‘Creative communities with a cause’

April 29, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I have been trying to use my preferred way of thinking about human motivation and social power to develop the RSA’s emerging world-view, ‘The Power to Create’. In this regard I am grateful for an idea given to me by public intellectual and social innovator Charles Leadbeater (who will be speaking soon at the RSA about his new book ‘The frugal innovator’.

Charlie tells me that from his own direct observations he has come to the conclusion that the most innovative and successful organisations are ‘creative communities with a cause’. The potential synergy between my simplified application of cultural theory and the goal of greater creative capacity is obvious (well, to me, at least): Broadly, the three ‘c’s in Charlie’s phrase line up respectively with the three sources of social power in my account; the individualistic (creative), the solidaristic (communities) and the hierarchical (cause).

A concern with The Power to Create has been its lack of ethical substance; looking out on the inequalities and wastefulness of modern society the question asked is ‘whose power to create what?’ A focus on the role of human drives in the effectiveness of organisations, people and places doesn’t solve this problem, but it might help.

Going in reverse order, consider the critical polarities for each drive:


The production and maintenance of rationality is often the role assumed by leaders and the hierarchical systems over which they preside. But in his study of bureaucracies (of which he was generally a fan), Max Weber made the powerful distinction between substantive rationality (directed at ends/outcomes/values) and procedural rationality (directed at means/procedures/rules). Organisations are established to pursue substantive rationality but over time, as they become institutionalised, procedural rationality often starts to dominate.

By the idea of ‘cause’ Charlie’s description of the most effective organisations implies leaders who maintain a focus on substantive (value) based rationality rather than procedural (process based) rationality. Interestingly, there is growing emphasis in debates about corporate responsibility of the ideal of purpose driven organisations.


People on the left often assume that solidarity is their kind of thing. But this human drive – based on shared norms, identity and values – is characteristic of racist populism as well as workers’ cooperatives. The key polarity here may be between ‘solidarity for’ and ‘solidarity against’, both in term of identity (an expansive versus an exclusive bond) and mobilisation (cooperation to develop solutions versus cooperation simply to mobilise protest).

The context in which Charlie uses the word ‘community’ implies an expansive idea based on a constructive activity.


The Power to Create is an alternative to a previous, less stirring, definition of the RSA’s mission, namely ‘enhancing human capability’. A focus on capability points to the key polarity when it comes to the individualistic drive. This is between the fulfillment of individual appetites (for stuff, power, wealth or whatever) versus a notion of human development. There are many versions of the latter and RSA folk are particularly keen on that of Robert Kegan but the key point is that this is an idea of individual aspiration linked to self-discipline and self-knowledge as well as self-expression.

By using the descriptor ‘creative’ the implication of Charlie’s phrase is that the individualist drive in the most effective and innovative organisations is directed to personal growth and pride in craft rather than success measured only by income or promotion.

For me the most intriguing aspect of the Power to Create is that it implies two distinct but overlapping ideals, one with a primarily idealistic rationale and the other responding to more practical imperatives: first, citizens being able to create the lives they choose; second, an economy and society characterised by mass creativity.

The kind of creative organisations, places and societies needed to pursue both these goals would, according to this account, tend to exhibit leadership based on substantive rationality, forms of solidarity that are inclusive and constructive, and a developmental model of individual aspiration.

Certainly, as we look at the largely depressing tableau of modern politics and public discourse, to make the case for idealistic leadership, for forms of belonging which are generous and optimistic and a model of human success which is to do with being rounded productive citizens rather than wealth-hoarders or consumers – well, it seems pretty revolutionary.


Old states, new technologies

April 24, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I agree with Adam Lent. There is no fundamental reason why the accelerating capacity of new technology to undertake tasks previously the domain of skilled humans should lead us to be pessimistic about the prospects for social progress. All things being equal, rising productivity driven by technological advance provides the basis for sustained economic growth and sustained economic growth (especially if that growth is focussed on the quality not the quantity of production) should mean more people being able to pay each other to have their needs met and desires fulfilled.

But, of course, all things are not equal. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson recognise in ‘The Second Machine Age’ the impact of technological change both reflects and reinforces aspects of the social arrangements in which it appears. Neither economic nor technological determinists are right, as Evgeny Morozov has argued, different technologies interact with social reality in ways which reflect specific aspects of each. For example, email is functional for bureaucracies while social media tends to be disruptive and Twitter can be effective both as a way of mobilising protest and as a means to monitor dissent.

Thus the biggest danger of the coming third industrial revolution/second machine age (or whatever we choose to call it) is that it has the potential to map onto and further widen inequality in an era when national Governments seem particularly powerless to intervene on behalf of the greater good. Imagine if Google had been invented in the 1950s (yes, I know that was before the internet but stick with me): It would have been assumed that such a ubiquitous and essential service which makes its money largely out of expropriating other people’s labour (content) would have been at the very least highly regulated and taxed and more likely brought into public ownership.

Among the characteristics which lead McAfee and Brynjolfsson to believe that intelligent computing power will further widen inequality are these: it is only the most creative and ‘special’ people who will still have something to offer than robots don’t; and digitally based innovations can spread very quickly making huge monopoly profits for inventors and investors until another innovation comes along to make another killing for another group of super clever or super rich individuals.

Another related factor concentrating power and wealth are network effects which mean that the bigger the market share achieved by a platform, the more effective it is and the more able it is to withstand and buy out competition (think of the respective dominance and scope for rent-seeking profits of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Kickstarter).

Without action technological change will reinforce already wide inequality. Compare this with the middle of the last century: the inventions of the first machine age – domestic electricity, motor cars and white goods – achieved ubiquity among Western consumers at a time when a much higher proportion of economic growth was recycled into the income of ordinary workers. Now – as Thomas Piketty eloquently argues – the proceeds of growth are being grabbed and hoarded by the already wealthy.

So, whilst Adam is right that we should reform education and pursue other policies to prepare our populations for the challenges and opportunities of the second machine age, these challenges will be much harder, and opportunities much fewer, unless Governments (working at home and internationally) can develop the legitimacy, confidence and know-how to ensure the benefits of the next technological revolution are fairly and wisely distributed.

Which reminds me of another of Adam’s blogs, this one on Moses Naim’s analysis of the decline of big power, particularly that of the state. The American sociologist Daniel Bell once argued that in the modern world the nation state would come to be seen as ‘too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things’. I have tended to think of this as being about the spatial dimension of governance; the need for greater devolution to localities, on the one hand, and greater international collaboration, on the other, but it is more deeply a point about power.

I have repeatedly argued that central Government and its traditional policy tools are becoming ever more blunt and dysfunctional when it comes to social policy. Yet we desperately need the unique democratic authority of Government to tackle some of the biggest problems we face; on climate, inequality, infrastructure, regulating finance, and global security. When Piketty argues for a global wealth tax or McAfee and Brynjolfsson join the ranks of those who support a minimum income guarantee, it is not so much that people object to the proposals as that they have little faith in Government to be able to enact them successfully.

All of which leads to me to conclude that part of the RSA’s pursuit of what we call the ‘Power to Create’ (releasing the creativity inherent in all of us) must be about 21st century statecraft. Technology is the most powerful single force in the modern world but its impact depends to a large degree on the choices we have made and the choices we will make. Democracy is the way we make those choices at a collective level. Unless democracy works better in twenty-first century conditions then there is no guarantee that technological progress will beget human progress.


Where is the future?

March 5, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

The daily manoeuvring we are already seeing ahead of next year’s General Election can seem rather pointless. What has really changed in the polls in the last two years? Aren’t we continuing to meander towards another hung Parliament with the only unanswered question - which is to be the biggest Party – being ultimately resolved by a few thousand votes in a short list of marginal seats? Probably: but more in hope than expectation I’ll offer a way for things to become more interesting.

General Elections tend to be fought on three primary terrains: values, competence and future. Arguments about record and specific policies matter less for themselves than the degree to which they symbolise and reinforce these themes.

Labour is ahead on values, its traditional strong point; the Party scores relatively well on measures such as ‘speaks up for ordinary people’. The Conservative response is a sometimes uneasy mixture of appeal to people’s grievances about immigrants and those on benefits plus a quieter insistence that the Party continues to care about social mobility and poverty. Labour has tried to neutralise the first set of issues by sounding tough on claimants and immigration while choosing issues such as the bedroom tax to assert a value choice between the two largest Parties.  The Lib Dems’ favoured position is to share Labour’s critique of ‘uncaring’ Conservatives but also to claim to be free of the less popular baggage of the labour movement.

The Conservatives are ahead on competence. They will be disappointed that the economic pick-up does not yet seem to have turned this advantage into a deal-clincher with the electorate.  Sooner or later the Tories will launch a huge attack on the ‘riskiness’ of a Miliband Government’.  They will be hoping this has an effect as powerful as the 1991/2 attack on Neil Kinnock (they may even be tempted to update the famous ‘L’ plate poster).

Labour has being trying to improve its competence rating. Thus there have been pledges on spending and borrowing and steps to improve the quality of Labour’s front bench. One of the reasons Nick Clegg entered Government was to establish the Lib Dems as a serious Party of Government. So far this hasn’t worked out well in terms of popularity but I suspect Clegg and his team will be in a stronger position come election time, albeit having to deal with insistent questions about who their favoured post-election partner would be.

While on values or competence we are dealing with fairly predictable game plans, when it comes to ‘future’ we are still largely in the dark. The future pitch is not just, or even mainly, about promises or aspirations. To win ‘future’ a party has to predict tomorrow in a credible way which lodges the idea that only that party understands and is prepared for that future.

The lack of future narrative may partly betray the limited time horizons and ambitions of the parties but it is also a reflection of the tough period we have been living through. Until recently any attempt to mobilise a positive future vision would have been seen as irrelevant, complacent or both. But that is changing. ‘Future’ is now up for grabs, and unlike values and competence it is far from clear who will wrestle control.

Much though it interests me, it’s not my job as RSA CEO to speculate on political strategy or election outcomes. However, my analysis does offer an opportunity to wider civic society. Whilst there is little most of us can usefully do on values and competence other than reinforce various existing positions, when it comes to ‘future’ there is room for creativity, agenda-setting and new alliances.

To repeat, future is not just about aspirations. More interesting are scenarios; what do we think are the likely major trends that will shape the next ten years? And can we press the parties to start showing us they understand these trends, are prepared for them, and how they would seek to shape them? In short, which party seems to ‘get the future’ most convincingly.

For example, I have been writing quite a lot (here and here) about the trends making central Government less effective and blunting the tools of traditional policy making. Who has the best plan to deal with the decline of the centre? Population ageing is another key trend. We talk about the specifics of health and social care and universal benefits but what about the deeper demographic trend towards a society where there are many more older people, some more younger people and fewer in-between?  What kind of society will and should this be? As long as a different hollowing out – of the middle of the labour market – continues tinkering with minimum wages and tax credits it is not likely to make any significant difference. Is this something we simply live with or is any party willing credibly to commit to restructure the labour market?

The widespread assumption a few decades ago that globalisation would lead to a homogenisation of domestic economic and social policy has been largely confounded. There are significant differences between countries and different routes to success and to ruin.

Let’s hope that, amidst the attacks and retail policy offers, the next few months also sees the emergence of something that resembles a debate about alternative strategies for Britain (assuming, that is, there still is a Britain). Even better would be if this was a debate (unlike 99% of party politics) where the parties might in some areas agree to differ and let voters make an informed choice from the futures on offer. If the RSA could play a part in hosting such a debate I’m sure we’d be up for it.


Could you crowdfund Wonga? Top four threats to crowdfunding

September 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The RSA 

Last week I chaired an RSA Event about crowdfunding on the day we launched the RSA’s area on Kickstarter. Here, Alex Watson, RSA Catalyst Programme Manager, reflects on the talk and why the RSA are getting involved.

We’ve heard much about the benefits of crowdfunding. Here, RSA Fellowship Council member Ed Whiting extolled its virtues and noted the projections for its growth. But as is always the case with RSA Events, last Monday’s panel debate with commentators, successful crowdfunders and crowdfund-platform-builders helped identify and articulate some of the threats to, hidden-biases within and trends of the sector. Matthew prompted the panel to ask “what is the one biggest thing that could stop the momentum of crowdfunding or turn it in the wrong direction?” Here were some of their answers and I’ve added to include what we the RSA think we’re doing to counter them in using crowdfunding to tackle social problems.

Scams and frauds. Whilst crowdfunding had its first public failure in the UK – “a victim of the economic downturn” – further failures, particularly those where bad intentions are involved, could undermine trust in the ideas that go up on crowdfunding platforms.

We knew before we chose them that Kickstarter have a rigorous process for verifying identity. But in addition, the Fellows that we’re selecting all have a donor history with us and people can only become Fellows in the first place if we approve or select them for their professional achievements or potential to achieve, or they are selected by other Fellows.

People not delivering. Bobbie Johnson, who successfully ran a campaign that raised $150,000, admitted that despite raising more than his target, 18 months on he is still struggling to deliver some of his rewards. He said that failure or delay to deliver on rewards, through lack of ambition to go for a target that was really needed to deliver, or through failing to foresee the hard-work and barriers to follow-through could also burn the hands of those first-time crowdfunding backers.

There is a no doubt a reputational risk when encouraging RSA Fellows and the RSA’s wider audience to back projects on our curated area. But in addition to the above selection of our Fellows we have two extra factors to increase the likelihood of successful delivery. Firstly, the Fellows up there have a track-record of delivering with either a grant or non-financial support already awarded through Catalyst. In addition, we ensure that Fellows looking to run crowdfunding campaigns hear from other Fellows with experience of running a successful campaign and then delivering, as well as others who help assess the feasibility of what is proposed.

“Could you crowdfund Wonga?” The panel debated whether crowdfunding will be used for funding highly-profitable business that doesn’t serve much social good (e.g. Wonga) or ideas with social impact that need ‘the crowd’ because they can’t prove to existing investor that there is already a market. Our curated area will only be putting up ideas that tackle a social problem. But we’re also doing our best to encourage those backing a project to shout about it. This public (micro-)patronage is another reason why we’re more likely to get people to back projects they think will help, not hinder, others rather than make them a quick buck.

How democratic is “the crowd”? Even among the ideas that profess to have a socially-beneficial aim, one panellist said that you have to invest quite a lot of time on Kickstarter to “spot the breakthrough ideas [vs] someone getting support from one of their friends.” Social media is not immune to bias and those campaigns that get a tweet from a celebrity friend might not be the best ideas.

We hope that by putting the ideas that Fellows come up with to our 27,000 Fellows we can get some early momentum behind ideas that have real potential. Fellows aren’t all friends with one another, but we hope that they have sufficient ties to be able to get them interested-enough to take a look.

Visit the RSA’s crowdfunding area here.  The RSA will match fund (to a maximum of £10) the first 200 RSA Fellows who back RSA crowdfunding projects.  Find out how to claim your match here


A slow train to a cultural legacy

September 10, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

I am writing this post in snatches on the slow and beautiful train journey from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry City. Every few moments my eyes are drawn to the windows and views of rolling countryside, sandy beaches and slate grey sea. Fast changing skies, one moment blue and sunny, the next dark and rainy, add to the experience.

I am speaking later at a joint RSA, Voluntary Arts Ireland (VAI) event under the title ‘UK city of culture – what are we learning?’. These will be my main points.

Two thirds of the way through the year and with the biggest events having passed, much conversation is turning to the question of legacy. The long term impact of an event can be divided into the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘moral’. The former legacy refers to things like facilities, infrastructure and regeneration; the latter to values, relationships and intentions.

The 2012 Olympics seems to have scored pretty highly on the former but disappointingly on the latter. There may be many reasons why an Olympic impact on ways of thinking, connecting and behaving has proved elusive, not least that the whole idea of a social echo from major one-off events may be more based on hope than likelihood. But things for London were certainly not helped by the ambivalence of politicians before the Games. So widespread were worries about organisation, security and UK sporting performance, so loud had been the critics and pessimists, that political leaders were worried to say the Olympics might stand as a national statement of values just in case that statement turned out to be tarnished by failure.

Of course, since the success of the Games there have been innumerable attempts to claim a moral legacy. But applying a post hoc rationale or seeking to bask in reflected glory often looks like exactly what it is –  contrived opportunism. So if Derry’s year – which clearly is a success – is to leave a moral legacy then the time to articulate that is surely running out. Political and civic leaders need now to develop credible but ambitious accounts of how the spirit of the cultural festival can be carried into 2014 and beyond.

An important part of this story – and for this, my second point, I am grateful for the insight of RSA Fellow Kevin Murphy from VAI – must surely be about how a vital part of the year has been about the discovery and promotion of the cultural energy which already existed in and around Derry and which can be recognised and nurtured when the year of culture bandwagon has moved on.

A powerful example are the flute bands. For so long associated in the minds of outsiders and republicans with sectarian Unionist politics, the year of culture has included a community wide celebration of the Apprentice Boys band. In an article for the event I am attending, Kevin describes his dawning realisation of the scale of flute bands and the role they play in civic cultural engagement and in providing a route into musical participation for youngsters.

Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided and largely segregated community and, as the violent flag protects in Belfast earlier this year underline, resentment and the potential for violence simmers not far below the surface of everyday life. Yet a better future surely does not involve the suppression of distinctive community culture, much less its cynical use as the soundtrack to conflict, but its celebration as part of what is vivid and vibrant about this beautiful part of the world.

Culture makes possible things which conventional politics finds intractable. Which takes me to my third point (made more fully in this post). Struggling with austerity and facing rising needs, wise place leaders understand the importance of doing things differently. Achieving more with less and building the resilience of communities (what is somewhat dryly referred to as ‘demand management’) involves a step change in local collaboration between agencies and leaders in every sector, in public engagement particularly through connecting to a sense of community agency, and in the capacity for innovation.

If collaboration, engagement and innovation are our goals then surely arts and cultural organisations have huge potential in disrupting the  way things are and prefiguring and prototyping how they could be? This offers a third way between the intrinsic and instrumental case for arts subsidy. Arts can achieve social impacts but rather than merely aiming for the conventional metrics of public service delivery, these impacts can be distinctive to the artistic imagination while still being concrete and measurable. Such an aspiration involves challenges both to the working methods and aspirations of arts organisations and to the capacity for risk taking and imagination among place leaders.

The greatest legacy of the Derry year of culture would be for arts and culture to become integral to the future ambition, capacity and inventiveness of the whole city.



Older Posts »