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Leicester means more

March 15, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

The message of today’s post is that we shouldn’t always assume a fit between a type of problem and a type of solution.

It’s an idea which features in Timothy D Wilson’s book ‘Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change’. In his first chapter he shows how simply spending a few minutes a day writing positive narratives may be more effective than intensive psychological counselling for victims of traumatic events.

I too have seen prosaic solutions to long held concerns. As I can’t actually remember anything about it, I have always assumed that the year of my infancy spent living in a council house in Leicester was not particularly joyful. The absent memories have left me feeling an entirely irrational dread of the city. As it turns out the solution was not to relive childhood anxieties but simply to go the East Midlands and be impressed.

On my visit yesterday there were Fellows Richard Brucciani and Neil McGhee telling me about their plans for a second and even more ambitious RSA-backed civic day in  in September. There was Sue Thomas and her colleagues from De Montfort University extolling the virtues of ‘trans-disciplinary’ research and innovation (my talk was in the newly established Trans-disciplinary Common Room). And there was Dr Jason Wood talking about the university’s impressive square mile initiative through which staff and students are working with a disadvantaged local community on a whole variety of interventions.

The main reason for my visit was to give a talk. As I like to whenever I can, I returned to my core script about 21st century enlightenment (animated twelve minute version here). Repetition not only cuts down preparation time, it also means I have a reason to return to the core ideas. Each time I try to add some new dimension or nuance.

Regular readers may recall the argument (which I first surfaced way back in 2007) that tomorrow’s citizens have in aggregate to be more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social if we are to close the growing gap between our needs and aspirations on the one hand and, on the other, the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and behaving have set us.

Previously I tended to describe the ‘social aspiration gap’ in terms of material needs such as for elder care, jobs or environmental sustainability. A development of the argument is to add values to the gap. By this I mean the gulf between the kind of society our values suggest we want and the one we seem in fact committed to creating. Perhaps the most stark example – and one I have referred to several times before - concerns the life chances of children. Opinion polls suggest that most people subscribe to the principle that all children should have reasonably equal life chances at birth. However, politicians and policy makers have failed to persuade us to support ideas and interventions which might credibly meet this objective.

Another new thought about the social aspiration gap concerns the principle methods needed to close it. Here I find myself with a counter-intuitive thought.

If closing the gap requires more engaged, resourceful and pro-social citizens and I was to say that the main barriers were human development, organisational innovation and ethics you might imagine the lists of three correspond, for example that we need to be more ethical if we are to become more pro-social. But I’m not sure they do.

In fact an ethical deficit may be the main barrier to engagement. It is only if we are in principle willing to put the good of society ahead of our own immediate interests that engagement can ever work. The main barrier to resourcefulness may be human development in that more of us need to reach a higher level of mental complexity if we are to have the capacity to be more creative in meeting our own and each other’s needs. And the main barrier to pro-social behaviour may be organisational in that – as I have suggested previously – we urgently need new ways of bringing people together, developing ideas and carrying those ideas into action if we are to translate the public’s willingness to contribute into action (this is the hypothesis being explored in our efforts to enable the RSA Fellowship to become a network for social innovation).

Generally my ideas have the lifespan of a mayfly and this could be the case again. But I wonder if there is something worth exploring in the thought that we too often assume solutions will emerge in the same domain as the problems they are intended to solve? An organisational problem may need an ethical solution while a problem about values may actually be solved through a new strategy or design.

Thank you Leicester. I now associate you with great people and food for thought.


21st century enlightenment

February 9, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

As I said in Monday’s post, the most important and difficult question about human development (in the sense of people in general attaining a ‘higher’ level of  capability) may concern whether there are practical, reasonably large scale, examples of such development taking place as an intended consequence of specific interventions.

But before turning to the practical challenge (thanks, by the way, for some useful pointers among the comments on the post), I wanted briefly to explore some of the assumptions underlying the advocacy of human development. As always, I offer little more than a personal and slightly arbitrary path through a small corner of a vast forest of ideas.

The most frequent arguments I have heard for the need for human development can be placed under three distinct headings.

The apocalyptic case is most often made by environmentalists: in essence, the world is doomed unless we change our ways, and such a change requires us to commit to new values and develop new capabilities.

The functional case – made for example by Robert Kegan – suggests changes in the modern world (particularly the human impact of globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy) require us to develop new capabilities in order for us – as individuals and broader society – to thrive and be resilient. The functional argument has been doubly reinforced in recent times: by the (disputed) finding that rising affluence has not been associated with greater individual or social well-being, and by the growing gap between, on the one hand, social needs and expectations, and on the other, what the state and market can realistically provide (at the RSA we refer to this latter phenomenon as the social aspiration gap).

The idealist case (which might be termed neo-Aristotelian in that it is similar in form if not in specific content to Aristotle’s argument for eudaimonia) suggests that without development, people are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential and that this is a wrong in itself.

It is perfectly possible to subscribe to all three rationales. However, there are a couple of wrinkles. What if a huge carbon capturing machine was invented tomorrow which enabled us to churn out emissions with impunity, would environmentalists then have to abandon their interest in human development? The flip side is the tendency (which I have commented on in the past) for some green activists to appear to be smuggling in a progressive or anti-consumerist agenda under the cover of climate change concern. Similarly, the functionalist case runs the risk of encouraging an attitude of pessimism: we may feel compelled to reject the possibility of progress without advanced consciousness.

The idealist case avoids these risks but can appear either pious or elitist: why would we expect the human race to make a big leap forward in its functioning? And anyway, who are a bunch of touchy-feely liberals to tell the rest of the world who they ought to be and how they ought to think?

Another approach to human development involves applying new thinking about human behaviour to enduring debates about political philosophy. Aided powerfully by findings from social psychology and behavioural economics, the case for genuine autonomy involving capacities for reflexivity, mindfulness and self-control seems ever stronger. While the idea that we must learn to be free has authoritarian, or at least paternalistic, overtones it is surely, in essence, true.

The argument to social justice is both more complex, and arguably, more tentative. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I reflected on the absence from most conversations about the content of social justice (the definition of equality, rights and entitlements) of this question: what is it that encourages to want to extend fairness towards strangers? Surely the answer lies, at least in part, in empathy, one of the most commonly cited attributes of higher order thinking.

If empathy is the affective foundation for a commitment to greater (wider and deeper) fairness, more universal higher order capabilities may also be the goal of social justice strategies. There is, for example, much evidence that social or ‘soft’ skills (ranging from inter-personal communication to team working to creative thinking) are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous requirement in the labour market. Many – including the RSA – have expressed concern that our modern education system shoves people through an examination system while failing to attend to precisely the capabilities most needed for modern work and citizenship.

The RSA’s strap-line –  21st century enlightenment – points to a human development project combining the philosophical ideals that became prominent around the time the Society was founded, contemporary thinking about human nature and behaviour plus an account of future challenges and what they require of us.



Developing development

February 6, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA, Uncategorized 

Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..

Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.

Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people – often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles – in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).

First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:

‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.

Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:

‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.             

Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development,  Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.

Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.

The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?

How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?

Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?

How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.

Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?

Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?

As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices.  Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.


An enlightened Fellowship

July 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

I was even later leaving work than usual on Friday as we were entertaining a group of academics and leaders from the world of culture and heritage. The Re-enlightenment project had just spent two very fruitful days debating and planning at the British Museum. As they sipped fine wine and munched the RSA’s excellent canapés, the group was kind enough not only to listen to me talking about 21st century enlightenment but to greet the ideas warmly.  

A particular area of interest was how institutions must change to respond to new challenges and opportunities. I talked about organisational alignment and how the RSA has tried to make new thinking and practice around human capability central to both our events programme and our research projects. But the most difficult and rewarding change has been in the culture of Fellowship.

After all, how could we talk about tapping into the ‘hidden wealth’ of society if we weren’t even making the most of the incredible wealth of talent and commitment in Fellowship?

The journey of Fellowship engagement has not been easy and is far from complete. But there are times on a long uphill climb when it is important to sit down and look back at how far we’ve come. The recent Fellowship survey which showed high level of satisfaction with the Society and its direction was a good sign, but approval isn’t the same as engagement. Here are three things which really make me feel we’ve reached higher ground:

The recently published summer RSA Journal features a new and exciting way of presenting Fellows’ projects. Instead of simply having a couple of pages for Fellow activities, as used to be the case, the Journal has included relevant examples of Fellow networks in the body of larger articles. In pieces on social enterprise, cities and corporate responsibility there are panels describing the ways Fellows are working with other Fellows on these topics. This bringing together of the role of the RSA as a platform for ideas and a network of civic entrepreneurs is a brilliant illustration of why the RSA is so special and full of potential.

Today we had a cross cutting meeting here at John Adam Street exploring all the different strands of work we do around what is sometimes called ‘place shaping’, basically the process by which local leaders and active citizens develop and act on shared aspirations for their locality. Many of our projects  – ranging from network analysis to social enterprise to public service modernisation – relate to place shaping. The meeting was designed to start bringing these different elements together into a single offer. For this post the relevant moment was when it became clear that it is the activities and prompting of local FRSAs which are increasingly the spur for local agencies to contact John Adam Street. Indeed, I am speaking at place shaping events organised by Fellows in Stoke and in Leicester in the coming few weeks. So, this is a good example of synergy (sorry I hate that word but it’s gone eight and I’m desperate to leave work while it’s still light) between RSA Projects and RSA Fellowship

Finally, I also heard last week that the Boden Group, FRSAs Phil Shepherd, Tim Martin and Nick Brace, all based in Somerset will receive £20,000 from Arts Council England to extend their research and develop a practical pilot programme exploring links between arts, community development and education. The Boden Group was an early winner of a Catalyst award (of just £1,000) and this is now the third case in recent times of a Fellows’ projects which has got a small amount of pump priming investment and support and then gone on to raise much more substantial funding. This is a great example of the Fellowship department helping Fellows themselves carry forward the RSA’s charitable mission.

‘Much done, much still to do’ as the old saying has it. The RSA has always been a great mixture of different ways of working but it’s when they start to overlap and reinforce each other that we really take off.  

Recently I got into the habit of making up a new joke for every blog post. But when I stopped last week I only got one complaint. I can take a hint. So I’m not even going to ask you what you get when you let the devil run the national grid…

Powerful sinergy


Small but perfectly informed

May 10, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch 

After yesterday’s massive screed of a blog (someone sent me a text saying ‘I read the first half but had to stop when I realised I was losing the will to live’), something shorter and lighter.

I gave a lunchtime talk today to ACEVO (the third sector CEOs’ organisation). When they first asked me they said forty people were coming, then it was nineteen, then twelve and finally eight of us sat down to lamb cutlets or sea bass. Despite the slight collateral damage to the battered Taylor ego (still smarting after being left off the Metro ‘top 6,000 quite intelligent Londoners called Matthew’ list), it was actually quite nice to be in a small group.

I had decided not to make a big speech about 21st century enlightenment but to explore some of the challenges facing the third sector in the long period of austerity ahead. Being in the company of some very impressive leaders I ended up hearing a number of interesting points. One that will stick with me was the charity which sees its major corporate partners not only, or even primarily, as financial donors but as sources of organisational expertise, guidance and support. Rather than seeing the relationship as a way into money, this charity saw the donation as a way into a relationship. This is a thought and indeed an ambition I have had before but it was powerful  to hear of it in practice.  

Another was a point about collaboration to the effect that the best partnerships often start off being disinterested – just organisations wanting to find out more about, and learn from, each other. It is only later that the opportunities for joint projects and funding bids start to emerge. This contrasts with what has generally been my own experience – shotgun marriages of convenience.  It made me think about which third sector organisations and leaders I most admire and whose aims most clearly align with our own, and also realise that I didn’t need to wait for a concrete proposal before suggesting a conversation.

Finally, I also heard about ACEVO’s report on the Big Society, which is being published on Monday. I shan’t break their embargo but from what I was told the report confirms – but this time with proper analysis and evidence – most of the concerns I have been airing on this blog. I hope to write more fully about the report when it is published.


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