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Inventing a New Future: Beyond Our Humpty Dumpty World

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For the last few years since becoming director of the Skoll Centre, I have closed the Skoll World Forum with an Irish prayer. This year, I want to start my reflections with a riddle -- its origins of which I am not sure.

What is it that you keep forever when you give it away -- that changes as it moves from place to place -- and without which there is no past or future, no reason or meaning?

The answer? A story.

We are storytelling animals. Indeed many people believe that storytelling is what makes humans unique. We use stories to share our knowledge and experience, to learn from our past and to imagine our future. We only need to look at Nick Danzinger's wonderful work to see how true this is.

Oxford is a city of stories and those who have woven them -- Cornmarket Street in the city centre was the setting for the Crown Tavern where a young actor named Will Shakespeare grew rather too fond of his landlady. Sir Walter Raleigh learned his Latin at Oriel College, and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins learned about beauty in Oxford's magnificent Baroque church. Oscar Wilde amused and amazed his examiners at the examinations schools where we will be tomorrow; and it was in Oxford one winter's night at 2 a.m. where J.R.R. Tolkien converted C.S. Lewis to Christianity. Oxford is the home of A.A. Milne whose characters including Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore still live with me today, as does Kenneth Graham's story of Mr. Toad and his wild ride in The Wind in the Willows -- and while I haven't followed Alice down the rabbit hole, I have followed her into Christ Church and to the dining hall which much later became a film set for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter.

Oxford's associations spill beyond literature into history and legend. For more than a thousand years the city has played a central role in England's history, as a home and inspiration to kings and politicians, saints and bishops, artists and academics, inventors and industrialists whose stories have helped to shape our world.

Having been part of the Oxford community for three years, I often wonder what story will be told in 2812 about our current time, when the University of Oxford will double its current 800 year-old existence.

I wonder what that story will say about this period of unparalleled difficulty for our planet and for the people it hosts. How will it capture our mood of foreboding that deep and complex forces are rapidly reshaping the world as we know it? How will the story describe the new global landscape now surfacing and the national and global institutional arrangements now emerging to replace those that are proving to be inadequate to deal with the deepest problems we confront?

Currently, we are living in a Humpty Dumpty world where a good many of the king's horses and the king's men are scrambling to put Humpty together again -- while a growing movement of men and women with imagination, commitment, persistence and strong ethical fiber -- people such as each one of you gathered here for the Skoll World Forum -- are working furiously to ensure that the Humpty Dumpty model is transformed and replaced with pathways that achieve economic and social justice and arrest the destruction of our planet. We are in an interesting phase of new thinking and experimentation, and we must seize this hugely important opportunity.

Like most of you here, I am an optimist. I cannot imagine that our story will not have a happy ending, even while at times a happy ending seems to be a pipe dream.

Let's just review the stories that grabbed our attention in 2011. The year started with natural disasters including the earthquake off Japan that caused its tsunamis and nuclear disaster. In August, Hurricane Irene ripped through the Caribbean and along the east coast of the U.S., and with this storm system came the floods responsible for the deadliest U.S. tornado season since 1936. Then, in September, another earthquake struck Van in eastern Turkey killing 600 and leaving 60,000 homeless. And no one tuning into CNN or the BBC could escape the scenes of the monsoons that raged across Asia between June and November, killing untold thousands in Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Typhoons battered the Philippines and Indonesia and few in Asia, including China, escaped the deluge crisis of this past year.

Moving on, the global financial crisis assumed urgent momentum in 2011. The stock market recovery of late 2010 and early 2011 was ephemeral, as many expected. The financial crisis took a definitive step as world markets plunged and as the sovereign debt crisis spread from peripheral states into the heart of Europe. The U.S. lost its AAA rating for the first time in history. In Europe, the tragicomedy of the DSK sex scandal was forgotten as the debt crisis spiraled. As, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and others have struggled to implement the austerity measures needed to refinance their debt -- the grand European project has teetered.

Meanwhile, the enormous levels of additional debt that the U.S. has taken on since the start of the crisis have been sustainable only because so much of China's foreign reserves are locked in to the dollar. Borrowing your way out of debt, as advocated by Keynesian solutions, works only if the present generation can pass its borrowings onto the next one. But with the aging of the developed world, the next generation will be smaller than the last, while the cost of energy and other commodities all continue to rise as emerging countries industrialize.

Add to this Iran's putative nuclear program, a world population that reached 7 billion, rampant inflation, food riots and a climate catastrophe.

This litany of gloomy stories is enough to give any Pollyanna pause for thought. Yet as described in Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, research in cognitive functioning find that human beings reinterpret negative things in a more positive light -- the "every cloud has a silver lining" idea.

My hope for the future springs from past and current personal experience. I was a university student in the late '60s, early '70s when ordinary citizens constituted the core of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. Globally, it was ordinary citizens who challenged the Chinese Communist system in Tiananmen Square, the apartheid structure in South Africa, and led the anti-nuclear movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement, and so on.

This past year, citizens' movements have risen to new heights in shaking the status quo, propelled by the newest technologies that connect them to one another around the world. In 2011, we saw people -- primarily young people -- take to the streets. The deeply democratic nature of the uprisings caught mainstream media and all of us by surprise as youth in the Middle East and North Africa rose up to demand freedom of expression and opportunities. Starting in Tunisia, the spark spread to Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya, toppling long entrenched tyrants.

The movement spread to Europe where tens of thousands marched to express their frustration with the lack of employment, of opportunities, and of politicians who didn't seem to care, from "Los Indignados" or "the Outraged" in Spain, to Greece and then to the USA with the Occupy Wall Street movement and to the UK and the crowds gathered at St. Paul's in London. More recently, thousands in Moscow have taken on the Putin regime demanding the same things as protesters worldwide -- a systemic change that will provide greater dignity, transparency, participation and access to opportunities.

This movement of people worldwide is perhaps the most exciting global phenomenon of our time. It is our promise that we will not put Humpty Dumpty together again as before -- and for me, this is where entrepreneurial approaches to social change come in. These new approaches are the harbingers of the types of organizational and business models that our compartmentalized world so desperately needs in order to integrate where we make our money and where we do good, tear down the firewalls between our personal and professional lives, and reap the true value we all should be making to the world.

In sum, I am optimistic for many reasons, but mainly because for most of my life, I have hung out with creative and positive people who, regardless of their backgrounds and their resources, manage to punch way above their weight. So when one is surrounded by men and women with a "can do" attitude, an infectious energy, and an ability to see opportunities for innovation and transformation at every turn, it is pretty hard to be gloomy about the state of the world. Entrepreneurship of this sort is highly contagious.

I now work primarily with university and graduate students -- they are full of hope that they will find careers where they can contribute their business savvy and other talents to improve human welfare. They don't want to wait until they are 50 years old to "give back." Some are entrepreneurs themselves while others -- like young adults everywhere -- seek to contribute to endeavors that are fundamentally innovative, philosophically positive and morally compelling.

So how do we rewire our systems, our practices and our mindsets so our story reflects greater convergence rather than fragmentation of effort? That, for me is the great challenge before us, no matter where our life journey takes us. In that sense, the global movement of outrage on the part of ordinary citizens against an increasingly unfair and unsustainable society -- joined up with practical, creative and committed social entrepreneurs -- will ensure that Humpty Dumpty is not recreated -- and that when my story, your story, our collective story is told, it will be about depicting the triumph that occurs when human ingenuity, empathy and integrity rise to dominance together to address unprecedented threats.

Thank you.