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Monday musings on a theme for the Liverpool symposium in 2018

By Kristof Decoster
on February 20, 2017

Granted, the Liverpool HSR symposium in 2018 still feels far away, especially in a world in turmoil and full of “alternative facts” (not to mention the toddler fun one can have with #jesuisIKEA  tweets or ‘tiny Trump’ pictures on social media 🙂 ). But the deadline for sharing ideas for a theme for the 5th Global HSR Symposium (  28th of February )  is approaching fast.  We have all been invited to do so by the organizing team, and you can still have your say till the end of this month.  Well, it’s Monday morning, so here are some of my (not very focused) suggestions.   Don’t ask me for a ‘fit for purpose’ theme, though. At the rate things are going now, the world might look entirely different in 2018 (as compared to now). So I’ll leave that up to the Bravehearts.

Nevertheless, even if I can’t think of a good theme for the moment, it would be lovely if such a theme would manage to bring the different silos and disciplines within the HSR community a bit closer together, rather than having them each focus on their own meetings, presentations, panels and epistemic communities, as is too often the case. Let human rights lawyers also weigh in on RBF, health economists on rights-based approaches, etc. (PS:  given the abundant possible synergies between SDG health related goals & targets, there are even more adventurous options conceivable for possible cross-fertilization). That will probably require less concurrent sessions, though. For a start.

The SDG era requires multidisciplinary thinking and approaches, and we all pay at least lip service to the SDG (health) agenda. Even if complexity is a bit out of vogue currently in Trump’s America and elsewhere, a truly multidisciplinary (and systems) way of looking at issues, solving problems, capitalizing on each discipline’s strengths, while not allowing any discipline to be dominant  (yes, economists, I ‘m thinking of you now :) ), remains key in the 21st In quite a few places, multidisciplinary global health teams are being set up now (even including some rather new kids on the block like engineers or urban planners), so it would be great to showcase some of the added value of these approaches in Liverpool. Compare it with a decent football team – Klopp et al also know you need a rather diverse set of players to be truly successful on the pitch.  So let a thousand multidisciplinary HSR (and SDG) flowers blossom in Liverpool!

Something else then. Part of the global conundrum nowadays is the following: many engineers and people working on scientific & technological innovations sound rather optimistic about the future, certainly in the long term – by way of example, I came across an article this weekend on a Belgian scientist brainstorming on star ships for in two centuries from now. Wasn’t hard to understand his enthusiasm. On the other hand, most other people and scholars (who follow the state of the world, whether it’s via the (political) news or climate or social trends), feel rather pessimistic or worse. Certainly, as a species, it appears we haven’t made much moral progress – or perhaps more accurately, there’s always the danger of a brutal reversal, certainly at a time of multiple coinciding crises (financial, ecological, social, geopolitical …).  Like now.  Humanity is certainly more aware again of its own vulnerability, as compared to just a few years ago. We didn’t even need Stephen Hawking for that insight.

In the global health community you notice the same “gap” from time to time. People like Gates who are closer to the tech geeks (and understand the pros & cons of new technology or intricacies and potential of things in the pipeline perhaps better than dumb people with a political science background like myself ) tend to be more optimistic than many others. At least that’s my perception.

By and large, though, the HSR and global health communities (and this would include Gates) are part of the progressive voices in the world who are convinced the world needs a ‘leap towards global citizenship’ sooner rather than later to deal with the multiple transnational challenges facing humankind.

The nice thing is: the multiple crises we’re facing now at the same time also present a gigantic opportunity, if really transformative (systems) change were to take place. See the win/win scenarios for climate change & NCDs for example, but there are lots of other examples. At the same time, though, the fast evolving technological frontier also poses huge & sometimes existential risks, even if – as Bill Gates mentioned last weekend in Munich – to defend ourselves against manmade biological terrorism, for example, we can use more or less the same tools we need to prepare for other pandemics.

In any case, the same technology that will allow for gigantic steps forward also seems to be able to destroy humanity in this century, certainly in the hands of the not very smart species called ‘human beings’.  Somehow, though, even if we’re now witnessing a political backlash against much of what has gone wrong in previous decades, with the sorry side effect that the system might even deteriorate further due to the rise of Trump et al, humanity needs to take a collective step forward at this crucial juncture in time. If only to avoid the abyss.

So here are my two pennies for Liverpool, for what they’re worth:

  1. If we really believe that the SDG agenda is the future, then we should manage to have some successful integration & multidisciplinary thinking/formats/showcases/… at an HSR symposium.
  2. Rather than a focus on ‘resilience’ (to cope with a world of endless unpredictable crises), I’d love to see a focus of the HSR community instead on this “critical juncture” we’re in, in Liverpool, whereby humanity can either take a leap forward versus planetary, human health & equity, or get ready for some really dark times again. How can the HSR community contribute to the former, and help avoid the latter?
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