Culture is the great, connected eco-system that unites us all
Creativity must play a key role in our lives to confront the great issues of our time
In January 2016, while searching for a decent bite of food at the World Economic Forum in Davos (which is harder to find than heads of state, movie stars or mega-deals with tech tycoons), I encountered a friend who was also in need of a sandwich. She was a young, brilliant woman who ran a major media centre in the Middle East. I was with the woman who would later become my wife and the conversation between the three of us soon turned to the role of culture and media at events like Davos.
Both I and my partner Carla Dirlikov Canales, a singer with a wonderful, truly global career who also runs an NGO focused on using music to bridge cultural divides internationally, were fascinated by the observations of our friend Noura Al Kaabi, who was then the chief executive of the TwoFour54 media hub in Abu Dhabi. We all agreed that most big conferences that are supposedly devoted to the big trends shaping the world tended to treat cultural issues as secondary. There would be the occasional artist brought out for a performance or to lend celebrity value but the big drivers of change and the “important” discussions tended to be about politics, finance, security and technology.
Yet we saw culture differently. When ISIL entered Palmyra, they destroyed the ancient ruins because they saw all cultures other than their own as a threat to their extremist ideology. The Taliban had done the same in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda rallied support by framing the spread of western media and art as a threat. Beyond these examples, we also saw rising nationalism and nativism as cultural trends that were having profound and unsettling political consequences.
Further in a connected world, we were entering the first time in human history when because anyone, anywhere, was connected to everyone, everywhere, that we would be sharing a single cultural eco-system for the first time. This was not only breeding some of the fears that political opportunists and extremists selling intolerance were exploiting but it was creating real questions about its potential impact, about how to take advantage of the windows to new thinking it would offer, how to preserve ancient cultures and how to deal with the host of other questions new media and information technologies, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence, might pose.
That conversation led to another a month later in Abu Dhabi, when we arrived at the idea of creating a kind of Davos for culture, where leaders from the arts, philanthropy, technology, the media and policy communities would be brought together to address these questions. What would set the event apart was the recognition that culture was a primary driver of change and one that could be used to produce concrete, positive outcomes, whether with respect to combating extremism, fighting climate change, empowering women, preserving heritage or educating our young.
By then Ms Al Kaabi was the UAE's Culture and Development Minister and with her support and that of many top officials in government, the first Culture Summit was launched exactly a year ago. The second annual event begins tomorrow on Saadiyat Island not far from the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, a monument to the broader commitment to culture and cultural diplomacy made by the UAE leadership. Working with our energetic and committed partners at Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism, this year’s event, with a focus on “unexpected collaborations”, will bring together 500 people from more than 90 countries. With guests including everyone from a Nobel Prize winner to top arts awards recipients, a major orchestra, debut performances in diverse art forms and high-level discussions and workshops, it will be like no other event that takes place on the planet. And as we convene – with the goal of producing concrete programmes worldwide in arts education to help address the big issues cited above – it is clearer than ever that the need for such a gathering has only grown.
Beneath every major political movement in the world and every rift or conflict, there are cultural underpinnings. Through the arts and media, creative thinkers have shaped and reshaped public views on the very nature of the universe, values and aspirations since the dawn of time. But for the first time in history, those creative thinkers can work in concert with partners from every corner of the globe and experience new technological tools that can enhance their impact and produce real change in ways that most of the so-called elite you might find at Davos or other such events can only dream of.
We never did find much to eat that January day in Switzerland. But we did find food for thought that has led to a new kind of global leadership forum, thanks to the partnership of a government and individuals that recognised the watershed moment in which we live and the central role inspiration and imagination must play in our lives if we are to successfully confront the great issues of our time.
The Culture Summit 2018 runs from April 8 to 12 in Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow