This week the first festival of the New European Bauhaus is taking place in Brussels. Maybe you have heard about it. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the launch of the innovative and ambitious New European Bauhaus in her State of the Union speech in 2020. The New European Bauhaus’ objective is to make the Green Deal a cultural, human-centred, positive and tangible experience, creating a movement to explore how humans can live better together on a healthy planet after the pandemic.
The above mission is one that Humankind shares and passionately works on every day. But a mission without action is not going to have any impact. When Ursula von der Leyen shared the EU’s wish to create this movement she therefore also kicked off a design phase to bring the new Bauhaus movement to life. I was honoured to be invited to the initial talks which led to the establishment of a high-level Roundtable together with other European frontrunners from different professional backgrounds and fields of expertise. The aim was to inform the President and her cabinet on key developments in architecture, design and other areas that might be interesting in the framework of the New European Bauhaus and to reflect together from different professional perspectives on the challenges ahead and ways to stimulate new solutions.
I have been excited from the start about the New European Bauhaus’ aim to create a cultural, human centred and positive movement to explore a better living together on a healthy planet. In this article I share some of the ideas I gave as input to the EU commission.
Currently, the discourse on our cities is mainly focused on technology, data, efficiency, maximisation, and control. It seems we are forgetting that it is really about the human beings living in the cities. This is a mistake and it is clear that it is not effective either. Instead, we should really put humans central, even though this is not an easy task. Humans are by nature paradoxical, complex beings. So much more than the sum of its neurological connections and body parts.
Days after the destruction of Rotterdam 80 years ago, in the middle of World War II, the city’s planners started dreaming and designing the future of the city. They made their mistakes, and definitely did not create the human-centred city it is becoming in recent years, but their forward-thinking attitude is admirable, as all change starts with imagination. In a world raddled by crises of humanity, we need to apply a similar logic to the one of Rotterdam’s city planners – we urgently need to rethink what kind of future we want to create.
In the academic world the humanities and the arts are increasingly questioned, as they cannot be ‘measured’ exactly. In the field of urbanism I see similar tendencies, as the ‘smart city’ discourse is still popular, leading to erratic prioritisation of electric, self-driving technology over the real smart solutions that walking and cycling are, which are cheaper and more sustainable. The solutions proposed by the male-dominated world are technologically driven, accelerated by the pressure of industries proposing answers to many questions nobody ever asked.
The humanities can help us ask the right questions, and the arts to make futures visible and imaginable. How can our public spaces become inclusive places that foster new democratic systems instead of pushing out people? What will our cities look like when we break down the naive opposition of technology and nature? How can we design better for different identities, minority groups and paradoxical human emotions? Does extending our public space to digital space increase the chances of what Aristotle had in mind about living a good life? It is hopeful that people like the Belgian professor of clinical psychology Paul Verhaeghe and philosopher Alain de Botton translate philosophical ideas into societal and urban ideas.
Technology won’t be a problem. We will find (almost) any solution to the questions we ask as tech is another human-created power to solve problems. But we should become better at asking good questions in order to solve the current crises. For that, we need truly multi-disciplinary teams, as proposed by the New European Bauhaus initiative, working horizontally instead of top-down. We need to reach out to new voices and communities that are often overlooked. Let us build bridges between people and open doors, and invite the architects to design them.
Embracing diversity of opinions means accepting friction and misunderstandings. But it makes the final result not only just, but also better. Creating trust and a shared language is essential. Even well-organised countries still work too much in silos, using different language and concepts that impede collaboration. Just like living together, working together is not easy, so let’s get the basics right.
That’s why a New European Bauhaus movement that succeeds at exploring a new way of living together in harmony can only be based on our human powers of self-knowledge, reflection, imagination and new ways of working together. We can unlock our human powers by making use of one of our core qualities: kindness. It may not seem very innovative, but trust me, it is. In order to create real movement we need to open up, to ourselves, others and our planet. And kindness allows us to do so. As our President Ursula von der Leyen says, this is our opportunity to make our 21st century more beautiful and humane.
I am very happy that the New European Bauhaus explicitly mentions the importance of imagination in order to build a sustainable and inclusive future together that is beautiful for our eyes, minds, and souls. It offers a space for a new way of thinking and doing. Of course, creating something new is not easy. The current system needs a serious update (or replacement?), and the EU itself is very capable of slowing down innovation because of the many checks and balances it requires before actually being able to collaborate. But the new vision is ambitious and an invitation to all Europeans to critically think, dream, and work towards a brighter humane future. If you are in Brussels, don’t miss The Festival!
Jorn Wemmenhove - cofounder & creative strategist