Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Crap management

Helen's at an interview for a new job this afternoon, and I'm praying she gets it. The level of management ability and sensibility at the South Bank Centre where she works has always been low, but nowadays it is reaching uncharted depths of ineptitude. Her entire small team of educators and interpreters has just been made redundant in an ill-considered restructure and they're all feeling understandably low. In the midst of this arrives a senior South Bank manager to give them all new things to do while they work out their notice period who tells them they must "go the extra yard". Now apart from this being a horrible management cliche, just what sort of "extra yard" dedication do you get by making good people redundant? The same manager then complains about the office atmosphere, and says SHE needs comforting ....



The TR2

After a few enjoyable trial runs in the car since buying it last summer, I've decided to get some work done to turn it from an out-and-out racer into a longer-distance rally car. So into the garage in West London it went today, and we went over a long list of things that could or should be changed. Basically, it's sound, but anything beyond two hours at a time and it gets really hard work, and I need to do long stints in it. Tyres will come down to 185s or even 165s, and I'll look at the price of a rack-and-pinion steering set-up. The rear springs can be softened a bit. The electrics need a thorough going over. The overdrive has to be sorted. It was sad to leave it behind, but now is the time to get this work done, while I'm not really using it much. Once Mark tells me just what needs doing, and how much it will all cost (which will really be the limiting factor) he will get started. I'm considering a rally in Norway in September if I can persuade someone to navigate for me, but first I need the car made ready.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Science Museum revisited

Paid a visit to the Science Museum which I left in some acrimony three years ago. It was good to see old friends again, and be able to reminisce about the period I was there now that the place is settling down to normality under its new(ish) director. It is amazing that it took the Trustees as long as it did to grip previous director by the scruff of the neck and show him the door. Now there is an unfamiliar impression of clarity, purpose and common sense. I was told about a job advertised (not at the museum!) on Sunday which sounds interesting, and which I shall follow up - always as well to have irons in the fire. The museum was looking good, even if large chunks are still closed. And I'm told the Head of Design is angling hard for an honour - what gossips people are...

Monday, May 21, 2007


Back home

Our part of London, Herne Hill, is distinguished by being almost entirely residential. A few restaurants and pubs, a Sainsbury's local, the train station, some nice parks. It is not an emerging Silicon Valley, or indeed any sort of Valley. It's just a place to live, where people come home to after work. So it was strange, as in very funny, to see a local newsletter from the Herne Hill Forum read as follows, under the heading Global warming and the end of cheap oil:

"Duncan Law will be outlining what opportunities there are for Herne Hill to transition to the new economy."

It's difficult to imagine what might be involved here. Herne Hill emerging as leader in new solar technology? Residents keeping cows and harvesting the methane? Preparation of rooms for rent as the rising sea level engulfs lower-lying parts of London?

Sadly I have missed the opportunity to hear Mr Law, whoever he is, so will have to ask about to see if the neighbours can tell me what transitioning opportunities we may be missing.



En route to London


Friday, May 18, 2007


The man for the job

"I don't really understand what a website is"

Judge in cyber-terror trial at Woolwich Crown Court, quoted on the BBC website today.




It's been a time of revisiting principles and looking inwards at what I believe an organisation and its people should be and believe in. Massar started almost from its inception with a sheet of project principles, which became part of the employment conversation with all incoming team members. It wasn't contractual, but it was intended to ensure they understood what was expected beyond the 9 to 5. The principles read as follows:


The way we will run this project:

· Nationally. This project is for the benefit of, and should feel owned by, all the people of Syria.

· Independently - from overt political, commercial or personal interests, messages and agendas.

· Responsibly. We will not forget that we are spending other people’s money, and creating something with public impact. We will manage robustly and with accountability.

· Cost effectively. This means selecting options that provide the greatest lifetime value, not necessarily the cheapest option.

· To high quality standards. This does not mean gold-plated solutions, but fitness for purpose.

· Collaboratively. We will treat stakeholders, users and suppliers as partners. We will listen to others, and spread involvement as widely as is practical.

· Modestly. This project is not for our personal advancement or profile.

· Openly. We will be transparent and honest, even with the bad news. We will communicate actively.

· Innovatively. We will be unafraid to break new ground whenever it is the right way forward.

· Passionately. We will drive constantly to achieve our targets, and will be completely committed to the project and its vision.

· We will always have a bias for action.


The principles underpinning this project are:

· Syrian. It comes from Syria’s own vision, is managed by Syria, and designed for this country and people.

· Our users. The empowerment of our users matters above anything else. The ONLY point of our existence is to create benefits for them.

· Completely accessible by all. No person should feel “this is not for me”, because of their gender, background, education, location, economic circumstances or physical disability.

· Learning and growth. The essence of the experiences will be personal development through enjoyment.

· The involvement of The First Lady does not give us prestige or an easy ride. Our projects have to succeed on their own terms.

· To international standards. We will produce outcomes to stand comparison with anything else the world can offer.

· Enduring and growing. What we deliver will be long-lasting and a catalyst for future development and initiatives.


We will behave towards each other:

· With openness.

· With trust and respect.

· With a positive attitude.

· As equal partners in a common cause.

· With humour.

I'm proud of these principles; I think they have stood the test of usage in Massar. There have been many occasions when we have made hard decisions on the basis of them, and had the comfort of knowing that we did the right thing, whatever others might have preferred. Massar is a stronger organisation, a stronger concept, by being driven by principles and values, and by those values being baked into the whole team.

The problem with principles, though, is that you have to live by them always. If circumstances involve compromising princples, there may be a distance you can travel, some flexibility. But ultimately, you come to a point where you have to say the principles can't be moved any further.

Massar as a concept must be fast-moving, risk-taking, as our client put it once: "a small revolution". It has to push the envelope if it is to mean anything; it has to open new windows; it has to challenge the status quo. The things it cannot be are institutional, cautious, slow, predictable, establishment. Yet right now, these are the very qualities Massar is most at risk of ingesting from its parent body. I fear further dilution of Massar's original spirit, through organisational correctness, bureaucracy and conformity. It's time to stand up, whatever the consequences.

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Monday, May 14, 2007


What I said to the expats - almost

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for this opportunity to brief you on the Massar project.  My name is Robin Cole-Hamilton, Director of Massar.  I will be speaking in English, which I hope will not be too much of an inconvenience.  Printed copies of this speech translated into Arabic are available.

In a process of large-scale change such as Syria is undertaking, there are many components that have to work together.  Strategies, structures and systems all have to be put in place.  When change is a national process, such things are usually the responsibility of government.

However, strategies, structures and systems are not by themselves enough to make change happen, to make it succeed and to make it sustainable.  For this other things are needed, which recognise that change depends on human, social and cultural factors.  Programmes are needed that develop new outlooks and capabilities, that enable people not just to survive change, but to thrive in it and take advantage of it.  Investment has to be made in human capital – which I need hardly tell you has for decades been one of Syria’s most significant exports.

Government will be involved in these areas too, most notably in the shape of formal education.  But it is an area where non-governmental organisations can and do play an important role.

It is here that Massar exists.  Massar is a Syrian non-governmental, not-for-profit initiative.  It forms part of the Syria Trust for Development under the patronage of Her Excellency Mrs Al Assad.  The aim of Massar is to engage young people in Syria between the ages of 5 and 15 – all six million of them – in new ways of thinking.  To equip them with learning skills, abilities and insights that will be a resource for life.  It will encourage young people to be creative, to think critically, to be involved in society and to take responsibility for building the future.  In a broad sense Massar is a citizenship project, investing in and empowering Syria’s richest natural resource – its young people.

To do this Massar is creating a range of non-formal learning experiences, through which young people can travel at their own pace and in their own way.  They can learn about themselves and the worlds they live in – the natural and physical world, societies and cultures, the world of technology and products. These learning journeys are designed to be hands-on, fun, and social.  They are all knowledge-based – one cannot gain understanding without knowledge – but the journeys of exploration within Massar always lead to issues, choices and implications.  For example, the subject of genetically-modified food might start from knowledge about DNA, but in Massar young people might also explore and discuss crops and farming, the global food industry, diet and health, advertising, environmental impact and much more.  Massar will be a source of answers, but its more important function is to stimulate questions and the desire to find out.

To reach six million people across the whole country – this is a genuinely national project, accessible to all – is a challenge that we can only meet by using a variety of delivery channels.  So Massar will consist of: a website that launches in September this year, a major discovery centre in Damascus which will open in 2010, smaller centres in every governorate – the first opens in Lattakia in July this year – television programmes, publications and learning products.  We will use national and local papers and magazines to reach audiences as well. 

And we started this whole national initiative by creating a package of activities that could tour the country.  In under two years we have toured to 49 venues across the length and breadth of Syria, and over 53,000 young people have attended.  1.5% of them have been special needs groups.  Younger children get a show about the senses, storytelling and an “archaeological dig”.  Teenagers engage in a debate about human rights and issues that matter to them, and working in teams they put together a short video clip and a newspaper front page.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the young people themselves, parents and teachers.  There are many stories of children suddenly made aware of the history that can lie beneath their feet and keen to explore it.  For the teenagers, this is often the first time they have had the chance to have a serious discussion about the world they will soon enter as adults.  To quote one young boy: “I wish my parents could have been here to see that I have opinions”. Parents find their children energised and enquiring.  One mother who had brought two of her children one morning was so keen to bring the third in the evening that she made her husband close his shop in order to mind the other children. Teachers ask how they too can acquire the ability to animate and control a group of children that our facilitators – the Green Team – possess.

I should note here that although Massar is non-governmental, it is working closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure that our content and that of the new curriculum are not disconnected, and to develop formal and non-formal learning collaboratively.

In Lattakia this summer we will open the first regional centre with an interactive exhibition about music.  This will cover the science of sound, Syria’s musical tradition, instruments, recording and the music industry.  Visitors will be able to make and record their own piece of music – a ringtone perhaps, or something more serious.  Again, it’s engaging and fun, but with a serious purpose.

The website which launches its first phase in September is intended as a discussion forum, a place where projects can be shown, a source of ideas, knowledge and links to other good websites.  As a place to meet and chat, I hope it will welcome young people from around the world, and build links between young Syrians here and elsewhere.

This leads me to the discovery centre in Damascus, sitting within a redevelopment of the Old International Fairground site.  Those of you who have visited a science centre in your home countries will have an idea of what the centre will be like, but Massar’s subject matter will be much wider than science.  The centre will be full of hands-on exhibits dealing with a wide range of subjects, from Syria’s cultural heritage to space exploration, from computing to glass-blowing, from animated cartoons to anthills.  There will also be demonstration and experiment laboratories, a television studio, debating chambers, internet facilities, a library, theatre spaces, crafts and new media workshops.  It will be a hive of activity.  Designed to welcome booked school groups in the mornings and families in the afternoons, evenings and weekends, the centre will have the capacity for 500,000 people a year. 

We now have the first designs for the discovery centre building and the 16-hectare public park that will surround it.  The architects, selected through international competition, are Danish and have shown a rare sensitivity to Syria’s architectural heritage, the position and context of the site, and the richness of local materials, building techniques and crafts.  Their design takes as its inspiration the Damascus rose, and creates a building which is planted on a solid base, using the black and white stone that is such a strong visual reference point here.  Above this base, the “petals” open out to create a flowing sequence of spaces, routes and views, all clad in light surfaces, possibly punctured to produce shafts of light, possibly covered in shimmering mosaic, possibly latticed.

Unconventional though it may look, the building has been plotted against a very strong functional brief, recognising that above all a discovery centre of this sort has to work inside for its visitors and for its staff.  This cannot be just a piece of trophy architecture.

This building is not massive; it occupies less than 8% of the total site, but its visual presence is extremely distinctive and strong.  It will also make a significant environmental statement.  It will use natural heating and cooling techniques, recycle its water, and incorporate a variety of alternative power sources.  The building itself will be very much part of the Massar message, and it will be world-class in its concept and implementation.

The park around it will be landscaped to provide a public space for all.  Below ground will be a large new car park. There will be restaurants and cafes. The importance of the site’s two rivers will be re-emphasised.  Links will be formed with the university campus to the south, the opera house to the west, and the national museum to the east.  What will emerge will be a new cultural strip running from Omayyad Square to the Old City.

Around the world, nations are investing in projects such as this for purely economic reasons: discovery centres enrich the offering to tourists; strengthen the case for inward investment and company relocation; create new businesses; and stimulate the local economy.  But I would like to think that this scheme can also contribute to Syria something more valuable – in terms of the development of human capital – and less tangible – in terms of an enhanced quality of life and sense of common identity.

Throughout the whole Massar project, the aim is to create something that not only looks and feels truly Syrian, but builds local capacity so that from 2010 onwards Syria can take the project onwards without depending on outsiders like me.  Local architects, engineers and designers will be involved in all aspect of the project, but in some cases we are looking for more than the local market can deliver.  From web design to project management; from activity evaluation to exhibit manufacture, Massar is introducing a range of professional disciplines that are relatively rare or non-existent in Syria.  In some cases we can and will train people from scratch.  In other cases, these skills may exist within the Syrian community overseas.  We will be publishing lists of specific skills we are seeking, and I hope that I can look to the expatriate community to spread the word, and help us find the best Syrian people wherever they are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this project is not just an idea.  It is happening.  I need hardly tell you that this it will cost a lot of money to complete.  The discovery centre is estimated at $35 million for the building work alone – at Syrian prices.  It is conventional, in a speech like this, about a project like this, to an audience like this, to ask for commitments of financial support.  I don’t intend to do that, though of course they will be very welcome.

Today I will only say that I believe the Massar project represents a milestone on Syria’s journey from its rich past towards its future.  Those associated with it will have done something important for this country’s young people.  Within the discovery centre and on the Massar website we will be honouring those individuals and trusts who have made significant financial contributions, and I can say that the name of one person at this conference is already on that list.  Should the expatriates decide to support Massar, I believe it will send out the strongest possible signal of their commitment to this nation’s future, and express vividly the common bond that unites Syrians worldwide.

Thank you.



Thoughts on BA again

Seeing a click-through ad for BA's new business-class seats recently made me think back on my recent painful experience getting from Damascus to Copenhagen via London. It would be convenient for BA to think that the only bits of this trip that they are really responsible for are at the service deks and in the air. But in fact I am judging BA on the whole experience between booking the tickets and arriving at my destination. Particularly at Heathrow, where BA have a dedicated terminal so no excuses, they own the entire dismal offering, in my view. And dismal it was. On that trip just over seven hours were spent in the air in a BA seat - six hours were spent in airports - much of that time at Heathrow T4 in a transit queue for security and another hour at Copenhagen dealing with lost luggage. I have yet to narrate the story to anyone who now does not speak about BA's appalling reputation for losing luggage.

If I thought that BA were investing as much thought, money and design time on what their customers experience on the ground I wouldn't feel so jaded at their ads for new seats. As it is, flying with BA involves too much of an abysmal customer journey on the ground for the great service in the air to compensate. It would be nice to think that BA executives regularly put themselves through what their customers experience, but I doubt it. And in my opinion this is what will eventually bring BA down.



Sparrow and loquat

Young sparrows are popping out of eggs all over the place and the loquat trees are in fruit, which the birds seem to love. This is just outside my office window.


Sunday, May 13, 2007



I had been asked to do a presentation on Massar to the Expatriates Conference, a gathering of some 1000 expatriate Syrians in a hotel complex south of Damascus. The affair was organised by the Ministry of Expatriates, and the words piss-up and brewery come instantly to mind. I was one of four speakers in the morning first session today, and start time came and went as people wandered in, chatted, wandered out again. So we started about 15 minutes late. Then one of the speakers, Ali Za'tari the UNDP Coordinator, went on at enormous length. I was passed a note saying could I please cut my talk to 12 minutes. The speaker went on for yet longer. He was passed notes saying please stop. He went on some more, while the Minister for Expatriates got increasingly restless and iritated in the front row. As I finally went up to speak I was asked by an aide to make it five minutes only! I probably spoke for eight minutes or so, the best I could do as I had 26 slides prepared. I was complimented afterwards for giving a talk that was brief and to the point - if only by comparison...


Tuesday, May 08, 2007


50,000!!! - party

We had a celebration today to mark 50,000 young people through our touring activities. In fact we passed that number some days ago but in a tiny cultural centre which didn't have space for a party, so we did it in Shahba. Mrs Assad attended, we had a cake, and invited child number 20,000, 40,000 and 50,000 to come on stage and receive some gifts. Lots of fun, balloons, noise and media present, so we should get good coverage.

A camera crew from NBC were in tow, and they were gobsmacked at what they found. The interviewer kept saying how different it was from what they had expected. I didn't say that some of that might just be the fault of the media. Anyway, they interviewed Mrs Assad and later me and Dina, and took hours of footage, so pehaps some of this may appear on prime-time American television. Every little helps.



HE and TV

The US NBC camera crew who came along when Mrs Assad visited the touring activity in Shahba. They were bowled over by what they saw and wanted to include much more of Massar in their final report. We'll see...
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Sunday, May 06, 2007


On the up

The discovery centre part of the project is, I think, on an upward trajectory just now. We had a meeting to present the scheme to the Governorate's elected officials, which went well, although I'm still struggling with this cough and wasn't feeling 100%. The Governor talked about why this project was needed, and how Damascus would benefit from it, I presented with Dina translating, and then the Minister of Education weighed in to explain how this was what the young people of Syria needed. There were some questions, and then the Govenor said that the building would receive 1.5 billion Syrian pounds in funding from the Governorate. This is good news, although we will have to keep the contract between us as watertight as possible if the Governorate is a funding partner. But every little helps at the moment, and I am gradually regaining my sense of confidence that we will get there.

Other presentations remain to be made about the Massar project in general: to the Prime Minister again in a smaller session, and then to an expatriates conference. These are potential funders, so I had better make it good.



Sad events

Poor Majed. It's only a couple of months since his father died and now another tragedy has struck. Early this morning he woke up to find his house in flames. He got his family out safely, but everything they have has gone up in smoke. We'll see tomorrow what needs to be done.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Not Titchmarsh yet

The garden at the apartment, while still very untended, patchy and overgrown, is starting to look attractive. The pyrocanthus has lots of flowers at the moment, which are attracting the bees. A passion flower which grows over the carport is coming into flower, the bougainvillea is also all in colour. Some jasmine is springing up. I have planted some lavender, a basil plant and some other small bits and pieces, all bought at a local garden centre for the princely sum of £1.75. Sparrows, a pair of blackbirds and some pigeons all visit, and there seem to be fewer cats leaving their offerings as well. Lovely.


Ups and downs

It's been an extraordinary couple of weeks since Helen and Issy left. First, almost immediately, I was struck down with food poisoning - probably from some mayonnaise. The results were fairly severe and very disgusting, and confined me to bed for two days. A very nice doctor came and prescribed some medicines. He was very dismissive about Imodium, which here they believe just locks the system up and doesn't allow the poison to pass through the body. So I have been taking some huge yellow pills and taking it easy diet-wise, but even now things are not entirely right. And on top of that I have now got some form of chest infection, which means that I'm breaking out into fits of coughing.

Then we had the architects over to present the latest version of the design for the park and the building to Mrs Assad. It went extremely well, she loved the scheme, and by all accounts so did the President when she showed it to him later. So we were all on something of a high, which continued when we presented the scheme to the Governor and his committee. I had expected him to baulk at the costs for the landscaping, but he was quite easy about them.

On the crest of this wave I got a call from Mrs Assad, asking if (as the architects had now left town) if we could present the architectural scheme to the Prime Minister. It seemed that the PM had been given the nod to enable the project to receive government funds, and the questions were to be about funding practicalities. We duly set this up, while getting daily calls telling us that yet more Ministers were going to be at the meeting. On the evening I did an almost word-for-word presentation of the scheme with Martyn Best from Cultural Innovations. The response was unfortunate - a lot of politicians who had not in fact been briefed in advance, and who felt with some reason that we were bringing a bid for government funding to them, which they should interrogate from its basics. So there were lots of questions about Massar in general, few of them answerable in brief. And lots of questions about the building, most of them very stupid. Apart from the Minister of Educations, who is a strong ally, there was no support from members of our Steering Committee who were present. And one Minister in particular asked some of the stupidest questions imaginable - how on earth did he get his job? In the end I had to say that it would be good to have confirmation of any government funding assumptions from the PM, so that we could know what it was we were supposed to be defending.

So this meeting was something of a disaster. We have regrouped of course and now have some different briefings to give later this week and next. I will also be talking to a large gathering of expatriates on the 13th, who are in town for a conference. It all makes for an emotional roller-coaster, and there have been many times recently when I have thought about jacking it in and going home. The scheme is so extraordinarily marvellous, so far beyond where Syria is at the moment, so truly world-class, that it is dispiriting to find new obstacles round every turn. However, as we have got where we are largely by still being there when everyone else has become tired or bored, sticking it out still seems the best strategy.



The Rose

This image shows HLT's emerging design for the discovery centre building. Taking its theme from the Damascus Rose, it creates a marvellous set of light "petals" emerging from a solid plinth base. Its materials and finishes will make extensive use of Syria's strong crafts tradition. It's beautiful and world-class.


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