Meet the OEB23 Speakers: Keynote Tim Unwin

Tim Unwin is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and also an Honorary Professor at Lanzhou Univeristy in China. He was Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) from 2011-2015, and was Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission from 2009-2014, having been a Commissioner since 2004.  He has written or edited 17 books and more than 250 academic papers and chapters, many of which focus on the use of technology in development practices. We caught up with Tim to discover the person behind the speaker…

Who, or what, was your most important teacher?

I have learnt from many “teachers”.  As a teacher in the traditional sense, it was my geography teacher at school, Chris Joseph.  In the mid-1970s, I then had the immense privilege of working with Sudhir Wanmali in rural India, and I learnt so much about poverty and development from him and all those I met with him in what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand.  Intellectually, I have long been inspired by the work of Jürgen Habermas.  Personally, I continue to learn most from my wife and three children.

What was your most important lesson?

As a leader and manager, you cannot please all of your staff/team all the time.  You are there to make the tough decisions, and then live by their consequences.

If you could try out any job for a day, what would you like to try?

Secretary General of the United Nations (or of the Commonwealth of Nations).

A genie gives your three wishes – what are they and why?

  • That I can remain physically fit for as long as possible until I die swiftly.  Being at an age when everything starts to ache, and injuries take a long time to heal, I would like to remain active, sane and relatively pain free for as long as possible.  Having watched too many of my elderly relatives die with dementia, I don’t want to place the burden of a slow death on my family.
  • That I could change the UN system for the better, particularly with reference to its activities relating to the use of digital technologies and peace.  I have worked closely with many friends in the UN, and written extensively about the mistakes that the organisation is making with respect to digital tech and how it needs to be changed for the better.  If we didn’t have the UN, we would have to recreate something like it, although it would also be very different.
  • That I have the energy to continue trying to do good to all those I meet (see Tolstoy’s Three Questions for a detailed explanation)

What current learning trend do you think will have a lasting impact?


Which technology, in your view, had the biggest influence on the way we learn now?

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440.

What is the coolest gadget/ technology/ tool you have seen lately?

Latest generation of Optical Coherence Tomography Systems (emphasis of response on “seen” and “lately”)

Who would you recommend in the learning world to follow on social media right now?

Me! (especially link to; Mastodon:;  Facebook: @tim.unwin.14; Instagram: @tim_unwin

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“We’ve seen it all before…”

What was your first thought about our overall theme, ‘The Learning Futures We Choose’?

Excited – it is high time we placed the learning first and the technology last!  I hope we will have some fruitful conversations on this.

Do you have a final message for the OEB community?

Spend longer listening than talking; spend more time learning from the past than pretending to innovate what is already well known; do more to reduce inequalities than to stimulate growth.

Thank you, Tim. Tim will speak at OEB Global 2023.

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