A very short blog this morning as I am on holiday in Scotland.
If anyone has any money to invest, I strongly recommend the British tourist industry. It’s absolutely packed out in Aviemore, they’ve even run out of skis!
The last time I was here there was hardly any snow and much talk of climate change destroying the winter economy. So here, at least, some good news. Otherwise, there isn’t much to smile about.
Over the last two years, as we here sought to encourage and support RSA Fellows to work together, one of the questions we have heard asked is, “But, what should we be trying to do?” It seems to me the whole country faces 3 massive challenges.
First, how do we survive the recession and, in particular, how do we protect the most vulnerable and develop new models of wealth creation?
Second, given that we are about to enter a long period of public spending squeeze (tighter, according to the IFS than under the early years of Margaret Thatcher), how can we protect public services and meet growing needs? This has to involve major advances in productivity, involving better mobilising the capacity of individuals and communities; but how do we do it?
And finally, of course, how do we not just continue to focus on climate change but start to work out how on earth we are going to meet the target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050?
There is so much that the talented and committed Fellowship of the RSA could do. We here at John Adam Street are ready to support Fellows’ efforts; let’s see the whole of this great society step up to the plate.
Now on my way back from Manchester. It was a success. The turnout was good, the commitment tangible and the quality of discussion high. There will be time for a fuller report – coming soon on the revamped networks platform – but here are some highlights of the morning.
In a breakout group to discuss Fellows’ responsibilities the question was posed: ‘what is it that we have in common?. We knocked this around for a while before someone said ‘isn’t what is different about the RSA is that we all come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so isn’t it up to us to create what we have in common?’ What a brilliant thought.
In a group to discuss communication, a Fellow who had been quiet up to then suddenly burst out: ‘you mean, if I want to, I can just contact local Fellows and start a local group; I don’t need permission from London or the regional committee?’ Exactly. In another group a universal agreement that being an RSA Fellow didn’t mean you have to sign your life away or promise to have a great idea every ten minutes; it means being open to the possibility that you might one day choose to work with other Fellows to develop their idea or your own. Unlike being a member of other organisations, being an RSA Fellow doesn’t mean a choice between disengagement and diving in at the deep end – there are plenty of ways to paddle too. Absolutely.
On days like today it feels like we are so close to the tipping point, when the Fellowship starts to generate the level of engagement, the quality of ideas and the practical action which make us a real force in the land. There are bad days too when it feels like we are pushing water uphill or when we have to deal with the loud but dwindling minority who want the RSA to be little more than a closed social club. But, overall, I am convinced we are getting there.
Thanks to everyone who made today – the Fellows who gave up their mornings, the staff who made it all work and most of all the magnificent Vivs. She is one of those people who creates energy wherever she goes.
I’m on my way to Manchester for an RSA Networks open day, of which more later. When RCE (Barbara, or ‘the Real Chief Executive’ as everyone knows her) told me my train was at 6.20 I was spectacularly unchuffed. It’s not so much the getting up early that I find objectionable more the going to bed early that I find impossible.
Walking through the streets of Lambeth at half past five this morning I was reminded of my brief stint as a street cleaner in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was the summer of 1977. Every morning I was full of energy and hope, even though I’d rarely had more than three hours sleep. I loved walking across Chelsea Bridge as the sun was rising, and even one day when I watched the police river boat haul a body from the Thames it seemed somehow elegiac.
I recall my first morning most vividly. I turned up at 5.00 am and the foreman allocated me to Reg, a short, stoop shouldered man with skin etched with street dust and a dormant roll-up permanently attached to his bottom lip. He looked about 75 but I later found out was in his mid fifties. Reg took me to a street behind Sloane Square gave me a broom and set me to work.
After about half an hour I was regretting ever taking this summer job. I was covered in sweat, my eyes were streaming and I had already developed a pathological hatred for dog owners. Reg sidled up to me. He pointed back to the pristine pavement stretching 100 yards or so behind me. ‘’Ave you done this?; he asked in such accusatory tones that I assumed my productivity was well below par. ‘Yes’ I nodded, bracing myself for a lecture about the fecklessness of youth. ‘Listen mate’ said Reg patting me on the back ‘this is a job not a bleeding vocation’.
That’s when the proper initiation began, the most important part of which concerned the morning inspection round made by the foreman on his motor scooter. Looking in his white pith helmet every inch a district superintendent on an imperial posting, the supervisor made it a matter of pride that he kept always to a strict timetable. You could set your clock by when you would hear the putter of his scooter rounding the corner and see his jaunty salute as he satisfied himself and the Royal Borough that its staff were hard at work.
And we did set our clocks.
For this was the only time of the day when we could reliably be found with brooms in our hands. At all other times we would be distributed far and wide, some at home, some in the pub or the betting shop, one even pursuing a Lawrencian affair with a Sloane dowager. The only one of us who was generally to be seen with his handcart was Sean the junky who used his to secrete car radios nicked to pay for his habit.
Now, I guess, I do have a vocation, or at least a mission. Today is a big day for the RSA as we try to transform the Society into a powerful force for social innovation. The Fellowship and network teams have done a great job of preparation and I am really looking forward to the day (I will report back later from the train home). But sometimes, only sometimes, I wish I could return to those days when creativity was something you used not to improve your job, but to avoid having to do it.
Great day out in Exeter yesterday with South West Fellows. The evening reception was fun – it’s always nice to talk to Fellows old and new – but the high point of the day was the afternoon session with Committee members and invited Fellows.
In this session, we discussed half a dozen ideas for Fellowship projects in the South West – these ranged from the RSA helping to turn the historic Beer Quarry Caves into a World Heritage site through to giving young people a stronger voice in Exeter.
As we talked it became clear that some projects offered more as RSA initiatives than others, and this process of encouraging Fellows to develop ideas, then discussing them critically but positively, and working out the next stage as ideas turn into initiatives is exactly how I see RSA Networks developing.
Of course, we are at a very early stage – we need lots more ideas and we need to understand that this is about RSA initiatives rather than just supporting existing ideas and organisations. We also need to be realistic – out of, say, 20 good ideas only a handful will result in further engagement and possibly only 1 into an RSA initiative.
However, I am confident that in a few years’ time we will have a whole database of successful RSA initiatives from around the country – this will be an incredibly valuable learning tool, showing what works in one part of the country and could be adapted for another.
The development of the Networks project, without a strong history of activism to rely on, is the steepest part of the learning curve. But in the enthusiasm, camaraderie and willingness to engage and be engaged that I saw in the SW yesterday lies the future for the RSA Fellowship.
First of all I would like to say a big thank you to the staff here at RSA for burning the midnight oil for the past week in the final push to launch the new website. It went live yesterday evening, but apparently takes 24-48 hours to propagate around the world to all the different servers. So keep checking the site, it will soon have a fresh face and greater functionality.
Thinking about brains, as I have been this week, I was interested in the Thought for the Day on the Today programme this morning. Abdal Hakim Murad explored the Muslim take on the Academy of Medical Sciences report about the use of brain enhancing drugs.
The issue of psychoactive substances is not a new debate in the Muslim tradition. For example, coffee is allowed because it enhances brain function, but alcohol is not because it impairs the mind. In his three minute slot Abdal Hakim Murad moved from this issue to a broader perspective arguing that humanity is distinguished by the God given miracle of consciousness.
Many scientists and philosophers would replace ‘God-given miracle’ with ‘evolution-given illusion’. One of the challenges in debates about the brain is the way empirical and policy questions about advances in neurological research jostle up against what philosopher Owen Flanagan has described as ‘the really hard problem’ of meaning and consciousness.
This week I’ve been interviewing some excellent candidates for a new Fellow outreach coordinator for Scotland. It is clear that the Scottish Fellows are going full steam ahead, delivering not only the RSA mission, but thinking hard about how to build a distinctively Scottish brand identity and agenda.
So it was perhaps not surprising that at our excellent new Fellows evening last night, a Welsh Fellow was astonished to hear from me that the Welsh fellowship is subsumed into our West and Wales region. Of course, this reflects the pre-devolution development of the RSA and I don’t sense any unhappiness in the region with its current configuration. But I guess it’s only a matter of time before our Fellows in Wales are seeking to develop their own relationship with the devolved administration.
I’m on holiday next week for the school half term – but between my holiday postings and contributions of colleagues the daily blog will continue.