Take a breath, Britain

I have been avoiding the commentary in the aftermath of last week's UK elections. The crowing triumphalism on one side, and the unfocussed rage on the other, have been too much for my hangover to bear. Take a breath, Britain, and let's think about this properly.

Now that things are calming down a bit though (or descending into depression in the case of my friends who either work in or rely upon public services) certain questions are popping into focus. Does anyone know how opinion polls work? How did Labour manage to get rid of Ed Balls and still feel miserable? Did Scotland just hate Alex Salmond? And why on earth was Ed Miliband carving abstract platitudes onto a massive rock? 

We may never know the answers to these questions. Sometimes you've just got to let those hard to reach conclusions go. Yet I did read a couple of particularly interesting pieces this week that merit further debate. My friend Dougald's 18 points were far more eloquent and thought-provoking than I could have managed on five hours sleep, whilst the piece he cites by Paul Mason left me pondering tribalism and how we decide who is 'in' and who is 'out' of our political group.

So as part of my rehabilitation back into society, I want to reflect a little on some of their points, and what I think last week might mean for our strange country, its strange politics, and the strange things we might have to do to thrive in them. 

The English Problem

Scotland is obviously the big story from last week. The warm south of Scandinavia may be heading out of the UK after all - and with a one-party state, apparently - even if last year's referendum had appeared to close the question. What interests me more, though, is where this leaves England. I have long thought that meaningful devolution of power to the nations must involve an English Assembly. Its absence leaves England the de facto ruler of the UK (since its assembly is the superior one), leaves Scottish MPs deciding on English affairs and makes the voting process an even messier mix of local, national and global concerns than it was already.

The problem though is that devolving English rule to London does nothing to address the growing divide between the people in the South East - the diaspora of the financial markets - and the rest of England. Small business owners aside, the politics of these groups is disparate at best, and the growing divide between haves and have nots will never be bridged by that tried and tested panacea of economic growth. Appealing to people who want business as usual and people who want to rip up the system and start again is becoming increasingly untenable, and it may only be a matter of time before Labour sees the rise of its own UKIP equivalent in the north or west of the country.

Tory support is always strong in England and that was enough to see David Cameron across the line, but Ed Miliband's set-in-stone promise of "a strong economic foundation" was hardly the concrete (forgive the pun) message needed to mobilise the Government's opponents. The Labour Party's messages have had the feel of being written by committee, of a ham-fisted attempt to appeal to both sides of the debate. On the other side, the Conservatives are soon to be sidetracked by Europe for two years, and UKIP remain a useful protest vote that more Euro-sceptical followers can use to force their hand. The Scottish question might be the least of our worries.

Are we in danger of falling into tribalism, or worse, withdrawing from discourse altogether because we fear what would happen if we told each other the truth? Is the UK part of Europe, or is it just London? Where is the common interest that can bring England together, let alone the UK?

The Lib Dem catch-all

One of the most peculiar things about watching the results come in last week was how many different directions voters seemed to scatter from the Lib Dem sinking ship. We could expect the party of the centre to lose votes to both Labour and Tory, but many went to UKIP and some to the Greens too, suggesting the spread of views in their base was so wide as to be almost incoherent. As Dougald puts it, the party looks now to have been "a depository for vague dissatisfaction of a variety of flavours, whose raison d’etre disintegrated when they became an adjunct to the Tories."

They have passionate supporters of course, and they certainly try to stand for much more than that. Yet so many years as the third party may have left them mistaking protest votes and tactical switches for loyal support. Just as I suspect radical parties would struggle more than they expected in a system where all votes were counted, so the Lib Dems may have seemed a more appealing prospect outside government than they were in it. Once a moderating force on both Labour and Tory excesses, what can they stand for now that their left-wing credentials are soiled with crude austerity measures, and the moderate right are happy to vote for David Cameron? And do we even need a centre party when the other main parties now seem to agree on so much?

class war isn't helping

The Labour Party stopped being the party of factory workers a long time ago, but they still struggle to represent owners and workers together in their business policies. In an age of self-employment, portfolio careers and decent employment legislation, class war politics feels antiquated, yet the two main parties are funded along these lines: Labour by the unions, and the Conservatives by wealthy business donors. This leaves them fighting a battle neither can win, or scrapping over abstract concepts like compassion, prudence and courage, with very little genuine evidence changing hands at all. 

We might still see the emergence of a UKIP style opposition party on the left, opposing austerity and standing up for monetary reform, but there are two obstacles to this: firstly, the lack of funding for a party genuinely representing the poor and vulnerable, and secondly, the awful outdated language of the old left, obsessed as it tends to be with class and power. Saying "give us the money" is not a political position, particularly when it is accompanied by accusations of conspiracy and cruelty. Instead, the left needs to find a language for talking about Britain in business-like terms, that makes a case for investing in infrastructure and bringing the poorest and most excluded along on the journey.

For many, Labour is associated with people who receive money, and it doesn't make a strong enough case that employers and staff can only make money together. As our society blurs those boundaries, and globalisation leaves us all on the managerial side of a continental outsourcing project, both Labour and Tory need a new script. Their opponents need to find a new funding model, and a better way to talk to the electorate. It says a lot about the failure of our current political discourse that an obvious joke can end up being taken seriously by so many people. 

Social media has a long way to go

The other point to be made, particularly on a blog that is at least nominally about technology, is that old-fashioned technologies still dominate our politics. The nation state is under threat and UK politics is stranger than it has been in decades, but the driving forces are still tribalism and self-interest, whatever our good intentions. Social media has helped us engage more in the campaigns - don't forget just how difficult it was to hear public voices in TV-led election campaigns even ten years ago, compared to the Twitter-focussed media of today - but it hasn't helped us change the system yet.

Dougald is right that we need to do more to engage the grassroots in meaningful conversations, and that social media has become an exclusive club in the eyes of many. The question is whether there are better ways to do that now than there were a decade ago. We still have an electoral system founded on the principle that it takes a long time to ride to London on horseback. Perhaps we can do something altogether more interesting now. Or perhaps democracy needs to move as slowly as its slowest citizen or risk losing its purpose.
 

As we head towards five more years of Conservative rule - still with the slenderest of mandates for such a radical government - our nation feels more divided than ever. On one side, many people want a streamlined libertarian state delivering in more efficient ways and providing opportunity for those who are willing and able to take it; on the other, as many people want a Scandinavian-style social project to invest in our national infrastructure, ensure fair treatment for all and play an active role in our global neighbourhood; and many people want a complex combination of both.

Serving the needs of all these people, and keeping them all within the democratic congregation, is becoming an impossible task. We must try though, or else we will continue to alienate the poorer and less fortunate parts of society, divide our nation and be left facing problems which our current toolset can't really answer. How much hope I have of the current regime to do that though, I'm afraid I can't really say. With Michael Gove wielding the hangman's noose over the Human Rights Act, and further cuts in the pipeline, the future looks fractious, and politics angry for a few years to come. Let's just hope the resulting battles are physically peaceful and intellectually dangerous, rather than the other way around.

On being more interesting

Another year, another blog upgrade. Yes I have taken the plunge into the mobile-first generation and switched www.sociability.org.uk to the juggernaut that is Squarespace. It's taken me quite a bit of getting used to, but it does look lovely on a tiny screen, which is how all the best websites need to be these days.

Aside from the platform though, there are a few other changes at Sociability this month. I'm writing this from the rainy south coast where I'd been holed up for much of last year writing my latest book, A Mind for Business (available in all fine bookshops and makes a lovely gift, hint hint). Having spent most of 2014 writing a book, I've been struck by just how rarely I'm posting on this blog, and trying to work out whether that's just because I've been busy, or because there's something not quite right about it.

My conclusion, such as I have one, is that the problem was that my posts back then weren't actually very interesting. I was writing about social media, which frankly hasn't really interested me so much since it got taken over by advertisers and Taylor Swift. Not that I have anything against dear old T-Swizzle, mind. It's just that when I was working on School of Everything and co-writing Social by Social, technology seemed to be the new frontier. Now, I look at the torrent of new dating sites and micro-blogging tools and wonder where the new frontier went after all. Even more worryingly, I look at the hacking and slashing of public services that now lurks behind the 'radical disruption' banner, and wonder just where the invisible revolution we were promising a few years ago has actually ended up.

No wonder, then, that I haven't been feeling very inspired to blog about technology lately. So I think it's time I wrote about the things that actually are interesting me. After all, before we can be interesting, we must first be interested. And I am very interested. In so many things. 

Since starting Mindapples as a business in 2010, I've grown more and more interested in the workings of the human mind, and the emerging and chaotic findings of psychology and neuroscience. I am not so taken with the rather tedious attempts to apply all this amazing research to increasing sales or boosting 'efficiency', but I am interested in the human mind as a design consideration. I am interested in how understanding and harnessing our humanity can help us improve how we live and work, and what society would look like if we designed it around human nature rather than trying to change it all the time.

In the lucky West, we live in a world increasingly dominated by technology that improves our lives, but it is often developed without a detailed consideration of what we need to thrive. Public services are built without thought to their emotional impact, and society is run on some quite archaic principles about human nature, from the myth of rational independent economic choice to a worrying overuse of eye-witness testimony.

So here on Sociability I intend to write about other things I can't write about elsewhere: the effects of society on our minds and our wellbeing; the psychology behind some of the big political and social phenomena of our age; the essential ingredients of human nature that can be harnessed for good or channeled towards evil.

In short, this blog is going to be about humanity, not technology. Or perhaps sometimes the intersection of the two. I will do my best to write for myself rather than for anyone else, and to write what I find interesting rather than what I think I should be saying. Let's see where that takes us, and if I have to rebrand the site again, so be it. After all, anything's better than being boring. Happy reading!

Why I wrote A Mind for Business

So my new book, A Mind for Business, has recently been published by Pearson. Beyond the commercial and practical reasons for writing it, this book is actually rather important to me. Though my background over the past decade has been more in innovation and social change than the study of the mind, the subject of how our minds work has fascinated me of late, and has become the cornerstone of both the Mindapples campaign and the changes I want to see in the world.

Put simply, my argument behind this book is as follows: I believe our society is operating with a surprisingly primitive and inaccurate model of how our minds work, and this is causing us a lot of problems. (This is true of the UK in my specific experience, but I suspect the argument applies in many other places too.)

We have quite a good understanding of our bodies , but our minds are still, for the most part, the province of myths and hearsay, from throwaway comments about ‘brain chemistry’ to films about using 100 per cent of our brains. These misconceptions are mostly found in pub conversations and pop culture, but they seep into our everyday discourse to affect every aspect of how we live and work, from job interviews and GP visits to law courts and even public policy.

Some of these inaccurate views – such as the economic assumption of independent, rational choices - are being challenged, but many more – the faith in eye-witness testimony for example, or the persistence of ‘left- and right- brain thinking’ – persist, influencing our choices and shaping our lives.

These beliefs interfere with our ability to work effectively and manage people properly. They prevent us from realising our strengths or forgiving our weaknesses. They prevent us from understanding each other, and interfere with our relationships.

The closest term for this in modern psychology is mentalisation – the ability to accurately assess what is happening in your mind, or in someone else’s mind, and relate that to behaviour. Our ability to understand our own mind and the minds of people around us directly affects the quality of our life and work - and more importantly, it is a skill which can be taught and learnt.

So my purpose in writing this book is to dispel the old, inaccurate views of our minds, and replace them with models that work better. By presenting an overview of the most robust, evidence-based models currently on offer, I hope to help us all understand ourselves and each other better, to work smarter, feel calmer, and get along better. The findings collected have certainly helped me, my colleagues at Mindapples, and the participants in our training sessions, and I hope through the book they will help us collectively as a society too.

Models are never perfect of course, and they are rarely finished. We are a long way from being able to make perfect predictions about human behaviour, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. But we all need models, and we use them unavoidably and habitually to make thousands of assumptions about ourselves and others every day – and so I think we should try to make those assumptions as accurate and useful as possible.

I hope this book can contribute to this process of discovering ourselves and others, and help us all harness our minds more effectively, and improve how we live and work.

Buy now from Amazon

5 things funders can do to support innovation

For the past few years I've spent my professional career developing new organisations that deliver public benefit, and for the past four years in particular I have spent my time developing and raising money for my current enterprise, Mindapples, which aims to inspire and support everyone to take better care of their minds. Over my time developing Mindapples, I have met many funders and written many funding proposals. Some have been successful, most have not. I have heard a lot of feedback on my work, and had a lot of conversations about what people want to fund, how to measure success, the need for sustainability, which company structures are best, and so on.

Throughout this I have been struck by two recurring themes: firstly, that the people who are most complimentary about what I'm doing usually aren't the people who actually support us.

1. Drop the eligibility criteria

I have lost count of the number of strange reasons Mindapples has been ruled ineligible for funding by organisations that aim to promote our kind of work. Here is a selection of just a few of them:

  • we don't fund early stage ventures;
  • we don't fund established ventures;
  • this could be funded elsewhere;
  • you can't find match-funding;
  • we only fund organisations with a turnover of at least £200,000;
  • we don't fund health promotion work;
  • we don't fund mental health projects;
  • we only fund work in deprived communities;
  • we only fund registered charities;
  • we only fund for-profits;
  • we only fund academic bodies;
  • we only fund people under 30;
  • we only fund projects in these target boroughs;
  • we only fund service user organisations;
  • we only fund organisations who provide healthcare services on site;
  • we only fund projects led by clinicians;
  • we don't fund projects that the state would normally fund;
  • we only fund projects that the state will also fund;
  • and so on. You get the idea.

Every time you add an eligibility condition to your fund, you create a barrier to innovation. Good ideas come from anywhere, and if you specify where they have to come from, you miss most of the best ones. Give up on the notion of bureaucratic systems to identify innovation, and start making decisions based on your assessment of the actual project and social need.

2. Do your research

Once upon a time I was amazed by how little funders seemed to know about the markets they invested in. However, now I've learnt more about how VC firms operate, I'm actually much less surprised than I was, because doing the level of research an average VC expects would cripple most grant funders. Unlike the private sector, they are spread too thin. Whilst commercial firms tend to specialise in particular verticals like clean tech or education, Organisations that fund 'innovation', for example, find themselves bombarded by bids from healthcare, microfinance, education, youth engagement, prison reform, public service redesign and so on. Now ask yourself: how many organisations do you know who are experts in all these areas?

No wonder then that most funders are forced to rely on external experts, who are often themselves too specialist to advise on everything, or worse, may be competitors of the applicants. (This has happened a number of times in my experience in the social innovation sector, and it is often difficult to find out who is even providing expert advice on applications, making the whole thing desperately murky.) 

The alternative is that they rely on applicants to tell them about the market, by asking them who their competitors are, what their research base is, how they prove the social need, and so on. If funders are going to really get to grips with an issue, they need to do their homework, and that means being embedded in the sector they are trying to change, not just parachuting into it and claiming to be radical and disruptive. 

3. Stop coming up with new ideas

As a funder, you don't know as much about any market as the entrepreneurs and innovators on the ground. Any guess you make about what solutions are needed will be just that: a guess. It is very tempting to sit around in the office and come up with new projects, but you are just adding to the pile of untested ideas when there are already plenty of better, more developed ideas out there that haven't yet been put to the test. I have even had the experience of being told there wasn't enough evidence for the efficacy of my own projects, by funders who then went straight on to give larger grants to completely new ideas with no track record at all. Yes, of course sometimes there are new ways of doing things emerging that need to be tried, but chances are if you've thought of it, someone somewhere has done it, and maybe they need your help.

Coming up with ideas is great fun, but try to resist the temptation. Instead, spend your time exploring the social issues facing us all, learning how and where they show up, and figuring out how to measure impact in those areas cheaply and reliably. Then be as open as possible to where the solutions might emerge. If you publish the goals in a clear enough way, you don't need to specify how they will be solved, and you may find that some existing ideas turn out to work brilliantly. What's more, you may find that your money is better spent helping promising ideas learn, improve and scale up, rather than feeding more innovations into a sector that is well known to have a big funding gap for promising early stage projects.

4. Find out what your peers are doing

Funders tend to move in packs. Whatever buzzword is flavour of the month - volunteering, sustainability, exercise, employability - you will tend to find a number of funds focussing on it at the same time. The result is that funders specialise in areas that already have plenty of money, and neglect areas where they could have a big impact. Think, for example, how many volunteering projects were funded in 2011-12, and how few mental health projects; yet wind the clock forward, and young people's mental health is flavour of the month and volunteering has had its turn. Strangely though, this clustering doesn't seem to result in genuine collaboration between funders or the projects they support. Very often we hear stories of two near-identical projects being funded simultaneously, and both then struggling for sustainability. 

So question your assumptions, ask yourself why you picked these themes rather than others, and check your prejudices at the door, because I assure you that you have them. Find out where other funders are putting their money. If you want to follow them into the same markets, do it strategically and try to support projects your peers have already found work. If you want to address areas of genuine need, look for the gaps in the current funding landscape and plug them.

5. Decide whether you are a funder or an incubator

If you want to fund things that will be sustainable, it is not enough to give them a handout and then say "where's your sustainability plan?" If your goal is to create sustainable enterprises then you need to invest in a pipeline, help them find clients, teach them to sell, introduce them to follow-on capital, and do all the other things that commercial incubators do well. If you don't do these things, you are basically getting great projects started and then leaving them to die on the vine.

Recognise too that sustainability is not always possible. Not everything that is worth doing has a business model, and not every social need has a corresponding market. If you want to create viable businesses, recognise that this means you will have to ignore most of the really challenging and important social issues of our time. If you want to tackle real social problems, accept that you or one of your peers needs to support these organisations to continue their work after your initial investment, otherwise you will just be adding to the set of projects that did wonderful work but then had to shut down because no-one would pay for the public benefit they created.

Ok, everyone hates a know-it-all, and it's not nice to tell busy people how to do their job. In fact, that's often why funders and frontline innovators fall out in the first place. We're all busy, and we're all doing the best we can. So what do I know? But after nearly a decade in this space, I've found that an alarming number of funders fall into one or more of these traps, and that very often everyone is so busy they haven't even thought about it. In an under-resourced and over-burdened sector, it's easy to fall into simple traps and fail to notice you've done so.

Over the past decade, I've met all kinds of amazing people in funding organisations, and worked with some brilliant funders. I've even been rejected by some brilliant funders who were quite right not to fund my half-baked idea. But I think a few small changes could make a big difference, and if we don't speak out when we think things could be better, then we really aren't our jobs right.

So what do you think? Am I being too critical, or underestimating the work that foundations do? Or are these things getting missed in your experience too? Answers on a postcard...

5 ways to change the world

Recently I gave a talk at Scanners' Night, a charming ideas and networking evening hosted by John Williams, author of Screw Work, Let's Play.

After an initial chat about Mindapples, for the second half John and I tried an experimental discussion about "how to change the world" in which I shared a few of my tips for achieving social impact, based on my experiences of running social innovation projects and start-ups.

It was really nice to have a chance to reflect on what I've learnt from School of Everything, Mindapples, Sociability and the RSA, and I was surprised by how different my approach is now compared to when I started. So in the interests of helping other people seeking to do something positive in the world, I thought I'd share my top five tips for social entrepreneurs and budding world-changers here. 

1. Find the positive action that everyone around you wants to do, and help them do it.

If you try to do everything yourself, you will run out of money first and energy second. Figure out what other people might do to contribute to your vision, and make it easy for them to do it. Perhaps if everyone did one small thing, or volunteered for your project in some small way, the world would change. Think, for example, how much easier it is to improve dental hygiene by getting every child in the world to brush their teeth, than by training up ten million oral hygienists.

2. Sell things to people for money.

The biggest reason social projects don't make money is because they never ask anyone to pay them any money. This has two effects: they have no money, but also, and much more importantly, they never put themselves under pressure to deliver real value to their customers. The more you charge for something, the better it needs to be. Stop letting yourself off the hook, and instead challenge yourself to put a value on what you offer and then make good on it. Even if you end up giving things away later, the quality of your work will be so much better for it.

3. Make people's lives easier.

It can be tempting to enroll people to your cause by explaining how hard everything is and how much you need help, but the best projects are a joy to help. Make it easier for your customers and beneficiaries by providing a service they can't live without, and make it easier for influencers and investors by giving them the solution as well as the problem. You don't have to have everything worked out, but nothing is more demoralising than feeling a task is impossible. 

4. Be nice.

You will often be told that you need to be ruthless to succeed, but in my experience unpleasant people burn their bridges and quickly run out of favours. Yes, you need to make tough decisions, and yes you can't be generous and forgiving about everything and still have any integrity or quality standards. But - and it's an important but - there is no advantage to being nasty, and no reason to be unpleasant even if you need to be firm. Be nice, and be kind, because people notice, and people are the best asset you can ever have.

5. Be beautiful.

Ok, so perhaps not the most obvious point, but beauty can get neglected in the quest for a better future. People remember people and projects that delight them. From being well presented in a meeting to having a really charming website, don't underestimate the value of good looks and charm. Many a contentious project made it through because someone was just too charming to turn down.

Of course, these are just a few thoughts that emerged on the night, and lists like this can be cut many ways. These things have worked for me though, at least in small ways, and I can certainly say I achieve more and do more good by following these principles than I did a few years ago. So I offer you that, for what it's worth.

Feel free to disagree though, since that would be my tip number 6. :-)

Shiny thing make it all better

Newsflash, folks: disruptive innovation isn't that new after all. :-)

"Don't be afraid of bronze."

Three ways to change the world

How do we tackle inequality and exclusion? How do we have high quality but affordable public services? How do we provide dignity and care for an aging population? How do we modernise our infrastructure? How do we stabilise our economy? As we plough through Party Conference season, questions like these are perplexing our leaders and policy researchers as we struggle collectively to see a route to a stable and thriving society. What you will notice, though, is how rarely these problems are tackled head-on by leaders. They will talk about the things they believe in, and their desire to tackle the tough problems facing our country, but the solutions they then propose seem to be so much smaller in scope and limited in impact. Too often it seems that the problems exist on a much bigger scale than the tools and techniques we have to solve them.

Last month though, Matthew Taylor of the RSA outlined an interesting framework for approaching such problems in his Chief Executive's Annual Lecture.

In it, Matthew argues that there are three fundamental drivers of social power:

  • hierarchical authority - "I'll do what I'm told"
  • social solidarity - "I'll do what everyone else is doing"
  • individual aspiration - "I'll do what I want"

All three are fundamental to our nature as human beings, but the balance between them has changed considerably over the last century.

Hierarchy has been enfeebled, by our loss of faith in our leaders and institutions, and by the social technologies that now enable us to mobilise against them. Our trust in strangers and solidarity with our neighbours has been stretched by increased social diversity, the fracturing of the class system and growing social inequality. Of the three, individualism is now the strongest, but it has become narrow and materialistic, undermined by the inefficacy of markets to organise our needs, and by the lack of strong hierarchy and social solidarity to restrain it.

The result is a growing fatalism about problems that cannot be solved through individualism alone - problems like climate change, the pensions crisis and the economy. Our leaders proclaim bold rhetoric designed to appeal to our other social drivers, such as the appeal for solidarity in the "Big Society" movement, but the solutions they propose don't match the rhetoric.

We are not creating the kinds of solutions that can tackle our problems, Matthew argues, because we are not designing solutions which make use of all the sources of our social power.

To solve our biggest social problems, we must build up the strength of all three of these social drivers, and harness them together to create solutions that involve everyone. And he argues that to do so, we need a design mindset, not a policy one.

(There's a lovely story about the sociology of queueing around 18 minutes too.)

Who gains from growth?

We have often heard governments in recent decades saying that growth is good for everyone. Never mind wasting precious resources on panaceas for the impoverished, they say, we need to pump prime business and jump-start the economy. Invest in growth, so the argument goes, and the standard of living will rise for everyone.

A report today though seems to confirm what many of us already suspected, that economic growth does not benefit everyone after all. At this delicate moment of cuts, this news is troubling for those of us who are already worried about the inequalities dividing us from our neighbours, or who are simply unlucky enough to be in the poorer half of society.

The Gardencentreshopping href="http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/who-gains-growth-living-standards-2020/" target="_blank">Resolution Foundation's Who Gains from Growth? report, published today with Warwick University and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, predicts that the lowest income families in Britain stand to lose 15 per cent of their incomes by 2020. Middle-income families will also lose out in the long-term, with only the wealthy standing to gain materially from economic recovery.

all working-age households below middle income in 2020 will be worse off than those in the same position a decade earlier. A household at the bottom of the low to middle income group1 in 2008-2009 had an income of £10,600 a year. By 2020-2021, under the baseline, the income of a household in that position falls to £9,000 a year (in 2008/09 prices), a real terms decline of 15 percent. A household at the top of the low to middle income group would, in the same position, see its income drop from £23,000 per year in 2008-2009 to £22,200 in 2020-2021, a real terms fall of three per cent.

What is particularly troubling is that, as the report itself says, "all the projections in this report rest on GDP forecasts of modest growth to 2015 and of annual average growth of 2.5 per cent from 2015-2020 which, by comparison to more recent forecasts, now look optimistic."

In other words, even if the Government deliver what they promise on economic policy, most of us will still lose out.

The shift has much to do with changes in the job market, in which admin and manufacturing work is being replaced with lower-paid roles in retail, caring and leisure. As the report summarises:

The UK economy is set to create both more highly skilled jobs at the top and more low skilled jobs at the bottom, while jobs in mid-level occupations are in decline. While these changes in the structure of the labour market are good for most people, they are also set to boost pay far more for higher income households than for those lower down

When I read this I was struck by its similarity to Professor Richard Florida's recent RSA President's Lecture. He argued that economic growth is now linked closely to the levels of creativity in our cities, and that nurturing the creative industries and high tech businesses such as in London's Tech City holds the key to making Britain internationally competitive.

In the Q&A afterwards, I asked Richard about the implications of this for the job market. If our economy is increasingly based on creative, high tech businesses - ones that, for example, radically compete with traditional publishing businesses by cutting bookshops out of the loop and allowing authors to self-publish and sell direct - then what does this mean for the number and nature of jobs available in this new economy?

His answer was sobering. He pointed to the growth in "personal services" - massage, personal shopping, pedicures - and suggested that this was the future growth area for the labour market. To his credit, he made the strong point that we need to make these roles creative and enjoyable for people, and ensure they provide a good standard of living, but I was still left feeling uneasy.

Are we becoming a two-tier society, of the wealthy, tech-enabled "creative classes", and their servants?

This report today seems to suggest that there is a risk of greater divisions, at least if we continue to push single-mindedly for growth without looking at the wider social factors at play. Whilst the  report itself doesn't suggest specific policy directions for solving this problem, and stresses the complicating factors such as the spread of unemployment or withdrawals of benefits, it does point the way:

Some alternative scenarios – boosting low wages, improving skills or raising female employment - lead to modest improvements for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. However it is only when all three measures are combined that many people in the bottom half become substantially better off.

Of course the report will have its critics and it needs to be submitted to rigorous review. What is clear though is that we need a much wider and more informed debate about growth than the stultifying "increase public spending" / "get Britain back on its feet" bun-fight that is currently dominating our political discourse.

We need our Government to focus on getting every part of the economy back on its feet, particularly those who are suffering most right now. Because if we don't, we risk more and more people becoming disenfranchised in a system that simply doesn't allow them to win.

UK Riots

The Corporate Society?

This afternoon I was at the Roundhouse in Camden for Business in the Community's "Communities Summit", courtesy of the Big Society Network, listening to Prince Charles and the Prime Minister issue a call-to-arms for British business to step up and take responsibility for the challenges facing the country.

This felt like an important moment in the somewhat chequered history of the "Big Society" policy agenda, and also of the up-and-coming social enterprise movement. Essentially this was David Cameron's most decisive attempt yet to reboot the Big Society as something more tangible, turning it from a rather elusive and abstract policy of community involvement into a clarion call for business to support grassroots action in communities around Britain.

It was useful to hear this new direction, primarily because the greater clarity it brings should finally make it possible for people to take action in support of the "Big Society" project - which, as I have said before, has been hard for many of us to get behind previously.

But this clarity is also helpful because it names something which has often gone unsaid in the Big Society rhetoric, which is that if private funders and volunteers are to play a leading role in delivering our public institutions and improving communities, this will naturally mean private businesses - who are capable of mobilising far more money and manpower than any other sector of society - having a much greater say over the running of our society.

Where I found myself in tune with this thinking was on the importance of businesses stepping up and taking responsibility for the impact they have on society. As David Cameron indicated today, the Government can do a lot to tackle the obesity crisis, but all its public health campaigns and NHS services will fail if corporate interest continues to make it harder to eat healthily than to eat unhealthily. All the nudges the Government can muster will still pale in comparison to the huge efforts spent by consumer brands to push people back the other way.

Prince Charles, who I've always rather liked, bless him, also spoke very passionately about the opportunities that businesses have to make a positive impact on the world, and challenged all of us to do more to use our resources to do good. And he's right. Businesses have so many assets, and so many skills in delivering quality products at scale, that to point all that infrastructure solely at wealth creation seems like a wasted opportunity. Business in the Community's new "business connectors" programme is putting resources from major UK businesses like BT and Greggs on the ground, in communities, doing excellent work joining things up and making things happen.

And this is all good stuff. The PM's call for businesses to take more responsibility is very welcome at a time when there is so much pressure on the private sector to give back to the communities from which it profits, and in which it resides. I was even vaguely in agreement with the Prime Minister when he said:

“In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are somehow out for themselves... Business is not just about making money, vital as it is, it is also the most powerful force for social progress that the world has ever known.”

The point at which I felt a little uncomfortable though, was when he attacked what he called:

“the snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth like the state does, that it isn’t really to be trusted, that it should stay out of social concerns and stick to making the money that pays the taxes.”

Of course there is a value to these corporate-sponsored projects to deliver value to communities and improve society, even if it is mostly felt by the people inside Government who are aware of just how much large-scale public services are starting to cost. But when Mr Cameron spoke out firmly in defence of the value of, for example, great schools run by banks, and workplace education placements delivered by supermarkets, I felt uncomfortable. So I was surprised when he questioned the motives of people, like me, who feel uncomfortable about such things.

I felt it was disingenuous to suggest that anyone who is suspicious of corporate-backed social projects is some kind of snob, acting not in the public interest but according to a misplaced and rather grubby ideology. This attitude seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the natural vigilance that many people display over our civic institutions, always checking that our public institutions are being run in the interests of the people and not private interests, ensuring that democratic processes are followed, and championing the most vulnerable so that they are not left behind.

When talking about the contribution business can make to improving society, we would do well to remember what private businesses are created to do, which is to maximise profits for their shareholders. I am a Director of two for-profit businesses, and that is my job, as laid down by statute: to make money, not for the wider community, but for the few people who are hard-working or fortunate enough to own shares. In some businesses, the beneficiaries are the staff, such as in partnerships or staff-owned co-operatives; in others it is the customers, such as in Industrial and Provident Societies; but for most, the beneficiaries are the shareholders. Not the public. Not society. Just a few private individuals within it.

And that's fine. I'm quite happy to make money for my shareholders, if I can, particularly if they have taken risks with their own money to back businesses which I believe should exist in the world. What isn't fine is to pretend that the company structure we have built to do that work has any other higher purpose, or to criticise people who are suspicious when companies that are legally obliged to maximise profits for their owners claim to be interested in anything else. I can talk all I want about my desire to improve society, but when I go to a Board meeting I am bound by company law to put those considerations to one side and focus instead on growing the profits of the business.

This is not purely a problem that affects for-profit companies. Just in case anyone thinks I am being an anti-business snob at this point, I should add that even non-profit businesses have their own agendas too, whether that's to serve a vulnerable minority or to champion a particular agenda.

There is only one institution in this country that is legally obliged and institutionally accountable to act in the interests of all the people of this country, and that is the State.

That's why we have a State.

I know it is hard to argue with a well-intentioned project that is persuading private businesses pledge £750m over four years to good works in communities, and I don't wish to denigrate the excellent work that is taking place in the Corporate Responsibility world. The more businesses can be involved in the work of improving our society the better, because our businesses are part of our society just like anyone else. Bring it on guys, you are very welcome here.

But I think it is just as important for us to have a strong "Fourth Estate" of journalists, scrutiny bodies and concerned citizens, a proud tradition of so-called "snobs" checking that if our public institutions are to be funded by private interests, they do not end up acting in them.

To do anything less would be an admission that we can no longer afford democracy.

Patchwork: joining up social services

Today I'm at the launch of Patchwork, the new service by Futuregov. Patchwork is a lightweight web app to help social services support people better, by bringing together information from within different services, and from individuals and families, and displaying it in a useful way for social workers. As an Associate of Futuregov, I've been following their progress on this project since the start and it's fantastic to see it finally launched. I've also been lucky enough to be part of the team capturing the learning from the project for NESTA so I thought it worth putting out a few thoughts on the project to explain why I think it really matters. The process has been long and involved, full of the kind of administrative and cultural challenges that I'm all too familiar with from attempting to bring Mindapples into the NHS. What's remarkable is that Futuregov and their dedicated commissioning partners in Litchfield District Council and elsewhere have steered it through without compromising on the initial vision, and all credit to them for managing to create something that works, rather than something that ticks the boxes.

Here's why it's great:

  1. It doesn't look like normal Government IT systems: it feels easy, even pleasurable, to use and navigate, it's relatively frictionless, and design lead Ian Drysdale has worked hard to balance a user-centred design approach with the tight requirements of policy and legislation. Less like SAP, more like Facebook.
  2. The system is social in its architecture, mapping the relationships associated to a case first and making it possible to see the dozens of different agencies and individuals who are often working on each case, and to know who to ask when you want more information (always my preferred approach to knowledge management).
  3. It brings together information from every available source, including service users themselves, creating a much richer picture of people's needs and giving individuals and families a voice in the systems that support them, without requiring busy practitioners to enter data twice.
  4. The technology behind the snazzy design is solid, built using the latest tools of "web 2.0" commercial apps rather than the more rigid and old-fashioned platforms that usually characterise Government supplied systems, and particularly they have spent a long time tackling critical issues like data security and permissions.
  5. The delivery method, as a hosted web app using interoperable standards to draw service data together, is cost effective for councils and (after a little redevelopment work) should be easy for clients to deploy.

Futuregov have been in the "social innovation" space alongside Sociability and many of our little network for a good few years now, and they're really starting to go places. It's tough to say why some businesses grow and thrive over others, but I think the key to Futuregov's success has been that their business model is actually quite traditional: they sell managed web apps to support public service delivery. What gives them the edge over their competitors is that they take a new-style social innovation approach to solve them together - putting out an open call for help at the start, facilitating practitioners and service users to design the tool together, adopting an agile and forward-thinking technical strategy, iterating and testing as they go. The problems they are solving - in this case, helping different divisions of public services to talk to each other - are recognised problems for which their clients have budget, and their innovative approach allows them to solve problems which their competitors cannot, and deliver products which are far than their often slow and complacent competitors in the public sector IT market. Put simply, they innovate in their own products and processes, but not in their business model. Clever people.

Today, Futuregov have announced £280,000 in start-up funding to take the Patchwork forward and develop it for scale. Congratulations to Futuregov on this fantastic achievement, and also to Litchfield District Council, NESTA and all the other many people and organisations who have backed them from early on. It's great to see such a practical and passionate project making real headway towards improving public services and, hopefully, saving lives.

5 #bigsociety ideas

Recently I posted 5 Big Society questions which I felt needed answering if I could endorse the project wholeheartedly. Yesterday the Times ran a front-page story about how the movement is in crisis because of lack of definition and popular and third sector support, and I'm afraid I now agree with Matthew Taylor's analysis here that "If the Big Society debate doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea." I think this would be a great shame, since the Big Society project is creating a powerful space for new thinking to emerge and giving local government in particular a mandate for positive change and greater community engagement, all of which are good things. But to echo Matthew's sentiments, there is far to much unsupported assertion going on and not enough evidence or testable hypotheses, and I am further troubled by the regular dismissal of issues and counter-evidence as "naysaying" or "negativity", which is stifling debate in this area as many participants (including myself) try to act positive in the hope of being on the right side of funding decisions in the future.

I agree that we must be positive and collaborative about coming up with the answers together. I also agree that most if not all of the new infrastructure to run the Big Society must come from entrepreneurial solutions rather than government (such as this interesting new crowdfunding platform). But when I hear people who are not social entrepreneurs telling me how the social enterprise sector works, or politicians making bold claims about how the obstacles which currently exist will magically disappear without any explanation of how this will happen or acknowledgement of the value in the existing systems, then I can't help feel we're heading for a political trainwreck.

Last night I attended the RSA lecture with the generally impressive Sir Ronald Cohen, and asked him how we can ensure social enterprises can compete with commercial interests for lucrative government contracts, rather than picking up only the non-viable markets. His answer was hopeful rather than evidenced. He believes that social enterprises will win tenders because they are culturally better suited and have greater connections with their communities - but there is no evidence of this happening now, nor of a plan to shift the structure and culture of government procurement to make this more likely in the future. It's a nice story, but there was no acknowledgement the lack of capacity for social enterprises to deliver critical national services, the bureaucracy of government procurement which favours those with the money to spend on navigating the process, the innate conservatism and risk-aversion of the public sector, and most of all the difficulty of scaling the kind of community and cultural factors which supposedly give social enterprise the edge. The reality, I'm afraid, is of large organisations bidding for large contracts which small community groups cannot feasibly deliver, social entrepreneurs spending months in negotiations for money which then disappears, commercial, academic and charitable interests mining smaller projects for their ideas, a lack of core funding or capital investment to enable social enterprises to scale up to meet these challenges, and a continual persistence of the attitude that the main advantage of the social sector is that we're really, really cheap. All soluble problems, but what are we going to do about them?

Nick Hurd has issued a 12-page call for ideas from MPs and activists on how to make the Big Society work (or so the Times tells me: I can't actually find it online). So with that in mind, here are five ideas that I believe are needed in order to create a thriving and meaningful "big society":

  1. Fix government procurement Government currently awards large contracts to large corporations on the basis of efficient delivery of often dated and ineffective solutions designed in advance by bureaucrats who are not directly connected to the problem they are trying to solve. Social impact bonds point the way to a public procurement model that is based on outcomes and allows innovative providers to pocket some of the cost-savings for game-changing innovations, and if it works it could be mainlined into all government procurement. But the only way we will create a sustainable social sector is if social organisations are given preferential treatment in procurement, either by forcing all bidders to have a voluntary element to their bid (forcing the Capitas and PWCs of this world immediately into partnership with voluntary groups), or by giving preference in contract awards to recipients of Big Society Bank investments.
  2. Build better corporate structures Current vehicles for social enterprise are not fit for purpose: they don't provide enough rigor to allow the charities commission to provide tax breaks, but also don't provide the equity return for either capital investors or social entrepreneurs. We need a new model which sits in the for-profit sector but with certain conditions, for example a restriction on what proportion of profits can be given as dividends or when they can be withdrawn, a cap on salary distance between best-paid and worst-paid staff, or incorporation of charitable objectives in the responsibilities of Directors. Currently, social enterprises need a non-profit vehicle to own the assets and protect the mission (and in the case of Mindapples, to give proper ownership and accountability to the community), a charity to get the tax-breaks, and a trading arm to offer a return to founders and investors. It's time to create a new integrated social enterprise vehicle that is fit for purpose, and for the government to offer hard financial incentives to philanthropists and investors to put money into the social enterprise sector.
  3. Make private enterprise accountable Banks and other high-yield for-profit entities do not, by their very definition, act in the interests of the whole population, but of the few. Private companies (and I speak as a Director of one) are duty-bound to act in the commercial interests of their shareholders, to the exclusion of wider social considerations. The result is a twofold madness: firstly, businesses prioritise the financial interests of their staff and shareholders over the improvement of the society those individuals live in, making us all richer in a poorer world, insulated from growing social problems by our similarly growing bank balances. Secondly, the full financial impact of businesses do not need to be considered by those taking the key decisions. The wider social impact of business remains an externality to the business transactions, something to be picked up by the government and the social sector in the form of, for example, massive recyling bills for processing excessive supermarket packaging, or social issues caused by low wages and redundancies. We cannot persist with a social model in which the public and third sectors perform palliative care to minimise the social impact of the private sector's actions, and must beg for corporate donations to do it. A gentle solution would be to legislate that all shareholders must vote and publish the social objectives for their organisation, and make Directors legally-bound to fulfil these obligations. This at least would force companies either to be bound by their supposed CSR commitments, or to come out publicly and say they are only interested in profit. A harder approach though is that if social impact bonds can be used to create positive incentives for social providers, they can also be used to create negative penalities for making problems worse. If every time Sainsbury's cost the local council large recyling bills, they were forced to pay a social impact bond that went towards paying public and social sector providers to fix the problem, they would soon think twice about whether their scotch eggs really needed those little trays.
  4. Invest in infrastructure We need to create the support structures and platforms to enable social enterprises to work and scale more effectively, which means we need a new fund (or a refocussing of existing resources) on infrastructure projects. If the government invested in infrastructure that the social sector could use, rather than trying to own systems and procure services not just for itself but for individual units of government, if you quickly give social and community groups the tools to reach considerable impact without needing investment. We need tools for organising volunteering activity, crowdfunding and donations, marketing and communications, accounting and payroll, recruitment, training and collaboration. We need spaces to work, better equipment, business advice, legal support, assistance with social impact (more on that below), CRB checks, accreditations, partnerships, access to capital and loan finance, tax incentives, support taking ideas abroad, and an array of other conditions and environmental factors for growth. All of these things cost money, but all of them are cheaper than the public sector's current tendancy to buy the same services over and over again for itself and refuse to share. Let's invest now in a shared infrastructure for public and voluntary sector partnership and start building this sector properly.
  5. Invest in evaluation and learning Most social enterprises and community groups know they are doing good because their communities tell them so, but they lack the resources to conduct rigorous evaluation or put their learning into a format that government or funders understand. If the Big Society Bank and the public sector generally is looking to the social sector to solve its problems, it needs to support innovative companies to understand what they are good at and where they fit into the government's priorities. It's all very well creating a social impact bond around a set of outcomes (for example, patient health indicators), but many of the most community-led and innovative organisations will simply not be able to prove that they can deliver on these metrics without spending heavily on feasibility studies and evaluation reports. Instead, the public sector should treat the social sector as its R&D department, and invest its own money (perhaps as part of the support infrastructure of the Big Society Bank) in scanning the sector, identifying and evaluating possible innovations, and working with social sector partners to share the IP created and take the best elements to scale. If it is up to bidders to prove why they can deliver on social impact bonds, the people best placed to do that will be Capita, PWC and other major corporate players who have the resources to do their own R&D and invest heavily in their own growth. And you can bet they'll be looking very closely at what they can learn from the social sector.

Most of all, what the Big Society needs is an accountable design process for the project, in which all of us can participate in the debate about what is needed, what can be done, and who is responsible for making it happen. There are many things the government can do to help make the Big Society happen, but they need to listen to all the people involved, both online and via local community networks, and work with us to solve these problems, either by taking action themselves or giving their backing to others to do what is needed. Unless we have an open, critical debate about the practical steps needed, facilitated by democratically-accountable institutions and conducted in a transparent and constructive way, the whole project is in danger of becoming nothing more than a small handful of people sat in closed rooms telling stories about how everything is getting better, while outside things go from bad to worse.

New Public Thinkers: My Nominations

My good friend and intellectual scratching post Dougald Hine has started a conversation here to identify the next generation of public thinkers, and has invited me to be part of it. Here's what Dougald says:

"Radio 3 is currently looking for "a new generation of public intellectuals". You can apply here - except that to be eligible, you must be studying or working inside a university. Now, call me self-interested, but by this criterion, the likes of John Berger or a young Karl Polanyi would fall through their net. I'm not comparing myself to those remarkable men. But as someone whose work gets cited by academics in a range of disciplines and is, I hope, beginning to make some impression in the public sphere, I'm disappointed to be excluded from consideration.

This isn't just about me, though - there's a whole network of people I'm aware of in the UK and beyond who are doing substantial new thinking from outside of academia - often in close and constructive dialogue with those operating from inside university departments. The way Radio 3 and the AHRC are approaching this project is going to miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of our generation - many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.

I've written to Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, telling him this and inviting him to redress the balance. To help him, I'd like you to nominate your own choice of "new public thinkers" from outside of the university walls."

It's a compelling argument, and one which I wholeheartedly support. I have nothing against the academic world, having worked with many academics over the years including on Social by Social, but ever since my School of Everything days I have been convinced of the importance of breaking learning out of institutions and embedding it into society, and of the huge intellectual value created outside the academic world. And as one commenter pointed out, it seems odd that Radio 3's criteria would actually exclude Antonio Gramsci, inventor of the term "public intellectual".

Dougald has very flatteringly nominated me as one of his choices, prompting a flurry of blogging and tweeting from me as I try to live up to the moniker! So now here are my three initial nominations, although I'm sure I'll think of more later. Interestingly, they're all people who do things rather than write or talk about them, which perhaps reflects my growing belief that ideas are worth far more if they've been tried out in practice. So here goes...

  1. Dougald himself - obviously I should return the favour, but over many years of collaborating with Dougald he's been consistently years ahead of public discourse, introducing me to Ivan Illich when we were dreaming up School of Everything, writing about economic collapse long before the mainstream had the courage to do so, and creating new models for living and working which I believe will help shape the future of society for years to come.
  2. Charles Armstrong - an entrepreneur by profession, Charles brings his understanding of ethnography and technology together to create new tools and infrastructure to help us live better, and has som incredibly smart ideas about networks, crowdfunding and the future of business and society. I'm nominating him particularly for his work on emergent democracy and the brilliant One Click Orgs which is introducing democratic structures into the corporate world.
  3. Tessy Britton - another long-term collaborator of mine, I could nominate Tessy for the work she has done on learning and personal development which has shaped our work together on Mindapples. However, I'm particularly nominating her for her incredible work on Social Spaces, including the wonderful book Hand Made, and her bold action-research project of the Travelling Pantry, touring the country to test her ideas out in practice. Many PhDs have been awarded for far less.

So, who are your nominations? Please name your choices on your own blogs or webspaces, link back to Dougald's post, and invite your friends to do the same. Let's see what interesting people emerge...

5 #bigsociety questions

Interesting news this month that Steve Moore has taken over as Director of the Big Society Network, and that the Network is poised "to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit." Having worked a little with the Network already on their NESTA-funded Your Local Budget platform, I think it's time I posted a few of my thoughts and questions about the Big Society project. Like many others in the social innovation world, I've been tentatively exploring what the "Big Society" actually means and whether I want to be part of it. I think I have a general understanding of what the Big Society is (unlike most of my friends, who have never heard of it at all!), that it is about clearing the way and providing support for individuals and communities to solve their own problems, rather than waiting for the government to save us. Part of this I assume is about removing the regulation and bureaucracy that gets in the way of citizen action and involvement, and part of it is about creating the conditions for individuals and community groups to contribute more to the running and improvement of the society we live in.

This is all good stuff, and certainly my conversations with the individuals involved has confirmed my general sense that there is good work being done here by good people. However, I still have a few significant questions about how it will work in practice, and these are questions to which I need to know the answers before I would be happy to say the Big Society will be a good thing for this country. By posting them I do not intend criticism (and I'll also post some positive Big Society ideas shortly), but to trigger a debate and get some answers, so that we can all be clearer about what we are supporting here. So here goes...

  1. Does anyone ever get paid? If good work is now to be done on a voluntary basis, then what is the future for those of us who currently earn money improving society? I believe that if we can make improving society something that financially sustains and rewards those who do it, we will get a lot more good done. For many years now, I have been proud to be part of the social enterprise movement, working to create new ways to use business principles and revenue generation to achieve greater social impact. Yet now almost every week I seem to be approached by another public sector organisation asking me to give my time for free to help them transform their business, because "it's a good thing to do". So is money now only to be used to reward people who are not delivering social benefit? Must we all become lawyers and bankers to fund our expensive habit of improving the world? Or should we look instead, as Windsor and Maidenhead have proposed, to alternative currencies to support ourselves? And do we really know what the socio-economic impact of all this will be, particularly on the voluntary sector and the social enterpreneurs that the Big Society claims to support?
  2. Who's in charge? One of my consistent surprises about this Government is the top-down nature of many of their announcements, which seem to be the continuation of New Labour's behaviour change programmes rather than the traditional free-market Conservative approach I was expecting. If the Big Society is to flourish, it cannot be led by the Government, or the credit claimed by the politicians. The role of the State should be to support the activities of communities and create the conditions for the activities they want to encourage, and make things easier - through funding, infrastructure, resources, support. Yet it often feels as though by launching this initiative (and particularly in a time of radical cuts) the Government is calling on citizens to work for the State, to help out with public sector projects, deliver public services. So do we, the Big Society, work for the Government to help them achieve their aims, or will public servants become what their name suggests, and support us to do what we think needs doing? And if it's the latter, how do we decide what the State should support?
  3. Who is accountable? Schools, hospitals, policing and the like are the responsibility of the state: we pay our taxes on the expectation that critical services will be provided to all of us on a fair, equitable and democratically-accountable basis, presumably because we grasp that the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us is important for our own health, wealth and happiness. Ensuring greater involvement from service users and community groups in public services is fantastic, but it takes time and money to get right, and proper democratic accountability to ensure vulnerable people remain protected. Volunteers also have their own agendas and problems to worry about, particularly in a recession, and the Government still remains ultimately accountable if things go wrong, so are they just creating more problems for themselves later by not taking responsibility now?
  4. Who pays for volunteer management? Volunteer management is a complicated task and requires a considerable amount of work to get it right: not voluntary work, but full-time work by reliable staff who aren't making their money elsewhere - and this work must be paid for. My experience of running voluntary projects (and I've run a large one, unpaid, for two years now, in Mindapples) is that getting people to volunteer is the easy bit, especially in the internet age; the hard part is finding time to tell them what to do and make their efforts join up properly. I don't need more volunteers, I need money to pay for staff to organise them and scale up our efforts. The Big Society Bank is excellent, but the sums being proposed are tiny compared to previous state funding for the voluntary sector, so what is the plan for sustaining and strengthening our existing voluntary infrastructure in a time of social change and fiscal constraints? Unless we have a plan for how this is going to be paid for, I will be relying on the only people who have any spare cash (or Nectar points) these days: wealthy philanthropists and large corporations. And that isn't the Big Society, that's Victorian England.
  5. What happened to democracy? The Big Society aims to "take power away from politicians and give it to people". But the State is us. The public sector exists to represent the views of the whole population, serve the interests of the many whilst protecting the interests of the few, and answer to the people for its actions. How have we become so alienated from our State institutions that private, independent organisations seem now to offer more possibilities for putting 'the People' in charge? Democracy and equanimity are difficult and expensive to achieve, and by cutting away these layers we may achieve greater efficiency, but do we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased social injustice, and subservience to the needs of the wealthy and the confident? There are tools for ensuring this of course, democratic organisational structures and community governance models, but when I hear talk of creating "the U.K’s biggest mutual: to which all citizens will be able to belong", it feels like we are trying to rebuild the State in parallel, not because it will be any better, but because we have lost faith in the current system. And replacing it... well, that sounds very expensive indeed.

I believe in the aspirations of the Big Society. I believe that the people of the UK are the state, and the Government serves us and should help us achieve our goals. I believe people are basically good and can be trusted, and that current public service culture disempowers vulnerable people and makes it hard for individuals to contribute to their own lives and communities. I believe that passionate individuals and grassroots organisations outside the Government should step in to solve problems which cannot be tackled by top-down authoritarian solutions, such as community and social care, public health promotion, invigorating communities, guiding the cultural and social development of our children, monitoring the activities and efficacy of the state infrastructures. However, I do not think that this work should be free, nor that paid civil servants can hand over their jobs to volunteers and remain in their lofty positions. And I continue to believe that the running of our state infrastructure is ultimately the job of a democratically-elected body of paid agents acting in the service of the people.

These are just my current questions: I have heard many others, and doubtless others will emerge as we go. The message for some time has been that we are in charge and we must find the answers to these questions. As Steve says, "it is a work in progress". However, if the Prime Minister and other prominent figures are prepared to say the Big Society is a "Good Thing" for Britain, I'm presuming they must have thought these issues through first? If the leaders know the answers, please let them share them with us - after all, they're part of this Big Society thing too. If they don't, then I would question why they are telling us how great this will be when so much remains uncertain. Either way, I believe these questions need to be answered, and that means we need to get on with it together.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit.

Hand Made Communities

I settled down this morning to have a proper read-through of my friend Tessy Britton's new book, Hand Made, and feel inspired to write a post about it. In fact, two posts - you can see my thoughts on it from an individual and health perspective over here. Inspired is the perfect word for this book actually: a collection of hand-picked stories from all manner of collaborative and creative projects the world over, which collectively represent an "emergent new community culture". From more familiar examples like The Big Lunch, to lesser-known gems like Maurice Small's Community Gardens project, and one of my favourite projects ever, Jerry Stein's Learning Dreams (disclosure: Mindapples is also included), Tessy has unearthed an amazing set of stories of creative, positive projects that are bringing people together and building connection and community in startlingly effective new ways.

Seen collectively, the projects tell a story of a new model for community-development - or perhaps an old one that we have somehow forgotten. They are all positive, constructive and creative, based on people designing and building the world they want to live in, and finding others to join them in this work. They route around existing systems and do it themselves, using the assets they find in their communities to build and strengthen their communities. And most importantly, they all start from individuals taking immediate action to shape the world around them and change things for the better. Hand Made is a book that reminds us we have far more control than we think over the world around us, and shows us that the best way to engage people is to help them do what they want, and build what they need.

Everyone seems to be talking about "community" at the moment, particularly in the context of the "big society" - and there is much that can be learnt by policy-makers from this humble little book. If the Government is serious about supporting and nurturing community development, it needs to build an infrastructure and a supporting culture for the kind of creative, inspired people - what David Barrie calls the 'militant optimists' - that are featured in Hand Made. We need to build a cultural and economic context in which human-centred, positive, creative projects like these can thrive and grow, without telling people what to do or what they need. This will take a serious reinvention of the culture and mechanics of government. As Tessy observes in her introduction, "our existing systems can supress creativity and [attract] individuals with management mindsets rather than including essential creative or community-building ones". Someone told me recently that the policy world doesn't understand humanity, it only understands statistics, and community-building is human work. It's easy to forget that when you spend all your time looking at the big picture.

I've been reading Visa founder Dee Hock's extraordinary autobiography One From Many, about which more in future posts. His definition of community particularly appealed to me: "the essence of community, its very heart and soul, is the nonmonetary exchange of value. The things we do and the things we share because we care for others, and for the good of place." Community is relentlessly, unapologetically voluntary. It does not correspond to the tools of the state, the mechanics of the economy or the mindset of management. In Dee's words: "It arises from deep, intuitive understanding that self-interest is inseparably connected to community interest; that individual good is inseparable from the good of the whole". You can't build this common interest - this "community" - through top-down commands and centralised management: all you can do is create the conditions for growth and support what people want to do.

This isn't the harsh world of the open market though. This is not a free-for-all in which the state rolls back and a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom: this is about creating a nurturing, managed space in which the projects and people who are enriching our lives and strengthening our communities are supported and cared for. Community development of the type described in Hand Made does not take place in the wild, competitive scramble of the jungle; but nor can it be found in the safe, highly-regulated, controlled worlds of the zoo or the factory. Instead, it is found in the garden, the managed space where the conditions for growth are carefully maintained, but growth itself is not controlled. When building digital communities, or developing Mindapples, I have developed a habit of saying to myself: you can't make flowers grow faster by shouting at them. Gardening is not an industrial process: it is far more powerful than that, and much, much messier.

If this Government is serious about stepping back and allowing communties to take more control of their destinies, first it must accept that its role is to support people without commanding them, and protect them without controlling them. Its role is, in short, to serve - and let us lead.

Local by Social published

I'm pleased to announce that Local by Social, my new policy pamphlet about government and social media, was published today by the Improvement and Development Agency and NESTA. Social media is changing the world in which we work, socialise and govern. From Twitter to eBay, Facebook to YouTube, new tools are emerging every year that place the connecting power of the internet in the hands of every one of us.

In this context, the expectations on councils to engage, work openly, be accountable and move more quickly on issues are growing. Meanwhile, councils are facing the biggest cuts in spending in the post-war period and are being asked to do more with less just as demands from local people are rising. Higher expectations combined with drastically fewer resources make the imperative to innovate critical. A new set of tools is needed to meet this challenge.

The pamphlet outlines how local authorities can use social media to achieve more for less. It also highlights the risk to councils if they ignore the technological advances of social media and the people using them, and the importance of government working sensitively with the community groups and social enterprises who are developing great new projects in this space, which is rather timely given the current MyPolice saga. It's designed to be read alongside our 2009 book Social by Social which can also be downloaded from the Social by Social website.

You can download the pamphlet from IDeA's site now, and also discuss the content on the Social by Social network too. There are some more links and examples on the IDeA website too, and printed copies will be available from NESTA and IDeA shortly.

Real world marketing

I'm at b.tween in Liverpool today speaking on a panel with Adam Gee at Channel 4, Andy Bell from Landshare and Lucy Willis from Battlefront. We've been talking about using online and broadcast media to create action in the real world, in relation to School of Everything and other "social by social" projects. My main point was about the intersection of social tools and media content. Battlefront helps young people campaign and then tells their stories on TV and online, and so creates action in the world. Meanwhile, School of Everything is creating action by building tools to enable and inspire people to teach and learn from each other: the existence of the tool is the trigger for creating the stories. Landshare is the model I can see emerging between the two: an integrated commission of TV content and social platform, with TV content to inspire people to grow things on spare land, and a social tool to help them find and use land near them. In other words, the TV content is creating a culture in which the tool will thrive, and providing marketing for the site.

Web 2.0 can also feed back into traditional media by creating and locating stories for cultural programming. Whatever the model of commissioning, if you are fortunate enough to be creating real activity in the world, you can use that activity to create a feedback loop which rallies more and more people to your movement. Here's how it can work:

  1. Create a tool which helps people do something in the world - share land, teach each other, campaign for change, or whatever. Write the stories you want your tool to create, and build it so it supports those things to happen, smoothly and simply.
  2. Collect stories of the activity that results by engaging with your community, and share these stories back with the community through newsletters, blogs, Twitter etc. - and also with the public through any media channels available. Tell these stories in a way which makes audiences feel they could do it too.
  3. Give users a way to share and promote their activities too, to amplify the effect of the activity and let your users help you market the tool. Help the people who have figured out how to do it share that with their peers.
  4. The stories and media activity then become valuable resources in recruiting more users to the platform, which creates more activity to use in promoting the movement, and so on. By creating activity in the world, you create news; and by telling the stories through the media, you create a culture in which that activity is commonplace.

That's what we've been doing at School of Everything: we talk to our users (or rather Claire does), find out what they're up to, and tell those stories to encourage more people to join in. The media, social or otherwise, helps us turn the isolated interactions into a social movement.

As for media commissioning, I think there's a rich seam here for media companies to invest in start-ups, and also in media content to tell the stories they support. The question of legacy is problematic - Landshare and Battlefront are commissions that need to generate stories, so what happens to their community when they have to stop "broadcasting"? So I think you also need a business model to sustain the existence of the web platform (School of Everything relies on real-world transactions for its business model), and finance it as an autonomous start-up that isn't dependent on the continuation of the commission. We need more integrated partnerships between broadcasters and start-ups. And with the mutual benefit a well-designed broadcast and social campaign can bring, a TV-financed web start-up with broadcast tie-ins looks like an increasingly smart business proposition.

So all we need then is to come up with ideas for really compelling things we want to happen in the real world, that are interesting enough to make good way to learn how to buy twitter followers. Anyone?

Why I'm standing for the RSA Fellowship Council

The RSA is an Enlightenment institution, but progressing the Enlightenment today does not mean perpetuating the beliefs of the past. A modern enlightened approach requires a richer understanding of the human mind and an appreciation of the new values of our digitally-enabled age: an enthusiasm for collective action, a more participatory view of membership and a fundamental belief that people are inherently good and should be trusted. The RSA has worked hard to embrace these values through the RSA Networks project, on which I was a consultant and volunteer. However the level of culture shift is great and the support of an engaged fellowship is essential. In standing for Council I intend to represent the energies of a young, digitally-savvy, ethically aware generation that is already reshaping the world in its own image.

I bring to this all my experience as a reformer and innovator in education, democracy and mental health. I am Founder of the Mindapples '5-a-day for your mind' campaign, recently featured in the RSA Journal, and a Co-founder and Company Director of the innovative education start-up School of Everything, which won both a New Statesman Award and a Prime Minister's Catalyst Award in 2008.

I am also co-author of a forthcoming NESTA handbook on the use of social technology for social impact, a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a long-standing volunteer at Social Innovation Camp and a pioneer of new models of social enterprise, digital campaigning and democratic participation.

All my voluntary and commercial activities are directed towards building a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world. I challenge old structures and assumptions, not through opposition but by building more compelling alternatives. I hope that with my support the RSA can lead the charge and help us build the society we all want to live in.

I hope you will endorse my candidacy, or disagree with my ideas, by leaving me a comment below. If you're an RSA Fellow, I hope I can also count on your vote next month. (I've always wanted to say that.)

Webby, Steady, Go!

School of Everything has been selected as an Official Honoree for the Education category in The 13th Annual Webby Awards. Yay! This is what they say: "The Official Honoree distinction is awarded to the top 15% of all work entered that exhibits remarkable achievement. With nearly 10,000 entries received from all 50 states and over 60 countries, this is an outstanding accomplishment."

So well done to our hard-working team and thanks to the Webbys for giving us a well-timed boost of publicity following the launch of our new payment system last week. We'll put the award in our growing trophy cabinet alongside the New Statesman New Media Award and the Catalyst Award we won last year. Onwards and upwards!

Behavioural publishing

Mindapples is coming along nicely (hence my silence here - sorry, too many blogs...), and whilst explaining the project to people I keep finding myself pushing the concept of 'behavioural publishing'. So I thought I'd better think out loud and try to explain what I mean. Mindapples asks a question that people want to know the answer to, and gives them a platform to share their answers in public. The idea is to encourage everyone to take more care of their minds, simply by publishing what people are already doing. The site doesn't help you 'do' anything in a practical sense. All it does (or at least will do once we've built a better website) is publish the behaviours that we want to see more of. And I think that, simply by publishing these behaviours, we can create more of them.

As well as helping us practically to perform tasks, the web can also give us the inspiration to do things that we didn't previously feel were possible. For example, School of Everything provides a set of tools to help people organise their learning and find new students near them. But as my friend Stowe says, "the presence of the tool implies a permission to behave in a certain way." By building a website that helps everyone become a teacher, we want to show everyone that they have something to teach. Or to use another example, Flickr doesn't help you take photos, but by publishing the photos of millions of photographers it gives us all permission to be a photographer too.

So if there is a behaviour you want to encourage - be that social care, photography, knitting or democracy - rather than leaping straight into building complex tools to help people do it, why not find where it's happening already and share it with the world? If you can rally the people together who want it to happen and tell their stories, maybe they'll build the tools for you.