Big Idea – Warblr: the Birdsong App

October 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

With an ever-growing urban population, the gap between people’s day-to-day lives and our natural world is widening. We live in a society full of distractions, and nature is becoming further removed from many people’s frame of reference.
Fellow Florence Wilkinson is looking to overcome this gap through her new app Warblr, for which she has just launched a crowdfunding campaign on the RSA’s area on Kickstarter with support from RSA Catalyst.
“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble”, writes Roger Tory Peterson. And I’m sad to say that right now, our British birds are in trouble. Just last week Government figures revealed that populations of farm birds, such as grey partridge, turtle dove and the starling, are down by more than 85% since the 1970s.

We are losing our biodiversity at a terrifying rate: between 1000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate, according to experts. Never has our flora and fauna been in greater need of protection.

In the light of such figures, any attempt to take positive action may seem like a drop in the ocean, but we hope that we can create a little ripple, which alongside many other organisatioSONY DSCns will help us make waves. Read more

Yes we want growth – but what do we mean by growth?

September 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

As the City Growth Commission begins to round up there is a feeling that some of the most pertinent questions have been raised, if not quite put to bed: yet the devolution discussion and this series of reports is right there at the heart of the matter. The Commission has looked at the role of connectivity to the regions, addressing the skills gap, and worked to explore how governance will need to change in a more devolved future. We have also looked at the role of higher education institutions and in particular how they can help to nurture graduate entrepreneurs, keeping them within the region and fostering local growth. With the subject of devolution still fresh on mind of people all over the UK since the Scottish Referendum, one of the largest ever protests on climate change taking place in the US  and the UK Party conference season underway – what now for the political rhetoric of ‘growth’? Read more

Our response to climate change needs to bottom up, top-down, side to side, well regulated & collaborative

June 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

In yesterday’s Guardian article Lord Chris Smith, Outgoing Environment Agency Chair, said reduced funds and rising risks were an “inconvenient truth” and that failing to improve flood protection in the face of more frequent and extreme events presents a false economy. Last night he was at the RSA to announce his simple 12 point plan to combat climate change. You can see the full twelve points here but each of these can fit into just three categories; accepting climate change as an issue of global importance; strong leadership; collaborative working.

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2014 RSA Student Design Award Winners

Today is a big day.

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

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

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

Making our Futures: Bristol Green Capital

May 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

A while ago I blogged about the announcement of Bristol Green Capital 2015, and said I “hoped the local Fellowship can get together to work on projects and initiatives during the next few years”. Well my wish has come true and recently we held an event to get things going.

The evening was organised by the Making our Futures team (who have previously organised events around health and shaping Bristol). A group of Fellows and interested others met in Hamilton House, which fittingly aims to create a better world for its community and the environment.  The aims of the evening were to find out what projects Fellows were already involved in, wanted to create, and how the RSA and its Fellowship could provide added value to Bristol Green Capital.

IMG_1392We started with an update about the Bristol Green Capital project from its Programme Director, Kris Donaldson. We also heard from John Pontin FRSA who set up The Converging World, a project that  uses ‘the surplus funds from wind turbines to support social and environmental projects in both our Indian and UK communities’, that had its genesis in the Coffeehouse Challenge, a scheme organised to mark the RSA’s 250th anniversary in 2004.

We then heard from a series of Fellows pitching projects, which have been summarised below. There were questions and answers after each pitch – with comments, suggestions, offers of volunteering and funding opportunitiesgiven.  If you are interested in any of the projects then please contact the individuals involved.

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Developing Socially Productive Places

March 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Public and private investors seeking to create socially and economically successful places have historically focussed on the economic aspect of that equation.  In keeping with our commitment to finding practical solutions for today’s challenges, the RSA is seeking to redress this imbalance: our current open innovation Premium is focussed on boosting investment in people, and we are now pleased to announce a conference this Wednesday in conjunction with British Land, focussing on the place aspect of this tripartite.

The impact of the physical environment on individuals has been well-documented in recent years, particularly in relation to the health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature.  Wednesday’s conference seeks to build on this body of knowledge – and produce practical outcomes – by establishing which investments in the built environment will have the greatest social benefits.

from the blog

It’s an issue which the RSA is well placed to address: research and action projects by our Communities and Public Services team have uncovered a wealth of understanding of the ‘hidden power’ of communities, and how value is created in the interaction between citizen and service.  Now we seek to apply these lessons to the interaction between citizens and developers.

This is where British Land come in.  Through their work on sites such as Regent’s Place and West Euston, they have gained substantial expertise in community mapping and engagement, resulting in facilities that local people want, which boost employment and help to reduce crime, deprivation and isolation.

We are looking forward to a day of expert insight, intense debate and collaborative working to identify the key barriers and opportunities in this sector.  Specifically, we will be focussing on the following issues:

  • Securing personal financial well-being: who benefits from building the built environment?
  • Investments which create shared value through community networks: maximising the social return on investment
  • Leveraging growth across city-regions: maximising the economic multiplier

Please feel free to follow along on Twitter, using #developingplaces or live-stream the keynote address (12.30-13.00) and closing plenary session (15.55-17.00).

We look forward to welcoming delegates to RSA House, surely the paradigmatic socially productive place.


Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA.  You can follow him  @conorquinn85

Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem

January 20, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact.  While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:

  1. We know that many of the things we do are ‘bad’, but can’t see any way of making constructive changes that don’t require a drastic and unrealistic transformation in how we live
  2. We know that most changes won’t make a difference unless other people do the same, so acting seems like a pointless sacrifice

I think that a bit more information might change our minds on both these points, and make it a bit easier to motivate positive behavioural changes.

Revolution vs Evolution

To take just one area where these factors apply, consider what we eat.  It is widely acknowledged that eating meat is probably not the most ethical thing one can do.  In addition to animal rights concerns, the production of meat is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation.  To summarize:

  • Livestock accounts for almost 1/6 of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • An area of the world’s rainforests 2/3 the size of the UK is destroyed each year to create grazing land
  • Over 2/3 of global agricultural land is used to grow crops for animals in feed lots while a billion people go hungry

With population growth and the rise of new meat-eating middle-classes in developing countries, all of these problems are set to multiply.  It is therefore clear that current Western levels of meat consumption are completely unsustainable.

The implication is that we should all be vegetarians.  But personally, though I had long accepted the moral argument, I simply couldn’t envisage changing my behaviour so drastically. The end result was that I didn’t change at all.

But that was until I made an interesting discovery. To paraphrase Orwell, while all animals are equal, it seems some are more equal than others.  Red meat (lamb and beef) is by far the biggest offender, requiring many times more land, feed and fossil energy to produce.  This is partly because these animals are such inefficient converters of feed into meat.  Cows require about seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to around three kilograms for pork and less than two kilograms for chicken.  NPR made this useful infographic to illustrate just how resource and emissions-intensive beef is: 

What It Takes To Make A Quarter-Pound Hamburger

What it takes to make a hamburger

The above doesn’t even include the copious quantities of methane these animals produce – a gas which has 23 times the impact of carbon dioxide.  Factoring that in, it becomes even clearer that acting on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a radical change like vegetarianism; just cutting out red meat can make a huge difference.

Or can it?  The second part of the dilemma described at the outset concerned the link between this kind of individual action and the kind of collective action that will be required to avert dangerous climate change.

Individual vs Collective Action

Game theory describes a classic example of the collective action problem in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In this thought experiment, two prisoners in solitary confinement each inform on the other in order to get a reduced sentence.  The end result is that they both get heavy sentences.  Its logic applies, to a certain extent, to acting on climate change.  No-one wants to be in the situation where they act but others do not, making them both absolutely and relatively worse off, and rendering their sacrifice meaningless.

But that is where the analogy ends.  We do not live in solitary confinement.  On the contrary, our decisions are influenced more than anything by social values, social norms and social judgements.  A big part of our decision not to change our diet is the fact that hardly anyone else is doing it.  But if the social landscape can cause negative outcomes, then it can also engender positive ones.  If most people were making personal sacrifices for the sake of others, it would be much easier to make (and much more difficult to resist making) those same sacrifices ourselves.

So how do we get from this social landscape to that one?  Work by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the tragedy of the commons has highlighted the need for institutions, rules and incentives for behaviour.  But whilst these structures will be vital to global action, we must not lose sight of the role of individuals.  Your decisions do not just change your own tiny contribution to climate change; they also change the social landscape for those around you.

I am lucky that a significant proportion of my peers are genuinely altruistic, and their leadership made it much easier to motivate my own behaviour change in cutting out red meat.  And hopefully my decision adds a tiny bit more momentum to that movement, making it a fraction easier for the next person to prioritise the common good over personal interests.

If you do not have such role models around you, you can become one yourself.  If just one other person decides to follow your lead then you’ve doubled your impact.  If you share two more close friends, suddenly they are each confronted with the fact that two-thirds of their friends are making personal sacrifices, massively altering that social landscape and turning it from an inhibiting to an enabling force for change.

This ripple-effect of individual action can (and will need to) play a major role in overcoming collective action problems like climate change.  So if you are put off acting because you don’t want to change your entire life, or are discouraged by the collective action problem, it may be time to reconsider.  There is probably something much more manageable you can do, and it might have a bigger impact than you think.

RSA Student Design Award Winners: the next generation of socially responsible designers

June 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation 

A self-repair washing machine, a bee-friendly neighbourhood scheme and an app that provides more active and scenic routes for commuters are among the 16 cracking projects that won in the RSA Student Design Awards this year. 150 people came together at the RSA last week to celebrate the 2013 winners, take part in a spot of speed networking, and hear keynote speaker Kevin Owens talk about his experiences as Design Principal of the London 2012 Olympics.

Now in their 89th year, the RSA Student Design Awards is an annual competition that rewards students for coming up with innovative design-led solutions to today’s big challenges. Each year the RSA works with industry and university partners to develop a series of briefs focused around social, environmental and economic issues. We work closely with universities – in the UK and internationally – to support design students in applying their skills to research and respond to these problems. Their finished projects are then judged in person by a panel of experts, and winning students receive prizes that include cash awards, paid internships, and a complementary year of RSA Fellowship.

This year’s briefs addressed a range of pressing social issues, from improving workplaces and commuting to reducing waste and water pollution. There’s a full list of winners on the RSA Student Design Awards website, and our online exhibition will be going live soon – but for now, here are some snippets about a few of the winning projects:

  • Chris Redford from Sheffield Hallam University won a paid internship at branding agency Springetts for his ‘Tinker’ project; a radical stripped-back domestic washing machine that is designed to be repaired by the consumer without the need for a technician.

Chris Redford

“I got the inspiration for my repairable washing machine from thinking about the number of times we dispose of entire products – especially large consumer appliances – when there might only be a single failed component. My design exposes the user to all the components so they can learn about its function and hopefully feel more confident about attempting to fix it.

  • Charles Anderson, who has just finished a degree in Graphic Design at Kingston University, won a paid internship at the Environment Agency for his scheme to reduce water pollution in the UK.

Charles Anderson_DIP

His project, ‘Dump in Polystyrene’, is a service design solution for breaking down and recycling polystyrene that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

“Since my childhood I have constantly been aware of the litter in the river and the influence it had on the local environment. Through my project research I learned about how water-borne animals mistake polystyrene for food. It clogs up their digestive system which starves the animal. Polystyrene also breaks up and releases pollutants into the soil formation. This project is about reducing polystyrene waste down to a manageable size. The current size-to-weight ratio targets mean that local councils can’t recycle it – so I designed a process that meets these targets.”

  • MA Design students Nicole Shadbolt and Meredith Thompson from Plymouth University each won a paid internship in Waitrose’s Graphic Design team.

The Hive

Responding to a brief asking for ideas to help people live more sustainably, ‘The Hive’ is a community improvement scheme focused on developing bee-friendly communities and educating people about the importance of the UK bee population.

Rebecca Ford is the Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards.

You can follow her @RebeccaPFord

Three economic approaches to global ecological risk

June 14, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I received a lucid and helpful email in response to yesterday’s post on reaching the centre-right on climate change, from Ian Christie FRSA who is a research fellow at the sustainable lifestyles research group at the University of Surrey.

I am posting it below with very minor edits and Ian’s permission because Ian’s response helped to pinpoint the slight feeling of unease I had in response to COIN’s report. In essence, while the first round of the challenge of engaging the right on climate change may indeed come down to the framing the message, the real battle feels like it’s in the framing not so much of the message, but of the issue itself.

As context and further reading to make sense of the issue, the two key questions (with indicative quotes) are:

1) Is Climate Change best approached as an environmental issue?

“Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before”

2) Is the continued pursuit of economic growth on a physically finite planet possible?

“A no-growth economy is a curious creature to think about, but as Sherlock Holmes once put it: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Guest Post by Ian Christie FRSA

The point you make about growth is important. I think there are broadly three positions on global ecological risks and the economy, and they don’t fall that neatly into the existing political spectrum, as you note:

1) Business as usual growth – is desirable and achievable, and we can either disregard climate change etc or adapt to it.

2) A new model capitalism – Business as Usual can’t be restored but we can have a new model capitalism (cf the B Team, Plan A, Unilever etc) that generates economic growth while respecting planetary boundaries.

3) An economic model that eschews growth: 1) is suicidal, 2) is well-meaning but delusional; we need to rethink economic systems entirely and pursue wellbeing and go beyond growth, which cannot continue indefinitely and is in any case not generating the benefits we tell ourselves it is.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses

1) has incumbent power on its side, makes immediate ‘common sense’ (we don’t feel at risk from the environment) but has pretty well every climate scientist and ecologist against it;

2) has at least a chance of winning more adherents in business and politics, but is still very marginal;

3) has ecological and thermodynamic logic on its side, but almost no adherents in business and government.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses. The problem for 3) is that there is no political and economic narrative of transition that makes sense (so far). Approach 2) is attractive as a transitional model but still falls foul of the objections from 3).

The centre-right was left out of the climate change script in the USA when Al Gore became the face of climate concern, and things have never recovered from that and from the subsequent integration of climate into the culture wars, in which evidence is assessed on the basis of ideology and motives.

I suspect the situation will only change when there is a critical mass of ‘defectors’ breaking ranks in the authoritative core groups of centre-right thinking and practice – from concerned CEOs, influential media commentators to elected members of the Republican Party and Conservatives. And that seems likely to happen only if they can frame climate action as an economic opportunity and national security issue.

Which raises your key point: is climate change an environmental issue? No – it’s a major risk to economic and social order as well as to ecosystem integrity. There are people from the centre-right who get this, and who in consequence are embracing 2) above – growing numbers of food industry leaders, for example, whose businesses are in direct jeopardy from climate disruption. But they have not got a political constituency yet with Republicans and Conservatives.

Seeing the wood from the trees – A tale of two Fellows, a volunteer and some woodland

May 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

At the RSA I have the opportunity to meet and work with a diverse and motivated group of Fellows.  I’m always amazed how they manage to juggle the range of different ideas and enterprises that they are developing.  With 27 000 Fellows there are so many stories it can sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees but today I’d like to tell you a story of Fellows getting together, discussing an opportunity and providing a solution that helped the environment but more importantly a young man called Sam.


This year the RSA Fellowship brought together Hill Holt Wood founder and CEO Karen Lowthrop and Steve Coles, Salvation Army Social Enterprise Development Manager.

Hill Holt Wood lies on the borders of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and is home to an award winning social enterprise.  If you get the chance to visit please do, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and always offered a cup of tea.  In just over ten years of operation, the enterprise has transformed the woodland from a failing, flooded rhododendron-smothered patch of trees into a thriving broadleaf wood.

The main stay of the enterprise has been as a supplier of alternative education.  The woodland provides a developmental resource for excluded or marginalized young people to build skills, confidence and improved prospects.  Benefits to the young people and to the woods feed back positively one on another.  Kids need the woods to learn and in turn the woods are maintained by kids. So year on year a trickle of woodland converts graduate from Hill Holt Wood who are interested in sustaining woodland and so the story goes on…


The wood itself was privately owned but is now open to the public and community owned and the social enterprise operates from a stunning eco-build that incorporates an eco design team, meeting rooms, and a café.

Salvation Army enterprise manager Steve Coles was looking for a similarly sustainable project in which to invest a small fund of £10,000 donated as a bequest by the Booth family for the purpose of planting trees.  Hill Holt Wood seemed ideal and proposed the money be used to support a young person through a horticultural apprenticeship AND plant trees.   The long-term on-going gains are obvious.

Sam WelchSam Welch was 15 years old when he first visited Hill Holt Wood.  As part of his school curriculum he attended for a day a week on a junior rangers scheme.  He developed an unexpected passion for woodland and went on to attend Riseholm College in Lincoln but when he graduated with Level 2 and 3 qualifications in arborioculture he could not find work in Gainsborough. At this point a Job Centre advisor suggested that he return to Hill Holt Wood as a volunteer on the flexible support fund.  Sam proved to be a fantastic volunteer and an obvious candidate for the Salvation Army fund.

The award was given to Hill Holt Wood and they have funded Sam’s on-going apprenticeship in horticulture.  He says he has two main goals in life “the biggest one is to get a full time job at Hill Holt Wood which I would love, or work somewhere doing the same sort of job…

The Fellowship Team are always looking to hear about Fellow led projects.  If you know of work that is going on that would benefit from Fellows support and advice please get in touch directly, shout about your work at and apply to RSA Catalyst.  If that work is based in the East and West Midlands then I’m your first point of contact, email me at or tweet me @pickfordrich I love hearing about new ideas especially when they are told over a hot cup of tea and some cake.

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