RSA crowdfunding: not your traditional report card

April 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Enjoy this infographic about our crowdfunding support. Needless to say, I picked up the free infographics software from, you guessed it, a crowdfunding campaign. Three other things to explore:

  • find out more and apply for support for your venture. Our next deadline is this Sunday
  • browse or add to this list of social innovations that have crowdfunded (the 17 RSA Fellows and another 40 inspiring projects)
  • help with our evaluation of the programme by adding a comment below and I’ll send you a 15-page review we will be preparing in late-May.

2014 04 23 infographic

The Big Idea: a directory for media companies to access more diverse voices

April 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The Big Idea: a directory, advice and contacts for writers of colour to help media companies access voices that better reflect our diverse society.

“But everybody on TV is white and all the nice people are blonde.” This is the title of an article I published on last year. It is also a quote from the 5-year-old niece of Hana Riaz who wrote the article. In those 10 words is the reason I set up the publishing platform and diversity in media advocacy group. Alternatively Whoopi Goldberg has said “Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” And this is why representation matters. Hopes and dreams and the resulting opportunities in life start when young. If black and minority ethnic (BAME) children only see themselves on screen mired in stereotypes and hear themselves and the adults around them talked about in pejoratives on the radio, the windows of opportunities we create for ourselves, narrow.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I founded Media Diversified in July 2013 after reading The Evening Standard of Whiteness, in the Voice newspaper. The author Rodney Sealy, had counted the photos of BAME people in one edition of the London paper. The results were not alarming. Only four pictures, two of them of U.S music stars were of non-white people, this in a city where 40% of people are ethnic minorities. Rodney is a teacher and in one of his classes a student had said to him Why are we “Sir, if all the images of black males shown to me are negative, therefore my perceptions of black males are negative, how am I supposed to succeed?”

Media Diversified crowdfunding campaignOur aims at Media Diversified is to help writers and journalists of colour be published in national newspapers, magazines and get their voices heard in the broadcast media. We do this by giving them advice, contacts and promoting their work online. The network as well as providing a resource for the media has also provided a much-needed lifeline and vibrant forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences. It’s a mothership of affirmation and nurturing for writers, building resilience for the future and supporting people to take risks in tackling controversial topics and subjects that others aren’t. By including a great diversity of writers, Media Diversified applies the brakes to banal racism in the media that includes crude stereotypes. It also articulates how racism works in so many areas of life be it from colourism to the fashion industry. The worst of this can be seen in the moral panics but more positively/subversively what if having more writers of colour in the media undermines racism?

In order to address and to reverse decades of under-representation of ethnic minority voices in the media. The team at Media Diversified is running a crowdfunding campaign which you can find on the RSA’s crowdfunding area to build a custom interactive directory of writers and experts available for media outlets such as the BBC and ITV to subscribe to in order to commission guests for TV and radio shows or to write articles. This is a tangible resource that could lead to real change and we’ll be meeting with media outlets to promote its benefits. By working towards greater representation, promoting change (by encouraging newspapers and broadcasters to sign up to an online directory) and providing a creative and supportive publishing platform for writers of colour, we are meeting policy and social needs for greater equality.

“game-changer for online, print and broadcasting” World Association of Newspapers – Editors Forum

We are coming towards the end of the campaign having just reached our goal, which we hope to surpass in order to also provide a series of workshops for ethnic minority writers in London. These will aim to develop skills in publishing, journalism, and professional networking, as well as building much needed confidence to help our writers pursue their future careers. We hope to expand the workshops across the country.

How you can help
What we need now is for you to get involved in our project. According to the National Union of Journalists in a report in 2012 94% of journalists are white. However 1 in 6 of the population is not. With just a few resources we can make inroads in this troubling lack of diversity in the UK’s media and try for real change. You can show your support for our goals by sharing our kickstarter campaign with friends, family and your colleagues. You can get yourself posters, books or workshop tickets by getting a reward. Or you can get your media company access to the directory. Or get in touch (see below) if you are interested in working with us to deliver a workshop where you live along the lines of the above.

Thank you!
Samantha Asumadu FRSA

Email Media Diversified
Tweet about @writersofcolour
Find Media Diversified on the RSA crowdfunding area
Read a blog by RSA staff member Maya Goodfellow on how Media Diversified is helping the ‘power to create’, namely to give everyone the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture through grants, expertise and crowdfunding visit our Catalyst webpage

Speed Dating with the Circular Economy

April 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Setting: in a little known boutique hidden inside Café de Paris in Piccadilly Circus, singles shuffle furtively as they prop up the bar. Long since unleashed from ideological matrimony, but increasingly weary of social media and existentially adrift, they have come for a subterranean adventure, hoping to meet ideas they can truly believe in, seeking friendship, and perhaps something more.

These ideas, in turn, are out on the prowl, miraculously assuming human form for the duration of the evening; they are secretly hoping they will be understood and accepted for ‘who they really are’, though none of them are quite sure what that means. 

(Image via

The format of all such evenings is a series of eight minute table conversations, where people and ideas meet, check each other out, before deciding if they want to take things to the next level.

On this particular evening, the theme is ‘economies looking for love’ and after a series of exciting but ultimately unsatisfactory encounters, your protagonist finds himself sitting across from ‘the circular economy’, beautifully clad in tastefully sparkly upcycled materials from all over the world, but with intelligent eyes and a serious expression.

J: Hi, how’s it going?

C: Good. But I’m a bit tired of this dating lark.

J: I know how you feel. I’ve just endured the new economy(a bit vague), the post-growth economy (a bit dreamy), the steady state economy(a bit stuck in her ways), the digital economy(a bit into itself), the green growth economy(bit of a split personality) and worst of all, the business-as-usual economy; he was clearly falling apart, and seemed particularly deluded, so I’m glad to finally meet you.

C: Gosh, well it sounds like you might be asking too much, and to be frank, after all those brief encounters I’m beginning to wonder if I know what it means to be a circular economy. I think of myself as a complex socio-technical-ecological-economic construction with many layers and dimensions, but all the others wanted to talk about were my curves – it’s like they couldn’t see past my circumference.

J: Well I’m not like that all. I’ve heard you have some impressive friends in business and government – my own Scottish Government no less, and Unilever, who seem serious about looking after the planet, so I’ve always assumed you were worth getting to know better. In fact, I have some Designer colleagues where I work who have built a major project called ‘The Great Recovery’ partly inspired by you.

It’s a bit forward of me, I know, but can I put my cards on the table? I’m hoping you might even be the one.

C: (looks slightly embarassed, and more than a little uncomfortable, but not altogether terrified.)

J: I’ve heard, I mean… is it true that you somehow manage, miraculously, to excite leaders of the business community like McKinsey with the prospect of indefinite economic growth, while eliminating the very idea of waste, accelerating the transition to renewable energy, making better use of local resources and optimising well being throughout the world?

C: (Sips Lychee Martini) Well I wouldn’t quite put it like that. There is only so much you can ask from an economic model, but it’s true that some prominent people do speak of me as if I can save the world.

J: And can you?

C: Well I hope I can at least make it last a bit longer. If we had time I would show you a video that gives a good version of my story, but for now…(dips into designer bag, branded ‘refabricate!’ to search for something; fumbles through impressively old phone and keys made from disused pans, while continuing…).

It’s definitely true that we can’t go on like the business-as-usual ‘linear’ economy you just met. He (and I’m pretty sure it’s a he…) is notorious for myopia, extracting finite resources from the earth as if that natural resource will always be there, turning them into stuff people don’t particularly need without pricing the materials or the energy used to make them properly, and then chucking them away as if there was such a thing as ‘away’, and without capturing the full economic value of the materials.

J: (Makes pensive eye contact, struck by the passion and conviction).

C: (Pulls out two A3 sheets with diagram). In case you want to see what I’m all about, this is my birth chart according to my adoptive parents, The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, We start from the need for me, with an image of where we are without me in the picture:


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

You see, our linear economy is basically ‘take-make-dispose’ unguided by any notion of purpose beyond a limited conception of economic ‘growth’, and makes economic decisions only really based on things that already have explicit market value, while carelessly if not criminally wasting resources people can use and make good lives and livings from.

It’s not just that we waste a huge amount of social, cultural, ecological and economic value in the process, but people are becoming estranged from the physical worlds around them and being subtly deskilled as a result. It’s not just that we are running out of stuff, it’s that we are increasingly alienated from it. And we don’t adequately distinguish between technical inputs and biological inputs which means that…

J: Hang on, that’s already a lot. It’s been a long night, but with my philosophical hat on it sounds like implicit in your critique of the current model is a deep rethinking of the idea of ‘value’ as something inherent in resources and materials, rather than merely revealed through current market price. Your very existence challenges our current conception of what an economy is, and overturns some of the ‘laws’ (does pretentious quote mark gesture and immediately regrets it) of economics in the process?

C: (Blushes) Well I had never really thought of myself as that radical, but yes, I suppose it’s true that’s I’m not like all the other economies you met tonight…(shows second image) Not least because unlike most of them I am not really that into ‘buying and selling’ – implicit in the current view is that things have single use and composite value rather than value that is manifest in multiple parts and multiple uses in multiple cycles; my economy features a lot more tearing down, upcycling, remanufacturing, and leasing.

Y’know (sighs) I would be a much saner and more efficient economy than the others, but maybe the world is not ready for me.


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

J: (looks at clock) I have so many questions, but we’re running out of time. Part of me thinks you are the real thing- an idea I can truly commit to, but I’ve been hurt before. I can’t figure out whether you are still changing all the time, or if we could be settled and stable together…

C: Well…

J: And although the post-growth and steady state economies had their faults, I knew exactly where I was with them. They were much clearer about their ultimate ends (wellbeing, flourishing) while you seem to be mostly about means.

For instance they had their theory of absolute decoupling (less ecological impact for economic output over the global economy) sorted out and I believed them when they said their core aim was human wellbeing within planetary limits. You are really engaging, but I wonder if you have reconciled yourself to merely relative decoupling (less ecological impact per unit economic output, but more ecological impact when growth & population is factored in) and I can’t figure out whose side you are ultimately on.

(looks at the clock, then straight in her eye) Is your heart with bottom-line realism, fashioning a circular economy to serve the interests of capital and big corporate power in a world of dwindling resources? Or are you really transformative – a model of economic value that is grounded in human values that are deeper and more meaningful than profit?

C: I’m a circle, Jonathan, you should know I don’t take sides. And whoever gave away all their secrets at a speed dating event?

J: Can I see you again?

C: (Thinks, then smiles, and hands over circular business card from double-recycled material). Sure.

The evidence proves self-employment is great. Celebrate it!

April 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent, Enterprise 

Last week the TUC published research which they said showed that “while some choose to be self-employed, many people are forced into it because there is no alternative work”. In fact, that “some” who choose to be self-employed turned out to be no less than 72% of all self-employed people when the Resolution Foundation released the findings of their survey a couple of days later. This accords very closely with the RSA’s own survey (full results to be published soon) which found that 76% of people in self-employment or running their own micro-business were happy with their work situation.

That, of course, still means that around one quarter of self-employed people are either in that position because they cannot find a directly employed job or because unscrupulous employers may have forced them into that position to avoid tax or employment rights. We can expect many of those in the former position to find a better work situation as the economy continues to recover while the latter must rightly be addressed by HMRC and other legal authorities. But the unions are making a mistake if they overlook the fact that the great majority of the growing ranks of the self-employed are happy in that position even if they don’t possess all the formal rights or better pay that comes with direct employment.

Some may argue that the two surveys could have missed out those on very low wages forced into self-employment who could be less likely to take part in a poll. Fair enough. So let’s take a look at the wider economic data.

If self-employment is largely the result of people not being able to find direct employment then it seems to me that you would expect to find higher levels of self-employment in the regions of the UK with the highest proportions of long-term unemployment. In fact, as the chart below shows, there is a general pattern revealing that self-employment is higher in those UK regions and nations that have lower long-term unemployment.

long term unemployment

Maybe it’s just that with more of the jobless going into self-employment, levels of long-term unemployment have fallen in various parts of the UK. The problem with this, however, is that the higher the level of self-employment, the healthier the region economically. The two charts below plot self-employment against output and against productivity. There is a pattern showing that both output and productivity tend to be higher in those areas with a higher self-employment rate.

GVA per head


In short, it seems unlikely that self-employment is primarily the result of desperation if it is more common in the best performing parts of the UK. This also adds further evidence to the point I made in my last post about higher levels of self-employment not necessarily being a sign of an under-performing economy.

So while acknowledging that there is a sizeable minority forced into the position, we should actually celebrate the rise of self-employment. It is a sign of a healthier economy and greater entrepreneurial spirit. It allows people to be more autonomous and turn their own ideas and vision for themselves and others into reality – something the RSA has always held dear and which we now call the ‘power to create‘. We know from our own research that it is this capacity to be self-determined and creative that the self-employed value enormously and which greatly outweighs the fact that they may earn less than they would in a directly employed position.

Rather than turn the rise of self-employment into a negative, I would suggest the union movement develops ways to enhance the earning power of this growing  portion of the workforce so they can enjoy their autonomous creativity and be well-rewarded simultaneously.


Follow me on Twitter here.

Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas.

But these ideas at the heart of Easter are for grown ups. They are deep, dark, and difficult, and they make most sense to those who have been round the block enough to deeply know pain and the recovery from pain, and recognise this recurring pattern in our lives and the lives of others. The meaning of the Christmas story is relatively straightforward by comparison, and an easier one for children to grasp. So a warning: if you are expecting sweetness and light manifest as chocolate eggs or bunny rabbits, look away now.

At first blush the story makes no sense. The ‘son of God’(who?) dies in excruciatingly sadistic and vinegary pain while nailed to a wooden cross by the terrestrial baddies du jour to ‘save us from our sins’ (how?) and this singularly important(why?) celestial person(what?) is entombed in a stone cave. Just then, when this apparently appalling thing that remains confounding on a number of levels has happened, he miraculously comes back to life, removes the stone that kept him entombed, and is back amongst us; his resurrection proof that he really is the son of God (yes, that again…) and that, therefore, somehow, all is well.

Like most of the people reading this post, I am culturally Christian. I’ve heard versions of this story hundreds of times before and have never really developed a position on whether it ‘actually happened’ or felt that I needed to. Some Christians might say that’s a cop out, because if it did happen, it was this particular historical event, and not ‘the enlightenment’ that was, as Professor Tom Wright puts it ‘The greatest turning point in history’.

For now though, to be consistent with most of our other work on spirituality, I’m going to try to ‘keep the tension’ (as chess players put it) on the fundamental but also fundamentally contested questions of literal, historical truth, and focus on core themes from the story that have broader human application:

Pain and suffering

Some misunderstand Buddhism as a religion that is ‘all about suffering’, which is not true, but some misunderstand Christianity as a religion that is all about being nice and good, and that’s not true either. The heart of the Christian story is overflowing with stark realism and is very dark indeed. It’s about a moment where people are bereft of hope.

Nietzsche one wrote: “There was only one Christian, and they killed him.” That’s another story, another argument, but it captures the darkness and bleakness of the moment Jesus is killed very well. This touchstone of light is not only effectively tortured and humiliated, but through his death it appears that all light and all hope is well and truly snuffed out.

Easter therefore says: a life fully lived will feature suffering, not just a little bit, and it won’t always make sense at the time. There will be moments where you feel utterly forsaken, and that is not imaginary. But it is not the whole story either.

Love and Justice Reconciled

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in God (or know what it means not to) you will know that the Christian conception of God is one who is both loving and just, and that’s not an easy trick for anybody (yes, even God) to pull off. The Easter story is arguably about the possibility of squaring this circle. God didn’t just allow the baddies to ‘get away with it’; he allowed it to happen because he saw further and deeper.


Some say the heart of the story is about our terrifying capacity to turn away from what we need to look at. We would rather crucify the truth than recognise it as the truth. Our work on ‘stealth denial’ on climate change was not inspired by Jesus(!) but it was an attempt to capture this sentiment – the truth is often deeply uncomfortable and we will go to great lengths to get away from it. If there was a way we could ‘kill’ climate change, rather than deal with it, we probably would.


Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ as an antonym for catastrophe, because he wanted to highlight the reality of those moments where all seems lost, but suddenly and miraculously, the ring of power finds its way into the fires of mount doom; the seemingly dead come back to life; the incurable cancer inexplicably disappears.


Easter is about holding on to the paradox that, as Mark Vernon put it to me: ”When all seems lost – really, truly, bleakly – all is found…”

Incarnation and Embodiement

The quietly brilliant Chris Oldfield put it to me that Easter, like Christmas, is a celebration of embodiment over elegant abstraction and virtual reality. It’s about “The scandal of Incarnation overcoming excarnation (as Charles Taylor might put it).” This point, has interesting resonances with Guy Claxton’s lecture at the RSA in our spirituality series. There is no spirituality, however you define it, without the body.


A curious detail of the story, again indicated by Chris, is that it is female disciples who are the witnesses to the empty tomb. The male disciples basically don’t believe them “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24). There is apparently a lot of Biblical scholarship on this issue, connecting the male response to this important but discomforting news to modern day unhelpful stereotypes about ‘hysterical women’.

The Self

You can see Easter as being about emptying yourself to be filled with something more than ego; to die to your false self to connect with your truer deeper self. For those who can’t follow the story back to Christian belief and practice, this idea alone is an important one. Psychologically and existentially, we often need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Second Chances

A relatively conventional but important interpretation, is that the Christian God is fundamentally about second chances. New life can come even to the completely lost or bereft, and sometimes more than once.

Taking a Stand

For all that I said about not debating the literal truth, it is worth ending with a powerful quote (HT Chris Oldfield) that says, actually, whether we are culturally or religiously Christian, we do need to decide what we feel about ‘the truth’ of the resurrection:

From Tom Wright on: ‘Grave matters’; why the resurrection is not a ‘take it or leave it thing’:

“Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

I’m not sure what I think about that, but I mean it when I say:

Happy Easter!



The acceptable face of creativity: how Media Diversified creatively challenges the “ubiquity of whiteness” in the media

April 15, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

A couple of months ago, I was watching music videos with friends when a band made up of Cambridge graduates came on the TV. As images of the musicians flashed in front of our eyes, someone made a “joke” about one of the non-white band members: ‘he can’t have gone to Cambridge, he’s black’. While it’s easy for some to dismiss this as a harmless aside, this one comment tells us a lot about British society. Even if a minority ethnic person succeeds at their creative endeavour (whether academic or musical), the focus is not on their talent, but the colour of their skin.

This is because we rarely see non-white people in stereotypically respectable creative jobs ( which are seen as different from the jobs of singers, performers or presenters in the ‘entertainment industry’). Take the creative terrain of journalism, a recent campaign Media Diversified has highlighted that the mainstream is dominated by white people: until Amol Rajan was appointed to head up the Independent last year, there had never been a non-white editor of a mainstream British newspaper and between 2009-2012 the number of minority ethnic people working in the media fell from 6.7% to 5.4%. Much in the same vein, even though there are many successful ethnic minority musicians in the entertainment industry, they are seen differently from their white counterparts. Britain’s Got Talent judge and black musician Alesha Dixon was told by a journalist that they wouldn’t ‘put a black person on the front cover because the magazine wouldn’t sell’. Ultimately, what all of this evidence shows is that there’s an acceptable face of mainstream, ‘respectable’ creativity. And this face is white.

Media Diversified

To address this kind of institutional racism, we, as a society, should take a lesson from the person who made the crude but unmistakably clear racist joke. We need to stop skirting around racism in the UK and start calling it what it is. Only then can we disrupt the status quo that privileges white people and their creative products above others. So I’ll begin: Britain is an institutionally racist society and society needs to find creative ways to do something about it.

Media Diversified is making a start. Launched by journalist, film-maker and RSA Fellow Samantha Asumadu, Media Diversified combats the lack of diversity in British media by showcasing the work of minority ethnic writers. In doing so, the campaign proves that the whiteness of British media is in no way due to a lack of talent in non-white communities but rather embedded racism in the media. What is particularly powerful about this campaign is that at the same time as highlighting unfair media representation, it provides a platform for minority ethnic people to speak for themselves, and not just on issues of race.

Yet the campaign which is crowdfunding via the RSA crowdfunding area still has a way to go to meet its target. You have to wonder why. My guess would be that when we talk about overcoming institutional racism, most people can’t agree on the most effective way to do so. Many still buy into the age-old, misinformed false dichotomy that pits ‘equality of opportunity’ against ‘equality of outcome’ and leaves us mired in abstract debate as opposed to taking effective and positive action, like Media Diversified hopes to do.

 there’s an acceptable face of mainstream, ‘respectable’ creativity. And this face is white.

The proponents of ‘opportunity’ over ‘outcome’ imply that if everyone was given an equal chance in life then people would succeed on hard work, talent and merit. The old chestnut of meritocracy appears again. Yet, the political terrain of 2014 proves beyond doubt why this approach fails to unpick the racism that’s embedded in British society. At the start of the year, it emerged  in a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report that austerity has a disproportionate effect on minority ethnic groups, the most disadvantaged of whom are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Even when minority ethnic people are from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, they fare worse than their white counterparts. So while the ‘equality of opportunity’ argument shouldn’t be dismissed (I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t look to create a fairer education system, for example) when it comes to race it fails to undo the systemic racism that circulates throughout our society.

Similarly, we won’t unpick racial discrimination by simply investing all of our hopes in the ‘equality of outcome’ idea. This line of argument suggests that if you promote minority ethnic people to positions of power, racism will slowly be eroded. I’m in no way suggesting that society shouldn’t look to promote the many qualified minority ethnic people within British institutions. Rather, the problem with relying solely on this American-style affirmative action is that although minority ethnic people may be in positions of power, they are still operating within a system that privileges the views of white people over all others. And there’s a risk they become the ‘token’ non-white person, expected to speak on behalf of all minority ethnic people.

So, instead of buying into the idea that either approach on its own will somewhat passively erase racial (and gendered) discrimination, we need to recognise the merits of both ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcome’ and invest time and energy into addressing racism in a multifaceted way.

To start with, race needs to be a mainstream issue (after all, four months since the DWP report showed minority ethnic people suffer disproportionately under the cuts, what is being said or done?). This must include deconstructing contemporary and historical fallacies about non-white people: they are more than capable of going to Cambridge or becoming journalists and editors at mainstream newspapers.

With this in mind, for those of you reading who want to help ameliorate institutional racism, I would urge you to support the creative solution Media Diversified offers to institutional racism in the media, by donating via the RSA crowdfunding area. This campaign directly challenges conventional myths that ethnic minority people aren’t as talented as their white counterparts and does so by allowing people of colour to speak for themselves. Only through innovative solutions such as this will we begin to move towards a world in which creativity is respected in more than one colour.

Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.


(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ’soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.


Busting some common myths about self-employment

April 13, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

I think I can speak for most of my colleagues when I say that the RSA is cautiously optimistic about the rise in self-employment across the UK.  However, we also realise there is a great deal of puff and hyperbole surrounding this phenomenon. I was reminded of this just a few weeks ago when Nectar Card published some North Korean-style survey results suggesting that over 80 per cent of young people want to work for themselves when they become older – a figure that is difficult to square with findings from more comprehensive surveys.

Yet just as the pro-small business camp engage in exaggeration and over-simplification, so too does the anti-small business brigade. Indeed, headlines such as “Young jobless fuel growth in UK start-ups” and “Self-employment hits 20-year high as people try to avoid unemployment” are indicative of how the debate about the causes of self-employment is often one-sided (and negative at that).

Here I highlight three myths in particular about the growth in self-employment that deserve closer scrutiny:

#1 – Most of the newly self-employed have been forced into it

One of the main drivers behind the surge in self-employment is thought to be a lack of jobs – or at least a lack of decent and worthwhile ones. The argument is simple: in the absence of conventional jobs people are forced to create their own in the form of a business. While there is certainly some truth in this, measurements of entrepreneurial motivations show that the number of people starting up reluctantly and out of no choice of their own continue to be in the minority.

The latest results from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, for instance, indicate that the level of ‘opportunity’ entrepreneurship – where people start up for positive reasons (e.g. to make the most of a good idea) is close to 5 times higher than levels of ‘necessity’ entrepreneurship – where people start up for negative reasons (e.g. because they had no other options for work). Importantly, both types of entrepreneurship grew during the economic downturn. What is more, our own RSA/Populus survey found that only 15 per cent of microbusiness owners said escaping unemployment was a key reason for starting up. A much more common answer was to have greater freedom or earn more money (click on the graph below to see a bigger version).

Personally, I also think there is something of a ‘trigger phenomenon’ going on here, whereby the recession is nudging people into starting the venture they had always been meaning to.

reasons for starting up

#2 – Most of the newly self-employed are odd jobbers

As well as examining the motivations of the newly self-employed, some have questioned whether the types of businesses they run are of a ‘serious’ nature. The suggestion is that a large number of the newly self-employed are odd-jobbers who are grabbing onto any and all kinds of work they can lay their hands on. Claims such as these are partly corroborated by the big rise in part-time self-employment, which accounts for half the overall increase in self-employment since the turn of the century.

Yet once again, this isn’t the full story. The government’s Labour Force Survey actually shows that the biggest increase in self-employment since 2008 has been in professional occupations – one of the highest skilled labour groups. And while the number of self-employed people in the other highly skilled groups has remained static or decreased marginally, so too have the number of typical employees in these groups. Moreover, if the growth in self-employment really was largely down to more odd jobbers, I would have expected the increase in the number of self-employed in ‘elementary’ occupations to be much larger than what we see in the graph below.

change in self-employment and employment by occupation

#3 – The growth in self-employment is a cyclical blip

The number of microbusinesses grew by over half a million since the Great Recession began, and the proportion of the workforce who are self-employed is at highest ever level. Myths 1 and 2 have led many to believe that these changes are likely to be short-lived, and that when the economy gets back on its feet things will return to normal. However, this ignores the fact that self-employment and the number of microbusinesses had been increasing at a steady rate long before the recession began (see the graph below).

The number of microbusinesses in the UK has grown by an average of 3 per cent a year since the start of this century. Indeed, they are now very much a ‘normal’ feature of our economic system. Studies also suggest that at an individual level, the likelihood of a business owner returning to a typical job is low. Our own Populus survey found that only 7 per cent  of microbusiness owners plan to close their business in the next 3-5 years and do something else.

Trends in different types of self-employment

The RSA and Etsy are exploring similar themes in a new project, The Power of Small. Click here to find out more.

International data shows there’s no need to panic about the rise in self-employment and micro-business

April 13, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent, Enterprise 

The rather marvellous Steven Toft (AKA Flipchart Rick) has been blogging a lot recently about self-employment. He’s not keen on it. Based on international data he argues that higher self-employment correlates to weaker economies.

The reason being that less successful economies can’t afford to employ and pay everyone properly so large numbers have to scratch out a living working for themselves. He also suggests that the causality runs the other way: smaller companies and self-employed people are not as productive as big companies because they do not have the same scale of resources to throw at innovation and efficiency.

For these reasons (and this is his main point) it is wrong to get enthusiastic about the rise in self-employment and small businesses we are experiencing in the UK. In fact, we should be concerned that it is a symptom of a weakening economy.

I’m certainly not a dab hand at tables like Steven but I had a go using the data for 2010/2011 he recently employed himself. Here I’ve plotted the percentage of self-employment in the labour market for every OECD country against their GDP per capita.

blog gdp

At first glance, this table seems to uphold Steven’s point. Countries with low self-employment rates have higher GDP per capita while those with high self-employment are in the growth doldrums. But look closer and there is more nuance.

There are actually three groups on the chart:

1. Over on the left are two very low self-employment and very high GDP per capita countries. The two countries are Norway and Luxembourg.

2. Then there is a large group that has self-employment ranging from 7% to 17% and with GDP per capita of between $30,000 and $50,000 but largely centred on the OECD average which is just shy of £40,000. Group 2 is almost entirely made up of Western and Northern European economies (plus the US, Japan and Australia).

3. Finally, there is a group of countries with GDP per capita of between $15,000 and $30,000 with a much wider range of self-employment rates stretching from 8% right up to 36%.Group 3 is mostly made up of the developing nations of Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Southern European nations.

What does this tell us?

Firstly, that group 1 are outliers. Neither Norway nor Luxembourg have conventional economies: the first is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports for its income and the second has a population the size of Manchester’s and is dominated by its banking sector. Neither of these can tell us much about the relationship between self-employment and economic health.

Secondly, that self-employment rates are closely correlated to economic development (a fact that has been widely documented in the past). As countries become more advanced economically, their self-employment rates tend to drop.

Thirdly, that the Mediterranean economies are in a bit of a mess. Self-employment levels may bear some relation to this but it is clearly far from the whole story. Go back a decade, for example, and Italy was actually out-performing the OECD average for GDP per capita even though its self-employment rate was higher.

Finally, and most importantly, when an economy reaches a certain level of maturity it can exhibit a wide range of self-employment rates of between roughly 7% and 17% and that this rate does not correlate in any obvious way to performance within the $30,000 to $50,000 band.

So, the fact that the UK’s self-employment rate has seen an increase in the last decade of just over 1% to reach 14% is not necessarily a cause for concern. Of course, it also suggests it is not necessarily a cause for great celebration either.

Obviously GDP per capita is only one measure so I’ll be blogging more on this theme over the next few days and weeks. I also think there are shifts occurring in the labour market and business population which should worry us but that will also have to wait until another post because I need a lie-down after doing that chart. I don’t know how Steven does it!


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The messy reality of project work: dispatches from an RSA Premium

April 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

This blog is way longer than most, but it’s a deliberate attempt at what Geertz called a “thick description” of what’s really happening on an RSA project.

One of the things we’ve been talking about internally is the need to share the close reality of our projects with people outside the RSA. By that I partly mean emerging findings and learnings, which these blogs regularly do. But also some of the context, and the backstage events that accompany them.  Some of the messiness, uncertainty, worries and failures, and the sheer dumb luck that typify real projects. When people come to formal project events the impression they’re given is always one of serene and inexorable progress towards a glorious conclusion. But life isn’t really like that when the projects we undertake are experimental, complex and unpredictable.

So I thought I would set the ball rolling with a “dispatch from the home front” about a project I’m working on.

For over a month now we have been running the first RSA “Premium” (an innovation challenge open to all) since 1850. The goal of the challenge, called Valuing Your Talent (VyT), is to increase the skills of the UK’s workforce, organisations’ performance, and societal value by helping employers get better at understanding and investing in their human capital. It’s based on an underlying conviction that employers and employees should better recognise their respective value, and have each others’ long-term interests at heart, as well as those  of wider society. Central to this is investment in each other’s learning and development, and the ability to tackle important problems.

That all sounds sensible and nice, but it’s a tough nut to crack. Usually when times are tight for businesses (at least in places like the UK and US) the first thing to go from any budget is money spent developing people. We and others want that to change, and VyT represents a partnership between CIPD, UKCES, Lancaster University, CIMA, CMI, RSA and a host of other prominent professional  organisations from a range of disciplines.

The RSA’s open innovation challenge is only part of the wider VyT programme. But I thought I’d share some ‘warts and all’ reflections on how the challenge is going and what we’re learning. As my colleague Conor said in his blog the other day, open innovation challenges like this are a great expression of our emerging (and historic) “Power to Create” RSA ethos. But to achieve anything meaningful they have to achieve a certain rare sort of chemistry which, we’re learning, is exciting when it happens, but hard to create.

Some context is helpful here. I’ll spare you all the details about the project as that’s available on the website. But what you need to know for the sake of this blog are three things:

1. Valuing talent has a short history of disappointment and scepticism

The discipline of human capital accounting, and the idea that organisations can put substance behind the rhetorical claim that “our people are our greatest assets” has been around for a while.  Long enough, in fact, to have suffered some notable setbacks and disappointments. This has aroused fatigue and suspicion among many people in the worlds of business, finance, HR and academia. But it is also sufficiently new that the tools and methods are relatively under-developed, under-researched and under-utilised. We were going to be entering the fray aware of all this, but unsure how another initiative would be received.

2. Experts often don’t work together, share innovation or speak the same language

Until now these expert communities have tended to operate in siloes, and have not developed a common way of describing, negotiating and acting on this issue. There are lots of cultural, structural and conceptual reasons for this, such as the ongoing tussle over whether human capital can (or should) ever be classed as an ‘asset’ on the balance sheet.  HR, Finance, Business leaders and academic researchers (let alone employees and the wider public) have not really worked together on trying to tackle this problem, or when they have, it’s ended disappointingly. Products, services and tools which help organisations value and develop skills have been developed on a closed, proprietary, profit-making basis, and academics not given access to valuable data for research purposes. And the ‘discourses’ (i.e. language, artefacts, habits and conventions) of HR, finance, management – while all sharing commonalities – have some important differences. In particular the discourse of finance seems far more powerful and dominant in organisations than that of ‘people’ and HR, which has hindered the development of an integrated understanding of how people are central to value creation, and how in turn, work organisations should be central to developing people.

3. Open innovation as a way to break through?

The RSA’s analysis was that an open innovation challenge or experiment could help to overcome these barriers to progress. We wanted to see whether people from different, but relevant disciplines could come together in a shared online space, with a common interest and stimulus (in the form of a VyT ‘framework’) to make progress under the banner of an inducement challenge. We hoped that a new ‘hybrid’ discourse would emerge, which truly reflected human value in our increasingly knowledge-driven economy.

So what have we found so far? For the sake of simplicity, it perhaps makes sense to separate the subject/content learning from the process learning, although in practice the two are interlinked.

A) Subject/content learning

In the first ‘Insight’ phase, which we recently completed, we were just interested in collecting insights into the problem itself. Why do organisations find it hard to know what their people really bring to the job? Is it a measurement problem, a cultural one, or something else?

Here are three of the emerging themes from the insights so far:

Getting beyond measurement

  • Many people highlight problems that occur when ‘metrics’ and measurement are pursued at the expense of actual insight, and when insight is not translated into meaningful behaviour
  • When it comes to metrics, some people wanted something that blends a wide range of organisational and individual “indicators”, and that could be aggregated into a sort of Index (perhaps akin to a human development index) which employees actively  use to understand and manage their own personal development, rather than purely for the benefit of organisational performance management
  • Some argued that many standard data collection methods (e.g. employee surveys) can be very blunt instruments, and may in fact be more trouble than they are worth. This is largely because they are a) not context-sensitive b) not dynamic c) are easily manipulated or corrupted and d) are too linear and do not embrace uncertainty
  • However new cloud-based software and social media technologies, and ways of capturing mass narratives and analysing them may provide the way forward
  • The increased pressure towards integrated reporting, the systemic risks that have been exposed by risky human behaviour (e.g. in the banking sector) and the upward pressure from a new generation of employees who want work to have more meaning and societal value are cited as enabling forces towards adopting more ‘mature’ forms of human resource management

The need for humanistic and developmental organisations

  • Values, culture, leadership, intrinsic human needs and motivation, social/organisational purpose and systems are some of the key lenses people used to look at this issue. They tried to shift the discourse away from a seemingly finance-dominated one that provides only a narrow account of talent, skill and human performance, to one that is holistic
  • There was criticism of conventional training and development as the way organisations invest in developing people. It should be more about coaching and on-the-job learning, with behavioural outcomes as the measures of success rather than the typical HR metrics of completed training hours and “happy sheets”
  • There was a consistent call for organisations to be consciously ‘developmental’ in their ethos and practical approach
  • Various requirements of a people-powered, actively developmental organisation are starting to emerge, but there are varied and competing accounts of what this looks like

The VyT framework divides opinion, but needs improvement as a stimulus

  • [The VyT framework is a graphic representation of how organisations can better understand and invest in their people's skills. It is a synthesis of academic research and practitioner application drawn from leading organisations by the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University]
  • For one or two it was good, if in need of refinement and clarification.  Others thought it adequate, but somewhat cumbersome and not sufficiently groundbreaking. Others still thought it unhelpful, confusing and hard to apply.
  • Some called for greater clarity about the assumptions and empirical data that underpins the Framework.

We are now in a “Reflection” stage, taking stock of the insights we’ve received and altering the next ‘Innovation’ phase of the challenge in light of them. The Project team is meeting next week but our emerging conclusion is that we need to a) change, redesign and clarify various aspects of the framework as an ‘open source’ product before b) throwing it out to organisations to test for themselves and identify bugs, fixes and improvements to the framework, as well as wider, unrelated innovations to achieve the overall goal. In that way we’ll identify what is already happening in lesser known organisations (particularly the SMEs who don’t have HR departments and sophisticated tools), capture their ‘theories in use’ and identify the barriers to greater adoption.

From a content perspective our partial success has been in stimulating some thoughtful, insightful and heartfelt contributions on the topic. But the failure has been in the lack of engagement with the framework as a stimulus, which we can partly attribute to its lack of accessibility. Our priority is therefore to improve it and get it back out there pronto…

B) Process learning.

What have we learnt so far about running an emergent prize challenge in (relatively) virgin and controversial territory? 

We wanted this challenge to go beyond many other competitions and challenges. We wanted it to be emergent, rather than rigid and inflexible, since we could not be certain of the best way forward when we first began, and wanted it to be a co-discovery process with those interested in the problem.  Thankfully that flexibility at the start has allowed us to change course for the reasons I’ll explain below.

Here are a couple of initial process learnings that are coming out

Achieving diverse participation is hard

Building expert community participation from scratch, among people from very different disciplines takes time. It also takes continual   awareness raising, active facilitation and responsiveness.

So far this has been more of a struggle than we anticipated. So far most of the contributors have been those from the world of Human Resources. We haven’t managed to bring in those from other key disciplines such as the accountancy profession whose voice matters enormously, business owners and managers (i.e. employers), and/or those from a design or creative background who could approach this problem fresh. It’s starting to cause us real concern, so we’ve investigated why.

In the case of accountancy, I hear from senior figures that it’s partly a cultural leap for them to engage in something like this, but partly a difference in motivation. They just don’t see the issue as much of a priority, compared to the HR folks. The same goes for the business owners and management in some cases, though others seem keen (but just too busy!). And for the creatives and designers, part of the problem is that the subject appears too technical and complex, when in fact it is far more open to creative interpretation (e.g. visualisation tools, apps, template designs, narratives) than they might think. We will be doing a big push over the coming fortnight to overcome this problem so please help us if you hail from the world of finance, management or design!

Community not competition

Early on in the insight-gathering phase, someone posted a comment that stuck with me. They said they very much welcomed the project but asked why it had to be run as a competition, albeit a rather friendly and collaborative one. This was the community telling us what it wanted to do.  And so, in light of this and other feedback, what we expected to be an inducement prize challenge at the start is likely to morph into more of an open source development community for human capital products, tools and services.

We had always hoped this would happen in the long term (honest!), with the challenge competition acting as merely the initial spur to create the community. But  it’s happening far sooner than we expected and I feel rather ambivalent about this. On the one hand I’m reluctant to let go of the original short term plan to run it as prize challenge, even though I hoped it would ultimately go in this direction. It feels like a loss, a deviation from the original idea of an RSA Premium, which we have just relaunched and a challenge to my ego, in terms of my ability to foresee how the project would unfold! But on the other I realise that it may better reflect the needs of the community, meaning we could achieve our longer term ambition more quickly.

What’s great is that all the other partners on this project knew and accepted from the start that it was a leap into the unknown, and we are able to make decisions together as new developments arise. Ultimately it’s about achieving the outcome we all want (more businesses investing in their people), not necessarily the immediate output we planned. The project team from all the organisations involved talk regularly to take the pulse of the initiative and the reaction outside, and we are able to agree things quickly and amicably.

The challenge therefore seems now to build   a healthy, self-sustaining community to make this happen, which is why it’s so crucial we address the issues with the framework and the lack of diversity in participation.

That’s the priority for the next two weeks. But who knows what it will be in a month…. Back to the trenches to find out.



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