Our Changing World — Celebrating 1,000 Articles

Big ideas can change the world, can’t they? Surely enhanced knowledge of how things work can help us to resolve the urgent problems of today. And isn’t it true that the application of our know-how is at the heart of societal progress?

We would all like to think that these statements are true. They are the reason why in 2007 we came up with the idea of launching this magazine — Our World.

We started with the aim of looking at just three problems and their interconnections — climate change, peak oil and food security (adding biodiversity loss after the launch of the magazine) — and we asked ourselves how we could effect change on a wide scale. By “we”, we meant the United Nations University.

The answer seemed obvious. Thanks to the Internet more people now are connected than at any other time in history. Roughly 2.8 billion people have access to the web, which represents 38% of the total world population. The younger generations, including the Millennials (those born between the 1980s and early 2000s), access the Internet on a daily basis. It is the ideal place to reach out to them.

Also, what the younger generations yearn for, in our view, is not gloom and doom predictions or rose-tinted optimism about some kind of technological utopia, but practical, workable solutions to today’s problems.

We don’t need to tell you that our world is changing rapidly. People are innovating and finding solutions all the time. We set out to analyze and report on these solutions so as to inspire learning (remember, we are a university) and change.

We have been fairly successful in the inspiration department, less so in getting people to consider changing. In a reader survey that we completed in Fall 2013, 41% of our readers indicated that they understand an issue better after reading an Our World article, while 36% said they had learned something new. Interestingly, 7% responded that they had “changed their view about an issue” but only 4% stated that they had “changed their behaviour”.

Initially, we tried to inspire people to change by connecting our articles to their everyday lives and considering how the topic would affect an individual’s “lifestyle”, “money” and “health”. These are issues that resonate with everybody.

As the magazine developed we began to shift away from the lifestyle focused articles to cover more policy, science and big picture topics — a natural shift, in line with the mandate of our University.

Importance of being UNU

Being part of UNU is what makes Our World different. It ensures credibility, objectivity and academic freedom. Unlike a lot of other online magazines, we are not trying to sell you something.

At the same time, Our World has become a platform for UNU researchers and others to explore less academic and more journalistic styles of writing. To date, close to 650 authors have published with us and we would like to extend our appreciation to them.

When we launched Our World in 2008, the initial plan was to run the magazine to the end of 2015, and then see how the topics we cover had progressed. Coincidently, 2015 also marked the date at which the Millennium Development Goals were to be met. But there were two other reasons behind our choice of 2015 as a key threshold. There were indications that the reality of the peaking of oil production would become clear by 2015 and also that greenhouse gas emissions should peak and start to decline at around the same date.

Neither now seems likely to happen within the next year. The fracking boom in the United States is likely to delay the peaking of oil production by a decade according to the UK’s Royal Society. Moreover, a just-released report from the UN Environment Programme, building on the latest IPCC science, says we need to have a peaking of emissions within the next ten years and a halving of all greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, to be followed by carbon neutrality and then net zero total greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century.

Marking a significant event

From 2008 to 2014, Our World has made some pretty major steps forward and we want to celebrate this achievement on the occasion of our 1,000th article. Among these advances was a major redevelopment of the magazine that we implemented at the end of 2013 and during which we expanded from our original environmental themes to cover all of the United Nations’ areas of work. The result was an immediate doubling of our web traffic. Over the entire period, we have managed to reach over 2.3 million readers. If you add the YouTube views of all of the videos we produced for the magazine then that number jumps to 7.3 million.

Video production has been a core part of the Our World magazine because it is an incredibly powerful medium of communication — again especially for the younger generations. But they are not interested in “talking head expert” videos. They want stories about real people. They want to see what life is like in different parts of the world.

We are really proud that we were able to capture so many of these fascinating accounts on video. It was all down to the dedicated work of a group of young, committed video producers in our team who would go out to the field, across the globe, and film these amazing events, bringing back to the magazine the richness and diversity of our beautiful planet, but also sometimes the tales of desperation and resilience in the face of adversity.

Most of the time, these videos were documenting the work of the UNU and supported by funds from specific projects. What the videos show is that UNU researchers are not sitting back in an ivory tower, but are out working in the field, applying their knowledge and making a difference.

One point to bear in mind, however, is that the Our World team has always been very small. While many people on a larger team have contributed over the years through video production, writing, editing, photography and development, the magazine has consistently been the work of less than two full-time equivalent employees. Yet, at the same time it has always “punched above its weight” being the second most visited website in the UNU system after the main university website.

When we started Our World we were called the UNU Media Studio. In 2010 things were reorganized and we merged with the UNU Office of Communications. The success of Our World was one reason for this merger and the idea was that the lessons learned from developing the magazine could be used in the redesign of the University website. So, the same team was employed to completely overhaul the University web presence, incorporating the key innovations underpinning Our World. We now manage both the UNU website and Our World magazine.

Nevertheless, our goal continues to be encouraging more UNU researchers to see Our World as a primary dissemination tool for their research, complementing their publishing efforts in internationally renowned academic journals.

Changing our world

Working on Our World for the past six and a half years has required that we do our best to keep abreast with contemporary affairs. We have watched the world being transformed. But it appears that for every one step we take forward as a global community, we end up taking two steps backwards.

One of our first articles was about the G8 Summit held in Hokkaido, Japan, in July 2008. Of the leaders who participated in that meeting, only Angela Merkel is still in power.

At that time, we were watching oil prices rising daily to US$147 per barrel and the onset of the global financial crisis. We witnessed the economic fallout of this crisis and a global recession. It has been a bumpy road since then.

And coincidentally, just a few weeks ago, after the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, UK Prime Minister David Cameron talked of a looming financial crash much along the lines that we warned of back at the start of 2014.

Back in 2008, we would have hoped that by 2014 we would have seen more progress in terms of how financial institutions are regulated, how the economy is managed and how conflicts between nations are avoided.

We would have hoped that the international community would have increased its efforts to strengthen its resilience in the face of natural disasters and to ensure rapid response and rebuilding when such events occur. We also may have hoped that the international community would keep a close eye on potential threats like Ebola so as to minimize the danger and loss of life.

Rather, what we observe is a tendency to muddle through. That is not say that good things and progress haven’t happened, but more that the rate of change in responding to big issues like climate change, energy and food security is snail pace slow when we need to be moving swiftly in reshaping this world and our societies.

We anticipate, however, that another six years measured by another 1,000 articles is likely to bear witness to more dramatic changes. The period between now and 2020 is critical, starting with the major climate negotiations in Paris next year.

Will we be able to shift direction to avoid the worst impacts of climate change? Will we be able to move away from our overwhelming fossil fuel dependency and increase the amount of renewable energy? Will we continue to avoid a new cold war and to reduce conflicts across the globe? Will we contain Ebola and ensure that it does not flare up again? Will we get the economy back on its feet again and re-orientate our financial institutions so that they cannot place the world in a similar situation to what we experienced in 2008?

Of course, we don’t know. Nobody does. It is really about what we want to happen and whether we go out there and make it happen. That has been the most amazing part about working on Our World — we have witnessed so many people who are making great things happen. In turn, we have had many people come to us and say: “I really like Our World!” We have had students visit our office and say it was because of Our World that they applied for the UNU Masters degree programme.

To them and all our readers and authors we say thank you. Thank you to all those who have worked to make Our World happen — you know who you are. Thank you for staying with us so far on this journey. Stay with us longer and help move things forward by sharing your ideas about the way you want the world to be. If we can imagine it, and work for it, then it is going to happen.

Happy 1,000th article from the Our World team!

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Our Changing World — Celebrating 1,000 Articles by Brendan Barrett, Sean Wood, Carol Smith and Daniel Powell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008. 

Sean Wood has been the Creative Director at the UNU Media Studio since 2004. Over the past 20 years he has worked as an art director/designer in motion graphics and interface design. This includes experience with design companies in Sydney, Hong Kong and Tokyo. He has worked for an extensive range of clients from multi-national corporations to small design studios.

He was won numerous awards including the Hong Kong Design Association’s excellence award and the Society for New Communications Research 2007 Award of Excellence in the education division.

Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.

Daniel Powell

Principal Communications SpecialistUnited Nations University

Daniel Powell is the Principal Communications Specialist at UNU Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan where he leads content development, working closely with UN researchers to shape compelling science communication. Before joining UNU in 2012, he spent eight years based in South-East Asia working with research, sustainable development, and photography projects ranging from agriculture, biodiversity, and public health to civil society and migration. Prior to his years in Asia, Daniel was a field/lab biologist with the United States Forest Service specialising in forest mycology and lichenology.