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Week 1: 11 September 2011

Simon Anholt

Advisor on Nation Branding

Step outside Somewherelands for Nowhereisland

Dear Citizens of Now-Here-Is-Land,

Like all the best journeys, the one you are about to start will take your minds as well as your bodies to new places.

All of us have spent all of our lives in one or other of the 200-odd Somewherelands that carve up the planet in such a surreally random manner, and our lives are conditioned by that simple fact. We live in a world of nations, so it’s not surprising if we see the world as something that’s made of nations.

But it’s not. You don’t have to go very high up in a plane to notice the obvious fact that there are no thick black lines marked on the surface of our planet: countries are an invention, unlike most of the challenges we face today, which are very real indeed.

What are those challenges? Climate change, environmental degradation, cultural and religious intolerance, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, economic and financial crises, poverty, demographics, species loss, migration, landmines, human rights, freedom of speech, education, water, or indeed Arctic territorial and mineral rights – it took me about 30 seconds to make that list. Give me five minutes and I could fill the page.

What do all those challenges have in common?

One, they are all borderless, serenely indifferent to the games of nationhood and race and language and culture which obsess us so disastrously as a species.

Two, most of them are getting worse, and have been doing so ever since our grandparents first started devising multilateral institutions to deal with them. Those institutions are plainly unfit for purpose today, and were designed in a very different age from our own.

Three, multilateral institutions, national governments, business, market forces and even rockstars are patently unable to fix them. The forces of globalisation have created global markets and global problems but they have not and patently will not build a global society. If they could, many or most of these problems would be well on their way to getting solved, rather than getting worse from year to year.

In fact, all of these problems are in one sense simply symptoms of one much deeper problem: the fact that we still haven’t learned how to run ourselves like a planet.

It’s time to rethink how we run the world – a radical rethink which recognises that national governments are no longer the only significant holders of influence over humanity: today, corporations and their brands, NGOs, individuals, cities, regions and even certain websites wield far more influence than most governments – and without a hint of democracy about the way they do so. We also need to recognise that men in suits having long meetings in closed rooms is also not the way things are done in our modern world: virtual networks and informal global coalitions of individuals and bodies with temporarily shared causes are the twenty-first century way, whether we like it or not.

We should be angry at the foolish, selfish old men in suits who have failed so miserably at making the world a better place. They are moral bankrupts, and we need to liberate and leverage the optimism, morality and energy of youth.

This system of competition between nation-states, the zero-sum neo-liberal struggle for the fittest, while it might make some sense in economics (although quite how much sense is a point that is coming in for some long-overdue debate), makes little sense when it comes to tackling planetary problems.

We need to separate neo-liberal economic orthodoxy from international relations, and recognise that competition and collaboration can and must be compatible. There are selfish aims, and there are shared aims. Surely we can square this circle?

Let’s focus for once on becoming good ancestors, and start working now on how to make the world work better for the benefit of the next generation. We need a place and a toolkit for doing this, and this is where Nowhereisland comes in.

One of the reasons why we have always found it so difficult to think constructively about the shared, borderless, supranational challenges that define our age is because we come from countries, we live in countries, we travel between countries, we define our loyalties by countries: we calculate the value and the cost of everything in sovereign currency.

The beauty of Nowhereisland is that it’s the only way – apart from paying Richard Branson £120,000 to take you into orbit for a few minutes – to step outside the countryscape and take a look at the planet for what it is: a place that doesn’t have black lines drawn all over it, sealing off each territory of humans from its neighbours.

Just like going temporarily weightless when you’re in orbit, you go temporarily stateless when you’re in Nowhereisland. And just as physical science draws unique benefits from experiments conducted in weightlessness, so social and political science can draw unique benefits from thought experiments conducted in statelessness.

So that’s how I propose we treat Nowhereisland: whether it’s a group, a movement, a real or a virtual place, a laboratory, a think-tank or an experiment (all of this needs to be decided on this expedition), the main thing is that it’s a way of really saying: “stop the world, I want to get off” – a peaceful and contemplative vantage-point on the roof of the planet from which wise people can look down and see our species in perspective, and think clearly about running ourselves as a species rather than warring, competing or failing to agree as a collection of tribes.

In my opinion, the beauty and the uniqueness of Nowhereisland comes from the fact that this isn’t yet another new country: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s the first non-country, a piece of truly neutral territory where people can get outside the system to think about the system.

Perhaps I’m just slow on the uptake, and that was the reason it was called Nowhere Island in the first place: at this point in our history, a place that’s truly nowhere has more value and interest than a place that, just like everywhere else, is somewhere.  There could be no better vantage-point to take a fresh, clear, cool, hard non-country look at the world and see what we can do to solve these non-country problems.

So please step outside for a moment, take that hard look, and let us know what you see. Your stateless but far from weightless thoughts will be infinitely precious to us.

Simon Anholt

© 2011 Simon Anholt

Simon Anholt

In 1996, Simon devised the concept of nation brand. Today he works with governments, cities and regions worldwide to help them to develop how they are perceived and engage others.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.