Pimp My Rio Sustainability Olympics!

Pity Brazil. It could be about to get the “Bird’s Nest Stadium” treatment.

It happened in Beijing in 2008 when China built its monstrous signature Olympic stadium, which acted as a lightning rod for the anger of environmentalists and human rights campaigners.

And even though Rio de Janeiro won’t host the real Olympics for another four years, lightning is about to strike in the host city of the “Sustainability Olympics” which will be held in June 2012.

Let me explain: If you were pimping up your home to throw a party for 50,000 visitors, wouldn’t there be some stuff you’d try to sweep under the carpet in the hopes nobody would notice? But somehow visitors always find the really embarrassing stuff.

Remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that pitiful photo of a single defiant householder defending his little home inside a vast building site close to what later became the Bird’s Nest stadium? Remember those images of a million people being displaced to make way for the monstrous Three Gorges hydrodam? Remember the toxic grey shroud that hung over the Chinese capital during the Olympics, because of the country’s advanced environmental degradation?

Of course, every mega-event inflicts collateral damage in environmental and social terms, and in a few years China got over it. Now it’s Brazil’s turn to take a hit, as the country prepares to host the first of three mammoth parties over the next four years.

First in June 2012 comes the UN Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Then in 2014 the World Cup. Then in 2016 the Olympic Games themselves.

An estimated 50,000 diplomats, journalists, environmental activists, scientists, businessmen – and over 130 heads of state – will arrive for the conference June 20th-22nd, which comes exactly 20 years after the great cycle of UN-sponsored environmental conferences was kicked off in the same city in 1992.

The issues are more pressing and the stakes even higher than they were in 1992, or at the UN’s 2002 follow-up event in South Africa. So too are the prospects for yet one more frustrating non-event in which key decisions are booted into the long grass due to a failure of global governance.

In Rio, do-gooders and noisy critics from green NGOs will be looking under the carpet for something troublesome. They won’t need to look far.

Displaying a catastrophic sense of timing for a nation about to host the Rio+20 “Sustainability Olympics,” Brazil’s politicians in April decided to relax the laws that so far have stopped farmers from chopping down more than about 18% – 20% of the Amazon rainforest. The upper house of Congress approved revisions to the Forestry Code that determines what proportion of land farmers must leave as untouched woodland. The issue has become a political hot potato and the first major political challenge for President Dilma Rousseff’s administration.

These changes, if finally allowed to become law, would have meant significantly enhanced clear-cutting by farmers, especially in the Amazon region. The CNA farmers’ group say the law would bring to an end widespread violations and even bring some reforestation.  Environmentalists say what Brazil needs is not a Forestry Code, but a Biodiversity Code. They say the changes will mean that Brazil, which hosts 18% of all the planet’s biodiversity, can expect a dramatic reduction of its pristine habitats.

For Brazilians, the issue now completely dominates conservation politics. Media savvy local activists such as Gota d’Agua have launched appeals against the controversial new law. On May 25th, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issued a partial veto of the legislation. It was also a partial response to public opinion and  the “Veta Dilma” petition that had collected more than 2 million signatures. International pressure groups including Greenpeace, WWF International, and Avaaz had joined the movement, promising to globalise the protest.

Although the partial veto announced May 25th has taken some heat out of the forestry debate, it pleased nobody. The principle of farmers’ right to cut more forest  was enshrined – even if a retrospective amnesty that would have allowed them to escape fines for past illegal logging, was rejected. The president also  maintained protection for riparian habitats.  The bill now goes back to Congress, and both sides were left moderately dissatisfied. Greens, farmers, and movie industry celebrities were all left unhappy.

So the issue could still come to the boil during Rio+20. In the middle of a green economy summit, Brazil could be badly embarrassed.

Secondly, the long-simmering feud between environmentalists and the Brazilian government over the massive R$30 billion (US$ 15 billion) Belo Monte hydrodam project in Amazonia, threatens to spill over. Although campaigners finally lost their 20-year battle to stop relocation of 24,000 residents to build the world’s third largest dam on the Xingu River, the main construction will begin soon – and so will the protests.

Thirdly, a massive urban makeover designed to transform Rio de Janeiro into a fit host city for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, is also raising the hackles of some human rights activists.

At issue are the 1,000 hilltop urban slums located in land invasions where around 1 million people or almost 20% of the city’s population live. Their property rights have mostly been forgotten in the rush to sanitise Rio.

Films like City of God and Elite Squad made the drug-fuelled violence of Rio’s favelas internationally familiar. Yet everything has changed since 2009, when Rio’s city and state administrations launched pacification programs backed by funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. Key favelas now have 100-strong police garrisons and the dealers have mostly fled.

Not all residents are happy with plans to sanitise their Olympic city: some favelas are being forcibly cleared and residents moved to neighbourhoods distant from their livelihoods. Favela do Metrô, located close to the Maracanã stadium where the World Cup final will be held, will reportedly become a car park for FIFA’s VIP guests.  Across other Rio slums, Human rights campaigners are fastening onto the issue, and the topic has raised concerns in United Nations committees dealing with human rights.

In other favelas, chaotic housing has been torn down and replaced by bright new government funded apartments – which have quickly become attractive to young foreigners and middle class tenants, forcing out the original residents. Community activists say Rio’s newly-peaceful favelas are undergoing a process of rapid gentrification. This will eventually mean they are homogenized by big real-estate interests.

Soon the locations that produced Brazil’s famed carnaval, samba and football, will disappear. Comparisons with other Olympic city clean-ups are making headlines internationally.

Inevitably, many Rio+20 visitors will shun the air-conditioned conference rooms to climb the hillsides for a day in the favelas. Many more will sign petitions concerning Rousseff’s partial veto of the Forestry Code, or agonize over Belo Monte.

All in all, this should be a great time for Brazil, as it prepares to lay out the red – or rather green – carpet for its eco-visitors and for 137 heads of state to celebrate sustainable development in Rio. But these three issues threaten to  tarnish its halo.

That’s a pity not just for Brazil, but for the whole sustainability process. There’s a significant danger of Rio+20 becoming side-tracked by mistimed attacks on host-country Brazil’s own sustainability performance. There’s plenty for enthusiastic activists to criticize because they’re unable to see the bigger picture – but now is not the right time.

Such actions could undermine what’s seen as a unique breakthrough in the run-up to the Rio+20 talks: the long-delayed recognition that decisions about the earth’s future should now be based on science, rather than on national or business interest. Scientists, finally, are claiming their seats at the top policymakers’ table. Their presence is urgently needed:  policymakers are  getting more interested in the ‘Green Economy” and  generic sustainability talk than the hard science (and therefore hard politics) issues of climate change and biodiversity.

After two decades of bitter controversy between policymakers about the causes of human-induced climate change, the  Rio+20 Zero Draft calls for “the scientific basis for decision-making to be strengthened … and the interface between science and policymaking should be enhanced.”

Recognizing this, UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon recently announced the appointment of a chief scientific advisor and a specialist panel for sustainability. will that be enough to stop the “climate fatigue”?

In preparatory events for Rio+20, pressure is building that scientists use their research muscle to guide decisions. At the Planet under Pressure conference attended by 3,000 scientists in London this March, the final declaration warned that “Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action,” and said “the international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions.”

At the Forum on Science Technology and Innovation to be held in Rio 11th-15th June on the eve of the main UN conference, being sponsored by the International Council on Science (ICSU) and UNESCO, scientists will try and further ratchet up the pressure on policymakers.

Instead of picking on the host country and its particular problems, let’s think about a host planet. Participants and policymakers must keep their eye on the bigger prize: delivering on goals for sustainable development and a greener economy based on science, not opinion.

And let’s celebrate Rio too: after decades of  neglect, the city is booming, blooming, and on a roll. Everyone’s loving it.  As France’s Le Figaro newspaper said: “they’re inventing the future in Rio.” So let’s stop complaining and let the policymakers get on with preparing the groundwork for Rio+40!


Forecasting the Facebook IPO debacle

I wrote this in my blog on 6th July 2011.

“Today, kings are made and unmade on the battlefield of the international capital markets. So I predict the hunchback King Mark’s Battle of Bosworth will be the Facebook IPO. This where the US$100 billion hype hits the fan for Zuckerberg and his Wall Street chums.”


I’d compared the movie The Social Network to Shakespeare’s King Richard III and noted that while  the movie ends with Zuckerberg on a high, in a position similar to the Hunchback King Act III in the play, we still had Act V to come, with the Battle of Bosworth and the tyrant’s defeat.

And on 17th July 2011 I commented on Morgan Stanley’s temptation to overhype the coming Facebook  IPO, having shown the multiples would be unjustified by advertising revenue — exactly what’s happened in the last 4 days.

“There’s no way they can justify the hyped $100 billion valuation being floated ahead of next year’s stock market IPO on this revenue model. After all, Microsoft’s investment valued the business at $15 billion in 2007.  Now, it’s as though some teenage brokers’ analysts broke into Morgan Stanley at night, ransacked former Wall Street diva Mary Meeker‘s old desk and in back of a drawer found a battered tobacco tin with a label marked: “Tech Bubble 2000: strong shit! Not to be tried for another decade.” They snuck off with it for a giggle on the fire escape before coming back to press the big red button in the trading room marked “official market rumour.”


No, I didn’t buy the stock, and should we really be that sympathetic toward those who did?

Richard House

In Praise of Brevity

This post had better be short.

A British literature festival on May 16th celebrating the art of ultra-short stories (Flash Fiction items with not more than 150 words), reminds us that as the overall volume of communication grows, the individual dose is shrinking fast.

Time to dig out that spare Ernest Hemingway prose style. His shortest story was just six words long:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Thanks to Twitter, it’s 140 characters, not 150 words, that are now the default attention span.

Some smart Australians have applied brevity principles to company messaging and corporate communications. They wrote a book called Dealing with the Tough Stuff.  It says it’s time for every CEO to learn how to strip back his message to the basic  irreducible core.

Then let’s go the whole way and deliver vision strategy and purpose — all in less than 140 characters. Think of the billions of meeting-hours saved! Think of the consultant layoffs!

I always say to corporate trainees that what you can’t write on the back of a bus ticket isn’t worth memorizing. But they don’t do bus tickets any more, so 140 characters is OK. I guess.

That doesn’t give you room for a “sound bite.” Barely even a bon mot.

Oscar Wilde’s “Art is what you can get away with” makes the cut. So does Mark Twain’s “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Obama’s “Yes we can” can, or once could. JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” does it in style.

If they could only have stuck with it, Google’s “Don’t be evil” was a slam dunk.  Zuckerberg easily makes the 140 character cut. “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

But most corporate statements go way over the saggy muffin-top. Fresh from squandering $2billion on trading losses, the JPMorgan Chase looks flabby:

“We want to be the best financial services company in the world. Because of our great heritage and excellent platform, we believe this is within our reach.”

If fiction is getting shorter, then so too should corporate stories. Enough of this ‘café americano’ business of adding water to a basic expresso.  Out with solutions, empowering, transformational, paradigms. We don’t trust long words with Latin roots.

The basic principle is that waffle won’t stick. Pundits and neuroscientists tell us that only small pieces are retained in memory. In their book, Made to Stick  the Heath brothers laid the foundation to a duct tape empire based on brevity.

Some time back I wrote a post about how surprisingly short all the greatest speeches were. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only had 270 words.  Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” was 1,660 words. The King’s Speech was a 90 minute movie. The actual speech? Just 5 minutes.

Crunch time: do we walk the talk at www.storyfountain.com, when it comes to brevity? Can we make shorter short stories? Our business offers to bring company stories to life, using “flash storytelling” principles. Do we promise that briefly enough?

“Story fountain helps to create, tell and deliver your corporate stories in ways that everyone can understand.”  That’s 113 characters.

Shakespeare, of course, nailed the whole subject in 87 characters less: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

That’s it.

©Richard House

Talk Radio/Radio Talking Shop for Storytellers

I’ve been taking part in an interesting radio project led by The Academy of Oratory in London. Giles Abbott and Leon Conrad who run the Academy are two hugely entertaining performers/entertainers/coaches who seem to have sprung for an earlier epoch. For style, erudition, and understanding of how the old rules of rhetoric are more valid than ever in the new world of communication, you can’t beat these guys.

Talking Shop is a six-part discussion series on stories and storytellers, which is broadcast by Resonance 104.4FM and online. On Tuesday 1 May 7-8pm, I joined the discussion on Stories and Leadership.

You can download it here:


Here is the intro from Giles and Leon’s website:

“How do stories influence us? What role do they play in leading us and our thought? In shaping opinion? When PR and marketing companies use stories, should we be wary of the extreme hold that gives them over us?

In this programme, Giles and Leon examine these issues further with Ramsay Wood, author and storyteller a specialist on the Kalila and Dimna collection of instructional fables and the way they have been adapted to and used to define different cultures. They will be joined by Richard House from Story Fountain, a company that uses traditional storytelling techniques to help businesses build brand identity, customer base and market share and Geoff Mead, founder and director of the Centre for Narrative Leadership and The Network for Organisational Storytelling.”

The Storyfountain website is at http://www.storyfountain.com

More about Geoff Mead’s excellent and moving book here:

Coming Home to Story: Storytelling Beyond Happily Ever After

Ramsay’s equally excellent and eloquent retelling of the Kalila and Dimna stories are available at:


You can find the other episodes on the Academy of Oratory website.


Richard House

The Charge of the Light Red Brigade

Maytime in Paris, and as always, they were selling fragrant bunches of muguet lilies-of-the-valley after Sunday Mass at the church on the Rue Mouffetard. An accordion played a haunting Piaff tune, while a woman with a bright yellow coat and bold black dots like a Toulouse Lautrec painting danced in the square, as the shoppers stood silently in line for their market delicacies.

You would hardly have guessed that change was in the air during this rainy, cool spring weekend that brought back into power in France the first socialist government in a generation. Coincidence or not, I had been in Paris in May 1981 when François Mitterrand upset Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. And here I was once again, on May 6th 2012, the very day François Hollande swept away Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then, I was a young fellow intoxicated with change, with a face greeting me with a Maytime bunch of muguets, and much else besides. This time around, France seemed to match my more sober mood, for the world seems a darker and far more uncertain place than it was in 1981 – at least for the French. Just like France, I wish for renewal. Just like France, I’m of an age to now see bigger cycles of history rolling by me. And just like France, I am still a creature of hope.

So, like some vast collective beehive with a 30 year cycle of pupation and emergence, France once again changes its conservative blue for Socialist red – well, a rather pale pink, actually  – and its new leader takes wing. Soon Hollande, the newbie G7 leader, will be in Washington, in Berlin, in London, spreading a message that everyone at street level wants to hear but no other leader has the courage to speak out: “the chemotherapy of economic austerity is killing the patient, not the cancer!”  Nobody has yet had the courage to exhume the body, life and work of JM Keynes and say “boo” to Angela Merkel. Will that man be Hollande?

Although Parisians take their civic duties seriously (more than 80% of the population voted), during Sunday there was little sign around the streets of the Left Bank that a monumental election was in progress. In the Jardins du Luxembourg the tennis courts were packed, as were the cafés along the Boulevard St Germain (later that night we would join the crowds walking joyfully along this wide thoroughfare, for a single day closed to motor traffic). But during the day, France’s rules on exit polling, canvassing and last-minute campaigning are so strict that the main TV station shows morning cartoons. Even tweets are scrutinized by electoral authorities.

It wasn’t until close to 8.00 pm, when polls closed and the TV countdown began for the announcement of the winner, that the atmosphere became electric. We make our way to the streets around Solferino, the headquarters of the Socialist Party, where a huge and enthusiastic crowd has gathered. Thousands of camera phones are held aloft and a rock-stadium vibe is building. “Sarkozy, tu és fini” comes the chant in great rolling waves that pressure your chest.  Girls with red roses in their hair are perched on shoulders, PS flags wave, people drinking champagne.

Nobody is over 30 years old. Their parents must have been the same age as me when I toasted Mitterrand’s victory. A radio reporter asks me for an interview and I stumble out something about this being the Tahrir Square of Europe. It’s not quite William Wordsworth’s “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” But as the crowds surge off to the Bastille for the all-night victory party, you get a strong sense the France is up for renewal, for rebirth. Later on, at the Café de Flore, we see the foreign correspondents drinking, their TV news packages safely done and dusted.

What’s in the offing is another experience that spits in the face of Anglo-Saxon rationalism, that raises a finger to Chicago-trained finance professionals, to editorial writers from The Economist, and above all to Dusseldorf-disciplined managers seeking a sensible yet charmless consensus for a new Europe where we shall all eat bratwurst, drive Audis and take our package holidays in Turkey once our fat pensions become due.

So what are to make of this latest French attempt to continue walking on water by denying the laws of financial and economic gravity in a globalised economy where we are all supposed to worship at the altar of the bond markets?

The punditry is equally divided between those who believe Hollande will change nothing at all, and those who want to frighten us with “reds under the bed.” The Economist ran a cover about “the Rather Dangerous Monsieur Hollande.” My friend Bill Hinchberger, who lives in Paris and so should know (better) wrote a long piece asking how “scary” the new French leader was, and concluding he’s no more likely to frighten the horses than (former) Brazilian leftist leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was. The bond markets ended up loving him.

But there’s still a lingering sense that France has just upped the stakes in “gesture politics.” To paraphrase the French general Pierre François Joseph Bosquet’s comment about the pointless and suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade by British cavalrymen in the Crimean War: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” Or rather, “It’s a magnificent gesture, but hardly appropriate policymaking to suit recessionary times.”

As the world turns wobbly, Europe crumbles, and everyone else loses their nerve, here are the French, raising the finger to common-sense, the pack instinct – and probably to France’s own Christine Lagardère of the IMF too. She will have to give her own compatriots a tremendous telling-off when the euro hits the fan. Should we laugh, or cheer?

France’s defiance is magnificent and I for one hope things will work out under Hollande. It would be a sad thing if France were to become more of what it had slipped into under the rather sleazy, self-aggrandizing Nicolas Sarkozy and his tiresome chanteuse consort Carla Bruni. It wasn’t so much that French people like Hollande – in truth a totally unknown cypher – by that they really, really hate Sarko and what he stood for.

There was a distinct sense of social division. On top, the tiny meritocracy of smug Énarques running state-owned multinationals selling perfume, nuclear power or weapons using their easy access to cheap government credit to embark on vanity-driven M&A benders around the world. Down below a grumpy and increasingly African or Islamic majority squeezed into satellite towns. And between them a protective layer of petit-bourgeois antique shops, busy selling off the past. Around St Germain-des-Prés you can buy a second empire mirror, an altar-piece or a dubious Corot oil painting, but you can hardy find a bar open on a Sunday night.

Anglo-Saxons love to observe that while the French capital has become an immaculate “living zoo” where Parisians are on show for visiting Japanese tourists, anyone seeking work needs to come to messy, capitalist London. Already, there are 450,000 Gallic residents, two lycées, two radio stations serving the  French diaspora-on-Thames,  and even a congressman to make political promises to them. But this doesn’t help the French to create real work, and it doesn’t help British unemployment much, either.

During the weekend I received a message from a distinguished journalist I’d hoped to meet in Paris – but she was in Argentina. Her take on France after 5 years of covering the beat: “I’d have loved to have been in France for the results – though I can’t tell you how sick I am of French politics – these last 5 years have been so long and bitter and the country is more divided psychologically than it’s ever been.” By contrast, she found that in Christina Kirchner’s nationalist, tub-thumping Argentina, “people don’t seem to be paranoid about Islam or immigration or national identity or foreigners or terrorism.” When jumpy Argentina is deemed more chilled than France, you know something is badly out of whack.

Of course the election reporting was slanted, but the left-wing French press managed to capture something of the “bad loser” atmosphere and general nastiness prevailing at the Sarkozy not-victory party at the Mutualité on Sunday night, among the young and still-militant Sarkozistas (though not, it must be said, from the graceful and dignified president himself). Sarko left the stage to nurse the humiliation of being denied a second presidential term, still convinced he was the victim of global economic forces, not of his own abrasive personality.

“We’re in the shit, we’re in the shit,” they sang to the tune of Queen’s “We are the Champions.”  One interviewee wailed to the lefty daily Libération: “It’s horrible, I can’t bear to think I’ll have to look at this man with face like a crème caramel for the next five years.” Said another: “he just makes me want to puke.”

Now things will change. Or perhaps they never really did. The truth is that by sheer force of brazen cheek, chutzpah, cultural superiority, call it what you will, France has got away with blue murder for generations – and will continue to do so.

America may have had its own revolution much earlier, Italy’s Catherine de Medici may have first introduced France to haute cuisine, Jacques Brel was born in Belgium, not France (as was Tintin creator Hergé) but we all know that when it comes to matters of politics, philosophy, food, art, culture and sex, FRANCE COMES FIRST! At its best, modern France gobbles up what’s best from other cultures. Many people believe both Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were at least partly French — likewise Mick Jagger’s old squeeze, Marianne Faithfull.

Didn’t Talleyrand, the prince of diplomats, start off working for the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy, then change sides to join Napoleon – and then change sides again to join the right side as one of the victorious parties in the rebuilding of Europe after the Battle of Waterloo? The French can do anything! Wasn’t the exiled wartime leader General Charles de Gaulle grudgingly permitted by Winston Churchill to take a tiny force on the D-day invasion – and somehow ended up racing into Paris to “liberate” it from under the noses of the British and American armies? And once he was in power, de Gaulle turned around and thanked his wartime benefactor Britain by refusing to allow it to join a precursor of the EU. Likewise the real student protests of the 1960s really took place in Berkeley, California. But now we only ever think about May 1968, Danny le Rouge and the Sorbonne.

There’s a kind of wholly-commendable form of charlatanism (after all, they invented they word) that describes self-confident France when it’s on a roll. Pushy, cocky, confident. Everyone else has to believe that France is best, because it so patently is. Don’t review the facts, just believe.

So, could we see Hollande get “le Mojo Français” working again, just as it was during the Mitterrand era? All around me are the ripened infrastructure fruits of the last Socialist adventure when Mitterrand was the sun-king:  IM Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, La Défense and its library, the TGV and the Eurostar that brought me here from London. Can François Hollande hope to achieve a miracle of similar proportions? Will there be a rebirth?

The pundits are hedging their bets.  After all, Hollande’s 52% vote as barely  greater than Mitterrand’s own 51.76% back in 1981.  These sense is that the political honeymoon will be short. The Monday-after editorial in Libération, is typical. “Work hasn’t even started yet and from tomorrow, things will be brutal.  So today, be happy, and live life to the full during this beautiful month of May” wrote Nicolas Demorand. Nobody sees to believe that Hollande will bring in a 75% bash-the-rich income tax rate as he promised, or be able to do much to get the jobs flowing again outside the state sector which is all he knows about. And yet, and yet….

So after 30 years, I myself stand witness to a great social convulsion that crystallizes the anxiety for rebirth, for a second chance at a civic new start. I don’t believe it has so much to do with democracy, but is something more much more tribal than that.

It’s a commonplace that Paris is a city for lovers. But it’s really a city of revolutions, and of new personal beginnings. Every square seems to have its statue of Danton or some other revolutionary. People build up barricades, and then tear them down again.

And so this May, the scent from the muguet bouquets is every bit as intoxicating as it was 30 years ago when I stepped off the train in Paris and found myself embarking on a new journey that took me around the world to Latin America. With Mitterrand at the Matignon, France took off and so did my career. With Hollande, I hope you’ll raise a glass with me and toast “same again please.”  Along with France, we all deserve revival, renewal, revolution – whatever the future brings. Whether that makes me sentimental is for you, and more importantly for time, to judge.

© Richard House