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Lessons in Creativity & Success from the Majority World

In response to all the queries I’ve had for a version of the presentation I did at SXSW last month, here’s a transcript of my talk, and copies of my slides. I’d really value any feedback you have for me as I refine this for a broader audience. My aim is to arm creative professionals with the knowledge and inspiration that will help them find the success that can be theirs despite (or because of) the disrupted (read ‘bombed out’) Old World Order.

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It really feels like a war out there sometimes, doesn’t it? Like there’s a battle going on. Only, no war has been declared. You don’t really even know who the enemy is. But lives are being changed, livelihoods destroyed by a new power that has emerged, with new technologies bombing the world as we knew it to pieces.

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Maybe you once thought The Cloud was a blessing. But now you’re not so sure. It’s just happening so fast. And it’s relentless. 24/7. There’s no letting up.

Before all this, things certainly weren’t easy. But, in hindsight, it was more idyllic. Hard work got you ahead. You put the hours in, you weathered the storms. You planted in season, and you reaped. But then destruction arrived, out of the ether.

At first you thought if you just kept your head down, kept working hard, it would move on. Keep doing what you’ve been doing and all this trouble will disappear as quickly as arrived.

But after the initial surprise and shock, long months are turning into years, aren’t they? You’re wondering which way forward, aren’t you? Do you hunker down, or do you make a move?

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Photo courtesy


On December 14th, 1964, Operation Barrel Roll was initiated over Laos, the skinny SE Asian country you’ve possibly never heard of, and that is now my temporary home. Bordering China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and, most relevant here, Vietnam, it was caught up in a larger series of world events and seismic shifts at the time. Barrel Roll was one of the American  military’s most closely held secrets. And to this day that ‘Secret War’ run by the CIA is virtually unacknowledged. Laos, or Layos, as you might have heard it pronounced, if you’ve ever heard it pronounced, has the dubious privilege of being the most bombed country per capita. Ever. The US, in that Secret War, dropped more bombs on Laos than all the bombs dropped by both sides during WWII. Half a ton per capita. A planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes for 9 long years.

When the bombs fall, who can you even blame? No war has been declared. You never chose a side. You don’t even know who the sides are. No chance to come out with your hands up, show a white flag and say ‘I give up’. You don’t even know who the enemy is. And then, after all that time, very suddenly it’s over. You hear on the radio that a cease-fire has been signed. You’ve won.

How do you win a war like that? Or even just survive it? How do you feed and clothe your family, educate your children, and grow your organization in those kind of conditions? (Is building a photo business in 2015 starting to sound like a small task in comparison?)

Here’s how you do it: you stick to your core values, but you do things completely differently. You accept that nothing is the same anymore. And you find appropriate tools and technologies.

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In Laos, that meant that cultures renowned for their colourful silks and over-sized silver jewellery – the land of bright-orange-clad monks and candles and incense and ornate temples – embraced the art of camouflage. No white ducks. No red roosters. Nothing that could be seen from the air. People learned to hide under their water buffalo if they were caught out in the open.

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They lived in caves. Cooked at night to hide the smoke. Soaked clothes in mud. BE INVISIBLE, was the strategy. Differentiate between  fundamental Buddhist beliefs and its outward clothing.

And, rather than give up and become complacent, they worked with greater vigour: Farming at night. Cooking at night. And in the caves by day, teaching and working. There were schools. Hospitals. Printing Presses. A radio station.

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And so uneducated communities from subsistence economies who didn’t even know what communism was when the first aircraft emerged from those clouds, were quoting Stalin by the time the last B52 disappeared over the horizon.

When your freedom is restricted, there’s a lot of time for reading and learning. When you have fewer options, you can focus more. Just as my countryman Nelson Mandela found. He used his 27 years in jail to read, to learn, to write, to reflect. To grow himself into the great leader that he would become.

Why am I telling you this?

It’s certainly not to belittle your own battle for survival. Quite the contrary: I know just how much it really does feel like a war out there sometimes. Like that war in Laos, it’s pointless looking for the ‘baddies’. This is not meanness, or ill intent. It’s not personal. There’s no-one out to get you. It’s not about you.

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The key theme of my talk today is Re-Creation. We are sitting and standing here today in the rubble of destroyed civilizations. Publishing, Photography, Music… They haven’t just crumbled. They have been bombed to destruction by new technologies emerging from the clouds. By new cultural philosophies antagonistic to our previously cherished ones.

I want to give you hope here today. If you can Re-Examine your assumptions… If you can Re-Imagine the status quo… You can Re-Invent your enterprise. You can find success. It requires creativity. And if you weren’t a creative, you wouldn’t be here at SXSW.


I mentioned that great man, Nelson Mandela.

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Poster for movie, courtesy Nicolas Rossier


But it’s his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, an ordinary man who truly reinvented himself and the country he lead. My country. South Africa.

Twenty five years ago, on the 2nd of February 1990, I stood nervously but excitedly attending a rally demanding the release of Nelson Mandela, or ‘Madiba’, as we call him now. There were a few other white faces in that heaving, chanting crowd, certainly, but I felt out of place, vulnerable, and awed. I knew to raise my fist to shout Awetu, in response to the eloquent speakers’ Amandla! And I knew that it meant ‘Power’ … ‘to us’.  But I didn’t know many other words in Xhosa or Zulu, the chief languages of the bulk of my countrymen.

There were eloquent speakers, all in English, speaking more for the benefit of the world’s journalists gathered there for that day’s opening of parliament. Every time they felt our attention drifting, they’d shout Amandla. And we’d all Awethu. But it felt a bit same-old. Exciting, yes, But yet another pointless protest, demanding/requesting the release of Nelson Mandela, the name we all knew but a man whose face none did, as pictures of him had been banned for many a year.

Finally the TV crews all left, heading up to the Opening of Parliament, and the crowd drifted off. I started setting up my stall at the local fleamarket selling clothes, which is how I was trying to put myself through university. When the newspaper sellers arrived.

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Not even.

Actually, I thought it was a gimmick. A kind of performance art protest. A way of igniting hope in people again; get them believing. But the State President, FW De Klerk, had trumped us all. He announced the release of Mandela. But so much more: the unbanning (isn’t that a weird word?) of the African National Congress. And a journey towards true democracy. One man, one vote, no matter your colour.

The man that made that announcement and stunned his own country and the entire international community… The man who opened the door to the greatness of Mandela had no prior disposition to greatness himself. What got him to that point? How did a man with no reputation for creativity or imagination rewrite South Africa’s destiny?


Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man. You and I are not of that stock. But FW… He was an ordinary man who chose to re-invent himself. He had re-examined his beliefs on who his friends and enemies were, had re-imagined the potential outcomes, and very deliberately re-invented himself and thus his – my – country.

That re-imagination was inspired and fostered by the extraordinary character of Nelson Mandela.

Ivan Fallon in The Independent from the UK tells it well:

“In December de Klerk sent for him (from prison) and Mandela was smuggled in through the basement garage of the presidential office in Cape Town, and the officials withdrew to leave the two of them on their own. Each later recorded they sat for a moment ‘weighing each other up’. Like everyone else, de Klerk had no real idea what Mandela looked like, because there had been only a few secretly snatched photos of him for 20 years. He found himself staring at a man much taller than he expected, slightly stooped with age (he was 71), and dignified, courteous and utterly self-confident.”

“So this,” de Klerk recalls saying to himself, “is Nelson Mandela.” By the end of the meeting he had come to a remarkably similar conclusion as Mandela: “Here was a man I could do business with.”

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“Walking on the beaches over Christmas, de Klerk reflected on the journey that had brought him there, and the rocky and uncertain fate which lay ahead.” His French ancestors, just like mine, arrived in the Cape in 1686.  His grandfather was twice captured by the British in the Boer War, and later became a founder member of Apartheid’s ruling party in 1914. His father was a Member of Parliament in that same party.

Re-inventing THAT is quite an ask.

He had, he says, “long come to the realisation that we were involved in a downward spiral of increasing violence and we could not hang on indefinitely. There would be no winners. The key decision I had to take now, for myself, was whether to make a paradigm shift.”

He mulled over it privately through Christmas and New Year. On the morning, says Fallon, he awoke with a “sense of destiny – I knew South Africa would never be the same again but I also believed I was doing the right thing at the right time.”

“As MPs, ambassadors and other dignitaries gathered for the formal opening of parliament, only a handful of cabinet ministers were in the know, and they had been sworn not even to tell their wives – de Klerk only confided in his wife Marike on the way to parliament that morning. When he sat down, the ANC and 30 other political parties, including the Communist Party, had been unbanned unconditionally; the death penalty was suspended; trade unions were allowed to function freely; all political prisoners were to be released immediately, and, perhaps most importantly of all, de Klerk opened the way for South Africa’s first fully democratic election.”

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“The entire edifice of apartheid, so hated around the world, had been dismantled in a single speech.”

Mandela was released from prison 9 days later.

Three years later FW De Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Price. And another year later we had our first true non-racial democratic elections. Sanctions were lifted. (And I could travel to a foreign university and get my Journalism Masters degree.)

So here’s my question to you:

What would happen if you re-examined your most fundamental beliefs about your creativity, your business, and how they can co-exist? Are the very tactics that brought you success in the past possibly hampering the health of your photography or publishing business now? You see, sometimes it’s not about just tweaking what you’ve been doing, but about turning your assumptions inside out.

Also, it’s about understanding others’ assumptions.

A few years ago, back-to-back trips to France and China made this glaringly obvious to me. On both, I was toting portfolios of photographers that I represented, looking to get them into galleries and develop sales in these two regions. At Visa Pour L’Image in France, where I’d been chastised by the cream of the crop of international curators who gather there and subject themselves to days of portfolio reviews. In each of my 15-minute slots, I got the same response: “No, no, no. That is too beautiful. Beauty is not art. Especially not found beauty.” And so they rejected a glowing image of a rare bird on a hippo’s nose. Or a 3-hour large-format exposure of a Zimbabwean lake that showed dead trees poised in mercury. “Beauty is too easy. That’s not art.”

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In Shanghai, on the other hand, they were all about the beauty. But there I was confounded by a different subtext: it’s not really great art if it’s original.

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You earn your stripes by copying, copying, copying. That’s how you become a Great Master. That’s the thinking.

As is so often said about Japanese sushi chefs: they make rice for years before they’re allowed to do anything else. And when you walk into a sushi restaurant tonight, here in downtown Austin, do you really want to be confronted by a bunch of unknowns, or do you want to find a lot of what you’re expecting and only a little that might test your knowledge and your ability to pronounce their names?

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Likewise those Shanghai curators: they were looking for talented emulation of those who’d gone before.

So, on the subject of re-invention:

Ask yourself where your real creativity lies. Is it really the image, the lyrics, the sound that you created? Was that truly original? Or can your creativity express itself through bringing disparate resources together. Re-examining the options. Re-imagining the status quo.

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I guess you all know that Gutenberg did not invent the printing press. Nor even moveable type. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t quite realise that until two years ago, when I cycled across South Korea and found a small mention in a nondescript town I cruised through. No fanfare. No big deal. A mention of the fact that in 1377 a Korean monk named Baegun – quite appropriately – printed a compilation  of Buddhist sayings using metal type cast in a foundry there. Believed to be the oldest book in the world.

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And before that, in the 11th C, a Chinese peasant named Pi Sheng developed the world’s first moveable type, made from baked clay.

That’s not the only thing the Chinese invented. That huge nation of copycats used to be a nation of inventors.

Mechanical clock: 1086, 300 years before the UK. Paper too, including paper money, wall paper and toilet paper: 11th C China.

The first blast furnace for smelting iron: Coalbrookdale in 1709. China in 200BC.

Spinning wheels to gunpowder. Chemical insecticide. The fishing reel. matches, magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush, wheelbarrow…

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How about golf? Everyone knows that was invented in Scotland, right? Well, records from China’s Song dynasty (960-1200s) describe a game called Chuiwan, played with 10 clubs.

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And, as for the accumulation of knowledge: the 11 000-volume encyclopedia commissioned by the Yongle Emperor was only surpassed in size 600 years later, in 2007. By Wikipedia.

And then of course the voyages of discovery. You know about those, right?

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

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Well, almost 100 years earlier, Admiral Zheng He set off on the first of 6 great voyages in a boat 5 times the size of that of our man Christopher. He had a fleet of 300 huge ocean-going junks, with multiple masts and separate buoyancy chambers. His task: explore the world’s oceans and “go to the barbarians countries and confer presents on them and so transform them by displaying our power.” On three of those journeys, ships reached the east coast of Africa and envoys of 30 African rulers invited onboard to acknowledge the “cosmic ascendancy” of the Ming Emperor.

Talking of imagination and creativity: if you’ve ever struggled to find a gift for that guy who has it all, how do you find that little something that the ruler of the greatest empire on earth at the time might appreciate? Well, the Sultan of Malindi, in present-day Kenya, came up with just the thing: a giraffe. (Cos of course, who wouldn’t want a giraffe?)

There are some who believe that Chinese ships even rounded the Cape of Good Hope, where I used to live, close to the southern tip of Africa, and went on to cross the Atlantic and on past Tierra del Fuego and Australia. These claims are a tad circumstantial, but the point is that well before the West was exploring and trading, far afield the Rest were. Asia and Africa visiting, trading, exploring. All this well before the start of what is commonly known as The Age of Exploration. 15th C North America was a wilderness in comparison to the “realms of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas in Central and South America, with their towering temples and skyscraping roads.”

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“For some reason, beginning in the late 15th C, the little states of W Europe, with their bastardized linguistic borrowings from Latin (and a little Greek) and their intellectual debts to Oriental mathematics, astronomy and technology, produced a civilization capable of converting peoples all over the world to the Western way of life – a conversion achieved ultimately more by the word than the sword.”

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In 1500, the world’s 10 biggest cities were nearly all in the East, with Beijing 10 times the size of wretched little London, who didn’t even make the list.

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In 1900, that had totally changed around, and London was at the top, and four times the size of Asia’s only entry, Tokyo.

(Right now? The top 7 are in Asia. NY comes in at no. 8, and then it’s Sao Paulo and Mexico City.)

Now that you have a sense that things are not quite the way you might have thought they were, let me fill you in on the ‘killer apps’ (that’s Niall Ferguson’s analogy, not mine) that changed all that. That tilted the balance of power between the West and the Rest. And which is tilting it again today.

Because the Rest now outnumbers the West. Whether you call ours developing countries, the second- and third world, the Global South, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the Majority of the World is different to you. And it might have a few ideas you can borrow.

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Those six ‘killer apps’ were the key to western ascendancy, says Ferguson. But, and here’s the really important part: “the story of our time… is that the Majority World has finally begun to download them. While the West got distracted by Angry Birds, Farmville and all the games apps, there’s a whole other world out there who is focusing on productivity.

So, let’s look at those apps, from our point of view as creatives: as photographers, publishers, writers, singers, songwriters, movie-moguls-in-the-making… If these could take a small backward culture that was starting from almost nothing, and bring it to rule the world, what can they do for your creative business in 2015?

Six apps. I think we have three themes here. You’ve heard me mention them already.


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Let’s start with work ethic: hard work and thrift

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Gutenberg’s press was of course famous for printing Luther’s 95 Theses, which lead to the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant ethic, moreover, provided the capitalist with “sober, conscientious, and unusually capable workers, who were devoted to work as the divinely willed purpose of life,” says Ferguson.

Sounds just like America today, don’t you think?

So, yes, you can tick that box. But there’s bad news: everybody has a high work ethic. You are not going to get to success by working harder than anybody else. Sure, as an American you don’t take a month-long summer break like the Europeans, or 35-hour working weeks, but the middle class norm in Asia is a shop-house: You, as a freelancer, might work from home. There, your home is the shop, with either one little room at the back as your bedroom, or you simply pull up a mattress and sleep on the floor. That’s the middle class. As for the working class…

Re-examine the notion that harder or more work gets you ahead.

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The Greeks are some of the most hardworking in the OECD ‘rich club’, putting in over 2,000 hours a year on average. Germans, on the other hand, are comparative slackers, working about 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is about 70% higher.

America: average.

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The ostentatious display of new wealth is a universal trend. So much so that there were sumptuary laws in parts of the world, like Japan, to regulate permitted consumption. ensure that only certain status people were allowed certain possessions or items of clothing.

In Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, the merchant class had grown far wealthier than the aristocratic Samurai, and these laws sought to maintain the superiority of the samurai class despite the ability of the merchants to wear far more luxurious clothing and to own far more luxurious items. So merchants of a certain prestige were allowed to wear a single sword at their belt; samurai wore a matched pair.

The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity enhancing technologies and demand for better and cheaper goods.

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Like Marx, you might need to re-examine your consumption philosophies.

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The weekly Catholic Church service in the Shangri-La Mall, Manila, Philippines.



In the West, private capitalism and liberal democracy are held sacrosanct.

Give me liberty or give me death

But in much of the rest of the world, the notions of political, religious and economic rights are not one and the same. In China I see a tacit understanding of a dirty deal: an agreement that’s understood: you give us economic freedom, and we’ll not worry too much about political freedoms.

Give me Gucci or give me death

In much of the Majority World, it’s not Lady Liberty that’s in vogue. It’s her handbag.

Of course Thailand’s another Asian country that’s recently given up democracy. A writer in the Bangkok Post put it like this: “Some of us do believe that luxury fashion is a new religion and its totems – a handbag, shoes or sunglasses – may be an amulet, talisman or charm.”

Consumer is King is the new political reality.

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Vientiane, Laos. Photo by Mary Davies


While in the West, conspicuous consumption shouts ‘nouveau riche’ as if that were a bad thing in much of the rest of the world, that relationship status reads “It’s complicated.” Apple knows exactly what they are doing by bringing out a Watch for US$10 000.

So the message here is to re-examine:

1.   who your consumer is

2.   what they need

3.   more importantly, what they want.

“But how does that help me?’ you ask. I’m not big like Apple.

At the age of 17, and with a weekly budget of $5, one of my countrymen became one of the youngest patent holders in the world. He reimagined the bath.

Ludwick Marishane comes from the dry, poor province of Limpopo. One winter’s day, he and his friends were soaking up the sun’s last warming rays and lamenting the fact that, with no electricity, they’d have to have cold baths. “If only we could bath without water,” said one. That got Marishane thinking. And researching. On what he calls his “trusty little steed”: a very basic Nokia. And that’s when he discovered a remarkable statistic: 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to water and sanitation.

Now 2.5 billion people is quite a consumer base, wouldn’t you say? So, Marishane, his trusty steed and Google combined forces, and that rural schoolkid developed ‘Dry-Bath’, an innovative gel that removes, dirt, dead skin and BO, without water. He went on to win best student entrepreneur in the world in 2011.

Knowing that poor communities can’t afford to buy in bulk, Marishane has packaged in tiny portions: one pack per wash. So that even a day labourer can perhaps afford a wash for that one day. That’s re-examining your concept of consumer. But then, it turns out, there are a lot of wealthy schoolkids who don’t like washing either. Turns out the market is even bigger than Marishane had thought. And NGOs are keen to buy for the portion of those 2.5 billion people who absolutely can’t afford it. And now airlines are interested. This thing’s taking off.

Re-examine your consumption ‘facts.’

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I want to tell you about a phenomenal publishing success that is very literally about consumption: about what we eat.

Professor Tim Noakes is a leader in the field of sports science. He literally wrote the book on running. The Lore of Running has been the runner’s bible since 1985. With updated tomes, heavy on research and references and detail, coming out every few years. Noakes was at the forefront of promoting the concept of carbo-loading.

But when I interviewed him for a completely unrelated story I was writing about three years ago, I couldn’t help marveling at how much younger he looked, and how much leaner. He beamed, and told me that was now also running at speeds he had not managed in 20 years. (Bear in mind he’d already run more than 70 marathons and ultramarathons.) And then he pointed to a box on his desk. You know those show boxes everyone had on their gleaming power desks in the 80s, which opened to reveal a satiny blue interior and a gold pen? Well in this case, it revealed what looked like a metal syringe to me.

“There’s the fault,” he told me. “I got it so wrong. And I mislead a generation of scientists and athletes. Now I need to rewrite all those books.” Noakes explained to me that the instrument was what he and his colleagues had used to take muscle biopsies of high-performance athletes in their labs. They had then come to faulty conclusions about muscle glycogen and its relationship to carbohydrate consumption. Conclusions influenced by the carbohydrate-based food pyramid recommendations that the FDA puts out every year. Problem is: the FDAs regulations have not been based on science, but on lobbying by Big Food and the pharmaceutical industry.

Having developed diabetes himself despite an impeccable diet, Noakes set about re-examining all nutritional literature on the subject and realized that FDA food pyramid was not based on findings that would pass even the most rudimentary definition of ’science’. Like double-blind studies, or proof of causitive effect. And he discovered bodies of work that proved the health benefits of a high fat, low carbohydrate diet instead.

He could have just gone quietly. He was due for retirement and could simply have bid adieu and basked in his career success. Instead he publicly set about changing that and was widely derided for singing a different tune. His argument: if you stick fast to your beliefs in the face of changing circumstance, that’s faith. We call that religion. When you are able to come to new conclusions when shown new or previously overlooked evidence, that’s science.

So Professor Tim Noakes re-examined the facts, and came to a new conclusion. Now, how to get the information out there?

Re-examine what people really want to know from health and diet books. Do they want the technical detail, or are they really asking: “What can I eat? And what’s really yummy?”

Instead of writing yet another scientific paper on the subject, that would be overlooked just like all those other excellent ones had been, Noakes collaborated with two chefs and a nutritionist and they wrote a cookbook in four weeks.

And then they took it to a small South African publishing company already known for flying in the face of publishing convention. And Quivertree Publications selected an editor best known for his agony uncle articles in women’s magazines. And the brave designer and director didn’t put a single picture of food on the cover. The word “cookbook” doesn’t even feature. In a country in which 5000 copies constitutes a bestseller, The Real Meal Revolution has sold 200 000 copies in a year.

‘The Red Bible’ is a bestseller 40 times over.

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Now they’ve started an online school to train converts in the science.

So, starting with one honest scientist re-examing the facts, we see what happens when a publishing company then has the courage to reimagine what a cookbook can be. And menus and dinner parties all over South Africa will never be the same again. As you will find here when that book eventually lands in the US. (Just three weeks ago, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee ‘fessed up about the lack of evidence behind that food pyramid. Let’s see if your food industry lobbyists allow the truth or Big Pharma to prevail.)


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My second theme: REIMAGINE.

It starts with competition.

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Competition for resources leads to risk taking and innovation. Lack of competition breeds complacency and stifles innovation.

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We saw that in the story I told you about Admiral Zeng He. He himself was a great nothing-to-lose-everything-to-gain kind of guy. Talk about competition for resources: he started with none. At the age of 11 he’d been captured in battle and, as was the norm, had been castrated. (Ouch. That’s limited resources!) He was assigned as a servant to one of the emperor’s sons. he clearly nurtured that single resource. though his master was only the fourth son, he managed to seize the throne and tasked our man He with exploring the world’s oceans.

So it can be argued that competition for resources motivated Zeng He. And competition for respect and admiration motivated his master, Emperor Yongle. but when the latter died, there was no further motivation in that large monolithic culture to maintain any further exploration.

Europe, on the other hand, was a mess of little squabbling entities and nations.

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Europe was politically fragmented and within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing entities. Resources were short, driving an Age of Exploration. It was about getting ahead of rivals, politically and economically. It was all about trade.

And so a little country like Portugal, sent out their own emissaries to look elsewhere for resources. Vasco de Gama rounded Africa in a few years short of 1500 and so began the spice race which saw all those little squabbling European entities fighting over this new source of resource. And they had to be innovative about it. The Dutch set up the world’s very first corporation: the Dutch East India Company, who set up a vegetable garden at the Cape to supply the passing ships on the spice route.

And it meant that no one European ruler could put a stop to exploration, as the Chinese emperor had suddenly done. Instead, they competed all the more stiffly with eachother.

So… Competition. It’s a good thing. You have competition in your industry? Does that feel like a good thing?

Look at the photography industry: professional photographers complain to me that amateurs are stealing their clients. That a full-time doctor who takes wildlife pics on his vacations can afford the latest equipment and can fly first class to the Serengeti to get his shot. “Those damned amateurs are ruining the business!” you say.

“It’s a jungle out there!” you say.

I say: re-imagine your friends and your enemies. This requires reimagining the roles, and reframing the problem.

If you get a chance, take a look at the delightful TED talk by John Kasaona, a Himba man from Namibia, who describes fantastic conservation success in that arid, poor country. It began with a reframing of the problem: not how to catch poachers. But how to stop poaching. The solution: You make the poachers the caretakers. Let them profit from guardianship.

I’ve been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Laos on a similar project. I’m just helping them a bit on the media front. But I’m so impressed with what they are achieving on the ground with extremely limited resources.

Nam Nern Night Safari,

Photo courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society Laos


The Nam Nern Night Safari takes tourists by boat upriver into the core zone of this protected area, the last remaining habitat for tigers in Indochina. The guides and spotters are all former poachers and fishermen. So they already have their 10 000 hours of experience. Now their communities get paid in hard cash after every trip for every animal you spotted. It’s totally transparent: you see the pricelist upfront. This incentivizes them to keep that animal alive, so as to keep selling views of it to tourists over and over again, rather than to poach it once.

So, how do you do apply that to your photography business?

Let’s stick with the wildlife theme and look at the results of the most recent Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

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Professor of evolutionary biology: Alexander Badyaev, Russia/USA

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Software engineer Raviprakash S S, India

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Surgeon: Ary Bassous, Brazil:

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Diving instructor: Christian Vizi, Mexico


“Amateurs” from the Majority World are taking home the gold.

But, wait. Let’s go back to that same competition. There are a lot of photographers already offering photo safaris. But there are a lot more amateurs out there with cash to pay and a desire to learn. Do you have specific knowledge that you could supply, if you thought of those amateurs as your market? If, instead of loathing them, you might start to love them, and help them out?

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Francisco Negroni of Chile leads photographic safaris to some of Chile’s most active volcanoes.

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Bence Máté, Hungary: wildlife photography tourism: he’s set up hides that he rents out.

Okay, on to our next winner app.

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Let’s look at the Scientific Revolution.


Way back in the 8th C, in Baghdad, in the House of Wisdom, Greek texts by Aristotle and others were being translated into Arabic. The caliphate had the first hospitals, and the first university. Muslim mathematicians established algebra as a discipline, and the first camera obscura was built.

But then came Gutenberg’s press. As we’ve already discussed, Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type. But he did improve on what already existed, in every aspect. And, most importantly, he brought the press to an audience that could use it far more easily: Chinese and Korean languages have huge alphabets. Latin is limited. Manageable. And so you could move those limited letters around pretty quickly, and print out new documents on new findings.

Science, by definition, is about observation and experiment.

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Because of the imperative to publish new findings, scientific knowledge could grow cumulatively. All the major 17th C breakthroughs in math, astronomy , physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe.

The Muslim world, on the other hand, was clamping down.

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“There was a religious reverence for the pen, a preference for the art of calligraphy over the business of printing,” explains Ferguson.

Sounds a lot like the big 6 publishers today, doesn’t it?

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What the Majority World is showing, and what the most successful companies in the West also prove, is that creativity will find a market if it solves a problem.

Look again at the definition of science: it is about intellect and practice. We don’t need technology for technology’s sake. It’s why the printing press didn’t take off in China or in Korea all those centuries before Gutenberg: it didn’t solve a problem. Writing by hand, when your alphabet is that huge, was still quicker.

Paperight is bookstores reimagined. It’s the problem of remoteness and cost solved. It’s a network of independent print shops that can print books on demand. The idea, the intellectual aspect, was an online library of books that print shops could legally download, print and sell to customers.

Sitting in the US right now, you might find the revolutionary nature of this idea not immediately obvious. But in the Majority World, there are copy shops everywhere. Yes, everybody has mobile, but they don’t necessarily have reliable electricity to recharge, big-screened smartphones to read on, or storage capacity on their devices. And, most vitally, they don’t have access to any lines of credit. You don’t get to buy on Amazon without a credit card. And iTunes still doesn’t accept the credit cards from many, many countries, no matter how wealthy the cardholder is.

South African founder Arthur Attwell is passionate about getting books into people’s hands, about increasing literacy and education. His plan was to:

•  turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa (just like Espresso Book Machine, just different)

•  dramatically reduce the cost of textbooks

He was going to achieve this by publishers making money selling instant licenses, and Paperight would earn a small commission. All through reimagining the use of existing technology (using more recent software innovations with well-established hardware technology), as well as reexamining the potential of a neglected consumer base.

They succeeded. From mid 2012 to Dec 2014 they got to  200+ outlets, 150+ publishers, 2100+ titles. Success? Undoubtedly. But madly profitable? Meh. The numbers rose, but not sufficiently. While many publishers joined, almost none let Paperight sell their most popular, high-value titles. They tested with their scraps. Which then meant most copy shops were not active partners, which is not surprising when we had so few high-value titles for them to promote.

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So, sadly, Paperight is on hold. It’s still all open source, so anybody can pick it up and run with it. But the key aspect that would have brought the tipping point was that publishers simply lacked urgency and vision. They’re still terrified of any kind of competition to their traditional business, despite the fact that that’s failing fast. And those who were open to change, wanted only the latest and brightest. Too few were thinking appropriate technology. Intellectual ideas on both sides of the spectrum were not in step with practicality.

Attwell realizes now he should have set the thing up as a not-for-profit, in line with his motivations. Now he’s doing the opposite: he’s competing with the industry, rather than trying to drag them along reluctantly, and he’s making good profits through the appropriate use of technology.

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What’s Bettercare? It’s a system of group learning for the medical industry.  Nurses, midwives, doctors and students form their own groups, study together and take the tests. The key: the material is available in a myriad of formats, from everything-for-free to pay-for-convenience-and-support.  And it turns out a surprising number of people will pay for the latter. This is a profitable business.

And as for increasing literacy and a book-buying market, Arthur is leading an initiative that the mainstream publishers should have started 20 years ago, the day that Nelson Mandela walked free: Bookdash is a volunteer-based non-profit creating and distributing African storybooks for free.


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Our third theme, Re-Invention, includes the ‘killer’ or winner apps Modern Medicine and Rule of Law.

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All the major breakthroughs in healthcare, including tropical diseases, took place in Western Europe and North America. We all know that the West didn’t deliberately bring the germs that annihilated the rest. They weren’t all evil. In fact, there was a massive loss of imperial lives initially. You’d have some Englishman getting off a ship in India and wanting to eat his usual food. The germs would get him, while his buddy who ate curry, which was cooked for hours and hours and thus had the germs killed, survived.

Countless biologists and botanists also stepped off those arriving colonial ships, and went off in search of cures. Colonial master countries seemed to compete to set up tropical disease research institutes. And so we saw cures for malaria (gin and tonic, anyone?) and a whole host of other illnesses.

Here’s the take-out from that:

Look for cures and patients in that Great Big World Out There, where the majority of this planet’s people live.

They can be a market for your existing cure. Or they can provide you with solutions that you can bring back home.

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If I were to tell you that one continent is responsible 52% of all global mobile money services, which continent would immediately come to mind?

Africa, anyone?

When Apple announced Apple Pay last year, Tim Cook’s announcement was met with a collective ‘huh?’ from much of Africa and Asia. We struggled to understand why this was a step forward when it still required a special phone plus a credit or debit card.

In Nairobi, people are paying their taxi fares with their mobiles. Monthly transfers and payment of goods and services in Kenya amounts to around a staggering $1.13 billion. And 92 percent of Kenyans say they have used mobile P2P payments via the M-Pesa mobile payment system, which sends money via SMS message; 73 percent of those users say they utilise the system at least once a day.

Japan’s been using a version of what Apple announced for 10 years already. A type of Near Field Communication chip, known in Japan as FeliCa, was introduced to the Japanese mobile market in June 2004 and has been implanted in almost all phones sold there since.

Watch for the ‘Galapagos Syndrome’: Like the distinct evolution Charles Darwin catalogued on the remote Galapagos Islands, technology in Japan has a tendency to develop independently from the rest of the planet and is thus incompatible with foreign standards.

It’s been ripe for reinvention all that time, if anybody was paying attention.

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Next killer/winner app: Rule of law and private property rights

Niall Ferguson argues that an optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English speaking world, based on private property rights and democracy. So, goes this line of thinking, North America is better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism. In the North, indentured servants could work themselves out of poverty and into land ownership. In the South, conquistadores became instant fat cats.

That makes a lot of sense to me. And it leads me to ask: If we talk about intellectual property rights, are you more UK or Spain, more North or South? Where does creative commons, and open source and the obscurity vs piracy debate really fit in to your business model?

'Faux is not your foe.' - Dominique le Roux

“Everybody’s copying me!” you worry. In the war of attrition between cheap Chinese imports and original handmade products, you hope secrecy will protect you.

But, I want to counter that: When everything is fake, consumers learn to look for quality. And for nuance.

I’m not sure how many of you have been to Bangkok. It’s a happening, modern, creative city. (When your chief tourist attractions are ancient historic sites covered in gold, or vaginas that pop out pingpong balls, you’ve seen the garish and the ridiculous, and you have courage to experiment.)

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Take Terminal 21. You want to talk success and creativity? Try innovating shopping malls. Like airports, in general one is very much like another. Filled with the same brands.

In this mall, every section is themed for an international travel icon. There’s Paris, London, San Fran, New Orleans… But the real key is design that integrates big name retail with busy side streets. Just like in the real world. Hundreds of them, manned by creative entrepreneur designers who are getting to start their businesses from the ground up selling to the hi-so mall consumer. If you’re a fashion or jewellery or decor designer, Bangkok is where you want to be. Where else do you get real affordable space in malls?

Terminal 21 is, to me, a metaphor for what’s happening in Asia. At initial glance, they’re copying: there are red London busses, restaurants in San Francisco trams, fake Roman ruins… But all of that belies an incredible creativity and market-driven entrepreneurial flair that is the new industrial revolution: workers as makers and consumers.

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Another Asian artist who is playing with the role of consumer as maker is photographer Xu Yong. In his new book, Negatives, he has printed only the raw, unadulterated 35-millimeter negatives he took with his clunky Konica that spring of the Tiananmen uprising. But… if you use the “invert colors” setting on your iPhone, that lost world comes to life in vivid technicolour.

This is not just cleverness for clever sake. This is an incredibly powerful and nuanced activist statement. In bringing those images to life, he’s risking his.

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And, finally, if you really want to see re-invention… If you really want to see copying redefined, head to the Openhouse Gallery in New York next week. Dr Shin-Ichi Fukuoka is a biologist and a self-described ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’: Otaku. He became obsessed with the Dutch master painter Vermeer. So he travelled around the globe to view every known Vermeer. And then, as a scientist, he set about analyzing the pigment and material that Vermeer would have used. Many of you in this audience are photographers, so you’ll appreciate this: for example, the lapiz lazuli in the brilliant blue of the Girl’s headscarf. He knows the histogram for the real stuff. Compare it to the histogram for the painting. Adjust. He can copy better than the original. He can make prints that in all likelihood match the way the painting looked when Vermeer created it.

What does he call it? ‘Re-create’.

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So, in conclusion. Here’s my question to you: if you believed Africa or Asia was going to out-innovate you, rather than copy you, what would you do differently?


Those bombs that blew Laos off the map. There’s no undoing them. They have caused irrevocable damage. They still kill or maim on average one person every day. Year in and year out. But a new generation of Lao, for better or for worse, are collecting them up. And they are redefining their relationships with that war and with those bombs.

This new generation of brave, desperate, Lao are re-creating: they’re making bangles from those bombs. And necklaces. And cutlery. And art.They have re-examined the enemy that still lies buried all around. They have re-imagined its potential impacts. And, in a country once known for its copper and silver jewelry, they have re-invented a creative industry.

If you need a bit of inspiration on how to rethink your own creativity, please come up afterwards and I have gift for you: jewellery from bombs, re-created by ordinary people in Laos. I’ve brought that metal back to the US after more than 40 years.

It’s been through the fire.

It’s a symbol of re-creation for you.

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I’d love to hear from you if you think your organization would benefit from having me give this presentation in person. Plus, I’d value any constructive feedback on the content.


I’m a big Elegant Themes fan. Thanks to them for the fabulous freebie circle icons I’ve drawn on so happily.

The cloud imagery at the start and finish is from Canva, another indispensible resource I can’t recommend highly enough.

Most images are my own, except for the historic ones which are all sourced from Wikimedia Commons.



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