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Mission and myth

January 1, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

It is right and proper, indeed healthy, that there should be an open debate about the core mission and purposes of the RSA. Thanks to the good work of our old friend David Wilcox there is a discussion on this topic currently underway on Linked In. With the RSA being such a broad and unique organisation, with 27,000 strong-minded Fellows, it’s not the first of these kinds of debate and it certainly won’t be the last.

The mission question is important and I want to address it as best I can, but before doing so I do want to clear away a few answers which I don’t think add much useful and tend to narrow rather than open up debate:

‘We should return to the old mission’: The original charter of the RSA has been adapted on several occasions, most recently in the year before I arrived. The best description of the Society – favoured by its most distinguished historian – is an organisation that sticks its nose into anything interesting. One of the most consistent interests of the Society has been a word that doesn’t appear in our full title: ‘education’. And one of the most abrupt departures into a new area came with Prince Philip’s decision in the 1970s to ask the Society to take forward his interest in countryside conservation. The Society’s mission and focus has been subject to continuous debate and change across its 260 year history. There is no past era of certainties to return to and – if truth be told – despite many good projects  and important developments to the organisation, the Society’s impact across the 20th century does not feature strongly – indeed at all – in histories of the period.

‘We should just do what the Fellows want’. As far as we can tell from the comprehensive survey of Fellows’ views undertaken last year, the focus of our work broadly corresponds to their concerns: communities, education, design and enterprise all feature highly. But Fellows are all different and no programme of research and development will interest and delight the whole Fellowship. The fact that seven of twelve Trustees and thirty-five of forty Fellowship Councillors are elected by the Fellowship ensures its voice is always at the heart of strategic decision-making.

‘The new mission is ‘21st century enlightenment’ and no one knows what that means’. ‘Twenty first century enlightenment’ is first and foremost a strap-line, although I did use my annual lecture a few years back to explore one interpretation. The Trustees approved the line because it refers to our past, speaks of the present, sounds ambitious and is interesting. But a strap line is not the same as a mission. The phrase the Society most often uses to describe its contemporary purpose is ‘to enhance human capability’.

I believe this goal is in line with our history, it speaks to our independence and to our belief in the possibility of a qualitative shift in human achievement and fulfilment, and it also implies a need to be met; without a step change in human capability we will not tackle the challenge and grasp the opportunities of tomorrow’s world. But, of course, it is also a very broad goal and like most mission statements it doesn’t on its own provide a sufficient basis   for knowing which projects the organistion should take on and which it should reject.

The reality of any complex organisation with a remit of public good is that its mission is as much something that is revealed by practice as defined by its overarching goals. What we do reflects, first, the interplay of the long term history of our origins and the short term history of what are perceived as our most successful projects; second, pull factors – principally changes in the world which seem to require a response; third, push factors – the interests and enthusiasms of Trustees, Fellows, staff and also partners, particularly those with funds.

So, looking at the current projects in our Action and Research Centre, work on enterprise, design, ‘closed loop’ manufacturing and the social impact of the arts are all explicit attempts to apply some of the historic interests of the Society to modern challenges, the work on communities, social networks and public services can be seen to reflect widely held contemporary concerns about civil society and the impact of fiscal austerity, and the creation of the family of Academies and research on ‘the social brain’ can be traced to the support for these projects respectively by Trustees and senior staff.

We also operate in a market place of ideas. The success of the Society depends on the degree to which our ideas are listened to and taken up, and also to the willingness of partners to work with us and fund us. This has become more the case as, over recent years, we have shifted investment from funding research projects to supporting Fellows’ activities (more on this tomorrow).

Entrepreneurs often describe how the response of the market dictated that the business they ended up pursuing was very different to the one they set out trying to create. Similarly, a research organisations with a broad mandate will spend as much time trying to be good at what the market prompts it do as trying to persuade the market to back those projects on which the organisation most wants to focus.

None of this means that individual staff are not accountable for delivering agreed outcomes in their areas of responsibility, nor that we lack measurable goals for the RSA as a whole. Indeed, we report on a wide swathe of indicators to every Trustee Board. The point is that pursuing a mission in action and delivering on it is a complex process of setting out on a journey, responding to conditions, adjusting course and sometimes destination.

That’s why it is important, on the one hand, for the Society’s custodians to be open and clear about the challenges of pursing a idealistic mission in the real world and, on the other, that those who hold us to account recognise the inevitability of complexity and compromise and avoid the temptation to imagine we could make these challenges disappear by finding a magic form of words or returning to a mythical past.

As an experienced economic analyst once said to me; ‘if we could tell the difference between a cycle and a trend we would all be better policy makers’ . Looking across the last few years at the Society I see a strong trend to improvement in all major areas interspersed with cycles of rapid progress but also sometimes a loss of momentum; for example, in 2010/11 governance disputes sapped energy from Trustees, staff and the Fellowship Council. But running through the whole time has been, what is for me, the biggest project of all and the one on which the Society’s future now most heavily relies: the transformation of the RSA Fellowship.

It is on this that I will focus the third and final post in this series tomorrow.




  • Josia Nakash

    21st century enlightenment is a great mission – and the direction must come from the top of the pyramid – which is you.

    The focus needs to be on using all available channels to educate society about the transition the world is going through at the moment. Understanding the forces operating on our world. There is nothing mythical about it, all the scientists have reached the same conclusions, they simply do not know what to do with the new findings. They haven’t managed to put all the pieces together yet and see where all this is headed, and what exactly needs to be done.

    Once you have the direction the next step would be to partner with the BBC or some other organization that can get the information out to the widest possible audience – in the UK and around the world.

    I can’t think of any organization more ideally positioned to take on this mission than the RSA.

    The crisis is the collapse of our past egoistic nature and the birth of an altruistic nature. It is a historical process, which means it could potentially be long and painful because it is taking place above us. There were a number of changes like this throughout our history but this is the first time we can consciously participate in our rebirth and facilitate the flow of the birth process. The alternative is, that just like in the past, we will have revolutions and wars taking place simultaneously worldwide. We are already seeing the beginning of this today.

    The crisis is happening in all areas of our life because it is a crisis of our nature; this is what we need to change. Whether consciously or unconsciously, nature will have its way and force us to accept new changes through suffering.

    There is a better way to go through this transition and that is in full awareness of the process and its purpose. The goal this time is for us to develop on the inside, for us to reach a level of potential that we cannot access in our current egoistical state.

    The result will be a level of abundance and tranquility that the world has never before experienced.

  • Robert Burns


    I only what you wrote was true and if only it was that simple.

    The people who make the big impact decisions in politics and economics are the problem and they have too much invested in the current failing state of affairs to make personal change a viable option.

    Only when they are confronted with personal consequences arising out of what they currently live by will they consider changing.

    But then it will be too late and no one will want to listen to them.

    Many people have already been engulfed by the seeping systemic political and economic failure but the factually unfounded libertarian rhetoric used to discredit these voices of warning and protest has so much momentum that it is an unstoppable destructive force.

    Just strap in tight and hope to survive the crash.

  • Josia Nakash

    Thanks Robert – I know it’s not simple and of course the shift will not come from the government. Those leaders are stuck in a rigid system and they are just as frustrated with the current state of affairs as everyone else.

    Having a few more zeros in your bank account does not provide us with the filling we really need. We are all feeling a lacking for something more significant and it’s right around the corner.

    So strap in tight and think good thoughts. We were not put here to just survive like animals. We are the human part of the system – the only part with the ability to speak and discuss, to anticipate what is coming and plan ahead.

    The only thing that will restore order is explaining to people what this entire process is about; how it started and where it’s taking us. How we need to organize society to suit the new conditions. Organizations such as the RSA that have been explaining many important pieces of the puzzle all along will play a key role in this process.

  • Livy

    Josia Nakash’s post is quite nice.

    It’s such a difficult sentiment to express and elicit attention for, precisely because it requires sentiment; an elusive, indefinable mood of inexorable transition that is all too often left out of mainstream news and commentary. The economic issues and social changes are empirical; we can track them and hold a semblance of predictive power off the back of data we can weigh and measure. But even that approach fails us. We’re now on different ground. A kind of simmering, sub-surface intuition has rippled across the world over five years of unprecedented events and sheer brain-melting craziness, almost as if we’re on the cusp of something huge. It’s hard to even pretend to know what it is, whether it’s a new chapter in the development of human ability, spirit & cooperation, or whether the big black monolith is coming back down to Earth in order to turn each of us into something more than a mere monkey with a language.

    Louis CK recently said something that, at least in part, explains the shift. He chastised a friend for using the words ‘my life’ in a monologue moaning about personal problems. Louis snapped, and candidly barked something along the lines of, “It’s not your life. It’s life. Life isn’t something you possess… it’s something you contribute to.”

    If we have reached, or are on the verge of reaching an inflection point, then this is it; more and more people actually are contributing at the lowest (and most important) levels to helping others and taking part, rather than cutting themselves a slice. Even if it’s a mere case of picking up that dusty basketball you used to throw with Jedi level skill 30 years ago and volunteering to coach a team once a week, the remainder of your existence will be more worthwhile, even if there are fewer days ahead than there are behind. The truly shocking and humbling aspect is that for the first time, perhaps ever, large numbers of young teenagers are thinking in these terms and exhibiting a savvy, ego dissolving maturity we cannot take credit for.
    Anecdotal, wish-washy, new-agey, gut-wrenchingly trite and lacking an evidence base.

    It also happens to be true.

    Happy New Year.


  • Robert Burns


    I admire your faith – when did I lose it?

    As for ‘strap in and have good thoughts’ – ah, those were the days!

    The human is not some higher metaphysical being. It is an animal, no more, no less and human intelligence is no more than a software alternative to claws, fangs, fur or gills that has placed homo sapiens at the top of the food chain.

    What is more, any sense of shared humanity between people is inversely proportional to the sense of difference that exists between social/racial groups and this world is sleep walking into fascism.

    The social-economic pyramid is an expression of this reality.

    I accept that the RSA may do a lot of ‘good works’ and have a large store of ‘good intentions’.

    But it’s successes are the result of cherry picking problem hotspots and not scalable.

    Because of this I see them as quack treatments of symptoms masquerading as ‘cures’ wrapped about with libertarian rhetoric.

    Finally, politicians.

    As a groups they stand indicted by the current parlous state of affairs.

    It is my personal experience that when push comes to shove politicians place the interests of voters and constituents a very poor second place to democratically un-enfranchised groups and interests.

    Politicians have a long record as collaborators in the seeping decay of the social and economic fabric of this society.

    Democracy is a busted flush and it has no role in making the future sustainably better for anybody.

  • Josia Nakash

    Oliver! I’m stealing your stuff! Are you a writer?? We are on the verge of something huge and you will feel the big shift in about 2 weeks.

    Robert! You also have a way with words — are you a poet or something? That whole pyramid thing – it’s over – in every realm of our lives. From now on everything will be round to suit the new global stage.

    You’re right – we are just like animals in our present state – but what sets us apart is that we have the ability/potential to rise above this level to a higher state. It’s totally in our grasp. And it’s not metaphysical – it’s simply the next natural stage of our evolution because we have developed enough on the outside. Now the time has come to get down to the nitty gritty and figure out why we are really here.

    To make a long story short – we will draw out the death of the old system for a little longer throughout 2013 but change is coming.

  • Livy

    Too kind.

    And post a link to the big shift in two weeks time, I’ll have a read.


  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Matthew for the mention. We’ve had 26 Fellows generating 150 comments on Linkedin. I’ve created a summary on a Google doc, which is open for further commenting
    Although there has been a lot around old mission vs new, there were suggestions on blending the two, and positive ideas relevant to your commitment to greater engagement.
    What doesn’t work well – as I think you acknowledge elsewhere – is split discussion in Linkedin,, … and here, of course.
    I know that a new platform is under discussion. I wonder whether it should be for Fellows, or all the RSA?

  • matthew taylor

    Thanks for all these comments. A more specific response to David….

    Thanks for the comment, the summary and for convening the interesting discussion on Linked In, and to all those who have participated in it. It is important that we listen to these views from interested Fellows. But it is also important to recognise that there are many other channels for the expression of Fellows’ views, many of them with a very broad representative base. I wouldn’t want the impression created that Linked In – great though it is – was the only way for Fellows to get heard.

    There are the seven (out of twelve) Trustees elected by (thousands of) Fellows. There are the 35 (out of 40) elected Fellows on the Fellowship Council. There was the major survey of Fellows’ opinions and experiences that was undertaken last year, the findings of which have been widely publicised. There are the meetings of the regional and national panels – all attended by a staff member. There is the fifty of so interaction that I have with individual Fellows every week face to face, through email or ‘phone call (something which can be multiplied by the twenty or so other staff for whom day to day interaction with Fellows is their meat and drink).

    The Linked In discussion is a genuinely useful addition to all this but I am sure you would agree that all the people elected, filling in surveys or using other channels would want us to place this debate in the context of all those other valuable forms of influence and interaction.

    Thanks again for all that you do to promote thoughtful on-line exchange about RSA matters.

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks so much Matthew for your encouragement. It makes it worth the effort to know that our comments and summary document may make a contribution to Board and executive discussion and ideas.
    I think each of the methods you mention has its strengths, and hope we can continue to contribute to the mix.
    I personally think it would be helpful if we could blend the representative and participative processes, for example by more Fellowship Council and Board members engaging online. I believe we could make that easier and more productive by building a network of facilitator/reporters to help develop discussion – and then action – around themes that reflect RSA priorities.
    The digital engagement group, led by Charlotte Britton, with support from Matthew Mezey, are forming a group of regional digital champions who should be able to help. However, the emphasis doesn’t have to be regional or specifically “digital”. We just need Fellows prepared to engage others in trying to make sense of complex issues, and join up ideas and people from different areas of the Fellowship. That way we can all make a contribution to the greater engagement that you advocate in another post.
    The technology board is leading the way towards new online platforms – but they will only be worth the investment if they are are well used. I hope the Linkedin discussion was a small demonstration of what’s possible.

  • Dr David G C Allan

    I would like to correct the quote you ascribed to me as the RSA’s Historian. It should read “the Society that pokes its nose into everything”. The Society didn’t limit itself to only items of interest.

    This comment has been posted on my behalf by the WSG Honorary Secretary

  • David Wilcox

    Matthew – on reflection, here’s one difference between the Linkedin discussion, and the many other valuable methods you mention (Board, Council, survey, one-to-ones with you and staff).
    Linkedin (or any online space or facilitated physical meeting) is a shared and open way to evolve conversations and ideas, from which people can form collaborations, take individual action, or make representations.
    The other methods mainly inform staff, decision-makers and advisers privately – and leave action with them. They fit a command and control model.
    I think that if we are to make the best of the Fellowship (as you hope in another post) we need a collaborative social ecology, as well as the necessary organisational systems. Graham Wilson made the point here and on Linkedin that we gain most satisfaction and are most likely to fulfil our goals when the following three factors are involved: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose … and I think you have made similar points yourself.
    So I think we need gardeners in the social ecology (choose your metaphor) as well as Boards, Councils etc. More on that likely to follow in the digital engagement group.