This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Singapore- This is a New Year and a time for reflection, new resolutions, and optimism – however guarded and sober. The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the darkest time of the year but following it there is new light and life. This is a fact and also a metaphor that is perhaps more apt in 2017 than in previous years.

Given the recent rise in populist and right-wing inspired movements globally, with more people living in fear of others amid increased racism, sexism, xenophobia, and violence, it is both more difficult and more important to support the ideas and ideals that lead people to behave in caring and compassionate ways, with empathy and conscience guiding their decisions and interactions.  The great good works that our best leaders inspire are visionary and courageous in their idealism, and it is precisely these qualities that are needed more than ever before if we are to live in harmony with each other and nature. They elevate our collective humanity and prove that we are truly civilized human beings capable of intelligently stewarding our shared, fragile, and beautiful planet.

Will heart and head unite and bring greater justice, kindness, and peace to the world in the New Year?

What can the concerned citizens do to solve, or at least ameliorate, these problems? It is easy to be pessimistic but it can also lead to complacency and stagnation.

Let us instead be optimistic in the New Year.  It is our great good fortune to have been born human and sentient. Each one of us is aware of other sentient beings around us, people and other living things, and their condition. We have ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains that help us to feel what others feel. We learn empathy as children and as we grow older, this empathy is exercised on a daily basis as we make decisions about parents, children, friends and colleagues. We need precisely this quality as we address ever more complicated problems in the troubled global environment.

Today we have the greatest number of people ever in recorded history in migration as refugees fleeing gruesome wars and desperate poverty, and so many are without hope while living for years in ‘temporary’ refugee camps. There is human induced mass extinction of species and vast loss of natural habitat needed to sustain life on Earth. There is fake news but there is also real news.  We make decisions based on fact and the news media are supposed to be the source of facts. So are the arts and sciences. We need to support writers, artists, scientists and citizens who are seeking truth and justice, with heart and mind united, with empathy, compassion and conscience.

At the School of Art, Design at Media at Nanyang Technological University – Singapore, artists, designers, critics, historians and theorists are teaching students to be innovative, creative and skilled, as well as critical and media literate in their use of technology. Here, the creative human spirit is driving technology development and its innovative applications across many fields, from big data, bio-art and bio-design for sustainable social practices, to environmental design, eco-art and eco-fashion, medicine and wearable technologies. There is a prize given to sustainable art and design. Biodiversity and cultural diversity are linked, and so as the Earth’s ecosystem faces unprecedented stresses and destruction, so do its fragile human cultures connected to them. The school is active in this area of research and teaching, bridging social and environmental issues with new ideas, methodologies, and technologies.

Prof Michael Walsh is using Virtual Reality for the conservation and communication of at risk world heritage sites such as those in Famagusta, Cyprus. Profs Peer Sathikh and Meridel Rubenstein are working on the design of a waste water garden to restore the devastated Marshes of Southern Iraq. Prof Randall Packer’s work with Open Source Studio (OSS) engages distributed computation of the online world of networked computers and devices for a new global pedagogical approach to online teaching of the creative arts and critical practice. It can be used for real-time computation of data, visualization and sonification, and creative production of networked interactive computer artwork. Prof Galina Mihaleva is innovating bio, smart materials and sensors for wearable technologies with applications in medicine, health, fashion, and interior design, providing new solutions and alternative approaches to sustainable design for the developed and developing world. There are others to mention as well: Profs Jesvin Yeo, Nanci Takeyama, Kristy HA Kang, and Andrea Nanetti, to name a few. They and their students are working with complexity and knowledge, social and environmental design, the intelligent city, community building, cultural heritage and contemporary society, and new ways of thinking about and using technology to solve urgent problems in ethical, empathetic, and sustainable ways.

Dr Gul Inanc is doing something to improve the condition of the refugees. In addition to teaching courses such as Faith in Art that build bridges of understanding among students and local communities of different religious backgrounds, she also works with countries in the Southeast Asian region and Turkey. Just when everything looks so bleak for the refugees, she had a brilliant initiative: to combine online and on-site education in refugee camps and urban settings, and provide education to the displaced and dispossessed. It gives hope to so many people.

In particular, she emphasizes that educating girls is particularly important, as it makes them less vulnerable and stronger. They are far less accessible to criminals and less likely to be exploited, trafficked, and victims of violence simply by attending school as doing so physically protects them. It also prepares them for new opportunities, helping them to become wage earners that improve their own and their families’ condition. By educating children, girls, older people, or anyone at risk, it provides new knowledge, new ways of thinking, and safety during the school day. It invests in future safety by preparing them for a more independent and responsible new life that often also requires new language skills, and training necessary for jobs in developed countries that they may be hoping to emigrate to, or their own countries that they may return to once they are safe enough. It is also helpful to host countries as they are already educated when they arrive. It is a deterrent for the disaffected too, mitigating frustration at their condition.  Dr. Inanc has worked hard to bring this idea of online education for refugees to realization over the past two years, and recently the initiative has been partnered by the United Nations (UNHCR) in Malaysia. She is working to expand the operations to Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia.  She has also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London in recognition of these efforts. It is the kind of hugely important work that artists and intellectuals can do to really improve the world.  I call this kind of work, the work of the Global Art School as Global Laboratory for Multicultural Harmony as discussed in my article last year. 

The capacity of any institution depends on its members and constituency, and their implementation of the ideas – without which the ideas are only pieces of paper with writing on them. 

This is a call for an independent art-science organization that works to solve the problems of ‘the little guy’ precisely because each person and creature matters, as well as the ‘grand challenges’ that affect the future of our planet. We not only need a Global Art School but a Global Art and Science Organization that champions these values, including equality and democracy. 

From the perspective of an art school, defending beauty, knowledge, the immense potential of the human spirit and the ability for people to rise to higher and higher levels of truth and compassion towards other living things, is something which we champion at the risk of being called naïve and idealistic.  It is this beautiful idealism that we need, that is more important than ever before, if the Earth and humanity are going to survive. Let us celebrate a new idealism in 2017.