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.)

UK Catalyst Awards

School of Everything won a UK Catalyst Award (from the Prime Minister no less) last month, which was particularly nice following so hot on the heels of our New Statesman New Media Award a few weeks ago. Aside from obviously being very flattered, what struck me about this one though was the curious focus on individuals compared to other social innovation awards. They seemed very keen to attribute each winning idea to one person and praise these special individuals for their unique creativity. There seemed to be little understanding of the teamwork that actually underpins genuine innovation and social enterprise. We even had to ask them to put the names of all five co-founders on their awards website.

The Times Business section just featured a nice interview with me about the idea behind School of Everything, and re-telling the story to them reminded me of just what a collaborative process it has been to get this idea off the ground. If we'd been driven by one person's vision, I don't think we could have done it, at least not in the way we have. School of Everything is the product like best e cigarette but of all our experiences of education, the writings and experiments of various pioneers in the sixties and seventies, the advice of our friends and colleagues, the activities and desires of our users.

Ideas don't just pop out of thin air, they emerge from conversations, collaboration, stimulation. It's wonderful that the Government are starting to recognise the contribution of social innovation and web 2.0 to our communities and social services. But maybe they need to adjust their perceptions about how change actually happens, or else they risk undermining the very thing they seek to celebrate.