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Crowdsourcing to alleviate mass unemployment

In the seven years since I launched Crowdsourcing Week, the Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest, and most awful global phenomenon. How has it affected you? Have your plans been put on hold, or do you see some opportunities opening up? Is it true that necessity is the mother of invention, and you are acquiring new workplace skills? Here is my look at some ways to use crowdsourcing to alleviate mass unemployment and support businesses and the people associated with them during this turbulent time.

Many futurists were already forecasting increasingly high levels of job losses due to the introduction of robotics and machine learning fuelled by artificial intelligence.  Workers performing repetitive tasks are reckoned to be the hardest hit. The UK innovation foundation Nesta previously forecast that up to 30% of existing jobs were at risk anyway, and the process is likely to accelerate as businesses carry out their enforced reviews of how to continue trading. Though the new jobs that don’t yet exist are also perhaps nearer.

We’re not talking about just warehouse shelf stacking and item retrieval, unmanned lawn mowers, flipping burgers, and laying bricks on construction sites. Legal searches, translation and transcription services, call center staff, bank tellers—all are at risk. The work least affected by artificial intelligence is creative, collaborative, utilizing a wide range of skills, and is flexible. That’s where people should increasingly look for opportunities, and what education should prepare more people for, according to Catalina Schveninger, the Head of HR at UK-based online education platform FutureLearn. In a recent article we also took a look at the fast growth of the Skillshare platform which provides video guides for improving creative skills.

Maurizio Rossi, co-founder and CEO of H-FARM, Europe’s biggest and most unique hub for innovation and education, believes the pandemic could cause many businesses to bring forward plans for a move towards greater examination of new possibilities. He says:

Crowdsourcing has an opportunity to evolve itself, defining new smart working formats and consequent engagement of competencies. We’ll see an increasing use of the so-called “digital flexibility” to redefine organizations and their engagement processes and access to competences and opportunities. Covid has simply accelerated by a few years a process that was already on its way, stimulating an increasing awareness at a large scale.”

Open innovation

It is increasingly accepted that open innovation, often through a process of turning a business challenge into a prize competition, uncovers new solutions faster, more cost effectively, and frequently from very different types of people compared to a company’s regular workforce.

All businesses have had to handle supply chain disruption, a retail shutdown, remote working —where it was possible, and now safeguarding employee health as a return to work starts to take shape. Research conducted by PWC among U.S. CEOs shows a majority are positive about how their companies responded in a period of high levels of enforced change. They are reassured the company stakeholders can cope with change, so what else is there to look at changing?

Christian Cotichini, CEO of HeroX on Canada’s west coast, sees the need for a fast post-pandemic recovery, challenging users to test the opportunities and benefits. At the same time, I have heard they are developing an “equity crowdsourcing” proposition. We all understand equity crowdfunding that trades a slice of business ownership for a cash investment. Equity crowdsourcing could be a way to reward prize challenge winners with equity, and thus tie them in closer to the business as a result. Could this revolutionize how we spend time on the internet?

Crowdfunding

Small businesses are a national economy’s foundation, and they can harness crowdsourcing to alleviate mass unemployment. In April 2020, a report said that US small businesses employ more than 47% of all Americans in the workforce. In the UK, recent government data showed small and medium enterprises (those employing under 250 people each) employ 60% of the total UK private sector workforce. They are vital to national economies: which direction do you think these numbers are heading in right now?

Crowdfunding really kicked off in response to post-2008 financial crash banking regulations which starved small businesses of funding. Kickstarter and Indiegogo gave product innovators an online route to market. Equity crowdfunding democratized access to seed round investment funding for startup business founders who lacked personal connections to a network of VCs and HNWIs. How might we see crowdfunding develop post-2020?

Karen Cahn, founder of IFundWomen, says rewards crowdfunding is a fantastic way for a wannabe entrepreneur to check public demand for a new product before melting down credit cards in debt. If the demand is there, they can go ahead safely. If a product doesn’t secure enough pre-orders to make it worth producing a first batch, then they can rethink their plans without having amassed a big debt.

Equity crowdfunding enables building a business through attracting shareholders, using crowdsourcing to alleviate mass unemployment. U.S. platforms StartEngine and Wefuunder had already hit record high investment levels in Q1 2020, and then the U.S. SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) relaxed Reg CF rules temporarily until February 2021 to make it less expensive and faster for businesses to raise investment funds. In August 2020, they widened the base of accredited investors by allowing professional qualifications to replace former demarcations based on income or savings definitions.

Gig-economy and freelance work

Recessions naturally drive up unemployment across the population, though the effects are more severe for those who have only recently left full-time education, and not just in the short-term. Research into the impacts of previous recessions shows that employment rates throughout the first wave of cohorts that leave education during a financial crisis remain lower than for those who leave education after it, with non-graduates experiencing the largest and longest scarring effects. To say it’s going to be tough for them is rather an understatement.

Though new entrants to the job market have better access to technology for remote working, with more advanced freelance and gig-economy opportunities  everyone  has  a chance to demonstrate proactivity and self-discipline. This is by improving their workplace skills through short-term contracts or assignments via platforms including Freelancer.com, Upwork, and Fiverr.

The pandemic lockdowns announced by most national governments meant the worldwide pool of skilled labor grew virtually overnight, across all age groups. Freelancer.com is the largest freelancing and crowdsourcing platform in the world by total number of users and jobs posted, connecting users with skilled jobs and tapping into the best talent and ideas. “Since Covid-19, we have seen exponential growth in user sign-ups suggesting a strong desire for individuals to get back to work and, in some cases, to do so on their own terms. Post-pandemic, the gig economy will continue to grow and we will see traditional workforce models evolve into an on-demand workforce,” says, Sebastián Siseles, vice-president-International at Freelancer.com.

Crowd finance – cryptocurrencies

Recent economic measures to try and maintain a functioning economy have seen a growing number of countries reach a debt level greater than a year’s GDP (which now includes the UK, France, and Spain), and Quantitative Easing which effectively devalues the fiat currencies of the countries involved. Scott Trowbridge of WeWork Labs says that although holdings in cryptocurrencies are too low for any of them to yet be a viable alternative, people who are active in this sector are very likely to increase their exposure as protection against negative impacts on fiat currencies …

How much more attractive might cryptocurrencies appear in the new normal, both to individuals and businesses protecting asset values?

Social businesses

In the new normal, we’re expected to become more aware of the needs of others, to share more often rather than try to out-do them. A recent KPMG report suggests three central factors of environmental, social, and governance criteria will play a greater role in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business.

There is already a cohort of new business builders who do not put personal reward as their main ambition—unless their top idea of reward is the satisfaction of helping others more than aspiring to acquire a home with a helipad, or on a private island. Generation Share, a book published by Benita Matofska, includes interviews with many entrepreneurs around the world whose primary aim was to create a business that first benefited other people, so long as it could make enough to be viable. Maximum profit for personal gain was not the prime motivation. This mindset shift is another way for crowdsourcing to alleviate mass unemployment.

What is Arcosanti?

Established in 1970 by Italian architect, artist, and philosopher Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti is an urban laboratory constructed in the Arizona high desert to test an alternative human habitat. After 50 years, it still looks like an experiential space to “prototype” an environment like no others.

Soleri, who spent most of his life in the US, thought that ill-conceived urban design was at the heart of most of the challenges faced by contemporary cities. So he spent most of his career to come up with an alternative habitat to that of modern cities: arcologies.

Born from the blend of “architecture” and “ecology,” arcologies were defined by Soleri in his 1969 book titled The City in the Image of Man as “organisms” designed in harmony with nature. Energy use was to be minimized, human interaction maximized, and transportation made super-efficient by design. In many ways, Soleri’s “arcologies” can be considered a precursor of today’s smart cities.

But unlike most utopias, that of Soleri was transported from sketchbook to reality. In 1970, Soleri established what was defined by Newsweek magazine as “the greatest urban experiment of his time.” Nestled among the rocky Arizona desert, the 25-acre settlement of Arcosanti was designed to serve a population of 5,000 by maximizing natural resources like sun and wind and offsetting waste through energy-efficient design. Industrial and residential activities were to be hosted in adjacent structures to minimize the need for transportation. Urban greenhouses were to provide most of the food needed by the community.

Arcosanti’s aesthetics matched its pioneering concept. The use of tilt-up concrete panels cast in the ground resulted in buildings that looked like they had been dug out from the earth. Large white domes and Romanesque ribbed vaults standing against the reddish Arizona desert gave it an otherworldly look. George Lucas reportedly visited Arcosanti to come up with stage design for the Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars. And the network of staircases, ramps, and bridges symbolized at once complexity and minimalism, two concepts at the heart of the Arcosanti project.

Part of Soleri’s vision can be traced back to his personal background. Born in Turin, Italy, in 1919 he graduated summa cum laude in architecture in 1946 and a year later traveled to the US for a fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert laboratory in Taliesin West, Arizona. During his time at Taliesin West, Soleri absorbed principles of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and came up with an award-winning design for a bridge displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. But after a year and a half, the young architect started to challenge some of his master’s ideas about urban planning.

At the time, Wright was working on plans for Broadacre City, a 4 square mile community whereby each resident would build his own low-rise homestead. This, Soleri thought, was going to drive suburban Americans further toward becoming “motorized hermits,” continually driving from one place to the next without meaningful interaction with each other or their surrounding landscape. Instead, the young architect looked to Italian cities with their integration of work and residential life, walking lifestyle and communal space.

In 1950, he returned to Italy and asked Ceramica Artistica Solimene, a ceramics factory, to take him on as an apprentice. A few months into his apprenticeships, the Solimene family asked him to come up with a new design for their factory. For this project, Soleri experimented with some concepts that later became a staple of his work. The different functions of the factory—design, production and sales—were organized to maximize efficiency. Clay would flow through a spiraling staircase from the top floor all the way to the ground floor shop. This way, Soleri sought to counteract the monotony and isolation of industrial production with an open and collaborative space.

In 1956 he returned to Paradise Valley, Arizona, and together with his wife, Conny settled in Cosanti, where he lived until his death in 2003. Cosanti, a play on words from the Italian “cosa” (thing) and “anti’ (against), was the place where Soleri developed his first “Earth House,” a structure made by pouring concrete over earthen forms which were then excavated. Being grounded in earth provided “earth houses” with both a strong foundation and a natural insulation system. It was also a real-life application of Soleri’s philosophy that architecture should merge with its surrounding landscape, feed off it and harness its natural characteristics.

In 1970 Soleri and a group of volunteers laid the first stone of what was to become his most important experiment, Arcosanti. Rather than “just” an urban design project, Soleri thought of it as a full-blown social experiment. A sign at the entrance of the settlement read: “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear, and disillusionment, join us.” Known for his strong work ethic, he refused for Arcosanti to be labeled as a “Hippy” commune and framed it as a “community of builders,” instead.

Since the project started, more than 7,000 people have taken part in workshops to help build his “desert utopia.” Some were tasked with casting bronze and ceramic wind bells, the sales of which were used to finance the project. Others contributed to the design and construction of towers and outdoor workspaces, all created in order to maximize sun exposure in winter and shade during summer. Each person was allocated a 2.4-meter concrete cubicle to live in — Soleri thought that minimizing private space would harness participation in public life outside one’s room.

As Soleri himself explained, many of his ideas around collective life stemmed from Italian cities where spaces are designed to meet what he considered basic human needs such as socialization and the exchange of ideas. The way he conceived buildings to provide views of the untamed Arizona desert is also reminiscent of the city-landscape integration of Italy. But other parts of his project, such as the development of an “energy apron” to capture greenhouse gases and use them for heating, were radical innovations stemmed from his own imagination. The end result was a conglomerate that looked at once futuristic and the legacy of a long-lost civilization.

Today, the Arcosanti Foundation, which has been managing the project since Soleri’s death in 2013, estimates that around 5% of Soleri’s original plan has been built, including 14 buildings, the wind bell foundry, a performance space, and greenhouses. It is home to around 50 permanent residents and an estimated 50,000 visitors who come to take part in workshops or attend events held in the amphitheater.

Some critics see Arcosanti’s unfinished state as a sign of Soleri’s lack of pragmatism. To others, it proves that Soleri actually used Arcosanti as an open-ended experiment rather than as a development project. Soleri himself used to frame Arcosanti as a tool for urban planning education, seeing value in workshops and planning sessions per se — he reportedly enjoyed sketching his ideas on hundred-feet long paper scrolls as much as seeing those ideas implemented.

What’s sure is that some 50 years after their conception, Soleri’s principles have become a staple of mainstream architecture. Talks of smart cities, sustainable buildings, and green infrastructure are now common across the urban planning community around the world. And while we are yet to see fully functional arcologies, many design studios have plans for arcologies for the near future including Masdar City, a 6 square kilometer space in Abu Dhabi designed by architecture studio Foster + Partners to rely solely on renewable energy sources and the New Orleans Arcology Habitat, a floating development designed to accommodate the changing tides of the Mississippi River, created by Kevin Schopfer. As cities prepare to host 85% of the global population by 2050 and find solutions to climate change, city planners may have no option but to turn Soleri’s utopia into reality to ensure human survival.

Drill, cut, and sew

“I do only things I’m curious about, or things I’m annoyed by.” Erik Gandini summarizes his approach to filming in one line. His latest film, The Rebel Surgeon, where viewers find mirrored correlations between personal utopias and encompassing dystopias, is no exception. “My time, or rather present and its representation, is what intrigues me, as it hides a provocation: how can one explore it and expose it while it’s actually happening? It’s a question of becoming wise about things I find dysfunctional in my present.”

Erik Erichsen is an experienced Swedish surgeon, who decided to move his practice to Aira, a small village in Ethiopia, after growing exasperated by his country’s bureaucracy. Like Gandini, he is an investigator of humanity, with a keen eye for contradiction and an urge to dissect—to separate health from disease, possibly to heal. The two also share a critical view of Sweden, on the relativity of health and happiness and the costs that a certain type of welfare implies.

“I came across this story after finding Erichsen’s unknown blog, where he revealed an enthusiastic obsession for the craft of surgery. He talked about his work on the operating table the way a chef talks about food. On a larger scale, I was fascinated by his journey — massive migration fluxes are going North, yet he chose to go the opposite direction. If I were to say Africa is better than Scandinavia, it would sound like a provocation — and that is exactly what I want to explore with the film.”

“While shooting The Swedish Theory of Love, I felt Erik and his wife Sennait deserved more time, observes Gandini. I usually don’t work on character-based, portrait documentary, but in this case, he was interesting enough to carry the whole story. This is a man who had a profession that is probably the most meaningful one in the world: he saves lives: that is something that should be fulfilling. But despite this premise, he ended up being completely disillusioned, and he lost his passion after three decades in Swedish healthcare. He found himself spending more time in front of his computer doing reports about surgery instead of actually practicing. He was in an environment that was looking for perfection in a manic way — this bureaucracy is a form of control. It became too much: he decided to quit his job, to go to a place where he would earn much less money, and have very few resources. And there he found his professional happiness again. It’s an inner critique of Swedish society — often presented as the peak of social development, but this is an arrogant and problematic assumption, and something I tried to question with this film.”

Shared names, shared journeys: something brought Erik G. to Erik E., in a small, understaffed, ill-equipped field hospital — a self-proclaimed “surgeon’s paradise.” There is a shapeless but deep connection between the two Eriks — in some ways, they’re both surgeons, cutting and rebuilding.

“I met Erik in his hospital in Sweden, before heading to Ethiopia, recalls Gandini. It’s where I got the shots of the depressed doctors. I was struck by how clinical everything looked, which, of course, made sense, and by how tense and sad it appeared. I felt very uneasy filming an operation room in Sweden. When we were in Aira, it was the opposite. Erik’s enthusiasm in the surgical theatre was contagious, and the surgery became really interesting — because surgery is really interesting. Surgeons have this idea that you can fix everything with your hands — especially Erik, who came from orthopedics: hammers, saws, tools, measuring limbs… He has this Macgyver attitude, which he applies to all things and all diseases, sometimes even in questionable ways.”

“He talked about Swedish colleagues sent to other countries complaining about lack of equipment: he’d tell them to go to the supermarket, find screws, hair clamps, hand drills—it’s all a matter of creativity. It’s something that resonated with me, because I think creativity is precious and easy to lose. And it’s like that in any profession, which is why when the film was released, a lot of people could identify with Erik’s broken enthusiasm and struggles with bureaucracy and administration.”

Gandini’s work with Erichsen wasn’t’ driven by enthusiasm alone. There were ethical traps to be avoided, and the documentarist at times was openly worried he might be shooting someone committing crimes, perhaps wittingly.

Courtesy of Fasad and Carl Nilsson

“There was a predictable narrative I needed to move past (heroic surgeon, visits poor country, saves lives) to create a wider social critique, which was challenging, confesses Gandini. At the same time, Erik worships his creativity, which in turn saves lives. And it’s something the whole continent is good at — African ingenuity, how to solve things with scarce resources. Erik learned this in Ethiopia, shaped his own philosophy, and his views on the Western world. Sometimes I worried that he was a sort of mad scientist—or a cursed character, out of Apocalypse Now, somebody who built his own kingdom far away, where no one controls him. It was important for me to ask him to question his own lack of control. He told me he isn’t beyond rules: there are regulations in Ethiopia, his colleagues are always looking at him, and he has a conscience. The main difference for him was the simplified equation he had here: if he did nothing, the person would die either way. In the end, I truly believe he’s a good person, even though I had to remove some of his jokes. They could have destroyed his character, but this humor for me guaranteed his good intentions. As did his wife Sennait, who is Ethiopian, and a very strong person.”

The Rebel Surgeon develops by traversing layers and juxtapositions, forcing the North of the world to face the South, inspecting a very individual utopia hidden in a much wider dystopia, at least from a Western perspective. And speaking of perspective, Gandini’s own ideals and ideal versions of the world come into play, especially when filming the reality and visions of other human beings.

“I’m sure another doctor would have considered Erik’s hospital in Aira an absolute nightmare, an apocalypse. But for him, it meant performing more operations than writing about them, embracing his wife’s culture, and in general expressing curiosity towards the world. Erik is not afraid of difference — I was working on a broader project on cosmopolitanism before filming The Rebel Surgeon, and Erik became a materialization of some of its topics. My whole profession is about taking the freedom of showing the world as I see it. That’s the creative force behind every artist, I’d say. My tools are images, editing, and sound. For instance, structuring a film about a whole country is emotional and political — being able to encapsulate everything in a consistent product feels incredibly empowering. It’s what sets you apart you from being a passive consumer, stuck in front of a screen looking at someone else’s version of the world. Making documentaries allows me to expose myself to reality physically.”

If the medium really is the message, the hospitals in Stockholm and Aira become a container — a concrete metaphor — of the contradictions hidden in the growth of our societies. And this is especially true for Sweden, which is considered the pinnacle of social planning. However, despite their critical view of Sweden, and their intense travel and knowledge of the world, both Eriks ended up staying there.

“It’s a country where decisions have been made collectively, with radical ways of conceiving personal independence, and as a result it has taken enormous steps for gender equality, environmental planning, and education. As long as I can do films which criticize the country I live in — this film is financed by Swedish television, as was The Swedish Theory of Love — I have a sense of security. Doing my art is my duty and my joy: to remind ourselves that we still have a lot to learn. I don’t think a perfect society exists. that the best definition of a good society is a society that does not perceive itself as perfect. That’s when problems arise: when you think you’re better than everybody else. Sweden isn’t a utopia: Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party, is the second-largest in the country. There is a strong presence of really evil forces, because that’s what they are.”

“I never asked myself if my work has shown more utopia or dystopia — argues Gandini —. In the 1930s, in Italy, Futurism — who made the unfortunate decision to side with Fascism — was one of the few artistic movements that expressed undivided optimism toward the future. It’s a time in my life where I’m questioning whether documentary is showing only the worst the world has to offer. Exceptional social and technological changes are actually taking place now, and we have the opportunity to live better lives. After I screen my films, I often get asked what I’m proposing as an alternative. To be honest, I’m only a filmmaker, but I’ve started to think that bringing the future into films is an interesting goal: we focus a lot on the past and the present, but we can start to offer a perspective for younger generations. Showing dystopia to discuss utopia. Luckily, though, so far, I’ve seen more utopia.”

The things surrounding us

In a world where business, technology, and people come together to give life to increasingly systemic and complex projects, what role does design play? Nowadays, a single individual is no longer able to master all of the topics necessary to carry out a project from A to Z.

As a consultant at H-FARM and professor at Politecnico di Milano and other universities, I deal with strategic design and interaction design. When I graduated with a degree in design — at a time in which smartphones and social networks did not yet exist — all I wanted was to draw ”my own toys,” off-the-record, digital and electronic stuff. In the following years, I would see design take on extremely diverse, and more and more complex facets, changing so much that sometimes one might barely recognize it.

From the Industrial Revolution until a few years ago, the term product design referred to the definition of a physical product. Today, product designers are those who design apps and websites, therefore those who deal with digital projects. However, when I talk about a product, I am referring to anything that is the result of a design process, whether physical or digital, an experience or a platform, a business model or a communication campaign. They are all areas in which we have implemented projects, but in which skills have sometimes been mixed, because it was the project and the interest that guided it.

Design as an interpreter of society

It is therefore easy to understand how the sense of aesthetics and sensitivity to design give shape to realities that are much more articulated than that of a simple product. To capture people’s attention or make them live an experience, is not just about acting on their senses. When design condenses the values of a company into a project, and at the same time intercepts the values and passions of society, it goes beyond the simple realization of a product, and implements an authentic cultural operation. Design, above all else, is the interpreter of a society, giving voice to its needs and values. Design is a narrator of ourselves.

There was a time when going to a meeting with an Apple laptop was a self-declaration as a professional, and of one’s outlook on life. Not only did it serve to communicate something, but it outlined roles, that is those who owned a Mac had the image as a “creative” and they were expected to be treated accordingly.

We could say the same about a uniform or a policeman and their car: they are all objects with a strong semantic value, meaning that they communicate messages and define roles.

The objects we choose not only reflect our sense of aesthetics and share our passions, but also determine the relationships we establish with others.

From product to experience

Design has accepted the challenge of an increasingly complex world in which, thanks also to technology, people expect objects to be capable of offering more articulated and seductive experiences, and at the same time brands try to collect data for targeted audience communications. Hence, the increasingly central role of technology.

If, in the past, technology facilitated, above all, the transformation of materials — or, at most, the material itself was a core interest of design — in the new era, it’s a mix of different types of technologies which animate the panorama of the “things” surrounding us. In this world, objects are no longer just mainly inert, becoming protagonists only when people have to carry out an activity that needs their support. They are, instead, designed to attract our attitudes more and more effectively, and to “manifest” themselves all the time. Objects have become partners of our existence, with interfaces that allow us to infinitely expand the possibilities of interaction, and the amount of data that we can process. These augmented products transcend the mere nature of objects, to often become part of wonderful and engaging experiences.

Stories as a project framework

Any product is characterized by at least three stories. All three must be well written, because the product’s success (or failure) depends on them: I’m talking about the story between the designers and the brand, the one between the brand and the audience, and the one between the consumer and the product.

In this first step, we plan the path we will take to define the product we want to put on the market. Be it a service, a platform, or a campaign, before anything else, we plan the path we will take with our customer, to reach a joint outline of the best solution. It is therefore not a question of solutions or ideas, but of processes.

The second story is about communicating the product to the outside world. We must convince our audience of the goodness of our idea and its worth. However, there are projects that are not only meant to be communicated externally, but also towards the company’s internal community. In the latter case, I’m referring to projects born for the engagement of the corporate community, such as campaigns, services, or business games.

Finally, there is the story that we outline when we design the product, or how we imagine that the user, or users, will interact with it — be it a product, a campaign, a service, or a process. The outcome is always the result of a collaboration between a designer and a company.

Design and Inclusivity

Design has always had the aim of bringing different actors around the discussion table of a project. Over the years, the stakeholders to be involved have multiplied for each area, because the complexity of the world in which we move requires project teams to be increasingly varied and articulated.

Typically, design pays great attention to people as the core around which a project revolves. This implies that, in the construction of a project, we pay attention not only to the end customers, but also to the persons who carry out the whole project. Anyone who is part of the flow must be taken into consideration with their own peculiarities both as a person, but also in relation to the context in which they find themselves.

The second major player is the world of business, which, for example, ensures that the project is sustainable from an economic point of view. This implies that design had to learn to speak the language of the corporate world, to make conversations more fluid and effective.

Then, we have the world of technology, as we must guarantee the feasibility of our ideas. Precisely because projects have become so complicated, it’s almost impossible to master all of the necessary technologies. For this reason, it is important to bring on board anyone who will be involved in the realization or integration of our project and business systems from the very beginning.

Design complexity

Complexity is one of the main traits of our times. If, in the past, the production of artifacts was related to processes of transformation of matter, now it also relates to the dynamics of the digital world. This blend begins in the design phase, and then extends throughout the whole lifecycle of a product. The business models that have risen in the last decade move seamlessly between these worlds, minimizing friction in the steps to improve the user experience. Today’s designers, as evoked by Ernesto Nathan Rogers with his famous phrase “from the spoon to the city,” must act empathetically to understand people’s needs, and at the same time gather stakeholders around the table who guarantee technological feasibility and economic sustainability. Navigating through an economic system based on ever stronger connections, the momentum towards new adventures requires a growing degree of awareness, which derives from the analysis of the competitive sphere, but also drawing on experiences that serve as inspiration. These analyses are then turned into meaningful data — the basis for the construction of a new, sustainable system.

I am deeply convinced that the challenges of the dynamic world that we live in can be successfully dealt with only with a wide variety of skills and experiences, and an evolutionary approach to design.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing — the process of identifying, assessing, and managing people who have been exposed to a disease to prevent its onward transmission — has the benefit of technology on its side when it comes to tracking Covid-19, but the core of its basic principles have been used for hundreds of years, dating back to the time of the bubonic plague in Europe.

In 1576, while treating patients on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy during the bubonic plague outbreak, physician Andrea Gratiolo used contact tracing to disprove the origin of the disease when a woman was said to have carried it from her home in Trento 100 km to the south to the town of Desenzano. In La Peste di Desenzano nel 1567, The Plague of Desenzano, Gratiolo wrote that the woman had “taken a small and tightly packed boat with 18 others … sleeping on top of one another, and one woman had slept all night with her head in the accused woman’s lap.” In a plague treatise published later that year, Gratiolo argued that the boat’s passengers should have become infected if the woman had the plague, but none did.

Indeed, contact tracing was widespread in 16th-century Europe. A hospital duty book from Nuremberg, Germany, compiled between 1500 and 1700, lists questions to be asked of every patient wishing treatment at any of the city’s facilities, regardless of the illness. These related to how, when, where and, if possible, from whom the patient had contracted it. Historian William Coleman’s 1987 book, Yellow Fever in the North, associated “case tracing” with the origins of epidemiology in the mid-19th century. French physicians fighting yellow fever in the 1840s focused on finding the first case — what we would now call “patient zero.”

When it comes to 2020 and Covid-19, tracing the path of contact with anyone who might have the virus is being used as a public health tool for controlling the pandemic. Contact tracing for Covid-19 according to the World Health Organization recommendations requires identifying people who may have been exposed to the virus and checking with them daily for 14 days from the last point of exposure. For successful tracing, individuals must agree to daily monitoring, be willing to report signs or symptoms of Covid-19 promptly, and go into quarantine for at least 14 days if they become symptomatic.

A contact is defined as anyone with the following exposure to a Covid-19 case, from two days before to 14 days after the onset of illness:

  • Being within 1 meter of a Covid-19 case for 15 minutes or longer
  • Direct physical contact with a Covid-19 case
  • Providing direct care for patients with Covid-19 without using proper personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and medical gowns

If confirmed cases are asymptomatic, those contacts should be managed in the same way as symptomatic cases with an exposure period from two days before the case was sampled, to 14 days after. Regular communication between a contact tracing team and the contacts who they have been assigned to monitor is a key part of contact tracing. The World Health Organization notes that electronic data capture tools should be used wherever possible, and while this can aid in contact tracing, it also presents privacy issues that the contact tracing of the 1500s did not have to contend with.

Singapore was one of the first to release a digital contact tracing app. As the pandemic spread globally, national governments around the world built their own contact tracing apps. MIT’s Covid Tracing Tracker shares details of significant automated contact tracing apps that are backed by national governments from around the world from Algeria to Vietnam. The database currently includes 25 apps sharing information like the technology used, its limitations, and criticisms. An Amnesty International investigation reviewed contact tracing apps from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, including a detailed technical analysis of 11 apps in Algeria, Bahrain, France, Iceland, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Norway, Qatar, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates. The results found that some of the apps were worse when it came to compromising human rights. Bahrain’s ‘BeAware Bahrain,’ Kuwait’s ‘Shlonik’ and Norway’s ‘Smittestopp’ were found to be the worst violators as mass surveillance tools, with all three actively carrying out live or near-live tracking of users’ locations by frequently uploading GPS coordinates to a central server. A major security vulnerability was discovered in Qatar’s EHTERAZ app, which exposed sensitive personal details of more than one million people, but it was fixed after Amnesty told the government about its findings. Another issue with tracing apps are their socio-economic limitations for people who do not have access to mobile devices.

Tracing app technology includes identifying a person’s contacts by tracking a phone’s movements and looking for other phones that have spent time in the same location. Some systems use “proximity tracking,” in which phones swap encrypted tokens with any other nearby phones over Bluetooth. This technology is easier to anonymize and generally considered better for privacy than location tracking.

An Apple and Google “Exposure Notification System” allows phones to be used for contact tracing with the apps tracking other phones that you have been in close contact with, using either GPS or a “digital handshake” between phones over Bluetooth. If a user gets Covid-19, they alert the app, and anyone who has been near them in recent days is notified that they may have been exposed.

Another technology is DP-3T, or decentralized privacy-preserving proximity tracing. It’s an open-source protocol for Bluetooth-based tracking in which an individual phone’s contact logs are only stored locally, so no central authority can know who has been exposed.

But are these apps really effective? Researchers at Oxford University estimate that 60 percent of the population would need to use a contact tracing app for it to be effective in actually curbing the virus, and no country has come close to that level. Until their use becomes more prevalent, contact tracing apps’ value may lie in gathering real-time data about which activities or locations might be responsible for the highest number of potential exposures and closing them or limiting their access accordingly, taking us back to the basics of contact tracing.

How to become an altruistic leader

When it comes to leadership, Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP Business School thinks that a utopian approach is not the right path to follow: “A utopia doesn’t exist in any place by definition. Successful companies have a way greater inspirational power than utopias.”

And their inspirational power comes from looking at what’s happening not inside the company, but outside: as Getz puts it, “you don’t look at your stomach, you look at the horizon.” Today, the biggest challenge that organizations must face is that “despite all the benefits that capitalism has brought to society, we have reached the moment when its social and environmental downsides have begun to outweigh its positive effects,” states Getz in his latest book, The Altruistic Corporation.

A radical departure from the concepts of corporate social responsibility or shared value, and even from the idea of reinventing a capitalist firm such as with “conscious capitalism” and “B-corps,” the concept of an “altruistic corporation” explains, for the first time, how a capitalistic firm can unconditionally serve its external counterparts — customers, suppliers, former employees, youth, and communities — and, thanks to that, become prosperous. This is a change that implies transforming a company so every employee serves the other unconditionally without asking for permission. Writes Getz: “The majority of people have solutions for the issues they observe and want to take initiative to serve the other unconditionally, but they can’t do that if they are stuck in a traditional, hierarchical, and bureaucratic organization.” Altruistic corporations unleash people’s initiative to treat their external counterparts as friends.

According to Getz, it’s a process that requires an entire organization’s commitment, but only the CEO of a company can make the decision to transform it. Often, such CEOs undergo a deep psychological transformation. How, then, should such leaders begin to transform their companies? “Don’t speak, act. There is no love; there is only proof of love.”

Mostly plants, not too much

The trajectory of an entire life can be changed by the most insignificant events, such as being forced to share the produce from your vegetable garden (the fruit of your hard work and the cause of your backache) with an obstinate woodchuck. In the ‘80s, Michael Pollan — grandson of a Jewish Russian immigrant who arrived in America in 1917, started his New York adventure selling potatoes on the Lower East Side and ended it as a successful businessman with a passion for weekend gardening — was executive editor of Harper’s magazine. If it had not been for his grandfather, who taught him to love nature, Pollan would probably not have decided to leave his brilliant career in the city that never sleeps, to move, with the complicity of his wife (painter Judith Belzer), to a ramshackle farm in Connecticut. Right there, next to it, was a plot that became a vegetable garden, and the scene of the turning point of his life (and successful career): A war against that insolent woodchuck.

One day, in the grip of the fury that besets all farmers when they grapple with an enemy besieging their land, Pollan had decided to sprinkle the annoying rodent’s lair with gasoline and burn it, when another thought flitted through his brain, “Am I not taking the same ‘hegemonic’ approach to nature as those Americans who think ‘how dare these inferior creatures get in the way of what I want?'” From that moment on, everything changed for him. Or rather, in the words of one of his spiritual fathers, transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau, “Things do not change, we change.”

Today, Michael Pollan is one of the most influential nature writers in the world. In 1991, the woodchuck inspired him to pen the essay Second Nature — which is more a meditation on the environment we live in than a manual for wannabe horticulturists. He followed it with The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food which immediately became a point of reference for people who believe a different approach to land, agriculture, and food, are not only possible but could turn out to be fundamental to ensure a dignified future for humans. “I don’t know if there is a link between food and the vision of a hypothetical ideal society,” Pollan admits, “but I can say that for me, Utopia is this: food — grown, prepared, and eaten with reverence.”

Courtesy of Clemens Ascher

Since what we eat reflects the ideological structure society is based on, over the centuries, food has taken on various values: a ‘eucharistic’ symbol, a synonym of sophistication in the ideals of the Enlightenment, a return to nature for Romantics, a symbol of hope in socialist Utopias, and a sign of prosperity in the society of abundance. “In every Utopia worthy of that name,” Pollan says, “there has to be extraordinary and significant food, because food is an essential component of living a ‘beautiful life’.”

In the Oscar-winning documentary Food Inc., director Robert Kenner analyzed industrial food production mechanisms in the United States, and two assets in particular: corn monocultures, and cattle farming. Kenner started from the premise that even though over the last 50 years, the way we eat has changed more than in the 10,000 prior, and that almost all food comes from industrial production, rural scenes continue to be portrayed in its cultural representations. On this occasion, Michael Pollan, who participated in the docu-film, spoke of a curtain, “A curtain has been deliberately lowered between us and where our food comes from, because they do not want us to know the truth: if they knew, consumers would not continue to buy. It is a matter of connecting the dots. When we buy something at the supermarket, we see its packaging, but what we don’t see is the combination of processes that composed it, which can be followed in reverse to the starting point. There is a connection between the fact that we cultivate a lot of corn, the cheap food, and such high levels of diabetes.”

Pollan’s mission, starting with the journalistic inquiry unleashed by The Omnivore’s Dilemma, became lifting the veil from the production line that the food industry deliberately keeps hidden. He begins with a simple question: “What should we have for dinner?” Pollan examines the three main food highways that today feed humankind: the industrial one, the organic or alternative one, and the traditional one, based on hunting and gathering. “Three deeply diverse systems that nonetheless serve more or less the same purpose: to connect what we eat with the fertility of the land and solar energy,” he explains. “It might seem strange, but even a jar of Nutella has a connective role between us and nature. As ecology teaches us, everything is intertwined with everything else.” This holistic approach — from the land to the consumer — enables Pollan to explore the material and psychological repercussions of nutritional policies on us omnivores.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan prepares the ‘perfect meal’ following specific rules: every ingredient has to be either hunted, gathered, or grown with your own hands; there has to be at least one element from each natural kingdom (animal, vegetable, fungi, mineral); everything has to be in season; and you have to cook everything yourself. But, is it possible, in 2020, to make a similar kind of meal in our lives that are so full of commitments? Pollan is open to the possibility: “Actually, my intention was not to propose a practical solution suitable for everyone, not least because if we all started hunting and gathering indiscriminately, we would end up destroying the planet and its weakest species. But having this kind of experience once or twice in one’s life could have a huge impact and change the way we live, reminding us how much the act of eating connects us to other species, but also the ancient version of ourselves. When you hunt and procure food on your own, the sacredness of food becomes tangible — more than a practice the perfect meal is an idea.” It is no coincidence that the positive approaches Pollan examines include the Slow Food movement. Founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986, it has spread internationally. It began as a reaction to the prevalence of fast food and junk food; its objective is to treat eating a meal as pleasure. “Ever since I learned of their existence,” he adds, “I have believed Slow Food had the right idea. It combines a spontaneous appreciation for pleasure with social justice and sustainable agriculture, challenging the idea that is deeply rooted at least in America, that well-being, and thinking and acting well, are mutually exclusive concepts.”

Courtesy of Clemens Ascher

Nearly 15 years after The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published, many things have changed, overall for the better. Above all, consumer awareness has changed. Pollan says, “The market for products from alternative production systems is taking huge strides. People are far more knowledgeable about where the food they buy comes from, whereas 20 years ago almost nobody cared. But the problems I was talking about, in particular, monocultures and the logic of heavily processed industrial food, are still unresolved.” The challenges ahead in terms of food policy will progress hand in hand with those of ecology and climate change. “The relationship between food and climate was unknown 20 years ago,” Pollan explains, “In 2007, for example, not even Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth mentioned it. Now, however, consumers know that eating meat hugely impacts climate change. Recently, Al Gore himself revisited these issues, emphasizing the positive impact regenerative agriculture — and, in general, cultivation techniques that enable us to benefit from the properties of the soil without exploiting or impoverishing it – could have to mitigate, and even reduce the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere.” Another point on the agenda is education, “It is difficult to change the habits of adults.” Pollan says, “That is why nutritional education for children has become fundamental, and it must cover the whole cycle: growing, cooking, and eating. We also have to grow plants without impoverishing the soil, and reducing waste. Therefore, school policies should be accompanied by solid actions to support farmers. By this, I mean incentives aimed at making it clear that it is not enough to produce: we have to look after the land at the same time.” One last decisive point, according to Pollan, concerns the categories of our daily language: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma he told us how a simple change of our language (using the word ‘food’ instead of ‘agriculture’) brought urban communities closer to the topic, “Our ways of saying things support new ways of thinking. The content is important but so is the frame. People who live in cities do not feel connected to the source of the food they eat, so words and stories can help bridge the gap.”

So, what should we have for dinner? Pollan’s answer remains the one that he himself transformed into An Eater’s Manifesto, and which he included in the pamphlet In Defense of Food, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” In other words: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

Flatland climbers

In 1970, Bob Dylan published his eleventh studio album New Morning among student protests and cultural changes. Four years later, Gian Piero Motti, an excellent alpinist and author for Rivista della montagna magazine, was inspired by this album and used the Italian translation of it — il Nuovo Mattino — to name the youth movement he led that would forever change alpinism and climbing in Italy. Enrico Camanni is an alpinist and journalist who participated in this movement and embraced this philosophy. “There was a big misunderstanding among old-school alpinists, about who was better and who did more difficult things.” says Camanni: “The real point was destroying the idea of military heroism behind mountain expeditions and transforming climbing into a game.”

Until that turning point, alpinism had been synonymous with enormous effort and highly uncomfortable outfits. “Going to the mountains felt like an obligation,” says Camanni. “You had to reach the top or else your climb was worthless, you had to follow certain strict and old directives, it was more like an army activity: you wake up early, you leave early, you always carry a heavy backpack.” Il Nuovo Mattino despised the figure of the hard and pure alpinist, the rite of the summit at all costs, the struggle of the Alps. They rejected classic garments and replaced them with jeans, T-shirts, and lighter rubber shoes.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” said Camanni, quoting Marcel Proust to explain how the aim of the group was to move the attention from the peak of the mountain to easier walls, to transform climbing into a fun and creative activity rather than a duty. “If you climb in the valley at 5,000 feets above the sea level, you have less stress, there are no glaciers, there is more sun; it is a whole different thing than what you could do on the top of a mountain. Also, the complexity of the peaks made it an elitist activity, so Nuovo Mattino unhinge the cliché; they open up climbing to everyone, transforming it into a democratic sport. When you start to take away the taboo of the summit, the taboo of the cold weather, the taboo of the heavy backpack, in the end, you make climbing free.”

The real innovation was to focus on something that had always been there and tackle the challenge in a new way. Inspired by the myth of Californian climbing, Il Nuovo Mattino found new walls and called them Caporal and Sergeant, in response to the legendary El Captain of the Yosemite Valley. Says Camanni: “For three years we imitated those long-haired people that lived in tents for months at the base of the walls, climbing when they wanted to, sunbathing when they didn’t. In California, cliffs have always had different features: there are no hostile climatic conditions, so for them, it was normal to climb those kinds of walls.”

What made the Italian movement different from the American one, was an intellectual push which derived from 1968 cultural references. It’s no coincidence that the movement grew in the urban areas of the most industrial cities of Italy. Il Nuovo Mattino included people from all backgrounds and social classes, but this equal democracy was reached thanks to the personality of Gian Piero Motti and other young cultured men who looked for a complimentary but not conflicting truth with the urban experience and industrial society.

Camanni says, “I think our story was exceptional from a literary point of view. Gian Piero Motti and Andrea Gobetti were the ones sharing their experiences, their thoughts, their adventures with a completely different style and when I started reading this new language, all the rest seemed old.”

Courtesy of Andrea Giorda

Although Il Nuovo Mattino was influential for a young generation of climbers, it didn’t last long; with the mountain approach becoming less elitist, that act of transgression became a commercial affair in less than 10 years. The rebellion was incorporated into the system to generate profits, whoever believed in the dream of living the mountain experience forever, became exasperated: they knew that, sooner or later, it was time to come back to reality.

Adventure has been extensively abused by commercials and social networks, and even the desire to escape daily routine is exploited. “What’s the point today of talking about adventure with internet, smartphones, helicopters?” Camanni asks. “Now, if we don’t know everything about an itinerary we don’t even leave because we have doubts. If alpinism and climbing hadn’t had that component of adventure, I think I would have done something else. We always have to find unknown areas in our lives today, everything is too planned out. It makes me laugh when travel agencies promote their offers as a guaranteed adventure, this is absolute nonsense. I love the fact that more and more people are passionate about the alpine environment, but without desire and with too many indications, it’s not interesting anymore.”

At the same time, there are always more and more people that find their happiness outside urban areas with the same desire of changing the current equilibrium. “Now, everyone makes his or her own life trying to live for the best, sometimes in an ethical and balanced way. When we were young, we wanted to change the world in a more decisive way. Probably we didn’t change anything, still, our short revolution was meaningful.” This story must be a nudge for the population that is now struggling with a more and more anti-human society; as Enrico says, “don’t take for granted the freedom and wellbeing that you inherit from the previous generation, nothing lasts unchanged forever, even a small transgressive act can be useful for a better future.”

Prepare for the unexpected

A few months back, if you were to describe the current situation to an average person, they would have looked at you like you’re mad. There’s no chance that anyone would believe that we would be forced to stay at home for weeks for fear of a virus infection, that we would wear medical masks everywhere we go, that travelling between countries would completely stop, and that all of this might have transpired because someone ate an undercooked bat.

Although it sounds like some strange dystopian science fiction novel, it became our reality. As with every other crisis that the world experiences, Covid-19 can teach us valuable lessons on risk management and cyber security.

So, without further ado, let us dive in.

Shit happens

One of the services that my company is providing is “Cyber crisis management.” That means that we are the people that you would call when you discover that your company got hacked (or is currently being hacked).

Dealing with cyber incidents is fascinating. And, amazingly enough, almost every incident is unique. Some involve “organized crime,” others include “competitors,” and there are those that were initiated by an internal employee.

Yet, there is one thing that happens in every incident that we have addressed so far. Even though the attacked company spent huge amounts of resources on cybersecurity, as well as time discussing cyber threats, when an incident occurs, management is always surprised.

Something in our human nature is seemingly biased towards the “It will never happen” attitude. Even though we discuss a threat, we usually never really believe that it will be realized.

Let’s take 9-11 for example.

Before 9-11, many companies that had offices in one of the twin towers, used to build a redundancy site (i.e. a backup site) on the other tower. The two buildings utilized separate infrastructures (electricity, water, etc.). That made companies believe that if something affected one building, their backup site would still work.

Consequently, when 9-11 happened, many companies lost their entire data storage. Without any means to restore it, many companies were forced to close shop.

So, for lesson number one, we need to fight our human nature which sometimes keeps us complacent and happy. We need to seriously discuss the improbable and ask the hard “What-if” questions. From time to time, the improbable happens, and we should be prepared.

The cybercrime world is an industry

Covid-19 reminded us again that cybercrime is an industry. Cybercriminals developed effective business models and cybercrime is their daily job. Criminals in cyberspace enjoy a wide range of marketplaces in which they can “rent” a botnet, buy a ransomware package in a black Friday deal, and trade identities and credit cards. With crime services, communities, and advanced tools, the cybercrime world flourishes.

It was interesting to see how fast criminals have adopted the new Covid-19 reality, and how quickly they have taken advantage of the opportunities it presented.

It started with various methods and techniques to trick unknowing victims into opening a fraudulent link or downloading an infected file with emails that sounds something like ‘’important information about Covid-19,’’ or ‘’you were infected, click here for additional information.’’

Under normal circumstances, most people would likely ignore these emails. However, when panic ensues, rationality decreases, and people are more prone to getting tricked.

Yet, a more alarming trend was the recent increase in attacks against hospitals. Criminals take advantage of the fact that hospitals have a central role in the fight against Covid-19, and that currently they are overloaded and don’t have much attention to deal with cyber incidents. Without a blink of an eye, they have started infecting hospitals with ransomware, not considering the fact that they’re putting other people’s lives at risk.

So, lesson number two should be that the cybercrime underworld has the ability and capacity to react quickly to changes, and to maximize their profits over others’ suffering.

Cyber kills

Cyber incidents can have physical consequences. And in some cases, yes, cyber can kill.

In 2010 the Stuxnet was discovered. It was a unique computer virus, which disrupted the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran by changing the way the centrifuges worked. Such a virus attack could have easily resulted in casualties.

In 2015, Ashley Madison, a website for people who want to cheat on their significant other, was hacked and its user information was stolen. A short time later, the attackers published the stolen information online, putting everyone’s dirty laundry on display. This has resulted in multiple suicides from people who couldn’t handle the shame they felt when they saw their names on this list.

Recent research by two universities in the United States has shown that the mortality rate in hospitals increases following a cyberattack. This is attributed to the fact that, after a cyber incident, hospitals tend to focus on improving their security infrastructure by incorporating new controls. Consequently, it would take more time to operate these new controls, which causes a delay in treatments. The research has stated that for every 10,000 people, 30 more die following an incident. And, that is how hospital cyberattacks indirectly influence the mortality rate.

Necessity is a strong driver for Innovation

For years now, many companies have wanted to enable their employees to work remotely. Letting your employees take their work computers home could boost productivity, employees’ satisfaction, and in some cases, reduce costs. Yet, such initiatives always reach a halt when cybersecurity issues start to float.

However, as soon as the Covid-19 crisis started, remote work became the norm, for the lack of a better option. And companies that might have viewed remote work as too dangerous, found secure ways to allow their employees to work from home.

This just proves how cybersecurity people can be innovation enablers.

Lesson number 4: Cybersecurity people move from being the “no it is too dangerous” team and become part of the driving force that moves digitalization and innovation forward.

Conclusion …

The moral of the story is: preparation is the key. We have to not only consider all the possible scenarios, but also act under the presumption that they WILL happen one day. Luckily, not everything is so gloomy and dark. Although the Covid-19 situation was definitely unexpected and disastrous, it has still given us a lot to think about. The world of cybersecurity is continuously evolving, and we have to keep up. If we learn from our mistakes and apply new knowledge moving forward, the next crisis will be only half as bad.

On the edge of sound

If not for its pull towards a place that does not exist, towards a location that is only reachable by transcending the known, music would be — like other arts (dance, painting, literature) — buried under an eternal return of ideal canons and proportions characterized by an everlasting classicism. Imagine if we were to delete from history the insolence with which Mozart made fun of traditions, injecting the modes of Lutheran canons, made unrecognizable, into his works, or Beethoven’s titanic introversion that transformed folk dances into allegories on nature in his seventh symphony. A little like in Danny Boyle’s film Yesterday — in which the music of The Beatles vanishes completely from people’s memories — we would be deprived of the vertigo of that “outside the box thinking” which represents a leap in its genre and establishes a scale by which to measure everything left at its feet.

We would be forced to endure an infinite repetition of staid sequences, Haydn’s frigid symphonies, and we would have to make do with chamber music commissioned by amateur princelings, inured to their labored performances. Perhaps we would be allowed the modest romantic-pastoral temptations of Weber’s operas. We would have OberonEuryanthe, and The Freeshooter, but no one would have thought they could combine Freemasonry and natural-law, mysteriosophy, fairy stories, invocations of Egyptian deities, and Enlightenment into a single opera as in the improbable cathedral of The Magic Flute. Like Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo in which he tries to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, and takes a ship to the top of a mountain, in the same way Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia records the decisive moments in music history. A history characterized less by the progression of technical and formal acquisitions than by the ideas of certain musicians who have used music to take man away from the darkness of the moment lived, giving people a possibility to transcend their time.

It was intuition that pushed Schubert to compose Winterreise, when in 1823 he came across the poems published by Wilhelm Müller in the Prussian almanac Urania. Müller was a poet who had been ignored by critics, a librarian in the military stationed in Dessau regarded with suspicion by authorities because of a number of articles praising Byron. However, in those lines, Schubert glimpsed the possibility of creating a cycle on the significance of existence. Then, leaving behind the fragmentation of the lieder, he gave shape to the story of the nighttime winter journey of a spurned lover. A lover forced to wander over the symbolic itinerary of a nature that has been transformed by romantic sensitivity. Winterreise is a complete opera. Far from Wagner’s gargantuan productions, it was composed simply on the pianoforte. Instead of constraining himself to accompany the song — as was traditional with the lied — Schubert developed the voice of this mysterious unsettled character forced to walk along snowy roads, whipped by the wind and with no hope of being able to return to the home where he was loved.

Courtesy of Christopher Payne

In this case, it isn’t even a question of leaving a genre behind. Winterreise occupies a special place on the shelves of classical music, but it is intimately related to In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, and The Boatman’s Call by Nick Cave. The backdrop of night and winter amplify emotions, the pianoforte becomes the tempest, the water that continues to flow beneath the ice, the melody heard from afar, like the voice of memory, a little organ, the dialogue whose words do not melt into birdsong, the ungainly cawing of crows. It was Mahler with Das Lied Von Der Erde who fused the song of the lied with the symphonic form, but Schubert went beyond this, composing a symphonic poem that explored with pianoforte a range of expression which would otherwise have remained restricted by traditional compositional forms.

Miles Davis described John Coltrane’s style in a 1958 interview with The Jazz Review: “He is dedicated to those arpeggios, and then he plays chords that have other chords inside them, and he plays them in 50 different ways, and he plays them all at the same time.” Ten years later, listening to the Thelonius Monk Quartet play at the Five Spot, jazz historian Ira Gitler coined the expression “sheet of sound.” Coltrane’s compositions were curtains of sound, sheets of notes played quickly in a continuous glissando, indistinguishable from each other. Coltrane would visit Monk in the mornings to rehearse pieces, discuss music, and look for new ways forward. Coltrane was said to be an omnivorous reader, spending his days immersed in obscure texts about the history of religions, oriental mysticism, and astrology. It is said that he did not speak much, loved math, and applied a mathematical approach to every part of music. When he played, though, he was extremely passionate, and when his comet shot into the sky for the first time, the critics placed him with those saxophonists who brought anger to the blues, with an intensity unknown until that moment, enriched by a strong funky influence, as can be heard in one of his best-known compositions, Blue Train.

Monk pushed Coltrane to coax more than one sound from his sax at the same time by using harmonics. Revisiting the rhythm and blues of his youth, Coltrane squeezed whistles from his instrument, authentic screams that became trumpeting in the most confused moments of his labyrinthine and obsessive solos, in which he pulled out everything a theme had to offer. Studying Indian music and listening to Ravi Shankar led him to think in terms of chords instead of scales. He redefined the codified system of tonal music, through modal improvisation, and he explored the secret rules of the world of sounds. Perhaps his problems with drugs and his marriage also played a role. In 1964 Coltrane crossed the ford, breaking with jazz traditions in favor of a cosmic music with substantial harmonic stasis based on a pair of chords, sometimes even without written music. Mysticism became his way of finding an answer to the Afro-American problem, transcended through musical expression.

Courtesy of Christopher Payne

CrescentA Love Supreme, and Ascension are all pieces from 1964/1965 in which Coltrane learns to resolve tension and distension, anger and love, prayer and shouting. The form of the four-part suite is still recognizable in A Love Supreme, even though it was remodeled as a song to praise God. Here, we have the first synthesis of an idea to include ethnic instruments and tracks in jazz in which a greater role is given to rhythm, alongside a simplification of the harmonic line: fewer chords, a constant beat, not playing rigidly, making interplay rather than quarters important. Ascension is complete improvisation, as was Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman. Each member plays their solo and the bridges are left to sporadic predefined passages, like interchanges on a railway network, only episodically tonal. The result is an abstract tapestry, polyphonic and cacophonous, where a brief moment of melody surfaces before everything goes back to total chaos. Nothing is the same as in the world we used to know, nothing looks like a place, in the territory of utopia.