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The wisdom of crowd funding

August 12, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

As I have written in recent posts, I have found myself increasingly interested in institutional reform and invention as an area for policy and innovation. My own gloss on this relates back to my interpretation of cultural theory with its three active sources of change: individualism, hierarchy and solidarity. Might it be that institutions represent, inter alia, relatively stable ways of combining these three power sources?

Institutional decline might be seen in a loss of organisational viability or by institutions coming to have a less benign impact on society, or – thinking of banks – possibly becoming malignant. Is such decline a reflection of the three power sources becoming unbalanced? Perhaps the hierarchy fails to adapt or the institution has no way of tapping into the growing strength of individualism in wider society.

The perspective makes me alert to institutional innovation and keen for the RSA to get involved; so I am excited that the Society is taking further steps into the world of crowd funding. What we are talking about here is basically on-line mechanisms for fund raising in which people with project ideas appeal to the world for small donations or investments. Unlike the traditional world of fund raising which is based on long complex processes and the needle in haystack search for major funders, crowd funding is simple, transparent and based on mass mobilisation.

Crowd funding looks like a classic clumsy solution (one which combines the three competing change sources). It is individualistic in that it provides people with ideas, on the one hand, and people with money, on the other, an opportunity to get down to business. Also, there is a marked tendency in crowd funding to see donations as in some sense investments; there are often potential rewards – even if only symbolic – for those who put their money in. And those who pitch are generally looking for start-up seed money, not dependency on a continuous revenue stream. Crowd funding is a very modern form of hierarchy – light touch, low cost, fast moving – the characteristics of the growing number of organisations that build, host and oversee crowd funding platforms, of which Kickstarter is the most famous.  And, of course, particularly as it relates to charitable giving, solidarity lies in the shared values which motivate the project pitchers and those who back their vision.

And it works. In 2011 $1.5 billion was raised worldwide through crowd funding and NESTA estimates the potential for charitable giving in the UK alone to be getting on for £5 billion by 2018. As the gap between what society’s needs and what the state can finance gets wider, crowd funding can be both a source of funds and way of quickly getting the most money to the best ideas.

The RSA has already dabbled with crowd funding  for example, supporting successful crowd funding projects run by Fellows and Catalyst-backed ventures. However, we think there is a major opportunity for us to take a step further and build a closer and longer-lasting connection between the RSA, Fellow-led projects, the Fellowship, and the wider world. Which is why we’re partnering with Kickstarter to launch an RSA curated crowd funding area in September.

In last year’s Fellowship survey nine out ten Fellows said that they “want to engage with and help develop Fellow-led initiatives” and a healthy 14% of Fellows said they’d be inclined to provide material support to the Fellows’ Catalyst Fund.

A strength of crowd funding it also a challenge; because the process of pitching and donating is in the open, if you fail it’s there for all to see. But as many entrepreneurs attest, failure can be as useful as success in helping you learn, grow and develop better ideas. There is a danger that Fellows fail to  respond to our invitation to back each other’s ideas but even if that happens in the early stages I hope we don’t get too dispirited: crowd funding is a symbol of the new idea of Fellowship taking root but changes in culture and expectations always take time.

We’ll be giving Fellows more details of our plans before we launch the site next month and – if the wider subject interests you – I will be chairing an event on crowd funding here at the RSA on September 16th.

Many thanks to Alex Watson from our Fellowship team and Ed Whiting FRSA (member of the Fellowship Council) for taking this idea forward and for helping with this post.


Sharpening the care diamond

February 27, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain 

A society’s capacity for providing care (which, as one reader pointed out to me, is not the same as how much it cares) can be seen as a diamond comprising the market, the state, close family and the wider community.

Thinking about how to generate more and better care involves looking at how we might increase the contribution from each source but also thinking about the relationship – sometimes additive sometimes subtractive – between them.

Care funded by the state is perhaps the most straightforward to analyse in the sense that it is fully stretched and it is difficult to see any significant increase in capacity in the foreseeable future. In terms of the overall pattern, the last decade has seen an increase in state support for child care (although under the Coalition it has been a  case of swings and roundabouts as the child care element of tax credits has been reduced but the entitlement to nursery provision has increased). In relation to adults and older people, some national care-related entitlements have been tightened while at the local level provision is now limited to the most needy.

The market for care is also very stretched. The private provision of care is expanding in line with need but in all domains of care there is a major affordability gap between what the market can offer – even paying rock bottom wages – and what most people can afford. Austerity is also putting ever greater pressure on the publicly funded aspects for private care. For example, there is a growing gap between the cost the private sector charges self-funding clients of residential care and what it is able to charge increasingly cash strapped local authorities.  Coalition ministers had expressed the hope that the implementation of a new long term care funding framework could create an opportunity for a new care insurance market to emerge. But such hopes have been expressed – and dashed – before.

When it comes to families the top line is that informal familial care is the bedrock upon which the whole societal care system rests. On the one hand, nearly all parents enthusiastically provide loving care for their children; on the other, a recent ONS analysis of the 2011 census estimated the total weekly provision of informal adult care in England and Wales at 3.4 million working days (up substantially on ten years ago). In rough terms, valuing an hour of unpaid care at the minimum wage level this means that unpaid care is worth about £170 million per week or about £8.5 billion per year. In fact the value is much greater as those cared for at home are also being housed and fed by their loved ones.

Arguably the problem of informal care by families is oversupply. While parental negligence and ‘granny dumping’ is still very rare, some care, both for children and adults, is not as good as it could be if informal provision was mixed with formal care. Vitally for the economy, levels of employment of mothers and people over fifty are lower in the UK than many other advanced economies. The need to provide care and the costs of buying it are the crucial factor inhibiting mother’s employment and an increasingly important factor keeping older people from full time employment.

This leaves the fourth point of the diamond, the community. We might define this as the contribution voluntarily made by people other than close family to the provision of care. This primarily comprises volunteer time but other contributions include money (in the form of philanthropy), the provision by employers of flexible working and, more generally, the framework of norms and values which shape the status of caring and the degree to which we see it as a collective responsibility.

In relation to this aspect today sees two contrasting contributions. This Guardian piece from Erin Mee underlines how much unmet need for even for the simplest forms of care there is lurking in every community. NESTA has today published a new report on a system response to , the Endowment is also calling for new ideas for its website celebrating innovative responses to ageing .

As NESTA says, many innovations can work alone and do not require or benefit from a system wide approach. But, as the report also says, despite lots of activity and concern about ageing social innovation is lagging behind technological innovation and we have a very fuzzy idea of what actually works, which is perhaps why we need to shift our whole orientation.  But if we do need to look at the system, what is the system? Is it the system of ageing, the system of care, or more narrowly the system of older care and the system of child care?

My feeling now is that, firstly, there is something essential to the human activity of providing all forms of care, and, secondly, there are common issues and dilemmas in the mixed systems of care which apply to children, adults and elders. This is why it is caring which should be the focus of our system view rather than a particular demographic group.

But, as is always the case when I start thinking in earnest about my annual lecture, I may well change my mind several times before I reach any kind of conclusion.


The longest journey begins with a single step.

February 11, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

Perhaps it was exhaustion after last year’s annual lecture but I haven’t for some time written about Cultural Theory and my various attempts to stretch and apply it. Some recent conversations have led me back.

I have previously mentioned a new NESTA pamphlet by Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater on systems innovation which the eggheads define as

‘an interconnected set of innovations where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the way they interconnect’.

Leadbeater offers the creation of modern schooling, the containerisation of freight and the emergence of social media as three examples of systems innovation.

Last Friday we held an interesting seminar to launch some research by the RSA and Campaign Company on social networks and values in Newham. Our first speaker was David Halpern, head of the Government’s behaviour change task force and all-round policy guru. One of his key points was that the evidence for initiatives focussed on specific changes in individual behaviour was much stronger than that for change at the level of groups or communities.

Most progressively minded people believe we can (and must) increase capacity, resilience and responsibility within social groups but despite all the initiatives, and anecdotes the evidence of what works is very limited. Instead, it is targeted one off innovations, like getting claimants to sign a commitment to look for work when they first attend Job Centres, that has delivered measurable change.

Earlier last week saw the Francis report on the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal. It had many recommendations but at core it was a call for, in Robert Francis’ words ’a fundamental culture change’. But as Chris Dillow points out in his always excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog, the problem with culture change is that the institutions that most need it are by definition the ones least able to achieve it:

Insofar as institutions shape culture, the scope for cultural change is limited. At yet without cultural change, institutional change won’t yield the results people hope for.  

The alignment is neither simple nor neat, but broadly we can say that one off innovation is most likely to be driven by an individualistic mind-set, that system innovation will tend to imply some kind of hierarchical oversight and that cultural change (focussing on shared values) is primarily the domain of solidaristic (cultural theorists unhelpfully call it ‘egalitarian’) impulses.

The obvious conclusion is that to maximise the scope for change (if change is what we really want) we should aim to combine all three types of innovation. But this would be muddle headed.  First, such a combination is not neutral but itself a type of system wide approach (it’s a bit like saying ‘you want to just the two of us to go out together, I want to go out with my mates so let’s compromise by the two of us going out with my mates’). Second, one of cultural theory’s key insights is that the individualistic, hierarchical and solidaristic world views/methods always tend to be in tension.

So can we form any theories about how one should go about big innovation? Another obvious suggestion is that one should start with the simplest form of change – the one off innovation. Certainly, my hero, the Mayor of Oklahoma provides a powerful case study of system change (the transformation of a city) being accomplished by starting with a single focussed change (citizens committing to losing weight). But I suspect there was something in the culture of Oklahoma which led to fat fighting segueing to city wide change.

There will be many routes to change, especially as it is often the result of overwhelming exogenous pressure. But my tentative suggestion for the most promising route is that innovation will tend to start with the specific and one-off (easiest to do, easiest to validate) but that the cultural capacity for change is a critical in determining whether one off innovation can ripple out into system innovation.

This may lead us away from two frequently asked questions in stagnant organisations; ‘why don’t we innovate?’ (the one-off change question) and ‘why can’t we change?’ (the systems question) to a rather more subtle one; ‘is the culture of our organisation such that significant one off innovations can precipitate benign system change?’

‘Ah’ I hear you (singular) say ‘what kind of organisational culture facilitates the process whereby one off change leads to system change’.

I don’t know the answer but I like the question.


The 21st century civic university

March 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Public policy 

It’s a bittersweet moment when one finds an idea one has been nurturing has already been developed by someone else. I felt this when doing some preparation for an event this week hosted by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, called ‘Leading cities – place based leadership and the role of universities’.

On the basis, admittedly, of limited knowledge I have developed two opinions about links between universities and the towns, city or region they inhabit: first, these links tend to be limited and ad hoc; second, there is an inverse relationship between the academic standing of a university and its enthusiasm for such links. Indeed it almost seemed to me that (apart from high tech spin-offs) the elite Russell Group universities perceived anything but the most superficial local links as undermining their aspiration to be seen as leading edge global institutions.

This impression was in part confirmed by ‘Re-inventing the civic university’ an excellent pamphlet commissioned by NESTA and written by Professor John Goddard. He too bemoans both the weak links in most places and the tendency to assume that civic relationships are much more relevant to the ‘post 1992’ universities. However, Goddard’s pamphlet is also a very positive contribution to the debate, exploring the many different dimensions of university-city links and providing powerful case studies from Newcastle and Michigan showing what is possible when university leaderships commit to engagement. 

John Goddard is also the joint author of the report which provides the basis for this week’s event: ‘researching and scoping a higher education and civic leadership development programme’. Predictably, perhaps, the report finds that one of the biggest barriers to better partnership is the complex and cumbersome management structure of universities (yes, even more complicated and opaque than local authorities). It is one thing, the authors say, to get vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors signed up to partnership, it is another entirely to make this concrete and meaningful at a faculty or departmental level.

My only quibble with the Leadership Foundation report is with its proposed development programme. This seems to be largely based on a fairly traditional model of training, away days and visits. Instead, I think the Foundation should develop an innovation group in which selected universities and cities sign up to focussing on the development of a particular aspect of civic partnership and then support, and learn from, each other through the innovation process. This approach is suited to an area like this in which there is a wide variety of areas to be addressed, for instance:

• The role of universities in civic leadership
• Strengthening the links between place and university applied research
• Initiatives to promote access and inclusion
• Links around business and product development (although this is already a well-trodden area)
• Academic and student civic volunteering        
• Universities and local public sector innovation 

As John Goddard argues, many of our most established universities were created by civic leaders who saw advanced learning as critical to their city’s future and the aspirations of its people. The old polytechnics used to be part of the local authority. But centralised assessment, subject silos, the globalisation of elite higher education and competition within the sector have tended to erode these links. Now is the time for the emergence of a new model for a 21st century civic university.

It’s a great idea. If only I’d had the gumption to do something about it when it occurred to me!


Two futures for the North East?

November 4, 2009 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

In my posts I like only to be complimentary about other people’s writing and research. ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’, my Grandma used to opine. (Although she didn’t always stick to her own injunction – blaming attacks on her lime trees on butterflies released in Hyde Park as a tribute to Brian Jones by the remaining Rolling Stones she never stopped referring to Sir Mick as ‘that hideous Jagger creature’.)

On my way to Newcastle I am reading the IPPR Commission on Public Services in the North East report.

I’m off to speak about public services to an IPPR / RSA audience in Newcastle. My core message will be that the region faces a risk spiral and an opportunity spiral.

The first is that the region comes out of recession on a low growth, low entrepreneurship, low employment trajectory. This then combines with public spending cuts which hit a large dependent population very hard, adding to poor social outcomes and social division. In addition the public spending squeeze takes money out of quality of life areas like arts and public space, leading to the area being less attractive to talented people and investors and thus exacerbating the problems of economic dynamism.

The opportunity cycle starts with a total commitment to public service innovation. Given how much of the regional economy is in the public sector any significant improvement can reap major gains in service outputs. In addition – given the inexorable increase in global investment in education, health and social care, community safety etc – the region can use an emerging reputation for service innovation to improve its image, attract investment and talent. In this context other advantages of the region – particularly the scope for a high quality of life – can come into play as the region explores not just the method of public services but the goals in the context of a growing desire for new more sustainable and humanistic models of growth.

So, two futures in prospect.

There is already public sector innovation in the North East (Newcastle Council’s in-house modernisation and South Tyneside’s work on well-being are examples). There is also a dynamic HE sector which helps provide the R&D backing for a regional innovation strategy (maybe NESTA might want to help out too).

The possibilities are great if the leadership is there. And, on this, I hope to find out more in the next few hours.