Design innovation: new ways of thinking can change the world

June 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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From beeswax packaging to paint that pours only one way, tomorrow’s designers show huge promise but they need support

Many people think that design is about prettification. But those people are horribly, dreadfully wrong. Design is much more than that; it’s a superpower, and with it you can change the world.

Through the RSA’s Great Recovery project, I’ve spent the past couple of years looking at the role that design plays in moving us from a linear economy – where we dig up elements in Africa, process them in Asia, ship them to us, then throw them in a hole in the ground a few months later – to a circular economy, where valuable elements are kept in play and reused or preprocessed. Read more

Emerging Ecologies at the RSA

June 24, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy, Uncategorized 

A week into my Research Intern post at the RSA and amongst the swarm of buzz words, project titles TLAs, people’s names and lunch recommendations there is already a glimmer of the range and impact of the RSA projects.

I find myself in the privileged position of ‘straddling’ two separate yet, as it appears, deeply connected projects. The projects come underneath the RSA’s Action and Research Centre; one is a new project, with a London Borough Council, that is part of the Connected Communities (ConCom) team and the other is part of the City Growth Commission (CGC). 

Initially the obvious difference in scales of the subject areas delineates the projects very clearly, yet in reality they are looking very similar processes.

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10 take-aways from our new report on self-employment

May 30, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Uncategorized 

Towards the end of last year the RSA and Etsy launched a new project, The Power of Small, which seeks to examine the large growth in the number of microbusinesses, and what this phenomenon might mean for all of us. This week we launched our first report – one of three – which looks in detail at the individuals involved, including what is driving the increase in self-employment, how this community is changing, and what life is really like for those who work for themselves.

Here are 10 key take-aways from the paper:

#1 – Self-employment is rising at a remarkable pace

The UK is experiencing a boom in self-employment. Today there are 600,000 more microbusinesses in the UK than there was when the recession began in 2008, and 40 per cent more than at the turn of the century. Likewise, the number of people who work for themselves is up by 30 per cent since 2000, meaning that 1 in 7 of the workforce is now self-employed. This stands in stark contrast to the growth in typical employment, which is up by only 5 per cent since 2000. If these trends continue, the number of people who work for themselves will soon outnumber the public sector workforce (we estimate this could happen sometime around 2018).

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2014 RSA Student Design Award Winners

Today is a big day.

Nine months ago on September 1st 2013, we launched our eight RSA Student Design Award briefs for the year and thousands of students across the UK, Europe and Asia began applying their design skills to a range of social, economic and environmental issues such as improving hygiene in low-income areas, managing water in urban areas, addressing changing work patterns, and many more. Over 600 students sent their work into the RSA and our judges began the arduous task of reviewing and scrutinising the work, looking for key insights and clever design thinking. Those 600+ entries became a short-list of around 80 and today, after interviews with all short-listed entrants, I am pleased to present the 18 winning projects and the designers behind them.

Today’s impressive list of emerging designers and innovators – some working in collaborative teams and some working individually – represent the best of what happens when good ideas meet good design (and good briefs too, I think!).

This year’s winners include proposals for new packaging made from beeswax, an alarm clock app to improve well-being amongst 18-25 year olds, an affordable sanitary towel for schoolgirls in low-income areas, and a frugally-designed hygiene pack for use in refugee camps. Read more

Time for some clear yellow water: Should all Liberal Democrat ministers resign?

May 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Uncategorized 

lib dem manifesto

Yesterday’s predicted and predictable local election disaster for the Liberal Democrats may be meaningless this time next year. If their core vote forgives some of their soul-selling, and no other party gains its own overall majority, the Lib Dems could arrive in May 2015 with a similar number of MPs and a meal ticket to form another coalition.

It will, however, be a different party from the one which formed a government in 2010. International Development Minister Lynn Featherstone confessed on Question Time yesterday that the Liberal Democrats have lost some of their ‘humanity’ since joining the coalition. Her explanation that the party has become too ‘ministerial’, may only partly explain this (it’s not as if the electorate perceives the Labour opposition as having humanity in spades), but there is little doubt that national power has changed the Liberal Democrat DNA.

One of the unintended yet refreshing aspects of this coalition government has been an unearthing of the power of open policymaking. Whilst the Cabinet Office is trying this through sophisticated, design-led processes, politicians have been getting on with it. Cross-party ministerial teams have been prepared to reveal the tensions, debates and doubts that are an inevitable part of policymaking processes.  The disagreements have been substantive, in the best possible way – they have revealed the substance of policy debates, rather than the style of clashing egos – the ‘froth’, as Tony Blair used to dismiss various internecine New Labour squabbles.

When we met with David Laws last week (squeezed between various free school/free school meals rows and rapprochements) to discuss our report into teacher education and research, he was as focused as ever on the job in hand, especially the effective implementation of current policies.  However, with policy development more-or-less concluded for this Parliament (with the important but cross-party exception of the Modern Slavery Bill), there is now a strong argument for all Liberal Democrat Ministers to resign from their posts, in an orderly and non-grumpy way, before they depart for Summer holidays. There have already been rumblings of plans for a  happy divorce, but I’d suggest that it’s up to the Lib Dems to take the initiative on this. If some kind of mutual non-disclosure agreement is necessary to prevent Jerry Springer-like mudslinging between current and former ministers, then so be it (although with Clegg, Gove and advisers involved, any truce is unlikely to hold for long).

Liberal Democrat Ministers deserve some time out of office to create some clear yellow water between themselves and the administration they have been part of. This is not just about the development of catchy pupil premium-like ideas for the next manifesto. Next time, the concept of coalition does not need to take them by surprise.  Liberal Democrats need to rethink how their approach to their next possible coalition needs to be underpinned by a clearer set of principles which return the party to their historical roots and traditions, especially relating to localism.

What was most surprising about Nick Clegg’s ‘free school meals for all’ policy, apart from its shaky evidence base and partially regressive nature, is the lack of commitment it revealed to the principles of school autonomy. Schools could not be trusted to make their own budgetary decisions on this issue. Similarly, less excusable than their unavoidable climbdown on tuition fees (they are the minority party, after all) was their blind rubberstamping of the government’s top-down health reforms – I say blind , given that Nick Clegg allegedly did not even read the proposals before giving them his blessing. One Liberal Democrat 2010 Manifesto proposal which has been barely mentioned since is the idea of a local income tax. Given current concerns about regional disparities in wealth and growth, and the Conservatives’ half-hearted attempts to devolve power to local communities (look and laugh at the front cover of their 2010 Manifesto), this idea is worthy of proper reconsideration.


A period of reflection, on deckchairs, backbenches, and constituency surgery chairs, could enable the Liberal Democrats to use their experience of holding office to think pragmatically about how their commitment to localism should manifesto itself in both manifesto and in future negotiations about the next coalition. Otherwise, to adapt an old phrase, ‘Whoever is in office, the centralisers are always in power’.

Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education    @joehallg

#ToryBingo: the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality of British politics

March 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments
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I imagine Grant Shapps had a bit of a political hangover this morning. In a fit of misplaced triumphalism, his thoughtless piece of Conservative propaganda went viral on Twitter last night. The Bingo poster lumps all ‘hard working people’ together as a monolithic and stereotyped ‘they’, who presumably are something separate from more sophisticated politicians. Now in the clutches of the internet, in the hands of no-one and everyone at the same time, it shows that the Tories are disconnected from a large portion of electorate they claim to representative. But, this is not just a problem of the Conservative Party. The positioning of a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ is endemic within the political system.


Think for a moment of the words we use to describe British MPs. They’re known as the political elite, who are vacuum-sealed from the rest of society in the Westminster bubble. Now, I’m not here to say we shouldn’t be using these terms. Statistics from the Smith Institute show that they’re pretty accurate: 43% of MPs went to private schools (compared with the national average of approximately 7%), nearly a quarter are Oxbridge educated, only 4.1% are from non-white backgrounds, a mere 22% are female, and there are possibly as few as 4 disabled MPs. Our political house is not representative of the society we live in and our language reflects this. But this isn’t the whole picture.

One of the reasons the system remains a hotbed of elitism, which is stagnant in its appeal but also in its variety of ideas, is the way those of us who are not part of this political elite see ourselves and the way we’re told to see ourselves. While we’re attempting to unveil the unrepresentative nature of contemporary politics by using the word elite, we, the electorate, are referred to as ordinary or normal.

These words slip out of politicians’ mouths without a second thought. As I’ve written recently, they’re used by people across the political spectrum for different reasons but regardless of the intention behind these words, they’re disempowering. In our everyday lives, at home, in the workplace, at school, how acceptable would it be to call each other ordinary? Used so openly in the political context, what they tell us is that if we’re ordinary, politicians are extraordinary. These words, and the dichotomy they create, imply that you can only effect change if you qualify as part of the elite. Unless, that is, you’re one of the special ones who can work to overcome their ordinariness. Understanding ourselves in relation to politics and politicians in this way reinforces most people’s feeling that politics isn’t a place for them or a world that represents them.

It is by playing upon these ideas that Nigel Farage is making such good ground. By claiming to represent ordinary people, he’s tapping into this sense of disenfranchisement in a perverse way. Pictures of him, pint in hand on a weekday lunchtime, are a crude attempt to make him seem like an ordinary person (despite the fact he was once a commodity broker and in many ways is cut from the same expensive cloth as Cameron and Osborne) but they have an eerily similar echo to Shapps’ Bingo (and Beer) poster. Although Farage’s tactics may prove electorally effective, he’s continuing to disempower people by speaking for the ordinary electorate, who, these pictures suggest, he also sees as a homogenous beer guzzling mass. Ironically he’s playing on his own self-professed ordinariness to get himself a pass into the Westminster bubble, instead of helping ordinary people to create a platform where they can speak for themselves.

A likely response to what I’m saying is that no one needs to buy this ‘ordinary‘ line anymore. Not now we have the internet, potentially a key plank to achieving true democracy, where everyone can make their voices heard. But what this implicitly means is that if we still feel voiceless, or in a world where we’re judged by our Twitter followers, if we don’t feel we have enough, it’s our own failing. The tools are there, we just aren’t using them in the right way.

We won’t create a political system in which no one is described or seen as ordinary by telling individuals to go forth and shout over each other on Twitter. It will be done by moving past this ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy. To begin, we need a truly representative parliament, a place where everyone in society feels like they have a stake and where we realise no human being can or should be called ordinary.

Can today’s Subpostmasters be tomorrow’s community gurus?

February 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy, Uncategorized 

This week the RSA launched a new report exploring the potential for Post Offices to transform themselves into Community Enterprise Hubs. You can view the report here. And you can view the Twitter coverage here.


The Post Office is an organisation like no other. Local branches contribute enormously to the life and soul of their communities, are an essential vehicle for delivering public services, and provide the vital infrastructure that our businesses need to prosper. Yet we have only scratched the surface when it comes to realising their potential.

In the RSA’s new report, Making the Connection, we argue that Post Offices could do more to support local residents and businesses. They have a presence in nearly every community, are widely trusted and have a resilience and continuity that few other organisations can match. Close to 93 per cent of people live within a mile of their nearest branch, and it is estimated that a third of residents and a half of SMEs visit one at least once a week – the kind of footfall that other organisations would give their right arm for.

A number of Subpostmasters up and down the country are already capitalising on these opportunities and showing what can be achieved with limited resources. Win Morgan from Llangadog Post Office in South West Wales provides packaging and technical support for home-based businesses, while Tanya Vasileva (pictured) from Belzise Park Post Office in London provides shelf space for local businesses to sell their wares. Danielle Barnes from Port Clarence Post Office in Stockton has gone as far as to host a health centre, crèche, training rooms and café next to her branch.

Yet these are the exception rather than the rule. Most Subpostmasters are some way away from running the type of Community Enterprise Hubs called for in our report. This is a loss not only to the community but also to the bottom line of Subpostmasters. By doing more to support local residents and businesses Post Offices could tap into valuable new revenue streams and drive up all important footfall. Indeed, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Post Offices are first and foremost commercial businesses, and as such need to stand on their own two feet.

Tomorrow’s world also presents more opportunities for Post Offices than many would currently believe. The growth of microbusinesses, self-employment and homeworking presents Subpostmasters with an opportunity to make them­selves indispensable hubs for local business communities. Likewise, their ability to understand community dynamics is an attractive trait for potential public service partners seeking to support an ageing society, implement demand management (see another report we published this week) and create bottom-up responses to social problems. Whether it is in smoothing the transition to Universal Credit or improving access to affordable finance, there is nearly always something the Post Office could bring to the table.

With this in mind, the RSA has set out several new proposals designed to encourage and enable more Subpostmasters to make the transition to a Community Enterprise Hub. This includes nurturing a more entrepreneurial culture across the network, rewriting the underlying narrative of the Post Office, and attracting new talent into the cohort of Subpostmasters. In practical terms, this might mean creating a new Subpostmasters Apprenticeship Scheme to bring in fresh faces; or fast-tracking the serial Subpostmasters who want to run multiple branches. The RSA has also suggested inviting social entrepreneurs to become the next generation of Subpostmasters.

In 2014, the RSA and Post Office Ltd will work together to realise some of these proposals.

The Big Idea: making cities fully transparent

January 13, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship, Uncategorized 

Nathan Boublil Nathan Boublil FRSA co-founded, a Cambridge-based software company aggregating the millions of statistical spreadsheets released by government units. While the data-driven software is mainly intended for professional decision-makers, is now partnering with cities to launch OpenCity portals. These virtual townhalls allow any citizen to be able to seamlessly view all available data points about their city and engage with other citizens as well as their local policy makers.

The story so far, founded in late 2012 by a team of Cambridge University graduates, has been committed to developing technology addressing Open Data’s usability issues: segregation (the data divided across more than 500 portals on the web) and formatting (eclectic mix of data formats, structures and languages). As millions of datasets are being released publicly by government units, has been working on ways to aggregate, geo-reference and normalise this statistical data, creating in the process a search engine particularly relevant for professional decision-makers (corporate strategists, NGOs, government officials). Supported by the RSA’s Catalyst programme, Cambridge University, Unltd and Google, has already aggregated over 20 million datasets. will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks. is now looking to apply this technology to tackling local issues by launching OpenCity. Encouraged by a prize received from San Francisco’s Mayor Lee last year, the team is now starting collaborations with cities in the UK and abroad to create a full local transparency solution. The offer is simple: the software aggregates of all of a city’s public data (hundreds to tens of thousands of datasets depending on the city) on a single online page and the easy-to-use interface lets any citizen comment on the layers of data using their existing social media credentials.


We have all seen the deluge of citizens commenting about their cities, neighbourhood of street – in positive or negative ways – on obscure online forums or social media… The issue is that online citizen engagement has so far been inefficient. Comments often lack credibility as not backed up by data and simply hit a communications wall as there is no way for government officials to keep track (and therefore act on them).

Through OpenCity, we at are essentially creating a 24/7 easy-to-use virtual town hall. The platform provides a common structure where every citizen has access to all the objective (recent and historical) facts and can, in one click, make data-driven suggestions/comments involving other citizens and local officials. The entire platform is geo-referenced, making it particularly easy to navigate. All discussions happen using twitter/facebook credentials, adding even more convenience as both citizens and (increasingly) government officials are present on the social networks. will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks.

At Nacue’s varsity pitch in November (where won best financial technology), ex Ambassador David Landsman OBE called “an important tool for democracy”. Indeed, clearly intends to provide a way to improve both transparency and accountability – one city at a time.

How you can get involved is currently recruiting 5 partner cities (3 in the UK and 2 abroad), of all sizes. If you are interested to be part of the scheme or believe your city should be – please do get in touch with us on More information can also be found on

Nathan Boublil FRSA

To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage

Social Brain’s Top 10 of 2013

December 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

If there are two things I know, they’re that a) time goes by too quickly and b) everyone loves a list. So with this in mind and with 2013 drawing to a close, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the work that we’ve done in the Social Brain Centre here at the RSA.  Below we offer you the top 10 “best of” the Social Brain blogs, in chronological order. Enjoy!


In The Key to Eternal Happiness, Nathalie discusses the difficulty of sticking to goals and offers a way to reposition the want/should conflict (what I should do isn’t always what I want to do now) to understand how we can help ourselves to be both happy now and happy later.

Divided Brain, Divided World introduces a publication of the same name, which is a Q&A between Jonathan and Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, and a series of reflections from other parties. McGilchrist’s work is the subject of one of our much-loved RSAAnimates.

In What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos, our late colleague Emma announced the launch of a report in association with Hanover Housing Association, provides key findings, and offers some quotes illustrating the divergent views of ageing.

We argue in Two types of climate radicalism that to live with climate change we must either accept radical change or we must radically ignore or deny the concept.  This foreshadowed the in-depth report, A new Agenda on Climate Change, published this week.

The post When was the last time you went on a Saving Spree?  describes some innovative new tools to help people save more money and improve their personal finances.

We pay tribute to our late colleague, Emma Lindley, in Emma and In Memory of Dr Emma Lindley.  She is sorely missed and remains in our thoughts and hearts.

Taking Spirituality Seriously talks us through the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ questions of Spirituality to introduce our current programme of work, including a series of workshops and public events.

We describe one way that behavioural science might be used in schools to help boost performance in Starting with an A, giving a taste of a forthcoming report which will be published in both English and German.

The Guardian’s sustainable business hub section features Jonathan’s Changing Behaviour: How Deep Do You Want to go? 

Recently, again in anticipation of the climate change report, the Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death? post explains the ‘energy trilemma’ and what it means for our strategies to mitigate climate change.


Given all the blogs we’ve written this year, it was difficult to pare down the list. These are not necessarily the most-viewed posts, but together they give a glimpse into the range of projects we have been working on this year. Keep your eyes peeled for publication announcements in the near future.

Most importantly, thank you for all of your interest, (re)tweets, Facebook likes, and thoughtful comments throughout the year. We’re looking forward to continuing our blogging in 2014!

Many warm wishes for a happy holiday season to all of our readers,

From the Social Brain Centre


The RSA will be closed for the holidays from December 24rd 2013 to January 1st 2014, inclusive.

Substance Use Network Edinburgh (SUNE): Getting Ready for Better Services Learning Event 24.10.13.

In mid-summer I received a phone call from Lucy Stewart, a researcher working with Ossian Communications 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 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, which is an initiative of community development charity COMAS 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.

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