Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain, Social Economy, Uncategorized
In mid-summer I received a phone call from Lucy Stewart, a researcher working with Ossian Communications www.ossiancommunications.co.uk. Ossian is an Edinburgh based agency commissioned by the Substance Use Network Edinburgh (SUNE) to undertake research into UK-wide developments in cross-sector (public and third sector) partnerships developing new approaches to service design, partnership working and service user involvement within the field of substance misuse recovery. This initial conversation led to a longer and wide-ranging interview where I shared with Lucy, some of the experience I had gained as Lead Recovery Community Organiser within the Whole Person Recovery (WPR) project in west Kent. As some of you will already know, the RSA’s WPR project is part of a consortium that includes CRI and West Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Our project is a working example of the type of partnership that SUNE, was looking to draw learning and insight from in preparation for imminent reforms within the Scottish public and third sector social welfare communities.
Following the interview with Lucy, I was invited to attend the SUNE event, Getting Ready for Better Services: Learning Day. This whole day event in Edinburgh organised by SUNE, provided an opportunity for Edinburgh-based third sector organisations to participate in a knowledge exchange regarding cross-sector partnership working and service user involvement in service design and delivery. As a guest presenter / facilitator, I offered an overview of the genesis of the Whole Person Recovery model within the RSA’s work, which began in 2007 with the publication of the report Drugs – facing facts, The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy. I drew attention to the different contexts in which the WPR model has been developed, first in west Sussex during (2008-2010), as an independent project run with partners form across the public, third and voluntary sectors including GPs, criminal justice system and drug rehabilitation professionals, substance users and individuals in recovery from substance misuse. A further report: Whole Person Recovery: A user-centred systems approach to problem drug use was published offering an account of this work, to the current context of the WPR project. Presently (2012-2014), the WPR project is operating ‘within the system’ i.e. as part of a consortium working within the Payment by Results (PbR) mechanism. The WPR project is one of eight national pilot projects delivering social welfare programmes under the PbR model. In the PbR context there are rigorous governance and reporting frameworks that service delivery partnerships must comply with. These relate to the clinical elements of programme delivery where service users draw on the expertise of specialist nurses, doctors and psychiatrists as they move towards abstinence on their journeys of recovery, and to programme completion rates for service users under the care and supervision of service providers.
I made an effort to foreground the realities of the challenging dynamics and realpolitik expediencies that one has to exercise in partnership working, especially in the dual-contexts of working with relatively unstable user groups and rigorously prescribed reporting obligations. I also made a particular effort to open up our experience of working to engage service users in the co-design and co-production of the RSA elements of the WPR programme. These are challenging and iterative approaches to service provision and are not necessarily straightforward in their development or implementation. This kind of fluidity and the contingent nature of the work can sometimes be at odds with conventional organisational processes and cultures. The business of partnership working and service user involvement is sometimes gritty not pretty; it requires a particular resilience and steadfastness on the part of professional partners.
The event was deemed a success by the SUNE members and I had the opportunity to visit Edinburgh’s first Recovery café – The Serenity Café www.serenitycafe.co.uk, which is an initiative of community development charity COMAS www.comas.org.uk. I was given a tour of the space and a summary account of the genesis of the project from John Arthur, who chaired the SUNE event and is also the Recovery Coaching Development Manager at COMAS. It was interesting to see the way that the cafe was used as an ‘ordinary’ community resource by a range of people from the general public. It was inspiring to see the way that former service users make use of the cafe as community members seeking a social space and a creative and learning space for a range of activities that take place over the course of each week. The grassroots take-up of the recovery model as a real, achievable and desirable path back into the wider community is clearly alive and kicking. There is much that commissioners and others involved in policy level decision making could learn from these projects, particularly the ways in which service users are determining the speed and trajectories of their personal development and reintegration into society as proactive citizens with hard-won experience and inspiring stories to share.
The UK is experiencing nothing short of a boom in self-employment. 367,000 more people became sole traders in the period since 2008, bringing the total proportion of sole traders in the workforce to a record 15 per cent. Where once we were a nation of shopkeepers, now we are seemingly one of consultants, freelancers, entrepreneurs, online marketplace traders – and whatever else comes under the banner of self-employment.
Naturally we can expect such a transformation to bring about wider changes to society and the economy – many for the better. As my colleague Adam Lent argues in a recent blog post, the proliferation of microbusinesses may be hugely beneficial for innovation, regeneration, gender equality and so on.
Yet we also have to acknowledge the downsides too – one of which may relate to jobs growth. Indeed, many have voiced concerns that large parts of the self-employed community are highly reluctant to take on a first recruit. A recent report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills revealed that only 5 per cent of self-employed people increased employment over the 6 year period from 2007 to 2013 – an astonishingly low number.
To their credit, the government has acknowledged this problem and taken several steps to address it. Only last week, for example, they stated their intention to introduce a sizeable cut in the National Insurance Contributions that small employers pay on their employees. This is set to benefit up to 1.25 million businesses, and will mean a third of all employers will be taken out of paying NI Contributions altogether. A business that employs 4 adults on the minimum wage, for instance, will no longer have to pay anything.
No doubt this a step in the right direction. But the problem is that this scheme, like many others, has one fatal flaw: it wrongly assumes that finance, and only finance, is what’s holding people back from taking on staff and growing their business. Look at similar schemes and it is obvious to see that finance is rarely a game-changer.
It was recently revealed, for instance, that the holiday in National Insurance Contributions launched late last year to encourage job creation had extremely low take up rates. Likewise, the Youth Contract, which supports the wage bill of employers taking on young people, has been met with an equally muted response from the business community.
In reality, many of the barriers to recruitment are psychological in nature – not just financial. The aforementioned BIS report highlighted several examples where self-employed people were constrained in their ‘vision’, consistently overestimating the costs of growing and taking on staff. For instance, they found that non-employers judged recruitment costs to be as much as £17,000, whereas employers reported these to be a much lower figure of £7,000. Other research reveals deeper biases. An interesting study published last year by CIPD found that many employers are ‘petrified’ to employ young people because they have negative perceptions about their attitudes – even though many of these are unfounded.
None of this is to say that financial schemes like the National Insurance cut are unhelpful – if anything they are likely to be incredibly useful for those already employing staff. But if we’re talking about encouraging our new wave of sole traders to take the leap and hire their first worker, then on their own they are simply not enough. In the 21st century we also need policies and initiatives that recognize the people who run businesses as inherently human, and that go with rather than against the grain of their quirks, frailties and dispositions.
Benedict Dellot is Senior Researcher within the RSA’s Enterprise Team. Follow him @BenedictDel
This blog has been written by Jennifer Barnes, intern with 2020 Public Services team
Today, the Healthcare Insurance Marketplace is going live. Its feels like a distant memory now, but in June of this year, Democratic Senator Wendy Davis stood up in her pink trainers and delivered an incredible 11 hour filibuster in the Texas Senate against a bill that would take us back decades (to before the landmark Roe V. Wade decision) in our fight for women’s health. After all of the media attention, the twitter support, and the hundreds of confiscated tampons, we seem to have forgotten about the impact the passing of this legislation will have on the lives of Texas women.
As a Texan woman currently on an internship with the RSA, I wanted to share insight into the Texan example of how policy making can result in perverse incentives and unintended consequences. I hope that this post is enough to pique your interest in the current happenings in Texas as well as the wider healthcare debate in America.
House Bill 2 disregards the challenges that women face when it comes to affordable health care by:
- banning abortions after 20 weeks
- requiring clinics providing abortions to raise to the surgical standards of outpatient surgeries (read about procedures in other states that are performed in both licensed and unlicensed clinics)
- requiring that a doctor be present when a woman takes drugs to induce an abortion (although there is no evidence or history of danger)
- requiring doctors practicing abortions to have surgical rights at a hospital within a 30-mile radius of the clinic
While Texas has become the 13th state to pass legislation banning abortions after the widely debated 20 week mark, it is arguably the latter three requirements that are most cause for concern. Presented in the rhetoric of raising standards, these stipulations instead eradicate options. The passing of this bill is predicted to close dozens of clinics across the state (with the highest closure estimates predicting all but 5 of the state’s 42 abortion providing clinics), most notably those in disadvantaged, rural areas where alternative healthcare options are limited.
“Governor Perry and other state leaders have now taken sides and chosen narrow partisan special interests over mothers, daughters, sisters and every Texan who puts the health of their family, the well-being of their neighbors, and the future of Texas ahead of politics and personal ambitions.”- Wendy Davis
To understand the likely impact of the changes that House Bill 2 will bring it is important to understand how medical services for women in Texas, and elsewhere in the US, are funded.
Contrary to popular perception, pregnancy terminations form a very small part of what the major women’s clinics actually do. For Planned Parenthood, for example, the organisation that runs the majority of abortion providing clinics, abortions are only 3% of the medical services provided. But they are financially crucial. 30-50% of Planned Parenthood’s surpluses are generated from termination services. What this means is that as the system currently stands, many of the cancer screening, sex-education, STD, pre-natal care and pregnancy prevention services that are accessible to low income women will potentially become more difficult to fund if the legislation succeeds in driving down the number of abortions.
Alternatively, if clinics are required to invest in expensive unnecessary upgrades to surgical standards to perform abortions, they will have to choose between closing or stopping their abortion provisions entirely. Planned Parenthood gets about half of its funding from government, but there are strict limitations on how it can be used. Title X funds are the only federal funds devoted to family planning and by law these funds cannot be used for abortions. If the state increases funding for family planning provisions outside of abortions, the clinics will likely survive, but will no longer offer terminations.
This funding atmosphere has created a complicated and unbalanced relationship between terminations and other women’s wellness provisions, and wrongfully reduces this conversation to one of economics, not value read more on ThinkProgress.
Pretend for a minute that you’re Cathy, a sexually active 16 year old girl in Texas living in a conservative town where everyone knows everyone and you all go to church together on Sundays. Your church and your high school teach abstinence-only and therefore your sexual education is lacking, but you become sexually active anyway.
If this is your reality, then the likelihood that you would be willing to buy condoms from the local pharmacy (where the pharmacist is friends with your father) is slim to none. It’s quite unlikely that you’ll go to the clinic for birth control and free condoms. If your closest clinic is up to two hours’ drive away, it becomes vanishingly unlikely. If you become pregnant and have spent the first few months working up the courage to face what’s happening, the 20 week mark will significantly limit your options even if you do make the drive.
This isn’t an unlikely story in many areas of rural Texas. Here, a young girl is strongly deterred from accessing birth control and receiving an abortion due to logistics and circumstances over which she is powerless. Here, the passing of House Bill 2 achieves the pro-life agenda and significantly reduces access to abortion.
Regardless of your thoughts on the morality of early termination, an alternate scenario is enlightening:
Now consider that you’re Julia, a single mother, working two jobs to pay your bills. You work part-time jobs without health insurance and you can only just afford the premiums even after the Affordable Health Plan takes effect. While you are eligible for the Texas Women’s Health programme, the doctors taking part in it have taken their quota of Medicaid patients so this option becomes almost worthless to you. Even if you have a health insurance plan, your deductible (the amount of money you must spend before the insurance company begins to pay for your health services) is enormous, leaving clinics like Planned Parenthood the only places you can go for affordable reproductive health needs and screenings.
The local clinic shuts down and you don’t have the time or energy to drive to the city for an exam when you start noticing mild symptoms. The gas money to get there is too much and the childrens’ schedules are too busy on top of your multiple shifts…so you ignore the symptoms. When the pain becomes too much to bear you hire a babysitter that you can’t afford and go to the closest clinic, 100 miles away. By then, it’s clear that you have advanced cervical cancer.
Supporters of this legislation ignore the reality that for many women, clinics like Planned Parenthood are one of their only affordable options for reproductive care. In many geographic areas, for those who earn too much for government Medicaid assistance but lack private insurance, Planned Parenthood truly is one of their only options. The story isn’t that Planned Parenthood supports pre-marital sex and abortions, the story is that Planned Parenthood supports women and their freedom over their bodies.
The passing of this bill limits women’s freedoms: freedom of choice is nonexistent when there are no options.
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy, Uncategorized
The RSA and Post Office Ltd. are soon to publish a report on the future role that Post Offices could play in catalysing change in local areas. Below is a summary of the discussions we had at a series of roundtables during the 2013 party conferences.
Party conferences are well known for their unveiling of grand policies. For the Lib Dems, it was free school meals. For Labour, it was a freeze in energy prices. And for the Conservatives – well, we’ll have to wait a few more days to find out what they have in store. In any case we can expect something that will grab the headlines.
What party conferences aren’t so well known for, however, is discussing the nitty gritty of policies and how it is they will be implemented on the ground. Ed Miliband spoke of the importance of doing more for small businesses, yet it is unclear how the government and its agencies are to reach out to entrepreneurs – particularly the 500,000 new microbusinesses that have emerged since the recession. Likewise, Nick Clegg and his party have raised the idea of a green bank, but there is little understanding of how residents and businesses will interact with such an institution in practice.
These gaps appear to indicate the need for a certain type of local infrastructure that can bridge the centre with the local, orchestrating new policies on the ground and turning them into something tangible for everyday people. Such ‘community anchors’ – if we can call them that – might be able to ‘deliver’ new services themselves, but more importantly they should provide the shared space for citizens, public services, businesses and others to come together and create value. So far, so theoretical – the important question is what does this look like in practice and who is going to fulfil this role?
Enter the Post Office. The RSA’s party conference roundtables with the Post Office Ltd. this year explored the potential for branches to transform themselves into key catalysts of change in their local area, taking on some of the functions previously owned by a now retrenched state. While our conversations acknowledged the priceless contribution that the Post Office network already makes to communities, there was a sense it could do a great deal more with its defining assets. Namely, the trust that people put into it, the presence it has across the country – over 90 per cent of people live within a mile of the Post Office – and the continuity it enjoys, in that Post Office branch numbers are set to remain stable for the foreseeable future.
With such assets at their disposal, Post Offices would appear to have all the ingredients in place to become these so-called community anchors. But what will they actually do? While it all depends to some extent on the specific needs of a given area, there were several broad public policy debates that our roundtable participants touched upon. Those at the Liberal Democrat event talked of Post Offices as being future gateways of business support, for example by signposting entrepreneurs to relevant information and advice, helping them to deal with new real-time reporting procedures, or raising awareness of schemes such as StartUp Loans.
On the Labour side, the discussion tilted more towards the role that Post Offices could play in addressing emerging social challenges, such as those associated with poor access to finance. One idea raised was to link Post Offices with credit unions and CDFIs, enabling the latter to raise their profile and reach out to more individuals at risk of predatory loan sharks. It was also suggested that Post Offices could help residents in their area make the transition to the Universal Credit system, not least by helping them complete the new mandatory online forms. Other themes and policy areas touched upon were regional banking, the localism agenda, social care, and cities and local economic growth.
No one, however, was under the illusion that any of this is possible without a fundamental shift in the way that Post Offices are run. Impediments highlighted at the roundtables include the availability of space within branches, the financial viability of providing or hosting new services – many Subpostmasters are already under severe financial pressures – and the level of demand that exists among people for a wholly different kind of Post Office.
Yet there was also a sense that the assets of Post Offices are simply too valuable to be left untapped. Nor was it hard to recognise how Post Offices themselves could benefit from enhancing their community role. Indeed, we know from our own research with Subpostmasters that there is often a strong business case for ‘going the extra mile’ for residents and businesses, not least in terms of the footfall it can generate. As the adage goes, what is good for society is also good for business – and that no doubt includes Post Offices.
So in years to come, after the dust has long settled, don’t be surprised to see at your local Post Office the remnants of those policies that echoed throughout the party conference season of 2013.
Benedict Dellot is Senior Researcher within the RSA’s Enterprise Team. Follow him @BenedictDel
Readers of this blog may already be aware of the tragic news that Social Brain colleague Emma Lindley recently passed away. Below, I offer to you a poem I selected and read in Emma’s memory earlier this week at a staff gathering in her honour. Tributes by colleagues Jonathan Rowson, Gaia Marcus, and Matthew Taylor are also available.
I’d like to read a poem in Emma’s honour; but first, some background:
Some may remember that Emma wrote a blog post earlier this year about world poetry day. This was the first time I learned that she was a poetry buff and more specifically a fan of poet William Carlos Williams. I am a novice but from my limited exposure I too am a William Carlos Williams fan, so together we had a really lovely exchange about poetry in general and his work in particular.
More recently, when I “discovered” a famous poet of a similar style, Emma and I were in touch again and we had planned on taking some time to get a coffee and chatting more about this genre when she was next in the office.
So I thought it would be fitting to read out a poem today in Emma’s honour, a William Carlos Williams poem that I chose because it illustrates the quality of paying careful attention to the essence of a thing, a quality about which she wrote very elegantly in her blog post.
Emma wrote: “His poems often convey a certain haecceitas – the quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action.”
With this in mind, I’d like to read “To a Solitary Disciple” by WCW.
Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
the point of the steeple
than that its color
that it is early morning
than that the sky
as a turquoise.
how the dark
of the steeple
meet at a pinnacle —
its little ornament
tries to stop them-
See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
that guard and contain
the eaten moon
lies in the protective lines.
It is true:
in the light colors
of the morning
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.
In memory of Dr Emma Lindley.
The Spartans were famed in the ancient world for their many unusual cultural conventions. Spartan society was completely focussed on the cultivation of military prowess, fortitude and discipline. For much of their early adulthood, men lived together in communal barracks rather than with their wives and families, learning how to perfect their command of military tactics, alongside logic and philosophy, and a uniquely ‘laconic’ style of personal expression. In most respects Spartan life was pretty brutal and unenviable, but perhaps uniquely in the classical world, Spartan women received near equal political status to men, could inherit property, and got a decent education. And when it came to dress code both men and women preferred to go commando, or flash the flesh, much to the consternation of the more prudish Athenians, who thought them weird and scary in pretty much every respect.
But the Athenians, and the other Classical Greek City states were themselves extreme outliers and oddities in the context of the ancient Mediterranean, dominated as it was by monarchies and dynastic despots. The experiments in social organisation and political economy that characterised that period laid the foundations for much of our contemporary civilisation, while the dynasties crumbled into the sand and were forgotten. And much of this glorious flourishing of human creativity was based on (for the time) radical distribution of power, autonomy and knowledge.
We still need organisational experimentation and diversity to enable more powerful ways of working to emerge. But the pressures and conventions of our economy are forcing us to conform to cookie-cutter models of structuring and sustaining organisations, most of which are closed and dynastic, rather than open and democratic.
Andy Law, the founder of the famously ‘disruptive’ St. Luke’s advertising agency said: “the market pushes back on innovation. It tries to normalise businesses. Accounting laws force companies into rigid structures (partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited companies etc). That is the root cause of why every company ends up being the same.”
Some buck the trend.
Ricardo Semler said of Semco, his famous organisational experiment “Our ‘architecture’ is really the sum of all the conventional business practices we avoid”.
I’ll blog more about what we can learn from these more recent outliers, who still get talked about in mythic terms many years after their flame grew dim – just as the Spartans did.
But for now, we need to keep asking why there are so few wonders of the working world and what consequences this has for our economy and society.
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Enterprise, Fellowship, Innovation, Social Brain, Social Economy, Uncategorized
Building a neural net of wishes and sharing experience at the #RSARDIsummerschool filmed by Dr James Furse-Roberts
This week I returned from the 2013 RDI Summer School; an immersive, collaborative design experience created by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry. Held over four days at Dartington Hall, Devon, the Summer School brought together designers and others from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who could learn from each other and be inspired and empowered to think differently and creatively. During the event, the eminent designer and creative leader Michael Wolff RDI shared his favourite quote by the author and poet, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Having worked on six summer schools with the Royal Designers, I have observed that each event has had a dramatic or life-changing impact on those who have attended. Some of the designers leave with renewed confidence and are emboldened to take more risks, or start their own businesses. Others decide to change the way they work, become more open to collaborating, or begin a new altruistic pathway.
As we developed the 2013 Summer School, jointly directed by exhibitions and interior designer Dinah Casson RDI, and engineering designer Chris Wise RDI, we proposed the inclusion of more ‘wildcards’ in the cohort; participants who were not designers but were somehow touched by design. They might be commissioners, teachers, or civil servants. Could the summer school be as educative and transformative for them as it had been for designers?
The wildcards that were selected this year all shared a connection with the public realm; a healthcare researcher specialising in quality improvement initiatives, and a regeneration manager of a local council to name but two. Here follows a personal account of the Summer School from wildcard Owen Jarvis, a social entrepreneur and Clore Fellow, who is exploring how social leadership can learn from design:
“During my Clore year I’ve been considering how can social leaders make better use of design-thinking in shaping social and public services.
The Summer School involved a series of curated activities to allow us to meet, network, and collaborate away from work. Challenges were introduced for small groups around themes such as “us and them” and explored meanings and expressions of emotions and how these can be used as inspiration for work. These culminated in the sharing of findings, performances and art works on the final morning, with many groups working through the night to finish on time. Pleasure, creativity, play, discussion, reflection and work were delightfully intertwined for a very rich weekend.
The Royal Designers were incredibly open and generous in offering support and mentoring. Often provocative, they demanded honesty, sharper thinking and attention to detail and standards in exercises. Challenges and insights were received and respected in turn. As we moved from discussions to making objects and performances the magic started to happen. The final pieces were surprising and engaging and remarkable given the short time we had together.
So what can be taken away with reference for the social sector? Many of the challenges designers face are familiar and not specific to their profession. How big do you get before you lose the essence of what you are, how do you attract and keep talent? How do you avoid selling out to the agenda of investors in the process of growth? Over the weekend we were called upon to move away from these important but day-to-day issues to ask other broader questions.
In the same way the social sector comes back to a question of social impact, designers are also constantly returning to a question of quality and attention to detail in the pursuit of beauty. This raised some important questions for me. What is in the beauty, design and elegance of a social service and in achieving social change? Is there an aesthetic? How can organisations be designed in their own right to be things to admire? In addressing these questions, do we make a greater impact?
‘Life can be evaded, death cannot’, our final session considered. Everyone faces some apprehension and anxiety in presenting views, ideas, creations. We feel surrounded by judgement yet our real adversary is our own self. Talent that doesn’t fulfil its potential is a tragedy.
The Summer School has been one of the most extraordinary learning opportunities of my career. It has reminded me of the courage needed to step-forward and step-out and embrace the risk of failure. This has lessons for us all to reach our potential and live life fully. That is also a mark of leadership.”
Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA
You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews
Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool
To the dead, we did it, we wrote out your wrongs It was said, they admit it, we sang out your songs.
To the dead, we did it, we wrote out your wrongs
It was said, they admit it, we sang out your songs.
There are many September the 11ths. Today – the 11th September 2013 – is the 40th anniversary of the 1973 military coup that saw in Chile’s 17 years of dictatorship under General Pinochet.
This morning I cycled down to the Chilean embassy to put my body where my heart is, and to pay my respects. Over the course of the day people – children, parents, victims, survivors, activists, sympathisers – read out the names of the disappeared and dead and laid a flower for every single one of them.
As each name was called out, all those present shouted “presente!”
This presente! proclaims: I am here, the disappeared are here, we are present. The act of being present, of making the past present, of making those who a state attempted to disappear present chimes to the very heart of why memory and past are essential to any lived now.
This presente proclaims: I am here, the disappeared are here, we are present
In the 17 years of Pinochet’s rule at least 2,000 were disappeared and at least 30,000 were tortured in ways that attempted to annihilate their humanity, dignity and essence of being. The history of torture in Chile is one of a map of secret detention centres and camps that criss-crossed Chile’s entire 4000 km of length. It was not until after its 2004 Commission on Torture that the mainstream press would even recognise that the torture was real; that the victims were real; that the centres existed.
Chile is still divided between those who would disappear the past, those for whom Pinochet was maybe ‘not good but necessary’, and those for whom the past is still now. These scars, replicated in all societies where the past has no real reconciliation, explode every now and then: from the violent clashes that marked this year’s 11th September protests, to the news that finally the alleged killer of the symbolic Victor Jara may be being brought to justice.
There is much to say on Chile; much to say on the role of justice and memory in repairing society. But that is for another day. For now, I am here, I am present, and I bore witness.
I am here, I am present, and I bore witness.
Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA’s Connected Communities team.
What was missing from Ed Miliband’s address to the Google Big Tent event today?
By most accounts he gave a fairly prosaic speech. Miliband praised the internet for breaking down old hierarchies, but then warned it could create its own new monopolies. He applauded the advent of the digital age for levelling the playing field for new businesses, but then lamented the low rates of digital literacy that prevent people from making the most of these new opportunities. It was easy to tell that the whole thing was geared towards the W-moment – explicitly telling Google and Eric Schmidt that it was ‘wrong’ they did not pay their fair share of taxes.
You could argue he should have said more about the capacity of new technologies to overcome our biggest social challenges – namely dementia and other issues associated with an ageing population. You might also say he should have gone further with his important point about teaching our young people to create, not just consume digital products. Yet still, there isn’t much contention here.
No, the most important thing Miliband failed to mention today was the P-word: pornography. Explicit material – once the preserve of shady outlets and the top-shelves of newsagents - has become ubiquitous since the advent of the internet. All a person now needs is a decent connection and a computer – and many young people have exactly that. In a sign of how easy it has become to find such material, research by the security firm Bitdefender found that 1.16 per cent of children had accessed pornography by the age of 6.
The harmful effects of exposure to pornography have been well documented. The Internet Watch Foundation points out that close to 70 per cent of people are disturbed by violent or extreme pornography. Yet the effects of exposure to explicit material go much further than making people feel squeamish or awkward. A recent parliamentary inquiry, for example, noted that young men are now receiving the majority of their sex ‘education’ from pornography, which in turn means it becomes more difficult to promote the use of condoms.
Other research suggests that pornography can damage personal relationships because it gives people unusually high expectations of their sex lives. Only last week, Diane Abbott suggested that the proliferation of pornographic material had been one factor in precipitating a “crisis of masculinity” and a “Jack Daniels and viagra” culture among young men.
What is perhaps more cause for concern than young people watching pornography is them creating it themselves – I genuinely believe this is one of the biggest challenges facing UK society. Research undertaken by NSPCC has indicated that as many of 40 per cent of young people have been involved in sending explicit pictures of themselves and their peers. The problem is particularly problematic for teenage girls, many of whom face pressure from their friends and classmates to join in.
The scale of the challenge is such that the Prime Minister himself waded into the debate, recently describing the problem as “a silent attack on innocence.” The government has matched these concerns with several proposals to limit young people’s access to harmful material, including by working with computer manufacturers so that parents are prompted to restrict access to ban certain sites when turning on new devices for the first time. Others in the business sector have been less forthcoming in their support of such proposals. Google, for instance, decided against implementing an automatic ‘opt-out’ of pornographic websites, in part because it may unintended block innocuous ones.
Time will tell whether moves like these will yield any kind of impact. Whatever the result, the efforts are to be commended. The seriousness of the issue is such that we need as many imaginative solutions as we can get. Indeed, to return to the topic of Ed Miliband’s speech, the issue of tax avoidance doesn’t really compare to it. One is a manifestation of a society that is becoming less empathetic, the other is potentially one of its biggest causes. While Ed Miliband may feel proud of himself for calling out the big corporate guns on their practices, even more courageous would be to get to grips with the taboo subject that is doing the real damage to our society.
Maybe I’ve lived in the big smoke for too long. Or maybe cynicism comes with getting older. So when I picked up my free newspaper last night at a busy tube station before my commute home, and it revealed a blue envelope with the words “open me” hand written on it, I wasn’t so sure what to do.
Looking to my left and then to my right, I thought: is this a joke? Are there hidden cameras trained on me? Maybe the envelope contains some indecent photos. Or anthrax. Or instructions sending me on a bizarre scavenger hunt through the city to save a hostage’s life. So many horrible possibilities ran through my head (and the realisation that perhaps I watch too many Hollywood movies to encourage such an imagination…).
I seriously considered just walking away and leaving the envelope there, but then decided to just go for it and look inside. And what a good decision that was, because what I saw lifted my heart and put a smile on my face.
The envelope contained a pin, a ten pound note, and a message reading “Happy Monday! Whether this Monday was fantastic or miserable I hope this brightens your day”. This surprise gift seems to be the mastermind of an organisation called GiveMondays, which encourages people to start their week off right by doing a good deed or making someone else smile on a Monday. The group of anonymous givers tweet on #givemondays.
This surprise couldn’t have come at a better time. Having grown up in Boston, last week was a nerve-wracking rollercoaster of emotions (fear, worry, anger and relief – on repeat) while watching the news and checking in with friends and family. Of course, their safety is the ultimate mood-booster, but this blue envelope was a nice little addition and great way to start off a new week.
So, to the givers at Give Mondays: thank you so much for this lovely little gift. I will keep the pin for myself; the £10 I will pass on to someone less fortunate later today. And now there are 6 days left to think about what do to pass along this smile next Monday.