Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Parting thoughts on Rio+20

I'm leaving Rio, leaving behind a great city and a conference that tends to evoke an uncertain range of grimaces from people when spoken of. The uninspiring outcome of Rio+20 provokes different reactions depending on expectations and personality. I myself never expected much from the actual document. I came to find out how the bottom-up approach makes use of international meetings and how the local relates to the global. I learned a few things:

  • Policy based side events are incredibly dense.
  • You never quite know who you'll meet around the corner or what they'll be talking about.
  • Human society is experiencing challenges in the urban environment that are daunting in complexity and scale:
    • In the next 40 years, we will spend as much on urban infrastructure as we have in the past 4000.
    • One billion people live in slums right now. By 2050 there will be 3 billion.
    • In 2009, we passed the halfway mark: more than 50% of people now live in cities, and it will be 70% by 2050. Factoring in population growth, the number of people in cities will double.
There's some good news: with all of the huge technological, planning and management challenges cities face, we actually have the capacity to handle it. The technology is there, the planning methods have succeeded in some cities already. We can do it. What remains is finding the political will and organisational capacity to get it done. If we can get ourselves sorted out, we can actually improve quality of life while making cities more environmentally sustainable and economically productive. The power of town planning to shape good, healthy lives is incredible.

As I begin to ponder the importance of strong, functioning local governments and their ability to implement sustainable planning and services, it seems entirely appropriate that I'm bound for a course called Sustainable Institutions. I look forward to examining the role that people and social networks play in shaping a sustainable institution or organisation, and considering how Yale's experiences can help me back at Australian National University and in future organisations.

I get the feeling that a lot of what can go wrong in an organisation comes from the role of human fallacy and unexpected social patterns. I'm still not sure whether the helpful response is to resist this or embrace and cooperate with it. Human enthusiasm and social empathy can be great forces for good, and I like to think this doesn't stop in a work setting, and that the right workplace can support these drivers for the kinds of phenomenal outcomes we need.

Photos begin!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A typical Rio+20 day

I now consider myself settled into a pattern in Rio; I have gotten used to sleeping in the hostel by simply burning the candle at both ends so when I fall into bed at 1am I’m out like a light!

It’s a pretty surreal world here. I get up in the morning at 7am, get ready in the dark and try not to drop stuff and wake any fellow travellers. I suit up and walk down to the fancy UN shuttle bus, grabbing a juice on the way from one of the many juice bars. The streets remind me a lot of Athens; the varied building quality, the crazy traffic, the people sitting in 24 hour cafes.

80 minutes later after riding the bus along the coastline and gazing at the fancy hotels, I hop off the bus at the conference centre, deceptively named RioCentro but located in the Rio equivalent of Altona, next to a brick and tile shop. It’s surrounded by armed guards from the military and police, and today since the highest level part of the conference has started, there are mounted soldiers and groups with riot shields at all entrances.
I pass through the airport security and scanners, and I’m in – It’s a huge place, strangely semi-temporary with rooms built inside permanent larger buildings, and cheap carpet not quite stapled to the floor. I attend many many events, all of which come down to seeing 5-8 people speak for a few minutes about what they do, what they think about something or what they want. Some are clear and insightful, some really aren’t. The same goes for the audience members who get a chance to speak, depending on whether they actually want to discuss the nominated topic or just promote their cause.

I go to city related panels mostly, listening out for discussions of how they learn from each other and what they do. Occasionally I ask questions, always a nerve-wracking process, but people seem to enjoy seeing young people at these events (just got called ‘the very young woman’ by the chair of a UN HABITAT panel).

The people I talk to seem to share my despair of the high level talks leading to anything. Many of the ANU group are keeping a closer eye on the problems in the main document, and taking part in various protest and lobbying measures. The local government officials have for the most part decided to focus on bottom-up action, banding together to do all the good they can. Local government are the implementers of a huge amount of environmental policy, particular regarding climate change. I prefer to work on this level, looking at what we are doing best rather than what nation states are slowing things down. When they come to the party, local government will be ready.

Sometime after nightfall I run out of steam and the conference runs out of events. With luck I run into a fellow ANU traveller and we catch the bus back into town, eating dinner around 10 and eventually going to bed (again getting changed and packing up in the dark, as the non-ANU traveller in our room is already asleep. Can’t remember the last time I saw my luggage by the light of day!)

I’m having a great if bewildered time, thinking and talking about big and difficult ideas, and engaging with many different points of view. I continue to seek out good news and good ideas, knowing that to focus on our failures will not bring us any momentum.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Arrival and bewilderment

I crashed into bed last night at the hostel in Rio after 20ish hours of travel, having borrowed a pj shirt from a friend since my bag was yet to arrive (didn't make it onto my second plane). I've spent today at the Rio+20 conference centre, wandering around and trying to work out what i want to do with my time. The jetlag haze is at its height right now (I hope) and I look forward to being coherent in the coming days. In the meantime, I hope to develop my ability to introduce myself to the people sitting near me and become better at that mysterious ''networking' thing we are meant to do in our lives. I do have my cards ready to; now I just need to figure out why someone would want one! Dr Al-daghistani, a town planner for Bahgdad, now has one, as does Dr Mogo of the Nigerian Maritime Admin and Safety Agency. What next??

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Epic bureaucracy fail

In the past week, I've lost count of the number of call service reps who've politely asked 'and when are you flying out?' only to get super awkward when I say 'Last Saturday, except that you've lost my passport.'

It all started with the fact that I had to get a study visa for the US, and the fact that I didn't get sent any of the paperwork until 2 weeks before my scheduled departure. I still had just enough time to make it work, provided nothing went wrong. For instance, providing the consulate didn't post my passport to 'Wattle Rd, O'Connel, Bathurst 2971'.

But they did. I spent a week on hold with Australia Post and the consulate (sorry, the consulate's call centre in Mumbai full of people with zero ability to do anything or call anyone), eating maltesers and being comforted by poor Ellie, even now sitting an exam she was trying to study for whilst looking after me.

The tale does end well - I had all but given up hope of ever getting to Brazil, and was forming the contingency plan of skipping it altogether and going straight the US, when my passport made a wonderful final hour appearance back in Sydney. It now hangs around my neck in my trusty travel pouch, and I am booked on tomorrow morning's flight. Much thanks to the nice Australia Post workers who did their best to help me out, Pop and Colette at uni for hassling everyone they knew at the consulate so I could pick up the passport today, and no thanks to whatever staff member at the consulate is unable to copy down a postal address.

So, not to brag or anything, but I am now an officially qualified story topper when it comes to travel delays. Booyah.

Watch this space for real travel updates now that I'm allowed to do real travel!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Pre-Rio+20: thoughts and hopes

I am lucky enough to be one week from departure for Rio de Janeiro and the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. As part of the Australian National University delegation, I am going to learn, observe and hopefully bring back some nuggets of wisdom on how good ideas become a great reality.

- I have always been under the impression that we are in a world full of great ideas, but they often don't get used
- I am particularly interested in cities and how they can become more environmentally sound or 'sustainable'.
- Australian and American cities continue to fiddle around with bad bike infrastructure and dodgy PT systems despite the amazing things being done elsewhere
Conclusion: Cities aren't great at learning from each other, especially if they don't feel connected.

When cities form policy, they do it based on the experiences and knowledge of their policymakers. Those people can only use ideas from all over the world if they have been exposed to them, and Rio+20 is one place where they can do that. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives or ICLEI will be a meeting of city governments to share and swap ideas at Rio, and I will be there to work out exactly how ideas flow in the policy community, what makes a good idea, and how interested citizens can inspire their cities to get involved in the process.

I'm forming the impression that policymaking, while hopefully a logical process, is often driven by unexpected factors and always by the human element of government. Hopefully the downside to this (so messy!) can be counterbalanced by the great power humans hold when they become inspired by a good idea and start turning it into reality.