Interview | Sunday, 04 January 2009

The Embassy of Thinking

The inventor of lateral thinking and the six thinking hats, Edward de Bono, has just been appointed an EU Ambassador for Thinking. Here’s his take on the power of thinking for the difficult year ahead

At 75, Edward de Bono is as active as ever, writing books and travelling all over the world to spread his message about the power of thinking. And with this year dedicated by the European Union to creativity and innovation, he finds his mission being taken up at the heart of Brussels.
I meet him at his apartment in Verdala Mansions, overlooking the vast green areas which were once planned to be turned into a massive golf course. The door bell is a sophisticated computerised machine that talks to you and asks you the flat number of the person you are visiting, although for some reason it kept telling me ‘error’ whenever I pressed Dr De Bono’s number, forcing me to call his secretary to inform him I was at the door.
“I come here because I need a view to write,” he tells me once we’re upstairs, admiring the fantastic open panorama that few such places can give you in Malta. The views are definitely inspiring.
I decide to interview Dr De Bono with an open mind after having met some of his most loyal followers at the Centre for New Thinking based in Bighi. I decide to put behind me my dislike for his hype overdrive and get to the core of his subject matter. This fellow Maltese is, after all, arguably the most famous man to come out of this island.
Alas, my attempts are immediately met with his typical preposterous statements that make you want to beat him up.
“I have written a letter to Obama saying that as a present from the European Union to the United States I’ll go and teach him thinking. He hasn’t replied yet,” he tells me as I ask him about his new role as ambassador for thinking.
In spite of this off-putting trait, De Bono has managed to market an idea for the last 40 years, paraphrased and repackaged in over 40 books translated in as many languages, while still retaining a grip on his followers and the status of some religious sect leader.
I ask him about his ideas for facing the global credit crunch in these most difficult of times.
“I’ll tell you my views about these difficult times. They are 30% real, 50% media hype, causing panic and fear and so on, and 20% games-playing.”
How did you calculate that percentage?
“It’s an estimate… but perception is real even when it’s not reality.”
You have to give it to him. Dr De Bono has this arsenal of ready catch-phrases that stick.
“By games-playing I mean people taking advantage of the situation. If you’re a big company you’ve long wanted to sack 10,000 people. In normal times there is no way you can do it because your stock market price will go absolutely downwards. But today, in difficult times, you’ll just sack them.
“One way I suggest to get around this crisis is to have a spending currency. Now most governments want to stimulate spending, and they try and stimulate spending by pumping projects and giving pay-outs in the hope that people spend their money. More directly, you say ok, we’re going to create a spending currency, say, a Bon (from De Bono!). You can exchange one euro for two Bon. When you spend in the shop it’s one for one, so you cover your spending, but the shop can then convert it back into euro, so now you’ve directly stimulated spending. And then you manage the exchange rate between the two, between the Bons and the regular currency depending on how things are going.
“I also believe there should be a property currency. A currency used for buying property, and again the exchange rate is managed. If the property sector is over-heating, you manage the exchange rate in that regard, if it is slumping, you manage it accordingly.
“When the property market starts collapsing, people wait to buy because they say that if they wait another six months the price will go down further. But with a new kind of contract, I can sell my house at today’s price but I tell you, in a year’s time, if the house price index has gone down by 12%, I will refund you 12%. So there’s no need for you to wait. There’s no point in waiting.”
As you listen to and read De Bono’s arguments, you always have to keep in mind a concept which he self-professes to, and that is provocation. One such provocation is the $1 million registration fee for anyone wishing to join his World Council for New Thinking, which he justifies on the council’s website by saying it’s just a fraction of what it costs to build a fighter plane.
“We never charged anyone that fee, but it’s an indication of how little we value thinking,” he tells me.
His latest provocation was planted last October, when he wrote an article on The Times proposing a Palace of Thinking and rebranding Malta as the Creative Think Tank of the world, provoking many into asking why thinking needs a palace, especially when he already has a Centre for New Thinking in Bighi.
“The main point about the Palace of Thinking is that I want a building which is iconic which shows that this is serious. In terms of space, Bighi is fine, but it has no visual presence. It’s a visual symbol I’m after. Then you can have meetings, and have creative sessions and so on…
“Now my point is: Malta is a tiny island. There’s no way Malta is going to contribute militarily in the world, economically, scientifically. Why not as a centre for new thinking? Now some years ago I approached the United Nations to set up a group to develop new ideas. They said they were there to represent their countries, not to think. That is understandable. So there’s no place in the world, which says ‘ok, here are some other options’. It doesn’t mean you have to do them, they just offer options. So my idea is to create such a centre in Malta during the year of creativity, to have regular meetings, maybe once every two months, on defined issues; whether it’s the economy, health, education… generate ideas and publish them in a report.”
Isn’t that what think tanks do all the time?
“The answer is yes and no. Yes in terms of thinking, but the thinking in think tanks is all traditional analysis, it is not sufficiently creative. There are no creative thinking skills.”
Just as I’m about to speak, he puts a stop to the argument.
“I’m the world leader on creativity,” he tells me, moving to say how he is number 20 on some list of most influential business people in the world, and how his name features on some other book of people who most contributed to the development of humanity along Einstein and Galileo. “Creativity is my key area. For the first time in history, I have shown how idea creativity follows logically from the way the brain forms patterns.”
His idea to make Malta a thinking centre of the world is not new and relying upon his word, it should have already happened four years ago when he opened the Bighi centre under the auspices of former education minister Louis Galea.
“This is an ideal way in which Malta can contribute to world affairs,” he had declared.
I tell him that his proposal for a palace of thinking has been met largely with scepticism and downright ridicule.
“This is one of the, how shall I say it, sad is the wrong word but, it’s a pity about Malta. On this small island you would think everyone is on the shore looking at the big world. No. They are on the shore looking inwards. Ready to criticise, attack and be jealous… which is a pity because it doesn’t add anything. The idea for the Palace of Thinking is to say that thinking is a key part of society and it needs emphasising. We had a meeting with Louis Galea who said why not use the Biblioteca Nazionale? Everything can stay in place, the library remains all there, and maybe we can have some meetings there. Why not?
“I have done work where thinking is taught in schools. In China the government is trying it in five provinces; if they like the results they might put it in 680,000 schools. Normally in education, thinking isn’t there. We have never paid attention to thinking. We assume we know everything and so on. Our existing habits of thinking are excellent but not enough. They are derived from the Greek gang of three, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.”
De Bono’s fusion of psychology with medicine has in fact been at the core of his development of the tools of lateral thinking, designed directly from the way the mind works, rather than from philosophical logic, which he dismisses as “playing with words”.
But he has this nasty habit of shoving in the same pre-rehearsed anecdotes to make his point. He repeats to me the same examples and arguments he made when I interviewed him four years ago, and which he repeats in every interview. He tells me that one workshop using his tools in South Africa for some company generated 21,000 ideas in one afternoon, how illiterate miners and some other God-forgotten people on the highlands of Papua New Guinea, are just like multinational corporations, using his thinking methods successfully.
“These things work at all levels.”
Just like religion, I suppose, and just as the Vatican insists that “there is no salvation outside the church”, so does de Bono believe there is no thinking outside his methods.
“What I’m saying is, our thinking is by no means anywhere as good as we believe it to be. It’s excellent but not enough. In fact I invented a word the other day, ebna, meaning excellent but not enough.”
The last time I interviewed him, De Bono had just invented the word ‘waffo’ as an alternative to ‘cool’, although I’m not sure how many are using this new terminology.
I try to get to de Bono the man. He is famous, rich, successful, widely read… is he a happy man?
“Yes, I think on the whole, yes,” not very convincingly. “I’m looking for a fat cross-eyed hunchback to look after me but otherwise I’m happy.”
Why a cross-eyed hunchback?
“Because all young ladies nowadays have agendas so this one could possibly be devoted without having an agenda.”
Beyond the domestic chores of a devout hunchback, he says he is quite satisfied with his accomplishments, and the way he puts it cannot be otherwise.
“In 40 years I’ve done more in operational thinking, outside mathematics, than we’ve probably done in 2,400 years, and that’s a pretty good record.”
Now if that’s not hyperbole, I’m not a man.


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