Friday, March 21, 2014

Can Conversation Change the World?

Ronald Reagan awards former Soviet Leader Mikh...
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (Wikipedia)
by Heidi Kingstone, Online Opinion:

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was helped to the podium, a frailer man now than when he brought Glasnost and Perestroika to the world almost thirty years ago.

One of the 20th century's most seminal figures delivered a fairly bleak keynote speech to the audience gathered in Sharjah, one of seven emirates, and near Dubai.

In the 1980s, the leader of the former Soviet Union and America's President Ronald Reagan helped change the world through dialogue and diplomacy.

The theme of harnessing the power of conversation to change the world permeated the third edition of the International Government Communication, held in the United Arab Emirates. Social media has connected the universe in a way that was inconceivable all those decades ago.

Gorbachev, who was born into a Russian Ukrainian family, believes that globalisation has fuelled an uneven development in most of the globe, creating more losers than winners. The failure of international leadership to act together has resulted in the rise of terrorism.

The call to unite seems both oddly familiar and radical. It is the same one that has echoed through the centuries - from the French Revolution with its slogan, 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' to 'We The People', the preamble of the American Constitution.

In our multi-media world people can belong without borders, and their demands are the same: to eradicate poverty and disease, for education and justice and democracy, equal and human rights. In our connected universe could those dreams become reality?

One man at the helm of the social revolution is British-born, Toronto-based Jon Duschinsky, an international fundraiser, non profit agitator, and co-founder of The Conversation Farm, a global agency that creates ideas that create conversations.

These day's businesses have to stand for something. The model is constructive capitalism where companies are judged by profit and social good.

"You have to show people something that matters," says Duschinsky as we sit in the lobby of the Hilton in Sharjah at the end of the two-day conference at which he was a speaker. Social innovation and social profit are key words in his lexicon.

When Duschinsky was a young boy, his father told him only two things can change the world - great ideas and collaboration.

Charismatic, enthusiastic and super smart, his mission is to alter mind-sets, impact on behaviour, and harness the power of the people with social media. Channeling the zeitgeist, he strikes me as someone who sees the world as round when many still see it as flat.

He wants to use creativity to solve problems not just organise them, which is what organisations do, he says.

Social media gives people that platform, as we saw in the Arab Spring. The sentiment for change was in there but social media was the tool that allowed people to connect with others who felt the same way - regardless of where they were.

Together, they were able to share their feelings about their regimes in conversations that led to change. In an era that empowers the grassroots, it is all about sharing. It forced governments to listen, but will it continue?

People have a voice now, and while governments need to understand that, it is not sure that they do yet. While young people are disengaged from politics, they not disinterested in it. "Leadership is open to everyone," says Duschinky.

The Conversation Farm wants to change the way people look at issues in order to effect real change, to help people challenge the status quo, to look at things differently, to empower them to change their behaviour.

"It is the idea that drives the conversation," is that point Duschinsky makes. "Ideas that create the conversations are the precursor of people changing the world."

One issue TCF is working on is childhood obesity. "Everyone knows you have to eat less and exercise more," says Duschinsky, "but that doesn't shift people's behaviour."

This is an issue where a lot has been tried and almost nothing has worked. so they are trying a different approach - putting creativity instead of programming at the heart of their solutions. Watch this space ...

As we talk, Duschinsky looks at my unlined notebook. If I had a notebook with wavy lines, he tells me, I would remember in images. And because most people are visually dominant, that means I would remember better.

This leads us into a discussion about Alzheimer's. The Conversation Farm was asked to create a global campaign on the disease that could raise $1 billion. "Chump change," he says. "What's important is creating a paradigm shift in people's attitude to the disease, not just throwing money at it."

When patients with Alzheimer's get their diagnosis, family and friends abandon them. From the 55-year old woman in India who is locked up in a room by her family who throw away the key to the forgetful grandfather in Seattle, research showed that the attitudes towards the disease are pretty universal across the globe.

"With cancer," says Duschinsky, "you want to hold people close and comfort them. With Alzheimer's you push them away." But Alzheimer's is a ticking time bomb that it gets one per cent of the funding cancer gets.

When discussing the campaign with his two partners, what they realised was that no one knew anyone's phone numbers, not like when they were at school. "We realised that we were," said Duschinsky, "all forgetting to remember - whether we had Alzheimer's or not".

"So what if people with Alzheimer's could gently bring this to the awareness of the rest of us, and give us tools to help us remember better? How would that change the conversation around people with the disease? How would that reduce the stigma and the fear?"

The wavy line notebook developed by The Conversation Farm in collaboration with neuroscientists and mnemonics (the science of remembering) experts actually helps you remember things better.

"What if school kids had notebooks that helped them remember better and that were brought to them by people with Alzheimer's?" The conversation would change, attitudes would change, and behaviours would change. Nail that and raising $1 billion is no longer a problem.

When the unlikely pair of Gorbachev and Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer's, met in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 the two men decided that neither country would seek military superiority. A great idea - Glasnost - had changed the conversation, changed attitudes and changed the world.

As the world embraces a future driven more and more by social media and the ability to share, it is time to realise that if you can change the conversation you can truly change the world.

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