A few weeks ago I was asked to talk to the UpRising Leadership programme which caters for talented 19-25 year olds from diverse backgrounds. I guess I was there as a high achiever to describe my journey and experience. Instead, to the initial shock and later amusement of the students, I explored why I may not have used whatever talent and ambition I was privileged to inherit to make the biggest impression on the world.
I am very proud to be CEO of the RSA. Alternatively I wonder if, perhaps, with more discipline and guile, I could have been a national politician and made decisions to improve the lives of millions. With more consistency I could have been a professional, maybe a doctor or a lawyer, with the knowledge and skills to help people profoundly in times of need. With more self sacrifice could I have dedicated myself to making a concrete difference to the lives of the most disadvantaged here or in the poorest parts of the word? With more focus and patience could I have been an academic working on ideas which take on a power of their own?
Instead I recycle ideas, trundle around the lower reaches of the second division of public intellectuals and try to live up the honour of running this great organisation. As well as the salary, being boss brings status. But it is oh so transitory. As all organisational leaders know, at the first staff meeting a few days after a leaving party to mark their many years of blood sweat and tears, the new boss will be reassuring an enthusiastic staff, with more or less directness, that it is time to blow away the accumulated cobwebs and march into a brave new future. All those things we fondly saw as achievements are either taken for granted or scorned.
‘Is there nothing’ I ask myself in sleepless nights ‘that will endure?’ When it comes to the RSA I derive most comfort from the slow revolution being brought about by the Fellowship. More and more Fellows are engaged, and more and more of that engagement is contributing to the Society’s charitable mission. One example is Catalyst, formed a couple of years ago to provide small grants to groups of Fellows seeking to develop new initiatives or social enterprises. Every six weeks we get twenty or so bids, each of which has genuine value and of which two or three are good enough to deserve a grant. But because the sums we can provide are small we have always hoped that some Catalyst winners would go on to find funding from other sources. Increasingly, this is happening. For example, last week we heard of substantial new funding for a project in Tower Hamlets, Ladies Who L-Earn, which offers unemployed young women training and mentoring by Fellows and local business people to enable them to run market stalls for local designers.
Another aspect of change has been the concerted attempt to engage Fellows more fully in the RSA’s research and development projects. Just the other day my colleague Rebecca Daddow was enthusiastically describing the many ways in which Fellows are supporting our groundbreaking work in West Kent, which aims to support the rehabilitation of people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. As our method is all about helping people in recovery to integrate as full members of civil society, Fellow engagement is part of what makes the project distinctive and powerful.
And then this week I heard that in sums ranging from thousands to fivers, many Fellows have already generously responded to our appeal for funds towards the refurbishment of the RSA’s Great Room. One of the many improvements in the new Great Room will be cutting edge technology which will make the on-line experience of watching and participating in RSA events even better. There have in the last eighteen months been around sixty million global views of RSA lectures.
Many people who watch the lectures, and who read this modest blog or visit the RSA’s website are not Fellows. We see spreading great ideas around the world as a core part of our charitable mission, but now, for once, I am asking those who like what we do but don’t contribute as Fellows to make a concrete expression of their appreciation.
One of the symptoms of my mid life crisis has been a growing obsession with physical fitness. I ran the marathon a few years ago and am still aiming to run 10k in under 40 minutes. So when a friend challenged me to run a mountain marathon my foolish pride would not let me refuse. The Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon on June 9/10 requires me to run a marathon distance mainly steeply uphill navigating my own route and carrying a six kilo overnight pack.
As I have gradually added each ingredient of difficulty to the training – distance, incline, weight, rough ground – the scale of my idiocy in volunteering has become clearer. A trial half marathon along the cliffs of Dover and Deal last weekend left me exhausted for two days. What is more, the whole exercise is costing me hundreds of pounds on travel and kit costs.
But you can lighten my burden. I have set up a JustGiving page and I am asking friends of the RSA to help me raise two thousand pound towards the Great Room appeal.
Perhaps in twenty years’ time a grey haired man, limping slightly as a consequence of a nasty fall in the Cairngorms decades earlier, will walk unrecognised into John Adam Street and point out to his grandchildren a small patch of beautifully restored mosaic on the staircase to the Great Room. ‘There’ he will proudly proclaim ‘I told you I had made an impression on the world’.
On such a grey Monday morning I opened the newspapers with a predisposition to gloom. They didn’t disappoint. Our politicians seem to have decided green politics was a fad (neither David Cameron nor George Osborne have delivered a speech on environmental issues since the General Election), but according to the latest sea ice maps, Arctic ice levels have fallen to their lowest ever recorded levels. If the trends suggested in the latest survey are borne out, the loss of ice is substantially faster than that predicted in the last IPCC report.
The famine in the Horn of Africa is worsening. Political choices made by the West have clearly contributed to the chaos in Somalia. The ceremonies yesterday to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 were moving and a vital part of the process of remembering and moving on. So perhaps it is unrealistic or churlish to wonder whether more could have been done to use the international focus on yesterday’s events to engage nations and citizens in tackling a humanitarian crisis which, it is estimated, will kill more people every day between now and the end of the year than died in the Twin Towers attack?
The famine puts our domestic problems in context. But there is little at home to lighten the mood. The trade unions are threatening civil disobedience in protest at public service cuts. The IFS says that a decade of falling living standards will hit the poor particularly hard, and most experts predict very grim unemployment statistics later this week.
I can’t pretend it’s a particularly coherent or commensurate response, but at times like this it feels desperately important that people who want to use their talents to make the world a better place combine their resources. States may be buffeted by global forces and economic vulnerabilities, the markets too, but in the face of growing needs and threats civil society needs to mobilise. The good news, I believe, is that there is huge untapped capacity in communities and organisations which could be released if only we could find smarter and more generous ways of working together.
Which is why I see a connection between global and national problems and an initiative taken by RSA Fellows in Leicester. Yesterday saw a hugely successful ‘Our Leicester Day’ taking over the city’s market. Over 100 local organisations set up stalls and the day was packed with people coming and going from morning to late afternoon. Apparently the day seemed to carry three big messages. First that Leicester is full of great people doing great things to make their city better. Second that the civic life of the city reflects and celebrates its diversity. And third, that even some of the most active local citizens had no idea there was so much going on and so many useful connections to be made.
The Leicester Fellows who organised the day were able to call on an RSA Catalyst grant to help with promotion and I very much hope the Society can continue to support their efforts. But the organisers are also pragmatic. They want to evaluate the day carefully and only then decide if and how to do it again. Such thoughtfulness is, in my experience, a vital but underestimated ingredient in successful civic action.
With our brilliant Fellows and a staff totally committed to enabling the RSA Fellowship to be a powerful source of civic innovation, we may not be able to solve the world’s ills but at least we can try to make a positive difference. So, ‘thank you’ Leicester Fellows for making Monday feel better and – I hope – for inspiring other Fellows to follow your lead.
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…
The waterfront area of Bristol is lovely in the sunshine; it made me want to pack up my bags and move to the West. I was there on Monday meeting some Fellows to talk about their projects and speaking at a Festival of Ideas event. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with local Fellow activist, Ted Fowler. It inspired me with some further thoughts about the RSA and its model of change.
Ted has worked with other FRSAs to build up a really strong city network. While we were meeting, RSA network manager Chris Luffingham confirmed that there are seventy Fellows signed up for an event this evening.
As Ted and I discussed, Bristol is like a lot of other places in that there is an urgent need for civic leadership in the face of public sector austerity, economic frailty (although the city itself is doing comparatively well) and longer term challenges like sustainability and population ageing. This leads people to want to have wide ranging conversations about a new vision for their town or city and to connect this to concrete community-led action.
Ted’s question to me was how to structure such a conversation so that it is most likely to lead to powerful, creative and practical conclusions. I have some ideas for the kinds of questions that might be useful:
1) What kind of place are we, what are our strengths to build on and our weaknesses to tackle?
2) Where are we wasting human capacity and how could we liberate and channel that capacity?
3) Who are the innovators and grassroots leaders in our community and how can we engage and support them in making more impact?
4) What specifically can the RSA best contribute given our Fellows and their networks?
But Ted wanted answers as much as questions; in particular he wanted to know what kind of conversations and actions had worked for other Fellows exploring similar issues.
A few weeks ago I went to Brighton for a fascinating event to start developing a local programme of action for the RSA and our Catalyst Fund has recently given support to what looks like a really ambitious civic gathering in Leicester in September.
The challenge for our Fellowship team is to start connecting active Fellows who are hosting similar kinds of conversations in different places. We need to know what processes work best and what kinds of outcomes we should expect and encourage.
The other potential is to connect the place shaping actions of Fellows with the work of our own Projects team. Now we have brought the 2020 public service team into the RSA we are developing a powerful offer to local authorities and public agencies around helping them adapt to new times. In part this involves our ideas on subjects like social networks, co-productive public services and developing cultural communities but also insights we are developing about how to foster and support local social innovation. When members of our Projects team are invited to speak around the country we always try to connect with the local Fellowship.
At which point I have to use a word that usually makes me cringe: synergy. If specialist staff members can connect and support the civil society initiatives of Fellows and if engaging Fellows becomes part of our offer when we talk to local institutions, we have scope to create initiatives which are distinctive and powerful and which blur the boundaries between state and civic action.
The challenge of austerity and the opportunity of localism means places need to have a much deeper conversation about how they see their future and what that future involves not just for ‘the authorities’ but for local people. The RSA can play an important part in developing that conversation. It relies on the commitment, goodwill and creativity of Fellows and on us being able to lever resources to provide staff and other forms of support (like Catalyst). But it is an exciting prospect.
Although these thoughts it has been swirling around in my mind for some time, if it does come to pass I will always associate it with sitting in the April sun drinking latte on the Bristol quayside.
*In case anyone was wondering about the derivation of this term …
Sometimes everything comes together and it all seems worthwhile.
So it was last night at an event organised by the Profit with Purpose FRSA network. Over a 100 people turned up at the Shell building in Waterloo to hear and participate in a Q and A with sustainability economist Professor Tim Jackson. Network leaders Kim van Niekerk and Alison Rodwell (supported by network manager Sam Thomas) should be pleased with what was a lively and intelligent discussion.
For me the event spanned two enthusiasms: FRSA networks and corporate responsibility.
On the latter I got some great insights ahead of my annual lecture in June. We discussed the contrast between what appears to be a real shift in the culture of some large businesses and the apparent resistance to any reform of the finance sector. I talked earlier in the week about the radical ideas of Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, but to that can be added the visionary thinking of Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire and of Paul Polman at Unilever. Three swallows, even really important ones, don’t make a summer but each of these leaders is going well beyond traditional CSR to talk about different models of value and business.
But according to one speaker last night, when reading up about Pepsico I had missed a more sobering recent news story. Apparently, investment analysts have told the corporation to stop going on about values and focus more on flogging crisps and fizzy drinks.
The question – which I want to explore more tomorrow – is why is there so much positive change in the leadership of retail companies and so little among those who manage our money?
I also want to take the opportunity of last night’s event to make an different point. A couple of times recently I have heard the accusation that the RSA has centralised its support for Fellows’ activities. This may be based on the fact that the major areas of increased investment in Fellowship – our team of network managers and the Catalyst fund – are managed from London. But it is wrong and for a very simple reason.
The activities that network managers and Catalyst support all emerge from the enthusiasms and ideas of Fellows.
It was great last night that I was asked to a network looking at something at the front of my mind. But as I go round the country to a variety of events organised by Fellows, with the support of network managers, I find myself discussing issues ranging from design (in Newcastle) to small business (in Brighton) to place shaping (In Leicester) to sustainability (in Bristol).
In the next few days our Scotland network manager Jamie Cooke and the Chair of RSA Scotland will be going to the first ever Highlands FRSA network. They – like me – will have no idea what will emerge from that meeting as a priority for Highland Fellows, but whatever it is (assuming it is within the broad charitable remit of the RSA) we will try to support it.
The recent Fellowship survey showed a high level of awareness and enthusiasm among Fellows for local and issue-based networks. As Fellowship engagement and activity increases Trustees and the Fellowship Council will need to develop a set of protocols around where the RSA brand can be used, and what last resort powers of intervention may be needed if a network seems to be acting in a way that goes outside or damages the RSA’s charitable purpose. But this is about risk management not control. The content of Fellows’ activities will continue to be determined by them and supported by us.
Some people may find this too permissive, arguing that Fellows’ energies should be channelled in particular directions. Some others believe that local activities should require sanctioning by regional committees (not that this is by any means the majority view of our regions), but why create constraints unless there is evidence of a problem?
When I look out over the Fellowship – from Plymouth to Inverness, from Newcastle to New York – I see more and more people doing great stuff in a way that enhances the RSA’s image and impact as a fount of social innovation. And, at the risk of sounding mawkish, it makes my old heart sing.