What We Talk About When We Talk About RSA Events (with apols to Raymond Carver)

January 23, 2015 by · 1 Comment
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rsa events what we talk about

Hello world! The indefatigable members of the events team have just emerged – blinking in the bright sunlight – after an inspiring,  provocative, and (blisteringly exhausting) triad of events. Of course a week doesn’t go by without an acclaimed thought-leader or practitioner popping up on our stage, so this week is in many ways ‘business as usual’ for us. But I think this particular trifecta really encapsulates the unique ambitions of the RSA’s programme of activity, and thanks to some propitious stars aligning (and, regrettably, a lot of refined sugar) we managed to deliver something approaching our Platonic ideal of an event offering. Read more

Je suis Charlie? Tiptoeing into the debate

January 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

Amanda Kanojia, head of administration, ARC

I was in Paris last weekend – a very pleasant thing to do. I’ve always had a soft spot for Paris; there is something about it that I never tire of. So it’s good to be there for the weekend. But this particular weekend was special. Last week a number of Parisians were killed for what they do and the way they do it. And Je suis Charlie now echoes along the boulevards and alleyways and streets and squares of Paris … France … the world.


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Who in the world is Pascal Gielen?

January 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Uncategorized 

Have you ever heard of Pascal Gielen?

I hadn’t before I was given one of his short books, Creativity and other Fundamentalisms.

It’s as dense as the title suggests, but I stuck with it and found a few decent gems of wisdom. Essentially he argues that society has developed an unhealthy fetish for individual entrepreneurship, which in his view encapsulates the way that work has become more ‘nomadic’ and ‘rootless’. Increasing numbers of us, Gielen agues, have been set adrift on our own rubber dinghies, while the cruise ships of the welfare state lie idle, and the yachts of the super wealthy glide by (his metaphor, not mine). Worse, we’re all complicit in this neoliberal agenda, having been convinced to sacrifice our rights in the futile pursuit of self-realisation – something Gielen calls ‘self-precarisation’.

So, not exactly light-hearted. But still worth a read if you’re interested in thought-provoking commentary on the future of work, education and business.

Here are a few of those gems I mentioned:

On professionalisation and the development of generic skills:

We should not be fooled by these loud calls for professionalisation…. The aim of all this is to deliver ‘broadly employable’ or ‘polyavent’ students, multi-purpose individuals who follow just one important imperative: that of adaptation or – indeed – anticipation… The point is by ‘tuning into’ the market, schools lose all performativity (and authority) to make their own mark and therefore no longer provide a spine to those who wish to stand up straight and undertake some daring act.

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Have yourself a merry indie Christmas

December 5, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Uncategorized 

It’s Small Business Saturday tomorrow, and small business owners will be hoping for a repeat of last year’s £468 million of sales at special events across the country. It’s a good week to be one of them – as well as the Saturday boost, George Osborne’s Autumn statement extended small business rate relief again and promised a review of business rates for 2016.

shop independent

From @LolaHoadDesign

Since the turn of the century there’s been a 40% increase in the number of firms with less than 10 employees. At the RSA we argue that this growth in self-employment and microbusiness is a good thing, and a trend that should be supported by policy. The RSA’s Power of Small project has found that despite lower incomes and fewer perks, the self-employed are more satisfied and happier overall than most other groups in the wider workforce. It’s an area for high potential growth, although our latest report, Everyday Employers, highlights the need for smarter policy to encourage the self-employed to take on employees. Microbusinesses are also at the forefront of the move to a circular economy. Makerspaces such as FabLab London are providing individuals and businesses with access to sustainable design tools – makers are becoming fixers and simultaneously reducing waste.

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Big Idea: EyeFocus Accelerator

Disrupting Eye CareEyeCare

Start-up accelerators are going through an evolution, generally becoming more focused on verticals, such as digital health or fintech. I have taken this one step further, establishing an accelerator focused on eye care.

I am testing the idea that a very focused accelerator can offer better support for the start-ups, but also that it can act as a catalyst to build out an ecosystem. In this instance we are building the eye-care innovation ecosystem.

The accelerator is a 12 week program, and therefore a short, focused period of activity around which to cluster people. It is not labour intensive for partners and mentors, yet due to its intensity is very content rich and has high returns for those involved.

The returns are more than just supporting the start-ups. Mentoring is a great way to learn about new innovations, to challenge your own ideas, and to meet other mentors. Equally, our partners and sponsors are getting involved in a very focused networking opportunity. We hope to create value for the whole ecosystem, whilst at the same time offering intense support for our start-ups. Read more

PRISINNOVATION: Thinking Out of the Cell

Practivate, led by Fellow Leslie Alfin, provides a gateway for former gang members and ex-prisoners to work in social enterprises. Abilities that have been fostered in destructive patterns of deprivation and loss are rewritten as valuable business skills that can create a positive, sustainable future in society. RSA Catalyst is supporting Practivate’s Indigogo crowdfunding campaign ‘Keepin’ It R.E.A.L. Homeware for Life’, live until November 18th; support their campaign here.

picThe current rate of prison recidivism in the UK is approximately 30% at a cost to UK taxpayers of more than £10 billion annually. The cost of addressing street crime perpetrated by gang activity is over £40 billion annually. The human costs paid by individuals and society can’t be measured. This pattern is repeated around the globe.

As a global society we currently spend more time and money re-purposing plastic bottles than we do re-claiming the vast intellectual and creative human resources that can be found sitting behind bars “spending all day in their cells rather than being engaged in training and rehabilitation.—BBC News” .

Government or institutional “solutions” tend toward manual, low paying labour. This undervalues the potential of individuals who have, from a very early age, collected impressive business experience and skills, a portfolio of innovation ‘know-how’ and tools that could rival (and perhaps trump) the best from business schools.

The assumption that certain “disadvantaged” individuals or communities are less capable of meaningful and valuable contribution may be short sighted at best and stereotypical at worst. Read more

How to… Research and Innovate?

November 12, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Uncategorized 

How do you know how to approach a brief? How do you do design research? And how do you turn that research into innovation? These are the pressing questions the RSA Student Design Awards tackled with approximately 100 students from across the country as part of our workshop programme over the last few weeks.

As a global curriculum and competition, the RSA Student Design Awards are working to provide increased opportunities for participants to develop new insights and skills to complement their design education. In addition to workshops this year on design innovation (described here), we’ve run workshops on commercial awareness and designing behavior change and our workshop programme is growing.

One of the biggest challenges for designers is not second-guessing the solution before they’ve carried out the research because they want to design a particular product or service or already have an idea in mind.

Our 2014 design innovation workshops, facilitated by Professor Simon Bolton FRSA (an internationally acclaimed designer, innovation consultant and global thought leader for Procter and Gamble as well as Associate Dean for Applied Research and Enterprise at the Faculty of the Arts, Design & Media, Birmingham City University) gave RSA Student Design Awards participants a set of practical tools to help understand a design brief, conduct impactful design research and translate insights into innovative ideas.

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The next generation of internet technology could kill the big, hierarchical, unequal organisation

November 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent, Uncategorized 

I have just read Bitcoin: The Future of Money by Dominic Frisby published by Unbound. I read it in one sitting. It is a fantastic read and fascinating book.

Dominic makes a compelling case that Bitcoin, or more likely one of its cryptocurrency cousins, spells the end for big government.

He makes the point that the huge expansion of the state in the last century was funded through taxation, borrowing or printing of money. All of these things are much harder to do if a government does not issue and control its own currency. This is why cryptocurrencies are such a threat to the big state. They are issued not by governments or central banks but by computer code and the activities of a decentralised network of individuals and organisations.

But what made me really sit up was the discussion towards the end of the book about an initiative called Ethereum. It is slightly mind-boggling but, in essence, Ethereum is taking the highly secure, highly private and highly decentralised technology of Bitcoin and using it to enable a wide range of other activities on the web not just the production and use of currency. This could include the establishment of business partnerships, social networks, new apps and various other web platforms.

Bitcoin has proved that so-called Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) can work and work very well using a technology called ‘block chain transactions‘. A DAO is simply a body or network with a certain goal that is driven by mutually agreed partnerships between the individuals in that organisation rather than by the plans of a select group of owners or managers at the top of the body.

This suggests that Bitcoin, or at least the technology behind it, could challenge not just the role of big government but also the hold that the large corporation has over the economy including the new internet behemoths such as Facebook, YouTube and Google.

We may genuinely be entering a new era in which our top down, big, rigid organisations built around high concentrations of power and wealth are challenged by a whole new species of flatter, smaller, fluid organisations in which power and wealth are distributed more evenly or, at least, in which established distributions are more ephemeral and easily challenged.

As Dominic says in the book, the Bitcoin phenomenon is about much, much more than Bitcoin. It seems to me it may also be an acceleration of the shift to smaller, flatter organisations that release mass creativity.


These themes amongst others will be explored in my book, Small is Powerful: Why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing). I’m crowd-funding for the book, so you can pre-order and help make sure it gets published here.

I’m on Twitter here.

I don’t believe in climate change…

November 3, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

…but to clarify, I don’t “believe” in anthropogenic climate change, because it is not a religion.

I do, however, accept that there is considerable scientific evidence that man-made climate change is happening, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help to mitigate against its effects. And yesterday’s 100-page “synthesis report”  from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) backs this up no uncertain terms, stating that:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity between 2000 and 2010 were the highest in history.
  • Since 1970, total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement production have tripled.
  • It’s extremely likely humans are responsible for more than half of the warming since the 1950s. Scientists’ best guess is that greenhouse gases explain all the warming.

But while the evidence presented by the IPCC suggests that it is imperative that “action” is taken now, as my colleague Jonathan Rowson has said: generic calls for ‘action’ on climate change actually stifle our ability to act. While the IPCC outlines some clear measures that countries could take to deal with emissions, it offers the broad caveat: “Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation.”  Policies and cooperation, eh? Now that’s the tricky bit.

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Three baby steps to direct democracy

October 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy, Uncategorized 

In his blog last week, Adam Lent talked about a crisis of representative democracy, referencing a YouGov survey in which 72% agreed with the statement: ‘politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society’. He eloquently made the case for political parties to  “shift away from the current highly representative approach to democracy based on strong party discipline, to one with a larger element of direct democracy”.

While I agree with the sentiment – indeed it is my team’s raison d’être to support a “shift in power to people and communities so that they can better meet their economic and social needs and aspirations” – I think there are a number of steps between where we are now and “direct democracy”. So rather than take on the problem as a whole, perhaps we should look at it in smaller chunks – baby steps, like the following:


1. Put down the PR tools

Think back to last month’s party conferences: the speakers were all careful to show their empathy for the common man, liberally referencing real people and situations, but by trying to curb support for Ukip with carefully crafted speeches about people’s lives, it reinforced the disconnect between their lives and those of their subjects. Read more

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