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.



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.


Up the workers

July 16, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

At the aforementioned launch of his book last week, there was some discussion of one of Anthony Painter’s key themes – the importance of institutional reform and innovation. The event was also on the day of Ed Miliband’s speech about changing Labour’s relation with the trade unions. I think it was Phil Collins of The Times who made a link, suggesting that if we were to ask in what part of society we most need new institutions we would be likely to identify the need for a more relevant and powerful voice for employees.

Indeed, there is a convincing argument that the shift in power across the eighties and nineties from employees to bosses and speculators  is implicated in the economic and the social unbalancing which formed the background to the 2008 economic crisis and which continues to hold us back today.

The institutional problem is this: while employees need help in organising and a stronger voice at all levels of policy making they generally don’t want what they perceive to be on offer from trade unions. Political affiliation, activist capture, adversarialism and the tendency to define their role as defending the least effective members of the staff team, are all aspects of trade unionism which many people, especially I suspect the young, find unappealing. Add to this the hostility of employers and, of course, massive changes in the organisation of work and it perhaps not surprising that trade union membership rates are stagnant and very low (around one in six employees) in the private sector.

Yet the issues modern worker organisations could address, ranging from fair pay to employee voice, have not gone away, indeed many have become more pressing. Intelligent employers also know that disgruntled  employees are a problem even if they aren’t threatening a strike and that employee engagement can be critical to productivity (a case made here by the IPA).

The consequence of the persistence of the need for employee voice and organisation alongside a failure of supply among traditional trade unions has been the proliferation of two other forms of response; first in-house staff organisations and second various schemes – such as Best Companies and Investors in People which seek to institutionalise employee voice as part of good management.

The problem with staff associations and best practice schemes is both that they are voluntaristic (relying on employer patronage) and that they lack any collective national or local voice in relation to public discourse or policy making.

Arguably, just as the business community has two major peak organisations (the CBI and the IoD) there is a need alongside the TUC for a new high profile, employee-focused body which makes a less politically-aligned (but more politically relevant), less adversarial case for employee voice and engagement, and which represents a more diverse set of institutions (possibly including enlightened employers) which share a commitment to this case.

But isn’t employee voice too weak and amorphous a goal? Most bosses pay lip service to listening to their workers but that doesn’t mean they act on what they hear. Being heard doesn’t help with the things that really concern people such as low and unfair pay, job insecurity or over-intensive or inflexible working practices (the latter highlighted in this RSA report yesterday.  

A new peak employee organisation would need to have a credible entry bar on terms of what is defined as meaningful employer engagement. It would also be important to test the idea that employee voice is a good proxy for wider measures of good employment practice.

In case this post reads like a case for a patsy body which provides cover for bad employers, it is worth noting a contrast. The RSA does not have trade union organisation but our commitment to become a best company is driving us into levels of employee engagement, managerial self examination and concrete reform which are massively more demanding that the kind of superficial human relations management I often see in unionised workplaces.




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