Steve Jobs and the Serendipitous Calligraphy Class

Serendipity is, without a doubt, one of my very favourite words. If it were up to me, this word would join the ranks of other universally celebrated words such as: Free, Snacks, Pizza, and Snow Day (for us Canadians). While there are many competing definitions really trying to nail down the meaning of the word, serendipity is constantly associated with something unexpected — and positive. It’s even credited as a major contributing factor to innovation, such as in the case of Corn Flakes, Penicillin and the Microwave.

But what really makes this word stand out from the crowd?

I think serendipity is special because it’s often only seen in hindsight. Years might pass before all the wildly unexpected components of a serendipitous event manifest in a way that catches your attention. One such serendipitous event caught my attention recently, and it comes from the great Walter Isaacson, author and authorized biographer of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was published smack in the middle of my first university semester. Somewhere between the excitement of having moved away from home, and the slow realization that we were actually expected to attend classes, I picked up Steve Jobs (ha). One particular story from this book made a huge impression on me and has influenced many of the choices I’ve made since then. While by no means an official title, I like to refer to it as Steve Jobs and the Serendipitous Calligraphy Class. And it goes like this: while Job’s was attending Reeds College as a young man, he enrolled in a calligraphy class that he figured would have no real-world implications later in life. In truth, what Job’s learned in this class would later go on to influence the iconic design and stylization of the Apple products and interfaces that made them an overwhelming success.

Since being accepted into the founding class of Unleash, I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve Jobs and the Serendipitous Calligraphy Class. During the conference, I will be contributing to the theme of Sustainable Production and Consumption, notably for my experience in West African waste management. While I (strongly) hesitate to compare myself to Steve Jobs in any capacity, I can say that we have both been the fortunate victims of serendipitous events.

I began my university education studying International Development and Globalization in Canada, and finished it learning from universities in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Taipei, Taiwan. Living in three completely different environments one after the other gave me a very strong appreciation for the city planning that made each place unique. I started to take notice of how the city’s infrastructure (i.e. roadway, canals, transport, waste management, etc.) made a substantial difference to how ordinary people lived their lives in the city. I started to wonder how, with the right planning, ordinary citizens from developing countries might benefit from innovative infrastructure tailored to their needs. Based entirely on how receptive I was to changing my daily habits, I began to see how improvements to infrastructure could encourage cycling, lead to better planned neighbourhoods, and build more effective public transportation systems.

The biggest difference that I noticed between these three countries was their waste management systems. While waste management is undoubtedly one of the least sexy areas of interest, living in each of these countries afforded me the opportunity to interact daily with the local waste systems. Amsterdam has a completely ingenious system of underground garage dumpsters, which serve the city’s very dense population. Residents of the city bring their garbage out to the nearest garbage or recycling bins, open the shoot and drop their waste into a huge underground container, which is then emptied weekly by the city. Taipei is served by a garbage truck collection system with a twist — yellow trucks drive around to collection points at appointed times playing a very loud, very tinny version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Taipei residents leave their homes with waste in hand, either contained in official ‘City of Taipei’ garbage bags purchased from the city’s thousands of convenience stores, or carrying their recyclables which are accepted free of cost. While I maintained a personal interest in the waste collection systems of the world, for a while a personal interest is all it remained.

Until one night, when I had a serendipitous moment while sitting on my parents’ couch. I came across a posting for an opportunity to work on waste management project in Dakar, Senegal, and before I knew it I was off to West Africa! Now, as more than just a personal interest, I was working on a project to establish waste collection infrastructure in rural cities in Senegal’s northern region. In order to really understand the huge challenge Senegal faces in terms of waste management, the director of the organization arranged for us to spend a day at Dakar’s municipal landfill, called Mbeubeuss. (Honestly, if you only click one link, make it this one!)
 To paint a brief picture of the visit to the landfill, the first thing that I learned in my interviews with local staff was that the landfill has 1 environmental protection measure: if bio-hazardous or medical waste is picked up by garbage truck drivers, their payment for the contaminated load is reduced by 50%. The contaminated waste is then added to the current active section of the landfill, where scavengers sort through the contents of the waste by hand. Terrifying, I know.

Rather than being discouraged at the overwhelming amount of untreated waste in Senegal and other countries, it reaffirmed my belief that innovative and appropriate infrastructure, when combined with sustainable production and consumption methods and education, offers solutions for the sustainable management of waste. The effective management of waste is often a little discussed component of healthy communities, but poor waste management can quickly eroded progress made in local health, water quality and sanitation, climate action, sustainable production, and many other SDGs.

I am very proud and pleased to announce that my serendipitous interest and experience in the waste management systems of the world will enable me to collaborate with other Unleash talents in an effort to tackle the SDGs! See you in Copenhagen!