Cut past the jargon and get real: From the UN to the EU?

It’s five years since the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, but his words still move people–even at the United Nations. ‘Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers… the ones who see things differently–they’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.’

assemblyThat was the guiding theme for an event co-hosted by UNU-MERIT at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva, 10 November 2016, an event marking ‘World Science Day for Peace & Development’ and celebrating the first anniversary of the ‘UNU Jargon Buster App’.

Named ‘Pop Up Muse’, in a 21st century take on Greek mythology, the event asked people to be brave, to be crazy, and to use the latest technology in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It asked people to use apps for communication and coordination; to use virtual reality for scenario planning; and to use 3D printing for everything from spare parts to national infrastructure. One of our PhDs summed it up perfectly: ‘Let’s hope that by 2030, the SGDs will stop being a simple set of aspirational goals, but 17 real concrete achievements for a better world!’

App goes global…
All told the event gathered 50 people from the UN family and related NGOs, split into four #mindealist sessions: storytelling, understanding, envisioning and materialising. These were captured in some detail in a write-up by Atiqah Fairuz Salleh, a colleague who joined us from UNU-FLORES.

All good fun, but our main aim in Geneva was to road test our UNU Jargon Buster–a smartphone app featuring almost 1000 entries from eight UNU sites around the world and a growing number of international bodies including UN Women, the OECD and WTO. In its first year our app has more than doubled in size, both in terms of the number of entries and the number of organisations featured. Meanwhile, we’ve presented it at the UN Regional Information Centre in Brussels (UNRIC), the UN Communications Group in New York (UNCG), and now the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG).

If this is the first you’ve heard of it, well, it’s not rocket science! The app is a metaglossary–i.e., a collection of glossaries–with hyperlinks to further readings and a graphical user interface dominated by the SDGs. It started life within UNU-MERIT as a simple online tool, helping migration and innovation researchers better understand each other for a project on mobile banking in Africa. But now it covers the seas and the skies and many things in between thanks, for example, to contributions from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London and the UNU Institute on Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn.

Overall we want the app to be a practical tool: a tool that gets specialists out of their silos and speaking the same language; a tool that can bring the UN closer to the people that it’s meant to serve; a tool that even the new UN Secretary-General might use, seeing as he was chosen ‘to cut past the jargon and the acronyms and the sterile briefings and get real.’

Now back to Europe…
Our next stop will be on Friday 25 November 2016 for a ‘valorisation lunch’ in Maastricht, where we’ll share our experiences on creating, launching and growing the app. With local fellows and entrepreneurs, we’ll brainstorm possible next steps, including working with the Mayor of Maastricht, Annemarie Penn-te Strake, in her capacity as Dutch Ambassador for the SDGs.

useAlso on the horizon are the 25-year celebrations for the Maastricht Treaty, set for early 2017. If we can integrate an EU perspective into the app, it would be helpful for two reasons: because the EU has so much expertise on development and because the SDGs are unlikely to be achieved without a strong UN-EU partnership. (And as an ex-Eurocrat and soon-to-be disenfranchised Brit this could be a poignant moment for me!)

Are we likely to see an EU version of the app in 2017? It would certainly be in their interest. After this year’s shocks in the UK and USA, ‘the Liberal West’ clearly needs to reach out and reconnect with the general public, the average man and woman on the street. For the EU, 2016 has been nothing less than an annus horribilis – even worse than 2005, when French and Dutch citizens voted down the European Constitution.

As in 2005, better communication will be key in turning the situation around, in at least two steps. First, by cutting past the jargon and the sterile briefings and ‘getting real’, like at the UN. Second, by supporting quality media to better challenge ‘post-truth’ populists — from Boris Johnson to Donald Trump. Sadly they’re the only ‘crazy ones changing the world’ right now; and sadly, we were warned. As Euractiv said in 2014: ‘No democratic setup ever survived without a healthy press. The EU is no different, but its “fourth estate” is fragile. As channels to and from countries’ public debate, Europe needs sustainable and independent media that is able to challenge and engage, not just snipe or neglect.’ But that’s another story.

Hopefully 2017 will bring more constructive communications and that UNU’s Jargon Buster will play its role: from Maastricht to the EU and UN. If you have any bright ideas and would like to join, please register here for the valorisation lunch at UNU-MERIT, Boschstraat 24, Maastricht, NL.

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