Filed under: Design and Society, Social Brain, Social Economy
Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.
An excerpt from the BBC coverage:
“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.
“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.
“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”
So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.
There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.
Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.
Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13
With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.
As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.
I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.
Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.
This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.
The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.
No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.
Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).
This is a blog by Samantha Fletcher, Martina Booth and Anna Clayton (RSA Fellowship staff).
The role of the library has evolved significantly. Once used exclusively for quiet reading and self-study, it is now a community space where people go for computer courses, children’s story times and even a cup of tea. A spokesperson for Blackheath Library in Greenwich comments:
‘”Libraries are places for everyone to use and enjoy. They’re our community centres, information hubs, spaces to learn or think and make ourselves feel better. We want to ensure libraries are developed in a way that means they stay at the heart of the community.”
As libraries evolve from silent self-study areas to community hubs, should we still be expected to be quiet whilst using them? Opinions differ! For instance, one of us was recently taken to task by a user of the RSA Library for being too noisy while dealing with a query from a Fellow. This made us reflect on our policy – or lack thereof – on users maintaining silence whilst working within it.
The RSA Library is a resource at our House for both RSA Fellows and staff, stocking books and DVDs relevant to the work and interests of the organisation and its Fellows. It provides a working space and reading room, WiFi and a Freepost service for those Fellows unable to visit in person. It’s open whenever the House is open.
We’ve never enforced silence in the library, because we firmly believe that the House is one of the best places to have an idea, and Fellows turning their ideas into action can help solve some of today’s social problems. Collaboration between our 27,000 Fellows is vital to this process, and to make the RSA Fellows’ Library a place where interaction is suffocated feels wrong and against the RSA’s basic principles.
Commanding total silence in the RSA Library also poses a challenge as to how we communicate with Fellows who have queries and issues. In addition the library is only staffed part-time, so a ‘total silence’ policy could never be effectively policed.
As libraries evolve from silent self-study areas to community hubs, should we still be expected to be quiet whilst using them? Opinions differ!
All that said, we appreciate that Fellows do not want to be unnecessarily disrupted whilst using the library and we hope that our Fellows are considerate and respectful of other Fellows using the shared space. So now it’s over to you: in future should we manage the library’s volume by putting a ‘no talking’ notice up? Or can we continue to promote quiet working but not insist on silence?
To have your say, please comment below, or alternatively email email@example.com. At the end of September the RSA Library steering group will review all feedback and discuss the issue.
Saving money can be hard to do, especially given the current economic climate and falling real wages. It can be difficult emotionally, too, with a recent report published by the Money Advice Service finding that many people prefer to spend their money “more on the here and now than on planning for the future.” But with the right help, maybe saving can even be fun.
Picture the scene: you are browsing online just about to purchase a t-shirt. You don’t actually really need another t-shirt, after all it looks exactly like all the others in your closet, but it is 30% off, so for £10 why not? But just before your online checkout, a message pops up asking whether you’d like to add £10 – instead of (or in addition to) making the purchase – to a savings account named “new computer”, “honeymoon fund”, or perhaps more important but somewhat less motivating “unforeseen emergencies”. Or, as you are waiting for the barista to hand you your coffee you eye up the croissants on the café counter. It looks tasty, so you consider adding it to your order, but instead, you use your phone to transfer the £2 you would have spent on the croissant into your savings pot designated for a gourmet foodie weekend in Paris.
image via edudemic.com
This is what ImpulseSave, a small Boston-based organisation is helping savers to do. Their motto, “go on a saving spree!” reflects its basic function of replacing spending with saving. According to this article, ImpulseSave allows you to transfer money into a savings account via text or app, and provides prompts to save while you are shopping online. Similar to some other savings tools, your savings account is named for a specific goal, so you always have in mind what your savings is building towards. Smarty Pig, another savings tool, also uses named accounts to keep the goal salient, but rather than making impulse saves, you set up automatic transfers from an existing account. How it differs from more conventional bank accounts is that you can share your progress online via various social media and friends or family can actually contribute to your savings pot to help you towards your goal.
The Social Brain Centre has argued elsewhere that saving money can be hugely beneficial to people; having a financial buffer can influence upward social mobility, effective decision making, and psychological wellbeing. But despite its benefits, many people find it hard to save.
So what do savings tools like ImpulseSave and SmartyPig offer to help people save more, that more traditional tools such as budget planners, while helpful, don’t seem to provide? Traditional tools assume that as long as people understand their incomings and outgoings, they will behave in such a way as to stay within their means. But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people to actually achieve their savings goals. Instead, we are often side-tracked by impulse purchases (the ImpulseSave website cites a staggering 15-20% of our take home pay is spent on impulse purchases “that we don’t need or even remember buying”!), short-sightedness, or lack of social support.
But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people actually achieve their savings goals.
The former tools, however, use insight about human nature and what drives our behaviour to help us (once we know our budget) stick to our savings goals. For example, with such busy lifestyles and our tendency to conserve mental energy, we are more likely to do something the easier it is to do. These tools make saving easy, either through automatic transfers or via simple digital tools. By naming the accounts, this brings our savings goals to the front of our attention, and helps keep us motivated by reminding us what we are working towards, even if that is to be spared the stress and anxiety of an unexpected expense (think a broken boiler or car repairs). And the social aspects of these tools may improve the motivation to save by evoking the desire to remain consistent with your publicly stated commitments, and also perhaps in some way by changing social norms around discussing openly what may be still somewhat of a taboo subject.
This is not to say that financial literacy is not important, but rather that beyond learning how to budget we may need some extra help along the way to achieve our savings goals. Tools like those discussed above seem to using behavioural insight to reposition saving from being something onerous to being something fun. So go ahead and try going on a saving spree, and comment below; we’d love to hear how it goes.
I spent yesterday afternoon at the Open East Festival in the new Queen Elizabeth Park. After the joyful but somewhat oversanitised experience of being in the park during last year’s Games, the slightly shambolic nature of the festival was reassuring. The wildflowers, the best surprise of last year’s visit, were less than unkempt, and barely flowering. The McDonalds had disappeared, as had the Gamesmakers. Turnout was probably lower than organisers had hoped, but the Hackney Colliery Band made the £10 entrance fee worthwhile.
Looking from the highest point of the park (a grassy mound where one of the big screens used to be), I finally got my head around the scale of the whole “village”, which mostly lies empty, and understood the task of reclaiming every square metre for use, whether public or private. Squeezed into a corner of the massive 2012 site, Open East served as an ironic reminder that the new Park is not mine, nor anyone else’s, and won’t be for many years. It’s worth comparing these two maps to show how little of the park will open to the public this year.
In terms of thinking about the legacy from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games, I’ll declare an interest as a local resident, and also having worked on the 2012 Get Set education programme last year. I did sign a non-disclosure agreement with LOCOG, but LOCOG has now been liquidated, and anyway my experience working there was entirely positive. Get Set was a brilliantly conceived and executed programme which, though careful not to overclaim, genuinely connected with thousands of schools, a few to the point of deep obsession. Working for LOCOG was, to my dismay, nothing like the sitcom 2012. The company was efficient, often generous if occasionally ruthless, and more focused and clear on its mission than anywhere I had ever worked. Unmovable deadlines do that, I guess.
One year on, it’s time for a sensible conversation about legacy. It’s not worth questioning whether the money was well spent (although my instinct is that the event could have been just as successful for half the estimated £12bn cost). However, last week’s ‘one year on’ coverage has been anything but sensible. The recent government report on the economic impact of the games seemed like Enron-style accounting, based on tangential evidence and uncertain future predictions. The Cultural Olympiad’s evaluation report is an equally dodgy advocacy-based evaluation. Seb Coe’s claim in a TV interview this weekend that the Games’ main achievement so far has been to enable us Brits to ‘think differently about ourselves and our nation’ was, unusually for him, a fuzzy and flabby response.
London 2012′s aim to ‘inspire a generation’ falls at the first conceptual hurdle. Which generation? To do what? Overall, legacy is such a tricky, slippery concept, I’d suggest that we boil it down to two long term outcomes, one national, the other local.
Nationally, let’s worry about sports participation, especially for those who currently do next to nothing on a regular basis that gets them out of breath. Sport England’s active people survey, in contrast to the frothy legacy-speak which surrounds this issue, is a breath of empirical fresh air. This showed a decline in sports participation since 2012.
Locally, let’s focus on regeneration, and whether the park and village deliver long term social and economic benefits, especially in the form of jobs, for low income residents in the most fragile parts of East London. Over the long term, this is measurable, even if causation and correlation can never be entirely disentangled.
The rest is noise; nonsense noise that should be confined to the cutting room floor of the next series of 2012. Surely there’s plans for a one off ‘legacy special’ episode?
Guest Blog: Why we must have a better bacc and why we need the understanding, imagination and common sense of the RSA
This guest blog from RSA Fellow Mark Hewlett reflects on recent changes to the national curriculum and last week’s launch of RSA’s Grand Curriculum Designs. It builds on my recent RSA Journal article about the Modern Baccalaureate.
Educational change continues; two weeks ago, proposals for the national curriculum. Last week, changes to primary accountability. We can all support initiatives to raise standards in basic skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT: the basic “languages”. But despite grand rhetoric there is a sense of disappointment, reflected in observations in The Times the following day, by Alice Thomson, who, being a self-avowed traditionalist, should be an ally of the Secretary of State. She sought, but failed to find, the imaginative vision to spark the originality, innovation, and inventiveness we really need for our national success. Equalling Hong Kong and Singapore in maths and literacy is fine but if that is the limit of the Government’s aspirations then we are being sold short. The Department’s sights are too low, its vision too narrow. We can do better.
These views were strongly re-enforced at last week’s launch of Grand Curriculum Designs, a new CPD programme led by the RSA and the Institute for Education. Teachers, dissatisfied with the current curriculum, were reporting on initiatives which focused not on the relatively superficial regime of the National Curriculum, but on outcomes in terms of general skills (intellectual/practical), competences (the ability to apply ideas to a range of specific issues) and positive attitudes to learning: the fundamentally important elements of learning.
Alice Thomson’s reaction to the modest proposals for the national curriculum reflects the views of those of us engaged in the arguably more significant task of designing a “better bacc” (shorthand for a curriculum and assessment framework) to meet our national interest, and the interests of all young people.
Our current curricular model (described misleadingly, as “academic”) is ill-designed to achieve the aims we all want, as stated by business leaders (the CBI is dismissive of the current E Bacc), by those responsible for the public services, the arts and sport even academics, and not least, politicians, whose statements of aims and aspirations are fine but bear only a weak relationship to the National Curriculum whose assessment system deflects energies from the essential and the important to activities of marginal relevance to the aims they espouse.
Questioning the relevance of our current curriculum, whose structure made sense in the thought world of 18th century Dissenters, whence it originated, Professor John White, in a seminal RSA paper, “How special are subjects?” recommends that we must ask fundamental questions about the purposes of education, for example as considered in “The Point of Education” (Matthew Taylor’s article in the RSA Journal Winter 2008) or the central question posed in The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education, “What counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?” These questions are not being effectively addressed by Government at this time.
If we agree that we want our education system to develop the whole range of young people’s talents to equip them with the skills (intellectual and practical) knowledge and understanding to achieve our national economic, social and cultural aspirations, what responsible person would produce an end-of-course assessment system which ignores or at best sidelines, Engineering, Design, Technology, Health Education in all its facets, Social Education, Citizenship, the Arts, and relegates to inferior status, those social sciences of Economics and Business Studies, Government and Constitution, Sociology, Psychology more relevant to understanding the world they will live in than History, that finds itself promoted with Geography, to pre-eminence, quite arbitrarily and with no coherent rationale. Let it be noted that all these subjects are as “academic” as those currently required in the E Bacc.
This is why we need the support of the RSA, to challenge ill-considered conservatism and inject some realism, common-sense and clear thought into debate about curriculum. The RSA carries weight as a society of thoughtful enlightened people who represent the interests of all educational stakeholders – in academe, business, the public services, design, technology and the arts, promoting intellectual thought and research and their translation into practical reality, a society characterised by its constant, restless drive to look forward and outward, to produce better solutions and characterised by its awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of learning. And all with no spurious distinction of status based on pseudo-academic prejudice -which infects thinking at the DfE, and results in a curriculum narrow, shallow and unfit for purpose.
This blog aims to generate support for those working for a better curriculum: broader, deeper and more imaginative. Visit the web sites of the RSA, Whole Education and HTRT or contact Joe Hallgarten for further information.
I recently had the pleasure on taking part in a focus group with teachers in Berlin. The context for this was a new and exciting cross-national collaboration of the RSA Social Brain Centre with the Vodafone Foundation Germany, a think tank focusing on education, integration and social mobility. The project centers on how behavioural insights might be used to help close the attainment gap; a full report will be published later this year.
At the focus group we spent the half-day learning about and discussing practical examples of perception biases, cognitive quirks, and what role the self-perception of students and teachers, as well as mutual perceptions, play. The group was highly curious, and the quality of debate remained high until the very end.
While I do not want to give away too much, here are three takeaways from the day:
- Thinking into action
Teachers agreed that the discussed concepts certainly were of importance, and some said they had learned about biases and other behavioural concepts at university. However, interestingly, many hadn’t been applying them directly to their own classroom teaching.
- Intuition versus evidence
Evidence-based, yet counter-intuitive mechanisms like loss aversion were controversial. By and large, related ideas for behavioural applications were accepted intellectually, but rejected intuitively – and practically. This poses an interesting dilemma in the context of best-practise and evidence-led approaches to teaching.
Teachers perceived themselves as individual fighters; at the same time they longed for more collaboration, but felt they do not get enough support from the system. This highlights that the challenge of more collaboration within, but also across schools transcends national borders. The RSA Education team has recently published an excellent report on this topic, ‘No school an island’, and with its RSA Family of Academies has already gained some important insights how to make it work.
To learn more about the project, please keep an eye on future posts on the Social Brain or Education Matters blogs, or contact my colleague Nathalie Spencer at the RSA Social Brain Centre.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him on Twitter: @joseflentsch
A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.
The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.
Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.
The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)
Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.
There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:
Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.
Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch
‘The best ideas are simple ideas.’ This was the assertion of a friend I met up with earlier this week for a pie and a pint, with a side order of his own-recipe barstool wisdom.
I found his stance difficult to agree with at first – it reminded me too much of my terrifying old English teacher gesturing at my waffly essays and barking, ‘What’s your argument? If you can’t explain it in ten seconds then you don’t have one!’ Yet over the course of this week I have come to see that he has a point. While we must always be mindful of the complexity of the problems we face as a society, if an idea cannot be expressed or enacted in a way that is meaningful to others then it is of very limited value.
Last Tuesday’s launch event for the new ‘Science, Medicine & Society Network’ at University College London served as a lesson in this principle. The Network is a new international academic partnership bringing together experts in health from a range of disciplines, and I had been worried that I would understand little of what the distinguished panel of medical clinicians, political scientists, lawyers and anthropologists would be discussing. Refreshingly though, the central, easy to comprehend message of the event was that although the challenges to global public health are complex and varied, the solutions must be grounded in simplicity, attainability, and relevance to the communities they affect.
For example, Lord Nigel Crisp, the former NHS senior manager and author of Turning the world upside down: The search for global health in the 21st century, spoke about his discussions with public health officials around the world on the question of how to reduce maternal mortality. An Indian government minister had presented a complicated series of rubrics and metrics, lofty policies and programmes, and a confusing mishmash of approaches that Lord Crisp struggled to follow let alone imagine being implemented. In contrast, an official at BRAC, the hugely successful Bangladeshi NGO, responded to Lord Crisp’s question simply: ‘Empower the women’. In recent years, this radically simple approach has contributed to a dramatic fall in Bangladesh’s maternal mortality figures.
Another speaker at the event offered a different example. Professor Cyril Chantler shared a story that he likes to tell his UCL first year medical students. When he was a consultant to Guy’s Hospital in the 1970s, a young boy was brought to see him with rectal bleeding apparently caused by a small cut on his skin – a straightforward diagnosis, one might think. However, Prof. Chantler suspected that the underlying cause was more complicated than this, so he began to investigate further. Why did he have this cut? Because he was constipated. Why was he constipated? It transpired that the boy’s family, who lived in a poor neighbourhood, did not have an indoor toilet and instead shared a communal lavatory with other households in the street. The roof above this communal toilet leaked, and the little boy didn’t like getting his head wet, so he stopped going to the toilet. Prof. Chantler said that he likes to challenge his students to suggest a solution to this problem: many say that the family needs an indoor toilet. This may be correct, but Prof. Chandler is not a plumber. The more politically-minded students might suggest that the socioeconomic situation is the problem, and that the boy’s family should not have to be so poor that they share an outdoor toilet with other people in their street. This also has the ring of truth, but again it is beyond Prof. Chandler’s capacity to change this from his clinical consulting room. So what did Prof. Chandler do? He gave the boy an umbrella. The boy no longer had to get wet when he needed the loo, he stopped getting constipated, and the bleeding went away.
I was again alerted to the potential for apparently simple ideas to help solve complex problems when the RSA, in partnership with Kingfisher PLC, hosted a seminar this week on the subject of building ‘sustainable, stronger communities’. Luminaries from business, the public sector, think-tanks, and charities discussed the potential for businesses to help promote community cohesion and social change through initiatives such as those pioneered by Kingfisher, including the online local networking website StreetClub. Much of the debate centred on whether initiatives like these should be high-concept, ambitious attempts to organise society and ‘create new cultural norms’, or whether a simpler, lighter touch was called for, striving to ‘do one thing very well’. Personally, I found the latter option more compelling. StreetClub’s core strength in encouraging neighbours to share tools is reminiscent of that other simple idea I blogged on recently, the Big Lunch. Both of these schemes harness the latent potential for communities to become more connected around a simple excuse to get together; to borrow a ladder or to share a lunch. As one attendee at our seminar sagely observed, successful initiatives like this ‘don’t change communities; they create the platform for change’.
Simple ideas which create the platform for change are what the RSA’s Connected Communities programme is all about. Our research found that some older people in South East London have low wellbeing because they are isolated and don’t have any way of transporting themselves away from their homes; we’re developing a project that will provide them with a social environment and a free lift in a minibus to help them get out and about. We found that people’s mental wellbeing can suffer when there is a lack of social support; we’re going to identify key members of local social networks and train them as peer support counsellors.
Complex problems: simple solutions. My friend in the pub swears by this equation, and so, presumably, did the little boy who trotted down the street with an umbrella every day. It’s an equation I’m coming around to too.
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.
Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.
This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.
Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.
Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.
It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.
Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.
I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?