Emeka's Nnadi's Talk: “The Transformative Power of Play”

Article By:

Founder | Chief Innovation Officer

I am an urban designer, landscape architect and development consultant committed to making the world a better place through the playful application of emerging, innovative technologies in the development of places and spaces where people live, work and play. I'm motivated by wonder, play, and technology as catalysts for humanity's future. I'm passionate about community development and urban design solutions which integrate quality of life goals with economic and environmental sustainability. It is very exciting to share something that has excited me for most of my professional life.

 

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from a philosopher, an adventurer and a poet; and her name is Alice in Wonderland

Alice says, "I often believe in six impossible things before breakfast." Think about that: six impossible things before breakfast! Now, how many people here in this room, right now, can identify at least one impossibility that you believe in. Show of hands. Okay, that's not bad, that's not bad. Now Alice's quote and many of the events in my life have had a profound effect on me and have led me to uncover this philosophy, this scientific position, a formula if you would, that I believe has the ability to change the world. And this formula is: 

T = RIP

What it stands for is: Transformation equals Reality, multiplied by the Impossible, and raised to the power of, you guessed it, Play. 

What I'm really trying to say here is that transformative events will, by definition, occur when you take whatever your reality is, yours, mine, whoever's, and you challenge that reality with an impossible idea that is playfully embraced. I have a few examples out of my personal life that I'd like to share with you to illustrate this idea. The first story I'm going to share is actually the story of my birth. I was born in post Civil War Nigeria; and my parents, who had been displaced by the war, were trying to make their way home. The vehicle they were travelling in looked something like this (picture). Now the vehicle broke down and it was at that exact moment that my 19-year-old, heavily pregnant mother went into labour. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be born. 

So while the rest of the 50 odd passengers in that vehicle took off on foot for fear of the impending nightfall and what that would bring, wild animals or worse, robbers, my mother was giving birth to me in the absolute middle of nowhere. So my birth reality was this: I was either going to get eaten alive by wild animals, or we were going to get robbed and maimed by thieves, or worse - we were going to die slowly and painfully of starvation or malnutrition. That was my reality. Now in the face of that reality, what does my mother do? She begins to sing. She begins to play and she embraces me and holds me close and makes me (at least) believe that we're somewhere safe and warm and not out there in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, another lonely vehicle travelling that highway found us, gave us a ride back to civilization and to a much-needed hospital. 

By that time, I had caught pneumonia and I was still at risk of death. While the doctors battled to keep me alive, my mother never left my side and what was she doing the whole time? Singing and playing and keeping a positive outlook. So I'm here today, the doctors did cure me. And while they cured me, I am absolutely convinced that it was my mother's dogged determination to remain positive in the face of such a daunting reality that kept me alive. I believe that's what truly saved me. 

My next transformative experience happens 15 years later and by this time, I'm a teenager and I'm beginning to plan the next few steps in my career. I'm thinking about my adult career and my higher education and I'm convinced I'm going to be an artist. After all, I had dabbled in watercolours, in acrylics and even oil paint; and my darling mother, she was convinced that I'd become really quite good. 

I, of course, had huge visions of grandeur. I was going to become the next Rembrandt or the next Picasso. Or maybe a Van Gogh just not with the cut off ear part. I was going to change the world, I was going to transform and inspire people with my work. I was going to transform the human experience. So one day, my father and my high school principal sat me down to have the talk. You know, the career planning talk. And my father said, "You know, Son, I love you very much and you do have artistic talent ability but you have to be realistic about this. Son, you're not going to make it. You're not going to make it well. You're not going to make it easily. It's not going to be smooth being a starving artist." And so my dad and my principal began to explore other, more realistic, more practical outlets for my creative ability and what did I do? I began to tune them out. 

You see, they just didn't understand. They didn't know who I wanted to be and who I was inside. I didn't just want to conform. I wanted to transform. I didn't just want to be in the world, I wanted to change it. My father was talking about how so much of the human condition were people who were living sub-par conditions, people who couldn't afford good food to eat, who couldn't afford good shelter, good places to live, who lived in squalor and poor environments. And gradually inspiration took a hold of me. I realized: "Wait, wait, that's it. I AM going to change the world. I am going to impact the human experience. I am going to be involved and engaged in what's happening in the world in a deep and meaningful way. But my medium will not longer be two-dimensional or canvas. My medium will in fact be the three dimensional places and spaces where people live, work and play."

In that moment, it occurred to me that I was going to become an architect. Thinking back now, I realize that, that transformative moment would obviously not have occurred if my parents and my principal hadn't given me the reality challenge. So you see elements of the formula repeating themselves over and over again. 

My third transformative experience that I'd like to share with you happens much later. A few years ago in fact, and by this time I had achieved many of my first original goals. I had a degree in art, a degree in architecture and a degree in landscape architecture. I had lived in nine cities on three continents in the world. I had worked in Nigeria, in Chicago and here in Winnipeg. I had traveled the world. I was a global citizen and a world traveler and I had seen some of the best and absolute worst examples of the human environment. 

But I was still troubled. See, deep inside I was still that teenage boy who wanted to engage the world, who wanted to change it, to leave it a better place than how I met it. And I didn't feel as if I was quite there yet. So I talked to friends and talked to family and said, "You know what? I'm thinking about leaving my job and starting something different." The word I heard the most out of that conversation was ‘impossible’. It went something like this: "What? Are you crazy? How are you going to leave a senior management position, a well paying job, a reputable firm? And what are you going to do? You're going to start your own business now, when the economy is flat and the mortality rate for new businesses is really quite steep? You can't do this. You're too old. Besides, you have a wife and you have a couple of children. Never mind that, you have no money. You don't have money, you have debt. You have a mortgage. You have bills to pay. You're crazy."

Well, at first, it was a little bit crazy. I'll admit that. But in what feels like a short amount of time, I was able to build the dream and the team that I'd always envisioned. And we are a design firm so we do have to deal with schedules and budgets and lots of practical moving parts, but the irony about this is what keeps it together and what keeps it going is actually a profound spirit of play. Last year, my studio and I had the opportunity to participate in a design competition for the redevelopment of a fresh skill site on Staten Island in New York City. And the brief for this design competition had four distinct requirements. The first requirement was that somehow we would generate enough clean electrical power to make a significant dent on the New York City power grid. The second requirement was that we would acknowledge the reality of this island of garbage. Now what had happened recently was that the island had been capped with a two foot clay cap to seal in all of the methane gas that was being released into the atmosphere. We couldn't, no matter what we did, puncture that clay cap so that was a physical constraint. The third requirement was that we acknowledge something deeper; we had to acknowledge the site's emotional and social damage. You see, not only was this a hundred year old island covered in garbage, this was also the location of much of the debris from the 9/11 attacks in 2001. So this location had a lot of emotional scarring, a lot of emotional ties. And lastly, what we were challenged to do was to take all of that and transform it, transform it into something beautiful, something engaging, something interactive, something uplifting that would inspire people to come back to it again and again and again.

Lofty, lofty goals. And when I read the brief, I said, "Guys, this is exactly what it's about. We have to do this. This is what we were born to do." So what did we do? The first big decision we made was to choose a red balloon as the symbol of our transformation. But not any red balloon, giant red balloons 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide and tethered to 50 foot poles so that they swung majestically in the air a hundred feet from the ground. That's the height of a 10 story building. And not just one or two of these giant red balloons but almost a hundred of them. I'm sure some of you are familiar with the 1984 song by Nena “99 Luftballoons”. Now that song is a lamentation about the effects and tragedy of war. It's also a song about hope for the future and transformation that could occur in human society.

So we embraced that song as our muse, as our point of inspiration, our point of departure. Now these balloons, each of them, laced with about 7000 square feet of organic photovoltaic cells, collectively had the ability to power 4500 New York City homes per annum. That's what the outer skin of each balloon was (made of). Inside each balloon was a smaller balloon filled with helium. Now that helium of course was a flotation device, it's what kept the balloons swinging and soaring majestically in the air. And between the inner balloon and the outer balloon, we had a film of liquid crystal, which at the flick of a switch could transform itself from a bright red color to a transparent, almost invisible, look. The challenge for us was that there was no switch. So what we did instead was we designed these huge piezoelectric pads that we placed all over the site along pathways. 

And what would happen is, as people stepped onto those pads, current would be generated. Just enough electricity to power the transformation of adjacent balloons from bright red to transparent. And that was the interactive element, so what would happen is as people came to the site, on any given day, any given time of the year, you'd look up and you'd get a completely different mosaic of red and white and transparent because of the interactivity of the other people, other visitors on the site. Now to be honest, this idea isn't yet built. But what I'm proud to say is that out of over 250 proposals for this site from across the world, this idea won a fourth place award. 

And back to the meaning of my talk, back to the real message that I want to share with you:

I don't really want to talk about giant red balloons (even though it's a great idea). I'm here to talk about the transformative power of play, and to put it back in context, we're talking about an entire island of garbage, which at least intellectually we have transformed into something delightful, something transformative, something inspiring through a decisive act of play. And to bring it even closer home, the person talking to you right now is a poor, Nigerian infant who had a less than 1% chance of survival and through a sequence of transformative events all engaging play in his life, I have the ability to stand in front of you now and share with you this world changing idea. So my challenge to you today that I'll leave with you is this: what if each and every one of us here right now, went away and took one piece of our individual or even our collective realities; came up with an impossible idea; and hung onto it playfully, without letting it go? 

Can you imagine the transformative power of that type of thinking in Winnipeg? In Manitoba? In the world? 

 Thank you. 

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