My kids aged 6 and 10 had no trouble following me up to here in the explanation. They understood perfectly that forest-dependent people use plants for healing, and they had no problem comparing it to the medicine they know here in Europe, with vaccines, drugs and surgical operations. What they didn’t know, and which I explained to them, is that most molecules used in modern drugs come from plants, and that these natural remedies had often been known for centuries (and in the case of some plants millenia) before the invention of modern medicine.

With this new piece of information at their disposal, they were able to understand that the two statements were just two interpretations of the same reality. Almost 2 billion people still rely on natural remedies to heal themselves (in addition to other forms of healing such as shamanism), and these remedies are available for free in the forests they dwell in. And yes, these people also do not have access to modern medicine, due to the remoteness of some of these locations, but also the cost of modern medicine.

Nobody contests that the existence of the latter has dramatically contributed to increasing people’s life expectancy in the Western world, yet it is by no means the only, nor the most important factor. Chine traditional medicine, a complex and comprehensive medical system, has been around for almost 5,000 years, and is still being used by millions of Chinese. Yet it is not what has contributed to a longer lifespan for most Chinese people in the last two hundred centuries (well, not counting the the rather deadly Maoist period…).

Letting your children develop their own world views

My older son then asked me the question I knew he was going to ask when I mentioned that the natural remedies found in the forest were for free. “Why do we want people to buy drugs from modern medicine to heal themselves when they can get the same effect from a plant available for free in the forest?”

Good question. There we were, with two conflicting world views and a 10-year old trying to make sense of it. The point here is not to push into one or the other direction, that’s not your role as a parent. You’ll do your kids a favour if you let them do the thinking and the coming to a conclusion. Just give them the tools and they’ll figure it out for themselves.

My son reacted in an unexpected and wonderful way. He did not adopt my personal and more radical world view that we need to protect forests so that forest-dependent people can continue to live the life they’ve chosen and so that we can also benefit from their wisdom when looking for new molecules to heal diseases using modern science. He simply mentioned free will, the importance for each society to decide how they want to live and be healed, and how stupid humanity was by imposing a choice between two forms of medicine when you could benefit from both.

So please, next time you teach something to your children, teach them to think for themselves instead of unconsciously imposing your world view on them. Give them the facts, the popular wisdom, add the controversies to the mix and let them make sense of it all, with your patient and affectionate guidance. Sooner then you think they’ll surprise you with their wisdom!

My favourite simplicity quotes

I wanted to share with you some of my all-time favourite quotes on the subject of simplicity, from famous and less famous authors. I hope these quotes will inspire you to think about simplicity in your daily life and to cast a different eye on those who are on the path to a simpler life.

What’s your favourite simplicity quote?

2010 UK Elections, TV and Twitter: how it doesn’t always fit together

“Who wants to be a Prime Minister?”

I was almost going to call this post “Who wants to be a Prime Minister” but refrained at the last minute (lucky you!). A colleague today told me that during the TV debates, the three British candidates in the run-up to 6 May 2010 were being evaluated by the audience in the studio with remote voting systems, and that the results were being displayed on TV screens.

Immediately, images of TV shows like “Who wants to be a millionaire” formed in my mind and I had a quirky vision of the three candidates, in front of their pulpit, answering questions in order to win the prize of the day – to become UK’s next PM!

So I decided to check out for myself and have a look at the first two TV debates<, the first one on domestic affairs, the second one of international matters. I recall having to watch all the French presidential TV debates during my studies in political sciences and I had been quite amazed at that time to learn that the first debate took place in 1974 – at a time where owning a TV was not so common.

The first two debates left me completely cold, and I was very disappointed. It all sounded like they were rehearsing a play, nothing seemed natural, and each one of them knew his part so well that I thought there must be a tele-prompt hidden somewhere out of site.

On using Twitter and Facebook during elections

After having done my share of watching, I decided to check out how to get information on the third and last debate online. I stumbled upon the BBC special site on the UK elections and saw they were tweeting the debate live – great! I had exactly what I was looking for: the facts, the texts without the grins and the faces.

Twitter and Facebook were literally buzzing with comments and opinions about the last debate and the BBC intelligently shared some of this buzz with their viewers (and which I could catch up with thanks to their live coverage of the event on their website).

But the funniest situation so far on social media with regard to the UK elections is that of Kerry McCarthy’s alleged breach of electoral rules after tweeting about postal votes (read BBC article). McCarthy was appointed last year by Labour to improve their use of social media, and it now turns out she communicated about non final vote counts on the official Labour Twitter account. What a “thoughtless” thing to do as she says herself!

It’s great to be able to follow the national election campaign of another country thanks to the Internet. But there are those who, like the BBC, truly master the art and science of communication, and those (in particular in politics) who still have a long way to go before they can even compare…

Volcanic ash clouds, crisis and progress: why the Single European Sky will not be built in a day

Following the massive disruption of air traffic in Europe last week, caused by a volcanic ash cloud, I was happily surprised  to see so many newspapers and politicians put the Single European Sky  on the table.

And my first thought was: why does it always take a crisis for things to move ahead faster and get done? And will that actually be the case with European skies?

A single sky for a single Europe

Single European Sky over EuropeThe linkage between crisis/war and progress has been already largely documented, and I’ll assume that it’s a given here (see WWI and women’s rights, WWII and technologies such as radar, jet engines, etc.). So let’s get back to our volcanic ash cloud.

To put it simply, the Single European Sky (SES) initiative aims at creating a seamless European air traffic management system abolishing national boundaries as far as civil air traffic control is concerned. To a certain extent it can be compared to the European single market initiative which brought about free movement of goods and people within the European Union.

The idea of a single sky was launched in the late 1990s by the European Commission. And ten years later, we’re still not seeing it come alive, although progress has been made in developing a regulatory framework, technological advances and a new organisation of European airspace that will help make it a reality.

Time isn’t on our side

The massive 1-week closure of European airspace has highlighted the limits of national decisions when it comes to air transport, and thus the need for a unified approach as advocated by supporters of the Single European Sky.

It can be expected that the single sky initiative will gather new momentum following the volcanic ash crisis, and that EU Member States will feel the pressure, more than ever, to move ahead in this direction.

But these things do take time, just like it took 35 years to move from the first European customs union in 1968 to the full realisation of the EU Single Market in 1993.

The main issue will probably now be to overcome the discrepancies between an air transport industry that is now globalised and the EU-27 which can officially only exert political pressure on its Member States, while the issue of a single sky for Europe is a continental issue at the least.

I’d be interested in having your views on the probable timeframe for the realisation of the single European sky, and whether you think the volcanic ash crisis will make a difference time-wise.