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.

The power to create.. what?

The RSA is, almost fundamentally, a place of debate.  We debate at lectures with speakers; we debate online with the media; but most of all, we debate amongst ourselves.  We debate the morning’s news over breakfast; we debate project and report details at lunch; we debate existentialist dilemmas and the meaning of life over late-night drinks; and the cycle begins anew.

But lately we’ve been debating even more than usual, because the topic of discussion has not been about this or that, but about us and what we stand for.  A consensus on a new agenda is (slowly) building around the idea of ‘the power to create’: the belief that “all should have the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality”.  This emerging worldview was first articulated by Adam Lent, Director of RSA’s Action and Research Centre.

It’s a concept that embodies two of our core principles:

  1. Creativity: that individual and collective ingenuity will be key to successfully addressing the complex web of social, economic and ecological challenges we now face as a society
  2. Inclusivity: that the best solutions to these challenges will emerge from the bottom-up, rather than be imposed from the top-down

Where debate has broken out, it has typically concerned the lack of stipulation of which ideas we want to help people turn into reality.  Jonathan Rowson posted a full discussion of this issue, but for brevity I quote Paul Swann‘s comment, which put it thus:

“Calling for an ‘unprecedented explosion of creative endeavour’ is all well and good, but to what ends? Perpetual growth, short-term profits and increasing greenhouse gas emissions..?”

Paul’s question highlights that ‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility.  In other words, are we advocating a kind of capitalist creativity which rewards any innovation that is profitable, regardless of externalities?  Or are we, with tonight’s speaker, David Harvey, promoting a revolutionary creativity to oppose capital’s exploitation of people and planet?  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I find the question interesting as an exercise in questioning my own ideals.

‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility

“Ultimately”, it was said in our latest round of debate, “what will give any prospective agenda meaning is not the words we use, but the work we do.”  And perhaps the work I am doing is illustrative of the kind of creativity I want to see in the world.  Following on from a productive round table discussion with manufacturing representatives, policy makers, academics and NGOs, I am exploring the potential for a new project to accelerate the transition towards sustainable manufacturing.  The creative, inclusive and responsible vision here is one of a circular economy, in which production is localised rather than centralised, mass customisation replaces mass production, and pollution and waste become inputs rather than outputs of manufacturing.

Continuing the theme of working with business rather than against it, I am working on the RSA’s new Premium, which addresses the fact that we are chronically under-investing in our workforce, leaving people unproductive and unfulfilled.  Grounded in the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Valuing Your Talent is a crowdsourcing challenge open to all, generating practical innovations to help businesses (particularly SMEs) recognise and make the case for greater investment in their people – get involved today!

What these two projects have in common is that they seek radical, transformative change in the way businesses work, but they do so through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach.  So if our work says more than our words about who we are, then to the question, ‘what kind of creativity do I want to see in the world?’ I say:

This kind of creativity!’


Conor Quinn works in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre.  Follow him @conorquinn85

Top down, bottom up, side to side, inside out: 4 types of social change and why we need them all.

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The next time somebody tells you that we need to move beyond ‘top down’ solutions and do things ‘bottom up’, ask them which way is North on their compass – where are they exactly, and where are they trying to go?

Image via

The point is not so much to disorient them but to get beyond cliches, and think harder both about what really matters and the stubborn persistence of lazy distinctions.

For starters, there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘top-down’. There’s a time and place for authority, hierarchy and regulation, usually to resolve intractable debates or create impact at scale, but it needs to be democratised and contained with suitable checks and balances.

And there is nothing inherently right about ‘bottom-up’, because while there is also a time and place for context, specificity, granularity, and the passion that comes from particular people fighting for particular purposes in particular places, there is a limit to what you can achieve without the major levers or economic and political power.

The deeper problem is that this geometric juxtaposition feels cliche-ridden because it is two dimensional, ‘flatland’ view of the world and the power that lies within it. If the RSA’s emerging ‘Power to Create’  worldview is going to walk its own talk, we do need to clarify our position with respect to top down and bottom up approaches, while also framing the scope for social change more imaginatively. Different kinds of problems need different social change strategies, and most problems need all of them.

As indicated in a previous post, I think ‘The Power to Create’ pivots around a range of interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

As Cultural theorists have highlighted before, forms of social change are manifold, and often in tension, so while the power to create apparently leans towards ‘bottom-up’ approaches, I find the following four-part structure useful, not least because it highlights the importance of the deeper forms of behaviour change that have defined Social Brain’s work over the last few years.

We need to use all available tools; that means we need the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive as the whole thing unfolds.

1. Top-Down (Political change for challenges relating to social and economic structure)

Key features: Impact at scale, usually involuntary, often relies on policy influence followed by regulatory change. 

Regulation gets a hard time, but it is sometimes necessary to create change at scale. The major changes needed to break down some of the barriers that currently constrain the power to create might include:

  • Challenging the legal status of corporations as persons, which arguably gives big business far greater legal protections than they deserve.
  • Working with the Law Society to shift fiduciary duties, so that companies can fulfill their legal obligations to shareholders while also factoring in the long term viability of the business, which would make it much easier to be genuinely sustainable.
  • Introducing a basic income for everybody in the population to strengthen the core economy based on care and trust, and mitigate the risks that prevent many from starting their own business. In case this sounds loony left, it might surprise you to know that Hayek supported this idea.
  • Campaigning on land reform. Coming from Scotland, the law of trespass in English law is a pain and the freeholder/leaseholder divide on many properties in England strikes me as utterly bizarre; such constraints get in the way of various forms of community action and people using their properties in creative ways, for instance to create or store their own energy.

2. Bottom-up (Social change for challenges relating to tangible and specific issues of a civil, civic or ecological nature)

Key features: Specific and contextual, usually voluntary but often need-driven and stemming from individuals or small groups and often tied to particular places or domains. 

Such top-down changes don’t prevent bottom-up changes; if anything their purpose should be to facilitate and encourage them. Local context is not a noise obscuring an underlying Platonic political form, but the very lifeblood of what matters to most people. Recycling, for instance, is about global resource constraints; but for many it’s about orange council bags under the sink or blue boxes out in the street.

We need to use all available tools; the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive in this process.

If the power to create is partly about a reconceptualisation of agency, that means motivating people to act, which means seeing how the macro is manifest at a micro level in our lived experience, and starting from there. Paul Hawken’s classic book ‘Blessed Unrest’ about the rise of social movements gives an excellent overview of this kind of power.

3. Side-to-side(Change stemming from socio-technical disruption, characterised by systemic innovation)

Key features: Change that stems from loose associations of values and interests across domains, usually disruptive or entrepreneurial in spirit, grounded in virtual networks, now pervasive and international due to social media. 

What the conventional idea of ‘bottom-up’ change doesn’t capture is the significance of what Jeremy Rifkind calls lateral power and the growth in ‘disintermediation’ – people can get things done by themselves or with other like minded individuals without intermediaries in ways that were unimaginable until recently.

The very idea of top and bottom feels partial in this context. In addition to the hierarchies of vertical power(top down, bottom-up) there are heterarchies of lateral power; networks of varying size, shape and influence that often lie dormant but can suddenly be hugely influential in response to particular events, and cut across regions and countries.

Such shifts have altered the very idea of social change as necessarily place-based or even country-based, as indicated by Avaaz among others. This kind of horizontal influencing power, fuelled by ongoing technological disruption, lies at the heart of the rationale for our focus on ‘the power to create’.

4. Inside-out (change stemming from contemplative practices, seeking transformative changes to our ends as well as our means)

Key features: the psychological, spiritual and cultural underpinnings of all the other forms of social change; often contemplative or reflective in spirit, targeted mostly at major hidden assumptions, immunity to change, and adaptive challenges.

As argued here previously, what interests me most personally is the inner power to create; the relatively neglected fourth form of social change that is about integration, and the connection between the work we do on ourselves and the work we do out in the world. To grow in confidence and individual agency, to believe we can turn our ideas into reality in a meaningful and not merely tokenistic way, we need to work hard on on the consonance between what we think, say and do on a regular basis. And we need a much more robust idea of what to aim for in life, for ourselves and society as a whole. Only from that kind of enriched foundation, which we often need to work on ourselves to attain, can we act with conviction in the world.

The inertia within established forms of economic and political power is so very strong, that we have to keep on reminding ourselves what really matters to us in order to steer ourselves away from financial instability, social recession, and ecological collapse. And where to exactly? With finite personal time on a physically finite planet, we need the existential to inform the economic. Our collective task is to help each other build a sense of power and purpose, and use that power to create the conditions that will allow us all to live fulfilling lives.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Reflections on ‘Developing Socially Productive Places’

This is a guest blog by Alison Seabrooke, Chief Executive of Community Development Foundation. Alison spoke at our recent conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.


I was privileged to be asked to participate on the closing discussion panel at the RSA and British Land event on 2nd April on ‘socially productive places’. These places are ones where communities have an opportunity to shape the physical environment where they live, work and socialise; and to benefit socially and financially from the end result. It was clear from the opening speakers that community and built environment development should be intertwined and that places should be networked in more than one sense. This common thread ranged from the need to cluster like-minded businesses and for greater public, private and voluntary sector collaboration, to well-designed transport infrastructure which helps people move about and connect.

The event was comprised of a largely private and public sector audience. During the sessions we heard inspiring stories of successful private and public sector community development. Chris Grigg, Chief Executive of British Land, a property investment company, opened the day by describing his experience of the 30-year Regents Place development. The success of this project was an exception given the long timescale, but he gave a convincing description of his, and his company’s, changes to community development practice as a result of the project. His conviction that community collaboration worked for them was driven by his experience that sitting at the table with local residents and businesses led to intelligent, productive and sustainable outcomes. Which makes sense: how many new developments are delayed and local tensions stirred by a failure to communicate effectively? Or how many companies, or public bodies, pursue a new development without the input of pragmatic, locally-driven intelligence? In effect, these processes of local engagement should also be viewed as a form of commercial as well as community risk mitigation.

Of course, it isn’t always like this and there are some difficult and bloody-minded professionals, as well as difficult and bloody-minded people living in our communities. But we all have the ability to be difficult when liberated from the constraints of our professional roles. So I remain bemused at these events when ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, when sensible and intelligent people separate their lived experiences, personal desires and expectations from their views on how things should work in a community other than their own.

At the event, we also heard about difficult community ‘representatives’; but then there were the side comments that these people actually come from all walks of life, including developers and planners, who turn up to argue against local developments. There were also comments that communities aren’t consistently reliable – of course they’re not! Communities, like organisations, change; people move on, their interests evolve throughout life cycles and local political leadership shifts. But unlike organisations, communities aren’t limited by a structure to drive consistent behaviour. That’s what can make them unreliable. It was the people who deeply understood this and worked with the grain, like Ed Watson from Camden council, who remain excited about the change that can be achieved in communities.

During our 50 years’ of work in and with communities here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), we have learned that there are more common than divergent interests amongst different parties wishing to achieve ‘socially productive places’ – just as there are often more shared aspirations between people and families of different faith, race and socio-economic background than disparities. In fact, I would argue that there are usually more common goals between those pursuing new built environment developments and those living in the communities that benefit from them.

Let me describe what I mean by this. At the event, businesses and local authority planners talked about development to increase local economic prosperity, through things like increased land values, created by intelligent housing, business and transport infrastructure. For this, developers need a strong employment pool, populated by people with the right sets of skills. What’s more, public officials want to see environmental quality of place to meet health and community safety objectives.

In comparison, what do people living in communities want? Well, in my community, we want financial prosperity and wellbeing, driven by opportunity – jobs, education and training – to enable us to live in decent housing, with good schools and transport. And we want a pleasant environment so we feel healthier and safer. It seems what developers and communities want are simply both sides of the same coin.

What we know at CDF, and what those like Chris and Ed have learned, is that it takes a particular set of skills to facilitate these discussions, to be able to help prioritise goals and agree or agree to disagree on particular outcomes. New developments are about more than the spadework involved in digging the footings to a building; they are about the work behind the scenes to develop common goals and a shared understanding of what a socially productive place might feasibly look like. In other words, development that works for the wider community.

As William Blake said, ‘without contraries is no progression’, or Maroon 5 (She Will Be Loved) sing, ‘it’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along’.

If you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom?

April 8, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

In Dan Willingham’s superb book ‘why students don’t like school’, one of his provocative conclusions is that ‘the mind is not designed for thinking’. The problematic combination of effort, uncertainty and mental availability leads us to be, in John Hattie’s words, ‘highly selective about what we pay attention to’. Although Willingham is pragmatic and optimistic about solutions to this issue, his Realpolitik starting point is salutary and useful. If, to use Robert Coe’s definition, pupils are learning when they are ‘thinking hard’, their capacity to dislike and avoid learning things should hardly surprise us.

A similar analysis could easily be applied to the question of ‘why teachers don’t like research’. Of course there are structural, system-wide barriers to teachers’ engagement with research, and more could be done to incentivise the profession. However, this doesn’t wholly explain an overall teacher culture whose daily detritus, whether on staffroom walls, classroom desks or ‘to do’ lists, rarely lets the research light in. Time is an enemy of most good intentions, but I don’t think that if all teachers suddenly conjured, say, an extra hour a week to spend on professional learning, they would flock to the altar of research engagement.

With all this in mind, I went to my first researchED conference on Saturday. The beautiful baby of teacher blogger Tom Bennett, researchED is a thriving teacher-led movement. Frustrated by the wavering attempts of both Government and the Academy to connect teachers with research, and the variable quality of the stuff that cuts through, researchED’s curators are doing it for themselves through sell-out conferences and online conversations.

Although the researchED posse is a little dominated by the more traditional end of the teacher spectrum (and I don’t blame the organisers for this), the conference reminded me of Creative Partnerships at its best, when teachers and others engaged deeply with and in grounded research to inform the programmes they were designing.

I was there to discuss the findings and emerging recommendations from our Inquiry with BERA into research and teacher education, but really wanted to ‘learn from the converted’; to gain an understanding of why the teachers gathered on a Saturday in Birmingham were the exception rather than the rule, and whether this mattered. As I asked the teachers at my session: ‘why are you weird?’ One participant tweeted, ‘I feel like the lone nut’, then talked about his isolation as the only person in his secondary school who had heard of John Hattie. Another talked about the fear factor when her senior leadership team were promoting evidence-free interventions (yes, brain gym got another deserved kicking, although I tried to remind people that progressives and constructivists don’t have the monopoly on snake oil).

The BERA/RSA Inquiry’s interim report and follow-up conversations has convinced me that the development of all teachers’ ‘research literacy’ does matter, and made me increasingly optimistic that progress can be made. Research literacy (which does not require all teachers to be researchers) matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.

What are my grounds for optimism? When I left teaching fifteen years ago, we were just getting to grips with data, and how attainment data should inform classroom decisions. Now, this is a universally accepted attribute – in virtually every teacher’s job description. The depth of this cultural change struck me at a recent RSA Academies INSET day, when food technology teachers (perhaps not the usual data suspects) were having sophisticated data-led discussions. England is the most data-rich education system in the world. This gives us an incredible foundation to become both data-driven and research-rich during the next decade. Small nudges, whether from the passionate people who are researchED,  the Education Endowment Foundation, or  government rhetoric and requirements, for instance to demonstrate an evidence-informed approach to pupil premium spending, could combine to make a huge, rapid difference. We hope that our Inquiry’s country-specific recommendations and system-wide ‘design principles’ can also contribute when launched next month. I am also aiming to broker a productive partnership between researchED and BERA. A clever alignment could catalyse some common ambitions.

You can find links to an impressive multitude of blogs at #redb on twitter. Here are my thoughts from a fantastic day that might help maintain the researchED momentum.

1) People who can sound shrill and overconfident on twitter and blogs are much more prepared to engage critically with issues when face to face – yes, I mean me too. This means that, for all the social media and clever online engagement solutions emerging, the sometimes-visceral nature of events such as researchED matters deeply to the key task of creating a little more (if never total) long term consensus about schools and learning.

2) Progressive educators need to join the researchED fray. It would also be terrific to bring theory and research into practical learning and arts learning into the Research-Ed conversation.  As part of this process we need to read, and to some extent reclaim, elements of cognitive psychology to inform our thinking.

3) On the other side of a confusing fence, the teachers and researchers who are using cognitive psychology to justify and explore pedagogies should embrace some developmental and behavioural psychology too. Even within the range of cognitive outcomes they focus on, it’s still worth exploring, for example, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck, and some of the other theories summarised in our recent report into behavioural insights and education.

4) We need a common, cognitive bias-free commitment to nonsense-detection. Andrew Old should be as angry about Toby Young’s recent evidence-lacking Civitas pamphlet as Debra Kidd is. Together, we should be on commentators’ cases.  The Education Endowment Foundation or new Education Media Centre could take on a national rapid-reaction ‘health warning’ role whenever anyone plays fast and loose with evidence.

5) Compared to ‘official’ research conferences, researchED speakers are often prepared to ‘present before they are ready; the ‘mad idea’ of ‘mapping the complexity of concepts’ is a great example of this. Could ResearchED create a light touch, formative alternative to the classic ‘peer review’ process that stimulate an ongoing critical dialogue which aims for ‘just in time’ improvements to research efforts, rather than ‘just too late’ destruction?

From the promotion of girls’ education in the 19th Century to the more recent Start Right early years campaign, the RSA has a wonderful history of supporting important movements for change in education. The researchED phenomenon could be just as crucial, and we’re up for helping it sustain success in any way we can.

How to develop a socially productive place

Last week the RSA brought together over 100 people who invest in, plan and construct our built environment – homes, workplaces and public buildings. Here, we summarise the key insights generated, and diverse voices heard. In the next two months, we will pull together a paper outlining policy directions for the government and the various relevant sectors of industry. This will be an open process, so we are starting here summarising feedback and providing minutes and presentations:

We want this to be the basis of an inclusive “in the pub” conversation which includes constructive cricism…

To open the conference, Mark Prisk MP, former housing minister, gave a keynote address – welcomed by Chris Brown of Igloo as the best he had heard in years. Mark was aware of how his ability to speak freely was liberated.

Mark outline five key challenges for the conference

  • “we will need to show people that when we build to a greater density, its desirable for them and for the wider community.”
  • “what needs to change, so we can integrate this [rapidly growing] older population back into the community?”
  • “those of you who are investors or owners will reel from the idea of broad, mixed-use asset classes. However isn’t it time to recognise how people’s lives are changing, and not leave these assets increasingly vulnerable to becoming redundant ?”
  • “So what does it mean for a space to be public? And how do we square private ownership and public access, in either new settlements, or urban renewal schemes?
  • “The final challenge is how can we empower people, to create lasting communities? It’s that social side, less tangible but just as important, which acts as the glue that binds a community together. Now all too often this is the exception not the rule. We need to change this, developers, community leaders and politicians alike.”

In short, the conference had to consider how our planning, development and construction sectors account for the changing reality of work, rest and play? You can watch his full presentation here:

Tim Dixon’s session concerned how the built environment fosters social sustainability, well-being and a sense of community.

Other sessions emphasised the need to allow successful places to grow and fulfil their potential? Chairing a session, Ben Lucas noted how this question was tackled by the City Growth Commission

…and identified that keeping successful places successful, while expanding them, rather than always making new places, is an art which may be promoted by new ownership models.

Matt Leach: What inspired you to take this approach?

Waheed Nazir: I’m a resident, born and bred. Grown up thinking “why is the public realm so awful”? It’s not rocket science – its basic. The planning process makes it complicated – frustrates residents.

Matt: How have you found winning over those who made the mistakes in the 90s?

Waheed: Haven’t called them ‘mistakes’, for starters.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor defined a socially productive place as a place where “people are enabled individually and collectively to come up with solutions which help to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them”. To realise this requires developing a shared vision. One challenge identified by Tom Bridges of Leeds Council is that places need to find a balance between finding their “unique selling point” in a competitive playing field, and having an economic development strategy which is too broad and generic so that “if you Tipp-Ex out the name of the place, it could be anywhere”.

All agreed that for successful places, a shared vision is required, and local plans need to be easy to understand. Where a vision is already in place (or development underway is prompting local people to respond), Ed Watson (Camden Council) and Nigel Ingram (Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation) considered the actions they had put into practice, based on their understanding of local places, to foster better social and economic outcomes.

…some suggestions were made, and there was much debate about who should be in the driving seat, and what drives socially productive places.

In the final session there was consensus that one focus should be achieving progress measuring the social impact of development in the built environment. This will be considered in a policy directions paper to be released via the RSA website in June 2014.

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