Skateboarding Amid the Ruins of War

Skateistan - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro BocanegraSkateistan is an unconventional school in an unconventional place. What began in 2007 as informal skateboarding lessons by Australian Oliver Percovich in an empty fountain in Kabul is now, thanks to international donors and skateboard industry partners, an international non-profit which offers skateboarding and more traditional education to children in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Pakistan.

The staff is international and they work mostly with children aged 5-18, over 50% of them streetworking kids. Skateboarding is what gets them hooked into the program. Then, once in, they learn many other things. Apart from skating, the teachers also focus on leadership skills, civic responsibility, multimedia, creative arts and they also explore culture, traditions, natural resources and peace. The students decide what they want to learn.

Skateistan 5 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

This skateboarding school, which now has more than 400 students and a 5,400m2 skatepark and educational facility,  is open to all ethnicities, religions and social classes. Streetworking children share classroom with sons of government ministers. The school has Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek or Tajik children who, united by their love of skateboarding, create bonds here that trascend social barriers and learn that they are not that different from one another. Many of these kids come from extremely poor backgrounds, and this program provides these marginalized youths with opportunities, not only to meet other children from other cultures, but also empowers them to overcome adversity, teaching them self confidence. In a country devastated by several wars, having this common bond also brightens up their lives, gives them hope of a better future and gives them a voice. Here, kids can be kids.

Skateistan 2 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

The school operates six days a week and provides all the skateboards and the safety equipment.  Most of its operating costs have been funded by the embassies of Denmark and Norway which also funded the construction of the Kabul facility, together with the embassies of Germany and Canada.  The German Federal Foreign Office constructed a second facility in Mazar-e-Sharif. Skateistan has numerous sponsors and partners from the skateboarding industry. They also receive donations and support from a network of international groups and volunteers.

Nancy Dupree, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, explains that children who have grown up in war, surrounded by negative attitudes towards compatriots of different ethnic and secular groups can now meet children from other backgrounds, compete and learn to play with one another, respectfully, “setting patterns for future harmonious interactions through life”.

Skateistan 6 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

But this is a country still very much still grappling with violence. On September 8th, a suicide attack in Kabul resulted in the deaths of several children, four of which were students of the academy. The bomb was detonated outside the International Security Assistance Force headquarters, where many of the streetworking children of Kabul sell trinkets, scarves and chewing gum

Skateistan 4 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro BocanegraOne of the most remarkable aspects of Skateistan is that 40% of students are girls, many of them having to go against the wishes of members of their families, who don’t approve this kind of activity for girls. The school promotes gender equality in one of the most gender-biased societies in the world. But amid the ruins of war…they skate on.

This is a short documentary on Skateistan:

To donate to Skateistan to their website.


Entrepreneurship or Higher Education but not both

Peter Thiel is an American businessman, co-founder of PayPal and an early investor of Facebook. As a venture capital investor he has seen his share of successes. He has helped a whole new generation of tech companies, including SpaceX, LinkedIn, Causes, RoboteX or Spotify. He has investments in biomedical companies and he funds longevity research. He also promotes a host of philanthropic, academic, and cultural institutions and companies, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Human Rights Foundation, and the Seasteading Institute, which proposes experimenting with floating communities in the open seas to test new forms of government. He also funds artificial intelligence, and works against violence through the Oslo Freedom Forum, among other initiatives.

In the year 2010, Peter Thiel created the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, with the aim to nurture the tech visionaries of the future. The original fellowship program gives 20 people under the age of 20 $100,000 to drop out of school and become world-changing visionaries. The only condition is that you commit full-time to your ideas and skip college. Last year more than 400 young people applied.

For Peter Thiel, going to college gets in the way of entrepreneurship. After all, some of the world’s most important inventions and technologies were created by independent minds working on their own. He also believes that there is a higher education bubble waiting to explode. The average college graduate ends up with at least $24,000 in student loan debt in the US, and one in ten has a hard time finding a job. A dysfunctional system. Of course this program does not solve the greater problem of the educational system, but at least it explores new possibilities, radically rethinking everything and allowing the participants to have a five-year head start, and without debts.

The first members of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, announced in May this year, will pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow. During their two-year tenure, apart from the $100,000, each will receive mentorship from the Foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. The project areas for this class of fellows include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics, and space.

Education systems throughout the world have rapidly become obsolete and necessarily have to evolve. Although solutions like this cannot be applied massively, it is through this kind of initiatives that countries can foster and harness creativity, entrepreneurship and competitiveness for bold young people with ideas.

(To read original article, published in Aug 2011, in PDF: Entrepreneurship or Higher Education But Not Both)

Trailer of a new CNBC two episode special on the 20 under 20 Thiel Fellowship

Google Art Project

Google employees are famously allowed to use up to 20% of their company time to pursue special projects not related to what they normally do at Google. That’s about one day per week. Art Project is one such initiative. It makes use of Google technology to help museums make their art more accesible, and not only to people who already visit museums or specialists, but to an unimaginable number of people who otherwise might never have the opportunity to travel or visit and see the real museums. Think people with physical disabilities, children in some forgotten little village somewhere in Africa, etc.

With Art Project you have more than 1,000 works of art at your fingertips. Some of the works were photographed in extraordinary detail using super high resolution or “gigapixel” photo-capturing technology. Each of these images contains around 7 billion pixels (around 1,000 times more detailed than your average digital camera) and a specially-built “microscope view” uses Picasa to deliver these images at amazingly high resolution. And to enable you to also “visit” the museums, a Google team had to build a special vehicle called the “trolley”, to take 360º images of the galleries, which were then stitched together and mapped to their location, permitting smooth navigation of almost 400 rooms. In other words, Street View, but indoors.

You can visit 17 of the world’s most famous art museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Tate Britain & The National Gallery in London, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Each museum was able to chose the number of galleries, artwork and information they wanted to include.

With the “Create an Artwork Collection” feature, you can save specific views of any of the artworks and build your own personalized collection. Comments can be added to each painting and the whole collection can then be shared with friends, family or on the web.

(To see the original article, published in Jan 2011, in PDF: Google Art Project)