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

April 20, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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.


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Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 2 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 · Leave a 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.



Updating Marxism Today’s List for ‘Creative Times’

April 10, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent 

In case you were too busy enjoying yourself in the late 1980s or weren’t actually born, Marxism Today was a magazine that argued socialism was dead and that the world was changing beyond all recognition because of the collapse of traditional class identities and the rise of individualism and the like. They called this new era New Times and claimed it had replaced the Modern Times that had existed for the most of the 20th Century.

Their views annoyed an enormous number of people, particularly on the left, but they turned out to be more right than wrong and ultimately exerted an influence on the big shifts in the Labour Party that happened in the 1990s.

Today, my esteemed colleague, Luke Robinson  (Head of Media here at the RSA), dug out a list that Marxism Today put together for their influential edition of 1988 comparing New Times with Modern Times.

I couldn’t resist adding our own list to theirs based on the RSA’s Power to Create approach which argues that we are entering a new period just as revolutionary as New Times based on mass creativity, new empowering technologies and a challenge to existing power structures.  A fair bit of what Marxism Today did was tongue in cheek (playful postmodernism, see) so I wouldn’t take this too seriously (and sorry it’s all a bit wobbly – WordPress hates lists it seems)

Modern Times                           New Times                                      Creative Times

Fordism                                      Post Fordism                                   Self-generated Value

Modern                                       Postmodern                                      Digimodern

Steinbeck                                   Pynchon                                            William Gibson

Le Corbusier                            Venturi                                                Zaha Hadid

Sartre                                         Foucault                                              Pikkety

Futurism                                    Nostalgia                                            Optimism

Marlon Brando                        William Hurt                                         Jesse Eisenberg

Production                               Consumption                                      Prosumption

Mass Market                             Market Segmentation                       Bespoke Markets

Ford                                            Toyota                                                 OSVehicle

Self-Control                              Remote Control                                Out of Control

Depth                                         Surface                                                Interaction

Belief                                         Credit                                                    Likes

Elvis                                          Michael Jackson                                 Lady Gaga

Interpretation                          Deconstruction                                    Creation

Butlins                                      Theme Parks                                        Makespaces

Relationships                         White Weddings                                  E-Harmony

The Beatles                              Bros                                                       The Vamps

Determinism                            The Arbitrary                                       The Mission

Maxwell House                        Acid House                                           The RSA House

Concrete                                    Holographic Glass                              Polylactic Acid

Liberalism                                 Libertarianism                                    Peer Progressivism

Mass Hysteria                           Fatal Attraction                                   Social Network

Raspberry Ripple                    Hedgehog Crisps                                 Granola

Lady Chatterley                        Blue Velvet                                             Fifty Shades of Grey

World Wars                                Terrorism                                              Cyber-war

Roosevelt                                   Reagan                                                   Birgitte Nyborg

In/Out Lists                                 New Times Guides                              Buzzfeed

Newspapers                              Colour Supplements                           Blogs

Z Cars                                          Miami Vice                                            The Wire

Conservatism                            Thatcherism                                         Red Tory

Dow Jones                                  Nikkei Index                                         AIM

Stalinism                                     Glasnost                                                Chinese Capitalism

Free Love                                    The Free Market                                   Freelancing

The Cabinet                                The Prime Minister                             The Disengaged


Developing through social enterprise

This is a guest blog by Kate Swade of Shared Assets, reflecting on the Developing Socially Productive Places conference at the RSA, 2nd April 2014.

It is when the different worlds involved in developing place and community meet that really interesting conversations begin to happen. The “Developing Socially Productive Places” conference last week was a brilliant opportunity to bring different sectors together – developers, local authority officers, urban designers and social entrepreneurs. As one of the speakers said, we should all be talking to each other more: there should be more pub conversations about place and the built environment!

I had a niggling feeling all day, though, that there was something missing.

The conference seemed to take it for granted that the creation of places is going to be developer-led, with local authorities and the planning system playing a strategic and regulatory role. It is certainly taken as read that when we say “developer” we are talking about private, profit driven companies. But there are a different set of possibilities which open up if we take a different starting point.

Some private sector developers are excellent; committed to fostering quality of place and quality of life. It was heartening to hear British Land talking about their long-term approach to the Regents’ Place development and their commitment to involving local people. Developers bring investment, of course: they have access to the cash on the terms and at the scale necessary to make things happen – and to buy enough land to create a critical mass around a development. Chris Grigg, the CEO of British Land’s point that diversity of ownership can mean a piecemeal place was a good one.

Tim Dixon from Reading University’s presentation on measuring social sustainability was fascinating and offered an insight into the challenges of measuring something that doesn’t easily lend itself to quantification. This is where we can start to feel possibilities for socially productive places evaporate.


If we take the developer-led, private sector model as the blueprint for how we make places in this country then of course we need metrics to help us understand the impact that that is having on society, and on the environment. That is a big “if”.

If we accept the dominant idea that development will be motivated by profit for developers, we will always see the social (and, for that matter, the environmental) as things that are considered separately from the “real” business of development; as externalities that need to be managed.

Private sector developers are driven to maximise shareholder value. That is why they exist.  For many, this means taking a relatively short-term view of the financial return on development: build and sell. It is shareholders who ultimately have the shortest profit horizon. (With computer algorithms dominating trading, the average share is held for 22 seconds).

Places built on the logic of a development appraisal tend to be homogenous and led by commercial property. While some developers are better than others, the crop of identical “unique landmarks” springing up all over London illustrates the cumulative effect of this shared logic.

We all know – and can feel – that good places, places where we want to be, which must be at the heart of what makes a place socially productive, respond to their location. People and the local environment are the logic.

Where this really has an impact is in the public realm: the spaces in between the buildings; the liabilities in between the assets.  At Shared Assets we believe that these spaces, regardless of ownership, are common goods, and should be managed and governed as such.

This requires more than just “community involvement”; it means that local people and organisations need to be actors in the development process. Local authorities need to see social enterprise development and land management as a viable option when thinking about the future of their areas.

This feels like a huge opportunity to me. How much more could we achieve if we truly put local people and their environments at the heart of the logic of development, rather than the creation of value for shareholders? If enterprise was encouraged, but profits reinvested in an area rather than siphoned out of it? If all investment in place was long-term, rather than the current short-term paradigm?

There are risks to this transition which would need to be managed, but it’s worth trying: physical regeneration has rarely delivered on its promise of associated social regeneration. When a community develops a shared asset collaboratively, this inherently involves both.

Property development and place making are skills, and there are many talented people in the development industry. I would contend that if we want to see places that are truly socially productive, the social sector needs to harness some of those skills and take an active role in development and place making.

How to make a make space

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Last week the RSA and the Comino Foundation hosted Make It Together, a 24 hour gathering for 30 of the UK’s make space leaders to connect, share ideas, build a network and seek advice from peers. (No idea what a make space is? Have a read of this.)

There was a wealth of inspiring conversation, collaboration and connections made by the end of the second day (video coming soon!) but for now I wanted to focus on one question which came out of the event:

How do I make a make space?

Eddie Kirkby (a UK Fab Lab network facilitator & trainer who helped set up Manchester FabLab) and Marc Barto (organiser of Maker groups and events including NotJustArduino at London Hackspace and Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire) passed on some of their learnings to the rest of the group, which I have tried to compress into a nifty ‘how to’ guide.


1)   Know WHY you’re doing it before you start.

Make sure you know:

a) Why you are doing it and

b) Who you are doing it for.

This may sounds obvious, but knowing the answer to two simple questions will shape everything you do, including opening hours, equipment, community engagement and funding.

For example a make space which aims to find young people employment in the world of digital fabrication will look very different to a make space whose focus in enabling the community to make things which will improve their local area.

This aim may change over the first 6 months – that’s fine too. But you need to have a key aim before you even think about opening.


2)   Never invest in a space before you have the community

You need the support and passion of a solid community for a make space to be a success, so make sure this is firmly in place before you invest anything. Piggy-back on existing groups and spaces to gauge and build the level of interest and support.


3)   Start before the doors open

Let’s imagine you have a beautiful space, equipment to die for, technicians standing with open arms and you are ready to open the doors to all… but no one knows you exist.

Community engagement prior to opening is key. Having an answer to Number 1 will help define who you engage and how you engage them. Eddie spent 9 months prior to the opening of Manchester Fab Lab speaking to the private sector, local educational organisations and businesses. This ensured that from day 1 of opening they had a whole network of people excited to come in. You need to create demand before you open.


4)   Keep that energy going after the doors open

You’ve opened, have a wealth of people desperate to come and have a look at what you’re doing, so make the most of this time. Don’t let this excitement fade. Make sure you have a 3 month engagement plan in place. Run free events, flyer the local colleges, have a call to action and run competitions. Give people a reason to come back and spend time in your space. People love the idea of a make space, will come in, have a look around, be amazed and excited by the facilities and think “Great… But I’ve no idea what to make” – so give them a focus.


5)   Put serious thought into how you register yourselves

Don’t rush this decision. Are you going to be a charity? A social enterprise? A limited company? This will somewhat be determined by your answer to number 1, but it is also worth thinking about how this decision will impact on funding. Certain funders will not support limited companies, or prefer to fund not-for-profits, and this can be impactful on future work.

If you are part of a larger organisation it can be easier to initially set up your make space as a ‘project’. This way you are able to test ideas and be more flexible during the earlier stages. If successful, you can roll it out to an independent organization. And if it all doesn’t quite go to plan it is much easier to close a project than a company.


6)   Use a combination of funding models

By using a combination of income streams such as funding, sponsorship, membership and charged services you are less at risk if one of those sources dries up.

If you are fundraising, go for larger pots of money. Fundraising is time consuming; don’t waste time on smaller grants. It’s also important to think about what parts of your make space you are fundraising for. Using funding for operational activities can be risky. It is better to use funding for programmes or projects that add to your offer, but are not essential for the running of your space. If funding comes to an end after an agreed period of time and you are using it to pay staff time or cover rent this could be problematic.

If you want your space to be completely independent and stay afloat with no fundraising, you need to look at your offer. This again comes back to question 1: Why are you setting up a space? If you aim is to offer free access to all, then realistically a self-sustaining model is unlikely to work.


7)   Get the slow build/space ready balance right

While it can be tempting to throw your doors open the second you secure a space and adopt the ‘I’ll build up my equipment over time’ approach, this can run the risk of disengaging your community. It’s hard for people to get truly excited about a space that hasn’t got a huge amount of stuff in it.

The other side of this is spending time and money getting your space fully kitted out, to find that when you open the doors your equipment isn’t right or the layout is flawed. It is important to find a good balance.


Have you been involved in setting up a make space? What would you add to this list? We would love to hear from you!

Follow @RSAremake to more information on the RSA’s work in the Maker sphere.

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