Keep to the story. We need to feel the war.

by Amanda Harding

What do you do when an editor of a major newspaper tells you that your OpEd doesn't give enough of a war feeling? You answer, "what war?". Daft answer given that the whole world is currently talking about the war in question. Alternatively, you answer, "but that's the point? The war is more than a bunch of romantic sounding rebels brandishing kalashnikovs and fighting the enemy." By then you've already lost the editor whose priority is to tell a "good" story (something along the lines of Indiana Jones), reflect the sense of immediate suspense, horror and threat, and ensure that the reader buys his newspaper tomorrow. You want to show the alternative - a different reality and through that point to potential options, pathways and even responsibilities. You want to break through the stereotypes, the attractive easy opposites of good versus evil, and suggest that only by grasping the complexity, analysing the multiple layers and perspectives, listening to the genuine voices of those dispossesed and abused, will the "story from the frontline" actually change. Isn't this what an opinion piece written by an authoritative voice is meant to do? Clearly not.

Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani with men of the Peshmerga in the Kurdish mountains in 1965. (source: William Carter)

Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani with men of the Peshmerga in the Kurdish mountains in 1965. (source: William Carter)

Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil's "Family Mall" - a sign of changing times and a changing image

Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil's "Family Mall" - a sign of changing times and a changing image

Then again, the media is an easy target in a global system that we have created. Here in the protected, scared and increasingly egotistical North we look for answers in the headlines, buy the short term solutions liberally dispersed by our politicians and quickly pin the fault on the speed of today's world, its hyper-connectivity and the need to keep up. As though an international conference dreamt up yesterday, convened tomorrow and forgotten about the day after will impact on the lives of the millions of displaced, the GDP of an emerging economy or the effects of climate change on small holder farmers the world over.

We have all personally experienced the value of "slowing down", have been tempted to "down size", have been seduced by the yoga and meditation classes, enjoyed the slow-food dinner ... only to fall back into the head-less chicken behaviour that our fully reactive society lives off.

Fortunately, there are examples of what can be termed a counter-culture - examples that do not break with society but move towards integrating alternative behaviours where conversation over time is valued, discretion and respect the norm, quick wins accepted on the basis that longer term approaches must be given credit and pragmatic options framed by values of human rights. These are most often local initiatives, home-bred, appropriate to the context, understanding of different cultures, history and priorities - and commonly operating in the shadows. When supported, enabled and sensitively celebrated they have more of chance of succeeding, triggering change at scale and over time. However, while this remains an anathema to our leaders - whether in politics, business or the media - it is unlikely that I'll be invited soon to write an OpEd, be voted in as Big Boss or replace any one of the FTSE 100 CEOs.





Turning your business around: heart or head, participation or strong direction?

by Amanda Harding

Félix Vallotton,   Les barbelés (Barbed-wire)  , 1916, woodcut, 25.2 x 33.5 cm Galerie Paul Vallotton, Lausanne .

Félix Vallotton, Les barbelés (Barbed-wire), 1916, woodcut, 25.2 x 33.5 cm Galerie Paul Vallotton,Lausanne.

The last time I was faced with a room of 35 men, all committed to the « cause » but disenchanted by the “process” was in a small over-heated (in more ways than one), dusty town in Somalia, just north of Mogadishu, around 10 years ago.   Ten years on and it felt equally over heated but with a slight change of circumstances: an airport hotel meeting room in a large German city with a group of “blokes” so utterly committed to their customer and enchanted by the high achieved from a commercial “win” that the effects of their transformation into good soldiers with too long spent in the trenches is only now starting to come to light. Inundated with demands where one priority supersedes the next, with a one-way communication system where incessant emails break down any opportunity for dialogue and where both strategy and action plans are made on the hoof, the best you can do is survive. One hundred years after the start of the First World War and we now know that too long spent in the trenches is a sure recipe for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), slowed reactions, poor decision making – in short a certain route to loss and failure.

As with any growing and changing organisation with laudable ambitions but poor execution plans the organisational culture is being put to the test. Perceptions across the organisation are diverse and so-called rationale explanations and justification abound. Most striking, in a world where profit growth and margins dominate, is the focus on detail – deadlines, targets, deliverables – all masking  confusion, chaos and contradiction. People talk at cross purposes when a common language should exist and managers talk about empowerment but continue to pile on short terms demands.

As in any organisation successful change will come through co-creation and innovation, through inclusive informed decision making and an ability to listen, learn and adapt over time. This is uncomfortable for many, especially those in positions of power. Valuing intuition and a diversity of  perspective, authentic emotion and potential conflict demand real leadership courage and risk taking. 

As a relative new comer to the private sector but an old timer in the world of international research, development and human rights organisations it is astonishing how the narratives, both as institutional histories and forward looking visions of transformation, are consistent. This is less mysterious than it appears. At the end of the day we're all looking to belong to a successful winning team where we are all valued contributors. The mystery and the excitement lies in the collective journey.

Red lines, bottom lines, crossing lines and "value" propositions.

by Amanda Harding

I'm in a Paris suburb walking into a company headquarters and am struck by the light, cool clean colours, cleansed air and enormous quantities of giant, magnificent orchids. The art on the walls is strikingly beautiful yet subtle as are the products and company profiles discretely displayed to demonstrate their ethical, value-based qualities. Who wouldn't want to work in such a place of beauty? A site whose very mandate is to create and sell beauty.

A few days later and I'm asked for advice, ideas and contribution to an upcoming major international event, aligned to the Climate Summit and the post-2015 Agenda in New York this September, aiming to attract the great and the good. I'm far far far from the centre of decision making on this one, instantly curious, even jealous of those that are,  and keenly aware of the impact potential. However, I'm already mentally prepared for the missed opportunity. While I want to be "right in there" and know that this is where I shine I know better and have to steer clear.

And when I finally understand that my friend of many years ago, now "Advisor Number One" to a man of untold economic and political power is himself not only powerless but attached to a power block that leaves little room for the democratic inclusive values that he fought for (quite literally) many years ago I have to ask myself where our real motivation for success lies and where our real potential to influence change is really based.

This is not a new struggle.

However, in our evolving world where experts and professionals cross lines and milieu at a supersonic rate, where we assume that where transformation can occur in one arena than surely another, maybe this is time to slow down and rethink the model. There are examples galore of this dysfunction. The current debate around Thomas Piketty is a great example of a cross-purpose conversation (not to reduce our brilliant world economists and their commentators to a simple "misunderstanding") where economists, politicians, business execs and development wonks assume a common understanding of some of the most complex issues challenges today's changing environment. We're reduced to asking if the data is good - not why equality matters, from whose perspective, who decides and why Piketty has managed to touch such a raw nerve right now.

Much more banal and mainstream, the assumption that now that international development agencies have understood that its-all-about-the-economy-stupid they can find the growth solutions for the poor countries of the world (see DFID's new aid strategy - the big silence), or that international development organizations will make welcome (and effective/passionate) bed fellows for the likes of Coca Cola, Unilever and Total. All this while purporting to uphold the critical human rights/sustainable development/biodiversity/pro-poor (list ever so long) values that give us all the stamp of approval we seek for our personal feel-good factor and know that our clients need to see this box ticked.

Today idealism is simply laughed away as impractical, naive and depassé. But finding the right dose of value - based decision making, pragmatic compromise with an eye on the "bottom line" mixed with passion for the change we all intuitively adhere to if allowed to follow our hearts is a huge ask. In the end the temptation to cross the red line for the glory of self-image, half-convinced that the potential to change and embark on a journey is there, seduced by the circle of power we find ourself in … this temptation is so overwhelming and the alternative such a hard slog that its not surprising we all fall at one time or another.






Reconciliation and Transformation. No substitutes for personal experience

by Amanda Harding

Writing on the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide and just one month after commemorating 25 years after the chemical bombings of Halabja and the Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, peace and reconciliation, so easy to say and yet so hard to attain, are phrases yet again being bandied around. Division and conflict, difference and exclusion, discrimination and injustice dominate our lives. Having worked in many conflict zones, been close to communities and families as they live through and emerge from conflict; seen and accompanied thousands as they uproot and flee with what they can carry; been deeply moved and privileged to see families reunited with lost children; facilitated the re-integration of child soldiers back into their villages years after they left; seen political leaders struggle to transit from rebel movements to legitimate representative powers … reconciliation and transformation has been my bread and butter.

 Yet this weekend I felt as if I experienced it for the first time.

This weekend I was privileged to be part of the (re) birth of a community. This was a coming together of different groups, each with their own very legitimate and complex baggage that has been pulling them back over generations, extending difference, guilt and ambivalence, preparing the land for further division and conflict, exclusion and hatred. It was a collective coming-out of sorts. A time to pause, reflect and re-set the direction. A time to re-wire and re-programme.

 I would like to think that we’ve turned the corner for good. At least at the very local and personal scale where each of us that is involved and is able to operate. My idealism makes me wonder if we’ve even started the shift for and with future generations. There is no doubt that the potential is there.

 So what is this all about?   My great grandfather Dr Alfred Alexander, a highly educated, cultured and successful Berlin doctor in the 1920s decided he and his family needed a “country” house to get away from their sophisticated and frenetic city life. On the banks of Gross Glienike Zee they were the first to build a simple, elegant weekend house. They invited their friends for tennis, picnics, boat trips and swimming – until 1936 when the family fled Germany leaving behind not only their property but also a life, culture and memories impossible to re-assemble. Since then the property has past from Nazi hands to the East German State and then to the City of Potsdam. The Berlin Wall traversed the garden separating the house from the lake, families crowded in when accommodation was scarce and in more recent years the house was squatted, by junkies and finally last summer by a family of foxes.

 This weekend was billed as the “clean up” weekend. The community of Gross Glienike worked alongside members of the Alexander family (spanning three generations) filling an enormous city skip with years of accumulated junk left in the house, clearing the land around the house, making it safe, clean and prepared for the possibility of a new existence. While we worked, shared coffee, snacked on chocolate and cake, we were visited by both local and national media, cameras in the air, excited by a story that moves beyond retribution and historical sign-posting to forward looking reconciliation and creativity. Local politicians, curious yet doubtful, shifted from their normal sceptical stance with an eye on land values to enthusiasm for a project where their political capital can only increase. We uncovered the original floor boards, the Delft tiles imported in the 1920s above the fireplace, the rare inbuilt cupboards, wood-paneled walls and crazy paving from the terrace overlooking the lake. Newspaper pages, used to insulate the house, from each of its periods of its habitation have been kept.

Alexander Haus, Gross Glienike, 5 April 2014

Alexander Haus, Gross Glienike, 5 April 2014

 And yet more astonishing than the hard physical work and the sense of camaraderie was the mutual recognition of past pain and anger, guilt and separation alongside the desire to acknowledge history and create for the future. This could not have been more evident than during the singing of Friday night Shabbat prayers in the Abraham House, a beautifully restored 1927 Jewish House in the village. For the first time in 75 years Shabbat candles were lit, wine blessed and bread shared, again across generations and communities. The following day the local village cultural and historic association inaugurated a new exhibition, integrating a presentation and discussion of the Alexander family and the house. Again, with Alexander family members present a room packed to capacity, the combination of audio clips from both Hitler and Himmler speeches declaring the Final Solution; the extraordinary journey of the Alexander torah that dates from the 1790s, arrived from Berlin in London wrapped in a carpet in 1937 to then be read as continuing rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and membership of community by today’s generation; and the gasp of astonishment when the community heard German spoken from this “foreign family” describing both life in Berlin in the 1920s but also what it was like to grow up in London with the memories of Germany fresh in his parents’ minds.

 This notion of one community, despite geographical dislocation and language barriers, was able to identify not only a common past but more importantly a common future. In making ourselves vulnerable, a willingness to take risk, to expose ourselves and be prepared to share what is clearly intimate and deeply personal we moved collectively from what was a local project with historic possibility to a social project with an assured future. This future is still fragile, trust is still to be gained but the foundations have been built.


For more information on the Alexander Haus check the website 



The head, heart and guts; triggering change

by Amanda Harding

Facilitating an international gathering of scientists a few years ago the conference organizer came to me 48 hours before the opening running between visa, internet, catering, bussing, …  and thrust a visiting card from the King of Laughter into my hand calling out, "you'll love him, just want we need". Bewildered, I was convinced that two months living in the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa - a relic from Ethiopia's Soviet Union influenced past and still in the firm hands of the State -  had finally pushed him off the rails. Three days later and we opened the morning session with the man himself! Three hundred internationally reputed scientists smiling, giggling, squirming in their seats and then collectively bent over double in rich, healthy, spontaneous laughter, was a true gift.

When an artist or actor says to you, "feel it in your guts" or "let your heart speak" you want to believe him or her. Their legitimacy as creators, derived from the titles they hold and the self-belief they carry with them opens the ways for us, the thinkers, do-ers and rationals, to let go and recognize our multi-faceted dimensions. But take this artist out of their creative sphere - the studio, stage or gallery, the coffee shop or wild outdoor space - and place them in a boardroom, corporate strategic management meeting or UN style conference and all hell seems to break loose. Maybe not visibly but certainly under the surface the volcano is heating up. These catalysts or triggers of change are the least expected. Sometimes brought in to team-build, break the ice and entertain as a welcome diversion from the work in hand the real value this creative, intuitive and off-centre energy brings is its ability to enable innovation. Connecting our head to our hearts, our guts to our head, the risks we find overwhelming and misguided become opportunities and pathways to collective and individual success.

Clowns in refugee camps, football matches in shanty towns, theatre-for-development reconciling the un-reconcilable, creative visioning demonstrating common ground, meditation, musical reflection and collective graphic expression … these are more than techniques and tools but active and inclusive, necessary and ground-breaking initiatives that move us both individually and collectively from where we stand today closer to where we would like to stand tomorrow. 

Opening our eyes to this possibility and creating the space for such invention remains frustratingly challenging. The creative is regarded as an extra, something we'd like to do but don't have the time for. A fun bonus but not central to the work at hand. Where some years ago four or five days were put aside today senior managers and their executives may carve out half a day, a full one at the outside, to work through a tight agenda where extras are soon brushed aside. And with that the very innovation their "vision-mision-values" statement claims to be at the heart of the organization.

Once the space is opened for the head, heart and guts to connect and converse change becomes imminently more possible. 

Scale of Ambition and Appetite for Change

by Amanda Harding

Describing the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg as awesome, astonishing, mind-blowing has to be the "normal" response after a tour of this intense walk through these dark years of South Africa's history. Certainly not a surprising reaction to a museum purpose built to tell a story of such immense injustice, struggle and transformation. Stepping into the museum you immediately find yourself in a colour-sensitive role-play – gimmicky maybe but midway through this chronologically organised journey feeling battered, exhausted, searching for a happy ending but still riveted to the photos violence and humiliation, you're pulled in through both your emotions and your intellect. The museum makes brilliant use of a combination of still and moving images, interviews and narrative, music and visuals. It makes no apologies for taking a strong position on the side of justice and freedom, not giving in to the politically correct watered down language we're want to use in 2014. The language of the liberation struggle beautifully blasts its way through.


A few weeks on from my visit and I’m still aware of the exhilaration I experienced. I could take a critical look at the “show”, take it down for its one-sidedness, confusing layout, inaccuracies … I could go on. But what still strikes me, and has grown ever stronger, is the scale of change this museum recounts. And behind that the scale of ambition for change that was passed down through generations, maintained, nourished and achieved. It looks back (a long way – to man’s first presence in the region), recognises the local, the different, the unique nature of each individual, each event, each locality and then pulls the pieces together to weave a story that looks forward and points to a potential for ongoing collective change.

How often do we ask “can you scale it up … scale it out … replicate?” We talk incessantly about knowledge sharing, knowledge generation, lesson learning. We describe, analyse and may even recommend. Why don’t you do this? You could do that? I think it would be best if … And then we stop and retreat inwards. We’re more comfortable to pass on our good ideas to others, to facilitate and enable a process, to point to the challenges and bottlenecks, recognize the power dynamics in play, indicate the issues of leadership, capacities, the enabling (or more likely disabling) environment. This question of scale of ambition is as true on a personal level as it is of the institutional and collective. Asking a group of collectively influential and powerful people where their appetite for change lies recently I saw how destabilized they were. Focusing on the short term, the quick wins and concrete actions seemed easier and certainly less threatening. Clearly, much will be achieved and the very fact that this group, more commonly on opposite sides of the table, continue to talk and reach for commonalities is positive. However, they, as we all do, self-limit. They are unsure how far they can go, if the big bosses will follow and even where their real value lies. This timidity may lead them to simply missing the boat and wasting the potential for change at scale that they represent. That potential is enormous.

Alan Fowler, a self confessed prac-ademic, points to collaborative competencies and questions how far these are even considered let alone recognized. As backbone organization there seems to be more chance of moving beyond facilitation, enabling and this fashionable concept of the honest broker. Taking a position and transparently leading and accompanying change - at any level - takes real guts and a certain amount of risk taking. As much of the business community has long understood, this may also entail moment of conflict and confrontation. Not the quick-fix consensus objective that often produces pragmatic, lowest-common-demoninator solutions.

Appetite for change is recognizable. Appetite for change at scale is rare, astonishing and little understood. Whether on an individual level or as a collective. Where South Africa inspires the list is long of countries, peoples and organizations, of processes, agenda and challenges that disappoint. 

Innovation and Artisans. More than survival, a sustainable way into the future.

by Amanda Harding

Our local baker is closing. We've been buying our baguettes, croissants and pains aux chocolats there for over twenty years. Our children spent their first centimes on crocodiles, spaceships and sticky gooey bears.  Sunday mornings laden down with fruit and veggies from the local market the line outside stretched down the road, the young women serving us were always ready to weigh the latest chunk of spongy dark tasty bread cut from the massive loaf on the shelf, to box up the patisseries - the éclairs of all flavours, fraisiers, opéras and millefeuilles, while Madame surveyed, keeping both her staff in order, shouting through the door to her husband for more supplies, and wishing each and every customer a bon week-end.  Twenty years on there is now a baguette named after the baker and a collection of prize cups displayed in the window.


When we heard the news we assumed the worst. The boulangerie would close, be sold on to the highest bidder (it has a stunning 1890’s shop front), the baker and his wife would retire on their much deserved handsome golden handshake and yet another community institution which brought this disparate neighbourhood together, provided space for local gossip, less local intrigue and informed conversation (first girlfriends, anti-semitic comics, French youth fighting in Syria …) while delighting our palates would be gone. We imagined a short-lived gimmick shop selling imported cheap items from China, a snack shop rolling out cut-price sandwiches and cartons of pasta, or yet another boutique peddling more attractive but useless cups, notebooks, corkscrews and pet bowls. 

Breathe a sigh of relief. We were wrong. The boulangerie will close for ten days and re-open under the leadership of the next generation. The baker’s son will take on this thriving business, its success not only embedded in its ability to maintain tradition, a personal-touch and delight in quality but also to move with the times, to adapt to the changing demographics of the neighbourhood: sell sandwiches to tourists visiting Paris’ version of the High Line, constantly refine and redefine the range of breads, innovate to meet the demands of child minders when school is out, respond to the smart dinner party crowd in need of the chic dessert to seduce their guests – running in and demanding the best at 8 pm as the shops shuts. And through all that, the essential baguette, croissant and pain au chocolat remain unchanged. The heart of the business serving all generations, classes, colours and ideologies, innovating with the community while also serving as its glue.

Change is inevitable. Enabling change to take place where innovation shares benefits across society and endures across time remains a massive challenge. One that our boulangerie was able to meet. An example to follow.

Will the MDGs go - not with a bang but a whimper

by Amanda Harding

Will the MDGs expire - not with a bang but a whimper, a last unheard intake of air, a timid slipping away or will they go out on a high, a thrashing, boisterous denial of their inevitable demise?


The development industry is certainly having a field day right now. Process upon process, report upon report, workshops, new dedicated websites, conferences, positioning, shuffling, edging forward and back and blog upon blog. New jargon starting with the now well established SDGs (sustainable development goals), fashionable discourse on equality, equity and the environment; confusing terms widely bandied about by the well versed - resilience, ecosystem services, metrics, historical narrative and southern providers. 

For the uninitiated 2015 is meant to present a watershed when we shift from fifteen years of a target-led, rather simplistic and unconnected global development agenda that aimed to stop poverty to an all inclusive, inclusive, equitable, planet-responsive, holistic new paradigm for global development. Still bound by goals, but ones that manage this time round to press the right buttons for everyone. Sounds great. 

post2015 sign.jpg

And there have been some brilliant initiatives, including an extraordinary consultation process led by the UN organized bringing in a range of voices, creating some amazing infographics and leading us to believe that we really our part of the process (while also clogging up my inbox in my personal desire not to be left behind - in keeping with the High Level Panel  on the Post-2015 Development Agenda's catchy slogan that and first transformative shift to leave no one behind.) Others also, such as bringing together development think tanks from the North and South with a critical eye, and wonderfully facilitated by ODI while somehow navigating between a Northern "look" that works and something possibly more risky and unpredictable. 

Yet, how much of this, so typical in our "development world" where we so quickly get labeled "policy wonks" and "humanitarians" at the drop of a hat, is simply about us talking to us? The circle is closed and comfortable. The debates impassioned but circular. And this despite efforts to open up.

However, we know that the MDGs have been significant (I like to think I do at least).  The Millennium Declaration itself a real inspiration and the implementation plans and all that has emerged  (the MDGs themselves, targets, mechanisms, national development plans, monitoring systems, donor compliance linkages, debt relief programs as well as the scrutiny on impact, transparency and inclusion, civil society watch dogs, …) have seen some significant changes. Much has been written on the real contribution of the MDGs over global economic growth during this period (particularly in the BRICs where large populations, high economic growth and big development achievements have come together) leaving more doors open for us to talk to ourselves about attribution vs. contribution or revert to the OECD -DAC's evaluation criteria that short cut and tend to banish too much discussion. 

Where does this leave us? Convinced that for all their warts (and I was vociferously anti-MDGs at their inception, contributing to papers on the absence of a human rights perspective, clear that they lacked any recognition of difference and inequity, that they fell into the trap of blanket un-nuanced solutions decided by the technicians and purchased in bulk by the politicians desperate to have impact at scale, and failed to face the indicate yet massively apparent issues of power … I could go on) we have been forced to move from small pilot drop-in-the-ocean projects to engage with change at scales that can make a real different, to dialogue with surprising partners and question our own pre-conceptions and practice, to listen, learn, innovate ... The MDGs have been a positive global lever for change, operating in a complex environment and never in isolation, but a lever none the less. Setting targets was a shock but forced us to pull up our socks and stop the sloppy work we were want to do. Not to say that counting kids in and out of schools, in and out of feeding centers, ticking national plan boxes, and submitting compliance reports only motivated by the next tranche of funding  doesn't maintain a sense of absurdity. The MDGs helped us lift our heads out of the minutiae and relate to a bigger picture of inter-related global interaction.

Where I am also convinced that fifteen years of action, debate and dialogue have been worth it the next fifteen years present many further challenges. We are no longer kicking a ball around in the grass hoping to score a few goals. We no longer have the excuse of inexperience or ignorance. The post-2015 debate is crucial. A real opportunity not only for the global conversation (sounds good but risks though doesn't have to be superficial, top line and irrelevant) but for local conversations to take place. These are the conversations that really matter and where information, social mobilization and influence can occur. Dialogue that links the local to the national. Decision makers who recognize that global dialogue must be well informed but is also dominated by the closed circle have more chance of seeing a change agenda for the future that is not only visionary but also spot on.  

Innovation through Egosystems or Ecosystems

by Amanda Harding

Another week, another art gallery. Not just any. I took advice and was quickly persuaded that a visit to the permanent collection of the Louvre would not (and never is) a disappointment. I’d spent the last few weeks in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was now time to go back to the founding fathers (founding mothers harder to come by in the Louvre) of modern European expression. I’ve always been advised, and advised others, to plan a trip to the Louvre. It’s huge. Overwhelming. Ranging from Egyptians Mummies (maybe these area indeed the Louvre’s founding Mums!) to one of the finest collections of early Islamic Art, from Etruscan jars to medieval tapestries it has 14.5 km of rooms and corridors and you can fast find yourself thinking you’re in a scene from the Da Vinci Code.

I went against my most rational self and turned up at midday plan-less. I would trust my intuition and go where my heart guided me. I have to admit that this was based also on some prior knowledge – family holidays passing through Paris as kids, teenage early adventures, explorations as a first time young resident of the city with time on my hands the later school trips in charge of three 5 year olds wondering where I was going to find another hand to grab the one that always got away, holiday workshops, evening lectures special exhibits and time spent in the new wing absorbing light falling off first century sculptures.

I head straight for the early Italian Renaissance pieces. No stopping. I was tempted to take a peak at the Islamic Art, the special Etruscan exhibit or just skip Italy and head North to the Dutch early painters. The decision was made. I’d get to the Dutch, energy, corridor maze, blistered feet and painterly distractions allowing.

 On arrival I note a lot of traffic. Nothing like on a hot June day when this place is really buzzing. I take a seat on what feels like a stone park bench placed on the edge of a highway. This is the main drag leading to La Goconde, the Mona Lisa, and I’m guessing that this is what counts as a quiet day.  After first encounters with Botticelli and his Portrait of a Young Woman my visual senses are then inundated with Fra Angelico, Giotto, Lippi and Piero della  Francesca all in the space of a few meters. Looking back at my notebook I see that I scrawled, “Giotto, the best of the best” and am not surprised that the current Pope aspires to St Francis when you see his depiction here. Lippi I describe as a mysogyist , brilliant but threatening in his interpretation of women. Pierro della Francesca – “outrageous”. How dare he create such beauty and harmony. And then back to Botticelli whose pieces rise above all others in the room. Grace, beauty, finesse and deep melancholy. For the first time I see how he inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement. Together they relate stories, with multiple hidden layers and yet also allow for a purely emotive reaction far from the codes their masters, the Kings, Queens of Europe, the Dukes and Princes, the Popes and Bishops, all demanded of them.

And for fun, I turn right, now following the crowds, to join the Mona Lisa. Watching from afar I turned my gaze from this rather dark and gloomy painting (much like the other Da Vinci’s close by, all pointing fingers, eyes, arms in a rather accusatory way) and was entranced by the show. Tablets and smartphones held up high, babies in push chairs squeezed through to the front the child an excuse to edge closer to the prey, a class of school kids sitting on the polished parquet floor sliding around on their bums their yellow name tags overly bright and alive in this closed room. I moved on.


I cross from one side of the Louvre to the other. I made it to the Northern Europeans. Astonishingly it felt like coming home, that these are friends that I can pick up with not having seen them for an age. My early Renaissance Italians certainly dredge up emotion, sensuality, even love as well as the utmost respect and fascination for the stories-in-the-stories. But I’m now more comfortable. I’ve come North to confront Memling, Van Eyck and Bosch, to admire and sit beside Holbein. The lines seem clearer, straighter, the message bolder, harsher, real. Nothing is frivolous or extra.

The ability to engage with these paintings, their timeless fascination and inspiration is clearly vital. An essential part of where motivation and innovation come from. They move me out of my comfort zone and push me to respond, reflect, react. How far innovation arises from a combination of necessity and survival is unclear. Would these great artists have achieved so much living the “easy life”? Even if Holbein and Botticelli lived from their art they remained dependent on their masters all their lives. The image of the writer stuck starving in a cold candle-lit garat or dodging the bullets of the latest revolution, are well known. Simone Ahuja relates in her book Jugaad Innovation, how the most brilliant innovative solutions have been found in India among the poorest who in true entrepreneurial style manage to improve their incomes in the most unlikely of circumstances (listen to Ahuja on The Forum, edition of 18 January). She talks about frugal and flexible innovation. I have clear memories of the early Somali refugee camps in Kenya in the early 1990s where, within 24 hours of their arrival from a country of war and famine, a market was functioning and spaghetti, a key legacy of the Italian influence, already changing hands.

The reverse, the more comfortable we are the least likely to challenge, innovate and create? A civil servant say working for the United Nations consumed with passion and a sense of righteousness in their early days is soon cynical, the first to denigrate the “system”, to focus on grade and promotion, happy to entertain with tales of courage and bravery when young. And yet there are many examples to the contrary – fortunately.

What does this mean on the institutional front? That states are at their most innovative when their most fragile and desperate – or simply distracted from where they should be paying attention and focused on individual survival and benefit (think Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo as supposed to Greece, Brazil and Span where innovation has been rife in the past years)? Where the “egosystem” wins out on the “ecosystem”. That complacency is fed by stability and abundance (think Norway, New Zealand and Canada) only to be sent into crisis by a single destabilising factor such as a serial killer, earthquake or arson attack?

What is clear is that innovation is distinct and recognisable. A walk through the Louvre clearly demonstrates this.

Enough is Enough. Time to get the pacing right.

by Amanda Harding

Utterly exhausted. I woke up this morning with a deep sense of gloom. It's already January 21 and my month's sabbatical is slipping by. In just a few weeks time I will be taking myself to task on what I've achieved, certainly looked on by my so-called loved ones (or fans, critics and fellow cynics) all holding me to account for a month "out on the bench".

In order to catch up I tried to carry out the near-perfect sabbatical day. After a night filled with haunting nightmares I shot out of bed at 7:10, one daughter already up, dressed but waiting for her long-promised breakfast smoothie. Old black and well-traveled bananas in hand and with the help of the liquidizer she was soon satisfied. Of course I managed to wake the others in the house up too, but they were equally rewarded with their morning banana milkshake. So far, so good. Next, I walked the eldest to the bus stop in the cold, damp and dark, feel the freezing air biting into my bare shins and then take myself off to the gym where I ignored any attempts at conversation by placing my headphones firmly on my ears and listening to the dulcet tones of the Today Programme for the next hour. Home, shower, shoot off the odd email (including addressing my unemployed panic attack, so network network network back into business while realizing that my CV desperately needs an update) and rush out once more. The sabbatical is also meant to be about new experiences, spiritual reflection and zen living. Time to try out yoga - last practiced when pregnant fifteen years ago. It was great. A long way from being peaceful and relaxing but had me tangled in knots, falling sideways as I lost my balance, exposing tummy with my legs in the air in one direction, my arms in the other and my brain trembling with concentration. But it really was great and I will be back.

The drawback to a morning such as this is that by the time I was home I was exhausted with little hope of completing the "perfect" sabbatical day. I had started too strong. Forgot about pacing myself and can only hope that a second wind is still on the books before midnight tonight.

This notion of pacing, however, did get me thinking. 

Running out of steam appears to be a feature of our time. Our expectation is generally for the quick fix and instant result, despite talk of "investing in the long term" or "taking the medicine today in the interest of future generations" or even "we're in for the long haul". How many times are heads of state as much as local officials elected on the basis of promises and grandiose ideas only to be voted our of office soon after for their poor results. Worse still, they adjust their programs to meet the short term expectations of their citizens? Ironically, the only long term investors I can think of are those involved in the extractive industries, the Shells, Totals and De Beers of this world. And while they invest, countries such as  Ethiopia (see David Smith in the Guardian on the "African Lion" and Richard Dowden on Ethiopia as "ancient, booming but undemocratic"), Nigeria and Turkey play catch-up, aiming to break  their 10% growth average (a figure unthinkable on the Old Continent) and join the big-players of the BRIC group (see Jim O'Neill on the MINT countries on the BBC). Who will trip up, run out of steam, cut dangerous corners, sacrifice the weakest and most vulnerable, fall by the wayside. 

Today's lei motive that we don't have enough time, need to act now, can't be complacent … may certainly be true when it comes to stopping the fighting in Syria but the difference between stopping the fighting and finding peace is massive. Pacing, reflection, listening through dialogue and incremental change must be the way forward, just as I must accept stuffing it all into one day will not only not work but leave me probably very stiff and muscle sore tomorrow morning.