I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up to attend the RSA’s Innovating for Culture and Communities event: “How do we innovate for purpose on the south coast?” Only recently have I become a Fellow of the RSA, and having spent the past 20+ years working in private sector innovation, non-profit innovation was new to me.
To set the scene, we were approximately 25 people gathered to hear 5 speakers talk about their projects, why they got involved, and how they’re creatively addressing challenges. Projects included ‘hiSbe’ the new socially conscious supermarket in Brighton, the Brighton Science Festival, Hastings Pier, the Beacon Hub Project, and the Saltdean Lido project. No PowerPoint slides – this was an open and honest conversation, fuelled by each speaker’s passion for their projects.
We had two great events from the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs network in recent weeks; a quarterly event on culture and branding and a monthly breakfast on sharing the ownership of your social enterprise.
Both were very different; one was a huge event in association with three different partners (Ravensbourne/Digital Enterprise Greenwich and BITC’s arc service) with 100+ people in attendance, a guest speaker, and 5 different breakout groups running simultaneously – a feat of organisation which to be honest probably added another grey hair to my curly locks. The other was a monthly breakfast; a focused discussion of much more modest size, with people all passionate about social enterprise or lending expertise where they can.
Both events had excellent points and their own value – which I’ll go into later – but it got me thinking about group dynamic and what the best situation is to dissect the key issues a social enterprise faces. Or whether these situations are just the starting point to build those deeper relationships and contacts that are vital to help you keep going.
Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust kicked us off at the quarterly event on culture and branding with a moving and highly timely account of the growth of his foodbank organisation over the last few years – sadly an organisation like his is needed most when somewhere in society something has gone awry. The organisation was involved in a recent BBC documentary highlighting the problem. Great work but also a sad reflection of the current economic climate. With now over 250 food banks, Chris spoke about the challenge of keeping the culture of an organisation in multiple locations consistent, and what is the ‘non-negotiable’ in an organisation which must be maintained. Some of the social entrepreneurs involved in the Social Enterprise Spotlight project then joined in the conversation. Becky John’s (of Whomadeyourpants?) suggestion of culture was bringing your workforce together through social time, cake and glitter. Read the Storify of the event for some of the highlights.
What is the best situation, size and context to dissect the key issues a social enterprise faces?
We then split into breakouts groups on branding, culture, growth, money and people. They were led by contacts of the BITC’s arc programme, people who are experts in their field and shared their extensive knowledge and expertise. You can see who they were and read a summary of the outcomes from these breakouts on the Social Entrepreneurs Network online group – find out what happened.
You can also see some thoughts from the attendees of the event in this word cloud:
This was taken from a new questionnaire we have introduced in the Fellowship team – more about this will be coming in a forthcoming blog…
Moving onto the breakfast on sharing ownership, a few of the key questions (as well as ascertaining whether people were a trustee/volunteer or had managed either) asked were: Sharing leadership: Why is this hard for a social enterprise founder? Sharing ownership: What’s hard about sharing ‘ownership’ of a project with your team? Shifting power: Within your social enterprise, what significant shifts have you seen in your role?
Sharing leadership: Why is this hard for a social enterprise founder? What’s hard about sharing ‘ownership’ of a project with your team? Within your social enterprise, what significant shifts have you seen in your role?
I am not sure we got any definitive answers to these questions (as it is a matter of individual preference and context) but they will be returned to at a later event. What we did get was a collection of key tips from those who attended about trustee boards and volunteers. They were:
- Be clear on the roles you are giving Trustees – what are the deliverables, what are the ground rules. And reiterate these each time a new person joins.
- Trustee boards with all the expertise and experience are notoriously difficult to manage – you therefore need a really strong chair to corral and ensure when taking decisions they are evidence based.
- Don’t make trustee boards too big – if you are a small enterprise, remember you need to make decisions and move forward – but three is too small so be wise with how many people you ask.
- BUT be ambitious with who you ask.
- Volunteers should be given a clear role – what are they there to deliver, what is the infrastructure for them to succeed, what rewards are there. The issue also came up about recruitment (it was mentioned you should be slow to hire but fast to fire – a controversial statement but it’s about making sure you get the right people into your organisation – another thing to cover in due course).
But back to group dynamics; I am going to err on the side of obvious and say that both are useful but in different ways. The key to big events is promotion, networking and inspiration. Small events however enable depth, bonding and genuine collaboration – the combination is very powerful. But both are about peer-to-peer learning; a powerful way to increase your knowledge and understanding about where to head next. One of the RSA’s greatest strengths and resources is the incredible diversity of our Fellowship, so ensuring we offer a varied manner of ways to engage and share is a key opportunity for the Fellowship team.
Jonathan Rowson wrote a couple of days ago on Tim Jackson’s argument that the pursuit of ever more productive labour harms some things that we should value; care, craft & culture. Far from being a lone voice in this, Tim is joined by many, and in this quick post I wanted to highlight the growing number of ‘maker videos’ that illustrate the same message in a more sensory way (turn the sound on before watching!).
Here is the video by Juriaan Booij to accompany the recent Power of Making exhibition at the V&A.
Here is another of Tom Donhou in his workshop in Norwich, where he speaks about his move from a London design consultancy to his bike-building cottage industry:
Lastly, I came across (in a recent Design Observer post with some criticism of the predictability of the genre) this rather nice video of Thomas Forsyth casting a giant brass nut:
Enough to make you put down the mouse and pick up a brazing torch!
“We want to be super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular” so said Francis Maude, last year, on the government’s proposed Communities First Fund.
Indeed “the neighbourhood” is the location for a number of government initiatives including the proposed neighbourhood plans.
This government is not the first one to decide that they want programmes to be delivered at the neighbourhood level. What lessons can we learn from previous neighbourhood level government initiatives?
I was prompted to ask this question after meeting John Hitchin, who had worked on the EC1 New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme. He gave me a copy of their evaluation report. Unlike many evaluations it is an accessible and practical document that provides some food for thought.
So here are three lessons I would draw from previous neighbourhood level programmes;
- Participation should be broadly understood
Sometimes the idea of resident involvement, which was central to the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programmes, translated into creating ways for residents to be involved in the NDC itself, rather than participation in community life.
One of the problems with the state itself creating spaces for resident involvement is that the state can then, in turn, ignore the views of these residents. JRF’s work on participation in Haringey starkly illustrates this point. They looked at the different mechanisms that residents could be involved in decision making in the local authority, the primary care trust and in the police. They found that public officials were very sceptical of the ‘representativeness’ of any residents that got involved in these mechanisms and this enabled them to discount views that were challenging. There was little evidence that resident involvement had actually materially changed practice or policies.
Rather than seeing participation through the lens of public services and encouraging residents to become more involved with neighbourhood initiatives, future neighbourhood programmes could look at ways in which they can support people to be more involved in community life.
- Support community groups to be themselves
Sometimes the additional funding that comes with neighbourhood programmes means that local community groups change their behaviour in order to obtain money from these programmes.
This can be more or less subtle. Community groups can start to adopt the organisational culture of the public sector (KPIs and all), start running new programmes which are not their priorities but the priorities of their funder, or spend more of their time understanding the needs of their funder rather than the needs of the people who use their services.
Finding ways to support community groups without drastically altering their culture or behaviour is no easy trick. I have mentioned before the Grassroots Grants programme, which I think had some success in supporting small community groups that had not previously received government money. Looking closely at this programme could pay dividends for those who are designing new neighbourhood programmes.
- Don’t top up core funding
The temptation for programmes aimed at improving neighbourhoods is to spend money making the area cleaner, greener and safer, since these are invariably the priorities for residents.
There is a real danger that this will mean that those public services that are already responsible for these things will use this as an excuse to lower their levels of service.
More subtly, when a neighbourhood programme tops up existing public services it can make it harder to influence the way in which those services are delivered. Changing the culture of existing public services was one of the most notable achievements of some of the neighbourhood management pilots, and the idea of “bend the spend” should be maintained as a focus of neighbourhood programmes.
New governments want to make an impression. They want to make it clear that they are distinct from the previous government. That is understandable. This article is not an argument for preserving programmes or initiatives that went before. Rather, it is an argument that we should learn from what went before.
Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.
So wrote Bertrand Russell in 1950. The idea of rational man, or homo economicus, (that people weigh up the economic costs and benefits of each choice open to them and choose the one that maximises their gain) has been widely debunked by a series of peer-reviewed papers and popular books by behavioural scientists.
But one criticism of this emerging field is that many of the studies used to support the debunking – of experiments in which people making seemingly irrational choices – tend to involve similar samples of people. A trio of behavioural scientists from the University of British Columbia report that 96% of subjects in the top psychology journals came from western industrialised countries; Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies as they dub them. But the results of these studies are too often assumed to be universally applicable.
The researchers continue to review a number of studies in which the behavioural quirks and biases investigated are compared across cultures. One of these is a visual perception bias, illustrated by the well known Müller-Lyer illusion, in which lines appear to differ in length according to arrows or tails placed on the lines.
It turns out that the effect of the “illusion” is much reduced for non-WEIRD people; it has virtually no effect on the San Foragers of the Kalahari for example. But the cohort of people from the States were the most powerfully affected by the illusion.
As the paper concludes; “Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity”.
Perhaps Bertrand Russell should have gone to the Kalahari Desert in his quest for rationality.
Over the last decade, I have read a lot of non-fiction books, most of them broadly related to human development, from the technical end of popular science to the facile end of self-help. Highlights have been Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Claxton, The Happiness Hypothesis by Haidt, Ethical Know-how by Varela, Connected by Christakis and Fowler, Into the Silent Land by Brocks, and Immunity to Change by Kegan and Laskow. All of these books (alas, mostly written by middle-aged white men) marshalled evidence to elegantly describe and develop a core thesis about human nature, and all of them answered the ‘so what?’ question about practical implications very powerfully.
However, with respect to all of these immensely impressive contributions, none of them compare with The Master and his Emissary, the book I was blessed to read to prepare for chairing last week’s RSA Keynote Event.
The best books are usually those that could only have been written by a particular person. In this case, Iain McGilchrist has a distinguished pedigree in both arts and sciences, having been an All Souls prize fellow in literature before training in medicine and becoming an accomplished psychiatrist. He therefore writes with authority in natural science and humanities, and the abundant links that lie between them for those few who know how to look. In addition to this polymathic erudition, one can also sense, between the lines, an old soul with a dry wit who is immensely generous in spirit.
The book is about the profound significance of the fact that the left and right hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’(described in the book). The hidden story of western culture, told here, is about how the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured left hemisphere has gradually usurped the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate right hemisphere. The thesis is as strong on science as it is on narrative, replete with nuances, caveats, and references.
If you have ever had the feeling that the world is deeply screwed up in a way that you can’t quite articulate, this book will help you to make your case. If you want some insight into why we might be stupid enough to destroy our own planet, or why the slashing of funds for arts and humanities is even more tragic than you might think, read the book.
I might come to regret being quite so effusive, and there are certainly challenges to the core thesis and its implications that need to be entertained, hopefully in future blogs. Nonetheless, I would currently say it is one of the most important books of the 21st century. It is a grand theory for our times. If properly understood and acted upon, it has the potential to transform our view of our selves and our cultures, and prevent us from making a huge number of mistakes that might otherwise seem like sensible decisions.
For those who can’t wait to hear more, go to the end to watch or listen, but for those who prefer to read, my understanding of the argument goes as follows:
1) The left and right brain hemispheres are both involved in almost everything we do, such that crude dichotomies like the left being the logical side and the right being the creative side are a great disservice to public understanding of the brain.
2) However, if we cease to ask what the hemispheres do (language, reasoning, creativity, forecasting) and instead ask how they do it(contextualise or decontextualise, focus on lived experience or abstract models, instrumental or affective feedback, receptivity to counter-evidence, preference for old or new) we find very significant differences in the two hemispheres. The evidence for these differences are meticulously unpacked in the book in a compelling inductive argument- there is no killer fact, but a gradual unfolding of evidence, carefully tied together with an eye for counter-evidence.
3) The hemispheres are divided for good reason, because they perform different functions. The left is broadly about focussing, and the right is broadly about contextualising. These are compatible but occasionally competing aspects of our cognition and they are both essential. McGilchrist uses the example of a bird that can only focus on finding grain with its beak if it ignores surrounding context, but still needs some background awareness of surrounding context, and a capacity to respond to it, to avoid attacks by predators. The genius of the brain is its ability to switch between these modes in response to the environment.
4) The right hemisphere should be the dominant hemisphere, ‘The Master’, because it shapes the context, meaning and purpose of our experience of the world. The left hemisphere, ‘The Emissary’, should help us to achieve within this contextual, meaningful, purposeful perspective. The right hemisphere keeps us in touch with lived experience- keeps us deeply aware and responsive, while the left hemisphere is more like a very powerful computer that makes use of familiar schemas to achieve familiar ends. Cognition at its best is slightly different from army marching orders in that it should go ‘right-left-right’ i.e. context-focus-context, when in fact it often goes left-left-left, focus, focus, focus, with insufficient attention to the basis for the focussing, what is at stake, what might be different, and what is trying to be achieved.
5) There is insufficient evolutionary time for these changes to take place at a structural level of the brain. It is not that the left hemisphere is getting bigger or denser or better connected than the right. The point is that slowly but surely the left hemisphere shapes our culture in such a way that it makes its own perspective the dominant one, until we reach what McGilchrist calls ‘a hall of mirrors’ in which the explicit, instrumental, defined, abstract voice is the only one we believe in, and the implicit, intrinsic, fluid, visceral perspective sounds diminished and foreign. This perspective speaks to, inter-alia, the Art, Drama and Music therapists currently struggling to make the case for their immense social value against cruel and blinkered market logics that want to measure their impact in numerical terms.
6) The mechanism for increased left hemisphere dominance is imitation, a subject close to our heart at the RSA. Crudely, the cultural ‘stuff’ of the left hemisphere is more contagious than the cultural ‘stuff’ of the right hemisphere. Have you heard the expression: “What gets measured gets done”? Or “If you can’t say it, you don’t really understand it?” Both are examples of the ‘emissary’ overstepping his mark, but doing so in a compelling way that is hard to fight back against.
7) Through epigenetic cultural evolution, the left hemisphere gradually colonises our experience. The good news is that left hemisphere tends to be optimistic, giving us a feel-good factor, but the bad news is that it is remarkably unaware of how partial and/or deluded its view of the world can be, and scarily unreceptive to unfamiliar perspectives. In one of the best lines of the book McGilchrist writes:
“If I am right, that the story of the Western World is one of increasing left-hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.”
I think this is a truly wonderful book, and it has certainly given me a new set of tools to think about the direction the world is taking and what we might do about it.
Thanks for reading this far, and before we amble into the abyss together, please listen to the audio of the event, which includes the avalanche of questions expertly fielded by Iain McGilchrist, or watch the video below, with just one question posed by me at the end- namely: If this colossal idea is true, which I now believe it to be, how to guard it against widespread simplification or distortion?