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21st century enlightenment – a new plan

April 28, 2010 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I had some stunning comments on my last post on 21st century enlightenment (thank you!). A number of people suggested I needed to set out the structure of the argument (and why I am making it) more fully. I have done this below: 

1. 21CE is the new mission for the RSA. Explain what I mean by this. Show this a powerful way of understanding the progressive challenge. Define the broad terrain for our work and the challenge for the Society as an institution

2. Original enlightenment was a shift in ways of thinking about who we are and the world in which we live. Describe key elements of this with particular reference to ways of thinking

3. Why might we now need a similar shift in consciousness now? Four reasons ?: a)  Climate change, finite natural resources, protecting the environment. b) Global interdependence. c) Lack of well-being, fulfilment and social inclusion in rich world esp UK. d) Pace of complexity and change    

4. Another way of thinking about this is the great transition between the world human beings lived in throughout their evolution and the accelerating change that has transformed the developed world since the enlightenment.

• From small, homogeneous closed communities to mass, open diverse communities

• (In the rich world) from scarcity and subsistence to plenty

• From deferential, slowly changing, bounded-information cultures to reflexive, always changing, information-overloaded cultures

5. In each transition we can see the signs of dislocation but also imagine a new
way of thinking

• From conflict about nationalism, religion and identity to the emergence of a global civil society

• From individualism, consumerism and inequality to a focus on well-being and the good society

• From trying to make the world fit the ‘traditional’ world view relied on by most people to enabling the majority to reach what Robert Kegan calls a ‘modern’ world view.

6. Are there already concrete signs of the emergence of new ways of thinking, fragments of a 21st century enlightenment?

• Just as new technology was crucial to the first enlightenment – especially the mass production of books (ref Benedict Anderson) so the internet is vital to this. It is crucial to get behind the hype and try to understand the real and possible impact of the internet of the way we think and live (ref Morozov)

• Growing debate about redefining progress (ref Sarkozy Commission)

• Public awareness of science of brains and human behaviour leading to new models of human functioning (esp social brain)

• Focus in many countries on the importance of the early years in fostering capacity for ‘self authorship’ and empathy

• Work of inter-faith groups in acknowledging the importance of the sacred and the ‘golden rule’ at the heart of all religious belief (ref Armstrong)

• The growth of downsizing and social enterprise as people seek to bring their work and life into alignment with their values

• Growing interest in ethics as the essential core of organisational mission (why it is more effective than regulation)

• Focus on capabilities approach to education and social rights

7. Finally, crucial to the enlightenment was the emergence of new institutions (as it was to the American ‘gilded age – ref Putnam). The RSA was one of those institutions now it needs to be a 21st CE institution. Explain what this means for how we work.

Twitter logoSuggested hashtag for Twitter users: #21CE


A strategy for hard times

March 18, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

The 2020 Public Services Trust published its interim report this week. Although an independent entity, the Trust is based at the RSA, I am a Commissioner and there is increasing collaboration between the Trust secretariat and our projects team.

The interim report got some good publicity (see for example this very nice piece from the Guardian’s Deborah Orr.

The report calls for decisions about public spending to be taken with a clearer long term strategy in mind. In particular it urges three principles:

• A shift in culture: from social security to social productivity     
• A shift in power: from the centre to citizens
• A shift in finance: reconnecting financing with the purposes of public service.

The task between now and the final report of the Commission will be to apply these principles to particular public services, looking across a ten year time frame. I am involved in the education strand of this work and one idea is to develop a workshop in our partner city Peterborough asking a range of stakeholders to imagine what a 2020 education system might look like under two conditions: much greater local freedom but no extra money.

The public has every right to be confused about where we stand on public spending. Today there are dire warnings about the impact of cuts in higher education funding at the same time as news that the UK’s borrowing figures are likely to be significantly better for 2009/10 than most economists feared and even slightly better than Government predictions. Perhaps it is not surprising that an IPSOS MORI poll commissioned jointly by the RSA and the 2020 Trust found that only a half of voters accept there will have to be any cuts at all in front line services.

But even though the economy is over the worst and the deficit is beginning its long journey downwards, there are still many hard decisions to make. My own view is that the period of spending restraint may be less severe than our worst fears but will also be longer lasting.

I get the impression that ministers and civil servants are under instructions to choose their words very carefully. At a recent event I chaired, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell used the euphemism ‘we are entering a period of public spending consolidation’.  But at an event earlier this week another civil servant let slip a much more accurate phrase, before immediately making me promise to keep his identity secret (which is not of course incompatible with me naming him in my blog): ‘we are’ he said ‘entering a decade of dearth’.

Now, that’s not a phrase you’ll be reading on a political party poster any time soon.


Empathic enlightenment

March 16, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

One of the privileges of my job is that I get regularly to chair lectures. Over time you start to notice patterns, albeit pretty obvious ones. Technology related events tend to attract younger people while lectures with more of a focus on manufacturing or business are a bit older. Ministers and shadow ministers are more likely to attract senior people from public and third sector organisations.

The weather makes a difference; too cold and wet and people don’t venture out, too sunny, and they choose an early evening drink over sitting in a lecture theatre. Audiences prefer informal discursive styles of presentation, they like to be engaged and have plenty of time for questions.    

So when the lectures team warned me last night that Jeremy Rifkin would go well over our preferred lecture time of 25 minutes I was concerned that the Great Room might get restless. I need not have worried. Rifkin spoke, largely without notes, for fifty minutes. And when he finished he received what was, to my reckoning, just about the most sustained applause I have heard for any speaker in my three years at the RSA.

Rifkin has written a very long and full book, The Empathic Civilisation, with a simple core thesis: we are in a race against time; will our capacity for empathy with those with whom we share the biosphere (human and non-human) save us from our potentially disastrous tendency to consume more energy at each stage of human development? The way out of this conundrum, says Rifkin, is to move from finite energy sources to distributed renewable systems.
These are not the idle speculations of an impractical visionary. Rifkin is a key advisor to the European Union. His book combines a passionate call for new ways of generating energy with powerful arguments about human nature and economic development. All major stages in human development have, he argues, been accompanied by new more intensive energy systems and new modes of communication which widen the boundaries within which human beings can exercise their ‘soft wired’ capacity for empathy. We now have the capacity for biosphere-wide empathy and we are going to need it if we are to accomplish the shift from carbon based energy. Hope, he says, lies with the young; the internet and new forms of education can lead to a step change in how they think about themselves and relate to the world.   

Rifkin is critical of aspects of what he sees as enlightenment thought. These include the emphasis on the individual, the assumption that systems are best understood by breaking them up into their constituent parts rather than exploring them as integrated wholes, and the Cartesian separation of mind and body. However, his aim is to reform not to abandon the enlightenment project.

Before the lecture he told me about a Council of Europe project about reclaiming and redefining the enlightenment. Given that the RSA’s newly launched strap line (now to be seen behind the splendid new coffee station in John Adam Street) is 21st century enlightenment, I was keen to explore partnership.

Like many, I suspect, I often engage, as a matter of politeness, in business card swapping, only to find them dog eared weeks later in my wallet or jacket pocket. But Jeremy Rifkin’s card has been wedged in the corner of my computer screen. As soon as I’ve got through the five speeches I have scheduled this week (one down, four to go) I’ll be taking up his offer to explore how the RSA could become the UK partner in a debate about the kind of enlightenment Europe needs now.


Tony, Nina, and me …

December 14, 2009 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

I was going to post about my former boss’s interview with Fern Britton. Tony Blair said that even if had not thought there were WMD he would still have tried to make a case for regime change in Iraq. Whatever we may think of this opinion, it is simply wrong to claim, as many commentators seem to, that this is the same as saying ‘I had decided to invade and made up the WMD threat as a pretext’. That is like saying there is no difference between these two statements: ‘I didn’t rate our office junior and wanted to get rid of him’ and ‘I fabricated the evidence that the office junior raided the petty cash’.

Having said which, it is hard to rebut the criticism of TB that he thinks his own personal conviction is sufficient explanation for a cause or action. TB’s willingness to get to the heart of an issue, make a judgement and stick to it against powerful opposition is one of his strengths. But his unwillingness to listen to reasoned arguments against his conviction is the flip side. As I said in an interview conducted after I came out of Number Ten, about the only time I saw TB admit he’d got anything wrong was when he said he wished he had listened to himself sooner!

But maybe I’m being too political, but anyway what I have I got to add to all the miles of newsprint already out there?

Instead I wanted to share the great news that for our event with Ben Schott last week we had over 2,000 people tuning in for the live stream. Add this to the over 200,000 (rising by 25% a month) downloads a month we now get for our online video lectures, and the fact that we have staged a record-breaking 160 events this year and I hope you agree that our events team deserve a big pat on the back

Not only are they brilliant but they also have to cope with me having all sorts of ideas, very few of which are any good. My latest wheeze is to have an event pairing Alan Milburn, whose report earlier this year showed how little social mobility there is in professions (including those dominated by the public sector) with someone senior at Sainsbury’s or MacDonald’s, both of which are companies with an excellent record of people at the very bottom (burger flippers and trolley pushers) working they way up to be store managers or higher.

‘Why is it some private sector organisations are so much better than the public sector at social mobility?’ That is the working title for the event. When I told our Director  of External Affairs, the awesome Nina Bolognesi, she looked at me as if I was a simpleton. But, dear readers, who do you back? Nina or me?


Responding to the Myners’ strike

June 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The RSA 

Thanks to Duncan, Steve, Michael and Colin for their advice ahead of my gig last night at the Corporate Governance Circle. I was responding to a forthright speech to the always engaging and direct Lord Myners (who, gratifyingly, had also read the post and comments). I knew less about the subject – ‘Institutional Investors – are they the weakest link’ – than anyone else in the room but I think I just about got away with it.

My key point was to link the debate about corporate governance and stewardship to the emergence in 2012 of Personal Accounts. If these succeed – and the RSA has proposals which we think would help to ensure they do – they will create a huge source of regulated funds with the scope to impact directly on how British business is managed and indirectly on the behaviours of other institutional investors.

Although he expressed it in the most positive of terms, Lord Myners’ basic point was dispiriting for those seeking to improve the quality of corporate governance. He told the assembled investors that they already had the power to influence the companies in which they are invested. In typically robust style, he suggested that if company annual general meetings didn’t exist, someone would now be calling for them as the solution to all our problems: ’Hey, why don’t we have meeting every year where the whole board has to attend and at which shareholders can ask any question they want and table resolutions over key aspects of governance?’ ‘You have the power’ said the Lord ‘but the reality is that you choose not to use it’.

I had gone into the meeting thinking the big difficulty in this policy area was the principal – agent problem but I came to see that it is actually a collective action issue. The diffusion of ownership in almost all large funds – driven by modern portfolio theory – means that typically no fund owns more than one or two percent of a company. Why then should they be the ones to take on the onerous and risky business of holding companies to account? Interestingly, no one in the room denied Lord Myners description of the problem or offered a solution.

This morning David Pitt-Watson (who leads on our Tomorrow’s Investor project) and I met with Tory Work and Pensions spokesperson Theresa May to discuss our project and hear her views on personal accounts. She said some very interesting things to which I will return in a later post. But on the way back to John Adam Street I quizzed David on the issues of investor influence. The RSA proposal is for a low cost pension fund delivered through personal accounts but we also claim this fund could have a benign impact on corporate governance and stewardship, helping for example , deliver George Osborne’s vision (elucidated in a speech yesterday) of a more long term investment culture. ‘But how can we be both cheap and influential?’ I asked.

David assures me he has an answer and that it is in the forthcoming Tomorrow’s Investor report. I am looking forward to reading it


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