Saturday, August 30, 2014

Steve’s Speech at the Launch of Rethinking the City

Good evening...I’d like to start by thanking each and every one of you for coming tonight to share this special occasion with us. I do appreciate that its a long way for many of you and also the end of a long week but I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to present some ideas and, of course, to introduce my book. I'd also like to thank Merilyn and Hornsby Council for enabling it to happen and the lovely Nilmini for making it happen. Also, a special mention for Steve Frost for formally launching our books and exhibition today and for being a great friend and mentor.

I start my book with the words: “Fate has been generous to me”. This may seem like an odd way to start a book about cities but I use this expression for three specific that I can talk about fate, so I can talk about generosity and so I can talk about me. I talk about me, because when I describe cities I don’t mean buildings and roads and shops and houses. What I mean by the word ‘city’ is the place where people live. The habitat for humanity. When I think about the City I’m asking: What kind of habitat are we creating for ourselves? So I say: “Fate has been generous to ME” because it’s personal. The kind of environment we create affects the people in it. It affects you and me personally.
Secondly, I refer to Fate because your fate is the particular environment you were born into—this idea of Fate originates from the earliest stages of Western history—in Homer’s Iliad...but I’ll talk about this a little later.

The third reason why I start by saying: “Fate has been generous to me” is because I wanted
to say I felt lucky, because finally at the age of 50 I can say that I do feel lucky. It took me a long time to come to this realisation and to fully appreciate you—collectively—who represent the moments of my life. I also wanted to make it clear that we are not saying simplistically that fate is bad and destiny is good. Your fate is just your starting point. Your destiny is where you finish up in life and I just feel that we—as a society—have forgotten how important the pursuit of destiny is. We live mostly by just accepting our fate because we don't want to believe that our life will finish.

I also wanted to emphasise that we do live in the lucky country and so my first chapter describes how some people are born into a safe, stable and comfortable environment and others are not. Fate is generous to some and not to others. We don’t all have equal opportunities, so how does that inequality affect the way we create our cities? In my view we build cities by assuming that everyone is the same and so create highways that take everyone in the same direction. We pave the places where we want people to go so that everyone can follow that easy path. So, one question that I ask is: How often do you break the routine and get off the main road and discover something new or do something for the first time?

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by... ”

Unlike Nil—who—as you heard—was always looking to travel off the beaten track—I just wanted the main highway. Over and over again in my life I wanted what everyone else had. I wanted to fit in—but I just couldn’t get there. I can look back now and say that my path diverged from the main road when I was about 11—when I found out I had epilepsy. This meant I couldn’t play soccer any more—I was no longer on the team. It was the first time I asked myself: Why did I have to be different? Why couldn’t I just fit in? Later it would mean that I couldn’t drive a car, which—if you live in the suburbs of Sydney—means that you can’t really explore the world. Despite the love and support of my family and others around me I started to feel left out. The sense that I couldn’t do what others could do affected my confidence and self-belief. The reality for me was that the very minor epilepsy led to a loss of self-confidence, which is a slippery path—a path that for me would lead to depression. Con and Chrissa, Jim and Eleni, Paul and Mary, Shannon and Maria and their families helped me through this and I’m so glad you were all in my life at that time.

So here I can make another point about cities. In car-dependent cities like Sydney, everyone that drives a car can get on the main highway. My fate, at the time, was to be unable to drive in a city that is car-dependent and that had very real consequences for me.

You are probably starting to appreciate that Rethinking the City didn’t start off as a book about cities. It started in my own experiences. I studied town planning and later environmental law because I wanted to understand the world—I thought if I could work out how the world works I might find out how I could fit in. I always felt like an outsider looking in. Looking at everyone on the main highway—with their partners, their children, their lives—and wishing I could be there. So Rethinking the City explores all the threads of my life, my work in town planning, my study of environment and law, my exploration of the Orthodox church as well as many other religions, my sense of identity, my dabbling in share trading and learnings about how the economy works and also my work in local government, which taught me how government functions.

Fundamentally, Rethinking the City explores the relationship between the individual and the City— the relationship between our private interests and the public interest. It asks: How does the way we think affect the City and the environment we live in?
In 2004 my life fell apart. It was my high impact moment. I had been working at South Sydney Council in the first job that challenged and excited me. It was creative and interesting. Thanks to Katherine and other work colleagues at the time I felt useful and respected.

Unfortunately, as South Sydney merged with the City of Sydney, the South Sydney managers were considered surplus to requirements. Just at that same time I also lost faith in the Church because the institution continually contradicted its own teachings. To top it off my 'on again - off again' girlfriend of several years said she wanted it to end. It was at that time, late 2004, that I had the good fortune to be given a job at Fairfield Council, where I would meet the people who would change my life. Rob and George pushed me to be the best I could be. They trusted me even when I didn’t trust myself, which is a most empowering feeling. Rob helped me confront the depression and showed me the way through. I’ll be forever grateful.

The first time I met Nilmini De Silva she told me some of the stories from her many travels. Nillie was the very opposite of me. Each time we met I heard more stories and more dreams about future travels. For the first time I started to reflect on my own life. Sure I had done the obligatory trip to Europe but nothing like the journeys of discovery—off the tourist trail—that Nil was describing! I felt completely empty. I felt as if I had spent my life complaining about what I didn't have, wishing I could be like everyone else, rather than making conscious choices about my future.

I then decided to do a short course on Chinese Environmental Law in Shanghai. I decided that this would be the line in the sand for me. I would go to China and I promised myself I would be a different person when I came back. I would pretend to be confident until I became confident. Without knowing it I chose to create my destiny. Your fate is the cards that life deals you. Your destiny can only be found if you stop complaining about the cards you didn’t get and look at the cards in your hand.

The week I came back from China I met Katherine, who I would marry the following year. I was attracted to her because she was an outsider like me. She talked about the happiest time of her life when she lived for six months in Crete with just enough money to make ends meet. Deep down I wanted that simple life away from the maddening crowd. Through Katherine I learnt about philosophy and Greek history and I came to understand the human face of town planning. How our choices and actions create the city we live in and why courage is so important. All of these are important elements of my book.

In 2010 when my marriage broke down I was alone again. But this time it was different. This time I knew that I was never meant to be on the main highway. I knew I had to find my own path. No longer would I worry about fitting in because I accepted that I couldn’t. This acceptance is the most liberating feeling. When you know what you are not, you are free to discover and create who you are. The last four years with Nillie have been a journey of self-discovery. Through our travels, our writing and our relationship we have been able to learn who we are.

If you ask me what the meaning of life is: I’ll tell you that life only has meaning when you are free to discover and create yourself. We create the meaning by figuring out what we can meaningfully contribute to the world. Who are you and what do you have to offer? What is your unique contribution?

Fate has been generous to me for another reason. I am now exploring, discovering and creating at a time in human history when social networking and the internet is allowing us to reinvent the way we interact with each other, the way the economy works and the way that politics works. These are the essential elements of a city: economics, religion and politics and all of these are being transformed in our lifetime.

While travelling through Europe in 2013 we visited eco-villages, transition towns and i
ntentional communities. These were people who were looking for new ways of building their city so as to achieve environmental sustainability and meaningful social connections. In Ireland and Greece we witnessed the consequences for people when their social systems are collapsing. This is not the first time in history that entire societies have collapsed.
In about 1200BCE—three great empires—Egypt, Greece and the Hittite empire, which is in modern day Turkey—all collapsed simultaneously. In the Dark Ages that followed people had to invent new systems and new kinds of cities. In the land of Canaan, which was previously part of the Kingdom of Egypt, Moses set out the principles for the Hebrew model. 

It would no longer be work, work, work—there would now be a day of rest—one day for freedom from work for the former slaves—a day where the week’s produce would be shared to ensure everyone’s needs were satisfied. It was a new society focused on equality.
In Greece, Homer challenged the Greeks not be trapped by their fate but to do great deeds and pursue their destiny. The Greeks therefore divided their cities into the economic domain, where work was done; and the political domain, which provided freedom from work where citizens could do great deeds and in which they created sport and practiced art and science and philosophy.

In Lydia, which was in modern day Turkey in the area of the collapsed Hittite empire, they invented coins. Whoever had enough coins was free from work.
I won’t go into any more detail here but you will have picked up that the common theme in all three models was the creation of a way of achieving freedom from work. Freedom to create equality, freedom to pursue your destiny or freedom to relax and do nothing. Why can’t we create a society that offers freedom—instead of one that demands more work, more jobs and more growth?

In Rethinking the City I ask: Can we build cities that are based on the ideas of freedom, equality, trust, transparency, authenticity and resonance with the natural environment? I think we can...but to understand whether this is possible in the future, we need to understand who we are today. To understand ourselves today we need to understand where we came from, both personally and as a society. How did our history create who we are?
Much of the book therefore explores our history because I am trying to understand how Western society was constructed. What are the ideas on which we build our cities and what should we change?

Of course I go into it in more detail in the book, but if you are interested we will also be doing a number of author talks in which I will delve into these ideas in much more detail. The first will be Saturday week, here, at 2pm. I will also be presenting at Gleebooks on the 21st of September and other events you can see on our website. We just wanted today to be a bit more personal but we would both be happy to answer questions and chat with you later.

For now, though, please enjoy the food and drinks, buy a book or two...or a photo. Thank you all once again for coming and sharing this important day with us.... Cheers 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fate or Destiny - My Speech at the Launch

Good evening everyone and thank you for being here.  Firstly, let me say a big thank you to Steve Frost for launching this event for us and for his kind words.  We are very grateful to him for all that he has given us, both professionally and personally.  Thank you Steve. 

This launch is a very special celebration for us as it marks an important milestone for Steven, who turned 50 a few days ago.  Happy birthday my dearest Steven.

I want to acknowledge everyone who played a part in pulling all this together, and especially to my dearest
Steven who curated my exhibition, edited my book and constantly encourages me to discover talents I never knew I had.  I also want to thank Hornsby Council and Merilyn Hills in particular for her help, support and encouragement. Local government has played a huge part in our professional careers and it is wonderful that it continues to do so in our creative endeavours. 

Are you living your fate or creating your destiny?  

Have you ever consciously thought about what it means to make a choice between them?  Many people use these two words interchangeably but I believe them to be very different ideas.  To allow fate to govern your life is to let life happen to you. To choose destiny, is to happen to life—to chase a dream, to discover your purpose for being here and to figure out your unique contribution to the world.

I want to share with you a few stories from my own life, which I hope will give you a small insight into the experiences I drew on in preparing this exhibition and my photo book.

For the first half of my life I religiously followed and excelled on the trail that had been laid out for me.  The trail was revealed to me as much from my parents as it was implied from the culture around me.    I did well in high school and graduated in Civil Engineering, one of the ‘most coveted disciplines for someone growing up in Sri Lanka.  My life had evolved without too much effort on my part.  It was a wonderful start but I knew there was more.

Yet ever since my late teens, I had felt a deep desire to explore life outside the secure confines of my parent’s home.  To feel that sense of freedom when you—and only you—are making the decisions that shape your life.  But I had no money of my own so a post-graduate degree at Berkeley was my ticket out. 

I was 25 years old when I consciously chose to go in search of my destiny.

I took my first plane ride and travelled half way across the world to what might as well have been another planet.  If you have experienced a mono cultural, conservative city like Colombo and also travelled to an unconventional and incredibly diverse place like San Francisco, you will know what I mean.  I was excited by what I found and I formed an instant connection.

I believe that we need to remove ourselves from our familiar environment, from the routines and rituals that define us, and immerse ourselves in a completely different place to create the space and time to discover our destiny. You find your destiny when you take a risk.  Or as Martin Luther King said, “when you have enough faith to take the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.  For each of us, the risks we take will be different but must involve stepping outside our comfort zone. If we only live a life that is ‘safe’, if we only walk down the well-trodden trails, then we may never discover our full potential. 

I also believe there are high impact moments in our lives, which are catalysts to making these life changing choices.  They demand that we consciously reflect on our past and question our future.  Often, these moments will be when you experience a deep sense of loss.  I lost my father the same week I got an email informing me that my divorce was final.  It was April 2009 and I was in Sri Lanka, sitting at my mum’s computer when the email came through.  I was surrounded by friends and family who loved me but I had never felt more alone in my life.  I had been with Dean for almost 20 years and I was 47 years old at the time.  I also remember feeling incredibly moved by everything that was written in the Sri Lankan papers about my dad.  Born in a little village in Sri Lanka, he had gone on to achieve incredible success, both as an eminent civil rights lawyer and later in life as a diplomat, being appointed ambassador to the United Nations. 

The last of the ‘Greats’ the headlines screamed…and I asked myself this question.

What did I want to look back on when I reached the end of my life?  I was proud of what I had achieved so far, including in my career in local government in Sydney.  I had stayed far longer than the 3-5 year limit I had set for myself, because my boss Steve Frost, understood my need to be challenged and came up with new projects and ideas, to keep me engaged.  His work ethic and passion for the environment inspired me greatly and shaped my professional career in Australia. 

A few months after my dad passed away, I also lost one of my closest friends in Sri Lanka and I knew it was time to re-evaluate my own life.  In my twenties, I had set myself a goal, to travel to all 7 continents before I turned 50.  On the day of my friend’s funeral, I walked in to a travel agent’s office and booked a voyage to Antarctica—till then the only continent I had not explored.   I was suffering from a lot of grief at the time and making that decision to go to Antarctica resulted in my taking a leave of absence from work and completing almost a year of solo travel round the world.  My adversity gave me courage I didn’t know I had.  That journey helped me grow in ways I never imagined.  I met incredible people with whom I instantly forged strong connections because they too were on similar paths.

My father’s death and my own separation brought life to the words of Elizabeth Kubler Ross:  “It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”

In 2010, as I was departing on my year of discovery my best friend Steven, gave me a parting gift.  It was a book called The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho. The book is full of my favourite quotes, but the words “To find your destiny is a man’s only obligation” resonated with me and shaped that journey.  The story ironically is about a young shepherd boy who travels the world in search of his destiny, only to return home and discover his treasure.

During my travels, I learnt that Steven too had separated from his wife.  Two months before I was due to come home, while on a Skype chat, we acknowledged that we had feelings for each other that ran deeper than friendship.  Just like the shepherd boy in the Alchemist, I had taken the brave step of going in search of my destiny—and I knew then that I was coming home to find my treasure.  Steven was waiting for me at the airport when I returned.  We had known each other for so long, that we just moved in together.  It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to both of us.

But pursuing your destiny is not only about a solo journey.  In fact, having the love and support of someone who travels alongside you is a wonderful blessing.  I have always believed in the concept of a soul mate or soul mates for various stages of your life.  People come in to your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Sometimes letting go, so you can move freely to the next stage of life, is also part of discovering your true purpose.  The words associated with separation have the most negative connotations.  This is what fate teaches us.  My own experiences taught me that change is the one constant in life.  When we stop fighting it, we can stop looking back at the doors that are closing behind us and walk through the open doors ahead of us…to potentially unravel the next part of the mystery. 

In 2011, after I came back from my year away I returned to work but I was constantly restless.  They say that once your mind has been stretched by an idea, it never regains its original dimensions.  Two years after I came back from that solo trip around the world, I quit work to join Steven in the consultancy he started, where we hope to integrate our life and our work. We don’t want to constantly struggle to find a work life balance—creating a tension that implies our work is not a part of our life.  Sometimes, there will be financial rewards and other times the rewards will be richer.  It is another passage up an unknown stairwell.   To leave a secure job with excellent benefits at 50+ would be considered foolish by many.  But my love for writing and photography, which came to life during that solo trip around the world, is something I need to pursue. 

The four years I have now spent with Steven seem like a lifetime when I think of the memories we have created and the experiences we have shared. Last year we embarked on 7 months of travel through Europe and Sri Lanka, as Steven searched for answers to the questions in his mind on Rethinking the City. 

The photographs you see here were taken either during that time or after we returned this January—in various parts of Australia.  The photo book contains images from both my first exhibition and this one. All of the writing has evolved from our collective travels and my own experiences.  We have no concrete plans for where the future will take us but rather shared values about the ideas we are exploring.  We let life unfold with little to fall back on and are constantly amazed at how happy we feel. 

You may not agree with all of the ideas expressed here, but art is meant to be thought provoking and I hope you will grant me that.  The spontaneity of our new life is addictive and I hope we will inspire you in some way today.  Exploring and discovering my creative side has been one of the missing pieces in the puzzle of my destiny. 

Susan Cain said “the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, and the task of the second half is to make sense of where you've been”.

Today, I hope I have inspired you to start thinking about taking a risk, to put yourself out there and then to make sense of it. 

Please enjoy the evening. Thank you for being part of our lives. I feel lucky to share my life with my soul mate.  To be with a man who cares as much about my own dreams as he does about his own.  This feeling is mutual. 
I leave you today to ponder these words from Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference. 
Thank You. 

Launching of Fate or Destiny and Rethinking the City

Firstly, I would like to show my respect to and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.
Welcome also, to all of you here tonight, I am delighted to be able to welcome you on behalf of Nilmini and Steve and say a few words in support of two creative and inspirational people who I
known for many years. I have worked with both Nil and Steve and seen first- hand the passion and commitment that they bring to whatever they set their minds to.
Tonight we see the flowering of their creative efforts over the last few years - but watch this space, because this only the beginning.
   Immediate Past National President of Stormwater Australia
   Current Director on the Board of Stormwater Australia
   Director on the Board of the CRC for WSC
   10 years in the private sector
   35 years in local government
   President of the Australian Shen Long Tai Chi Society (40 ?years’ experience)


I want to speak briefly in my opening remarks, so that you all can hear from Nil and Steve. So, I promise to be brief – no matter how long that takes!
However, it’s challenging to be too brief given the depth of what Nil and Steve have created in both the books and the exhibition being launch tonight.
So, I have chosen to make some remarks about two aspects of what has captured my imagination.
First, there is the question posed about Fate and Destiny: Are we pursuing our destiny or accepting the fate that was dealt to us?

The second is about the concept of ideas as a creative force in the physical world. I can only provide some reflections on these two aspects that permeate what I’m sure Nil and Steve will be talking about.

Rather than philosophise about fate and destiny, I want to tell you a story from my tai chi background. The concepts of fate and destiny underpin much of Chinese culture. And permeate much of their approach to life and philosophical thinking. In the middle of the 16th century, a man called Liao-Fan wrote a book for his son about fate and destiny. It is called Liao Fan's Four Lessons. He wrote the book to teach his son that destiny can be changed through proper cultivation. And one should not be bound by fate, but by one's own conscious and deliberate actions. It all began when Fan was told by a Taoist monk surnamed Kong that he would only live to the age of 53 and have no son. 

At first, he disregarded this monk's words as farcical nonsense, but as Kong's other predictions began to occur with great accuracy, he decided that there was no use in trying too hard and gave himself up to what he thought was his inevitable fate.
In his wanderings, he found himself at a Buddhist monastery and sat in meditation for three days with the head abbot.
The abbot was most impressed that a lay person could meditate without distraction for so long. He asked how Fan was able to do it. Fan related the story about the predictions for the way his life was to pan out and said why worry or think about anything – it has all been predetermined!
The abbot was shocked and said “I thought you were a remarkable person, but now I see that you are worse than ordinary!”
Fan asked why – And the Abbott said that he was less than ordinary because he didn’t realise that he could change his original destiny – it didn’t have to be left to fate.
The Abbott then taught Fan how to change his original destiny. Fan lived to 69 instead of 53 and obviously also had a son.
This book is still in circulation after more than 500 years and is well known and read and the book was an essential text in schools.
So, the answer to this first question is YES! And as Nil has said we are able to LIVE rather than just exist if we actively and consciously pursue the destiny of our choosing.
I believe that this is not only possible for individuals, but also possible for families, communities, and nations to choose and pursue a particular destiny.
It’s the point that both Steve and Nil are proposing that by pursuing our destiny, both individually and corporately – in the broadest sense of that word – we might actually create more fulfilled and engaged citizens - stronger and more resilient communities - and more liveable and sustainable cities.
Big ideas indeed - But, as Steve says, it’s ideas that change the world – and change it rapidly.
Ideas come from thinking – and rethinking of course! To get a plug in for Steve’s book!
In tai chi - thinking or thought is considered the fastest thing in the universe. My teacher would often say that you can go to the moon instantly with just a thought – it is faster than even the speed of light.
But where do ideas come from?
Many people would probably say - from thinking about it in my mind – but where in your mind do ideas start – science is unable to tell us and I believe that this question can only be answered by philosophy and metaphysics.
Anything that you see manifest in the physical world has originally been an idea that someone had. That idea has to take physical shape and form. It is interesting to ponder that our cities form and shape are from a collection of ideas that many people have had, which somehow have organised themselves into what we see and use in the world around us.
My work with the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities is about bringing ideas to reality. We envision our cities to be places that are resilient, liveable, productive and sustainable. Water is just the framework that the ideas hang from. We want to see places created in our cities that enhance life and protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens. We want our cities to be places that provide time for work and (re)creation.
The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities exists to change the way we build our cities by valuing the contribution water makes to our quality of life and to the ecosystems of which cities are a part.
Steve’s ideas about rethinking the City align with the CRC’s vision. His ideas do indeed turn conventional thinking on its head!
Both Steve and Nil’s ideas are in many respects revolutionary rather than evolutionary!
Ideas are indeed powerful – one of the things I remember that my Father told me as a young boy was that ideas are so powerful that many people are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for them.
So tonight, who knows what will manifest from the ideas that Nil and Steve are seeding in our minds tonight – what may also stir in our creative selves in the weeks to come as their powerful images are imprinted on our subconscious and our minds absorb the words they have written!

I’m delighted to launch this event and would invite you to welcome Nil and Steve to speak to us! 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Day in Mullumbimby

The festival has come to an end.  We say goodbye to our friends Chris and Christobel who have been our hosts for the last few days and head up to Mullumbimby for a bit of alternative culture and down time before we head back home.  We find Australia’s biggest little town nestled in glorious surroundings and fall in love with its laid-back vibe and wonderful cafes.  We have been fortunate to have sold Steve’s book to a few bookshops along our way to Byron and we strike it lucky once again at the bookshop here.  It is a glorious day so we spend some time taking photographs and exploring the town before we settled down for coffee and brunch at the local cafĂ©.
We find some great initiatives in town including Mel’s Well, which provides free filtered water for the residents here.  We had seen similar schemes in Europe but didn’t realise they also existed in Australia.  Well done, Byron Council—such a great way to reduce the use of plastic.  We also discovered that the Environmental Levy was being used for Food Production on Public Land—a great way to start creating an edible landscape.  Many other initiatives caught our eye including solar powered lighting, public art, and a colour coding system at the local IGA that helped people identify locally sourced food, organic and gluten free products. 
I love taking street portraits and the chance to spend a few minutes hearing the stories of strangers.  I met a man who had moved up here from the Central Coast who was happy to share his time with me and we spent a few minutes chatting before I took his portrait.  My eyes were not the only ones that had spotted his interesting face and he told me that he already features in one of the popular photo books from this region! 

It was such a glorious day we decided to have a picnic lunch by the water.  Water has such a hypnotic effect on both of us that we could probably have stayed here forever.  All too soon it is time to head back for that long
drive back to Hornsby.  It will be close to midnight when we get home but we enjoyed some glorious sunshine, discovered a wonderful town and made some new friends from this region who we may meet again on this wonderful creative journey we are on…