Why would anyone ever want to be self-employed?
Take the wages. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 40 per cent of self-employed people are in the bottom 20 per cent of all earners, and a significant number bring in less than the 35hr minimum wage. Nor is the situation getting better. Low-middle income self-employed people have seen their drawings fall by close to a third in the last 12 years alone.
Added to this are the working hours. On average the self-employed work 38hrs a week compared with 36hrs for employees, and approximately 35 per cent work over 45hrs a week compared with 22 per cent of employees. Then there is the isolation. Given many work from home, it is possible to go days on end without seeing another person.
So far, so miserable. Yet surprisingly, the vast majority of studies find that those who work for themselves are more satisfied with their occupation and happier overall in their lives. Results from the new ONS wellbeing programme reveal that the self-employed are the happiest and least anxious of all labour groups (barring the retired). One study even shows that the number of hours they work when starting up in business is positively correlated with how satisfied they are.
So here we have a paradox: sole traders earn less, work harder and are more isolated, yet in the round they are still some of the happiest in society. But why? One reason is that they have a great deal more autonomy. According to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey, 7 in 10 business owners strongly agree they can decide on their own how they go about their work, while this only applies to 4 in 10 of people in typical employment. Yet this isn’t just about getting away from hierarchy and being your own boss. It’s also about the practical flexibility needed to work around your needs and those of your loved ones, for instance in caring for a newborn or looking after an older relative.
On top of this there is the meaning that comes from working for yourself. Indeed, many believe that the features of self-employed work – risk-taking, immediacy, instant feedback – may induce experiences of what the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, a “kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel you’re part of something larger.” There are few better feelings to be had than applying our talents to create something that other people value – better still if someone buys it.
All of this indicates that the joy of being self-employed lies not just in the end outcome (i.e. the earnings, the pension, the golden handshakes) but rather in the way that the work is done. It’s what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term “procedural utility”, where the labour is an end in itself, not just a means towards something else.
Yet there is also something deeper at play here: namely that the self-employed – and creatives more broadly – are able to feel something. Like the protagonists of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there are many who believe it is more virtuous to be “fully alive” than in a state of anaemic slumber; one where people simply fulfil their “unescapable social destiny”. We are faced with the easy world of consumption vs. the toil of creativity – and increasingly the latter is more attractive. As George Orwell once put it, “We long for the suffering that we strive to get away from.” And this, in a nutshell, is the kind of creative compromise we all have to grapple with.
Of course, none of this is to say we should ignore the perils and pitfalls of a creative life. We know that countless self-employed people are in precarious financial situations – and we should make it a priority to address such difficulties. But we also have to acknowledge that there are different measures of success than the ability to clock off at 5pm and have a company car. Increasingly we find that people want to labour for a higher, truer and more fulfilling purpose – even if it means forgoing the simple life.
Few understood this better than Joseph Schumpeter, the patron saint of the self-employed:
“First of all there is the dream and the will to found a private kingdom… Then there is the will to conquer: the impulse to fight, to prove oneself superior to others, to succeed for the sake, not of the fruits of success, but of success itself… Finally there is the joy of creating, of getting things done, or simply of exercising one’s energy and ingenuity… Our type seeks out difficulties, changes in order to change, delights in ventures.”
Joseph Schumpeter, 1934
This is a guest blog by Lisa Oulton FRSA. Lisa was awarded RSA Catalyst funding for her project to help young people start creative businesses, and is now seeking crowdfunding to run a Festival of Enterprise in November. You can support her campaign on Kickstarter.
The Big Idea: Student Makers’ Markets – street-based business training for young creatives
Creative young people are the most likely group to start up a business straight from education. They are often natural entrepreneurs: creative, innovative and visionary with immediately transferrable skills that lend themselves to self-employment. But they are also some of the least likely to have picked up the skills that they need to grow and sustain a business – failure rates are high – and the reality seems to be that once burnt these early starters often never return to entrepreneurship.
Youth entrepreneurship is being promoted and encouraged as a way of helping young people into the labour market and promoting job creation, but without business skills and resilience entrepreneurial inclination is no guarantee of success. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research identifies that young people in Europe feel less confident about starting up a business than their global peers, with a strong fear of failure and belief that they are ill equipped to start a business.
With the support of RSA Catalyst and the Canterbury Festival’s Prosper Programme we have created Student Makers’ Markets, a street-based programme of business and entrepreneurial training. It gives young people a supported space to come and test their business with access to informal training, workshops and on-going mentoring whenever it’s needed.
We bring young entrepreneurs together to create vibrant mini-markets within established street markets, festivals and galleries. We supply free stalls and equipment for unemployed young people, graduates and school students from communities struggling with high levels of youth unemployment and other social and economic problems.
The ease of selling through online platforms like eBay, Etsy, Big Cartel and Facebook means that many young entrepreneurs are already trading from bedrooms, sheds and kitchen tables. We’ve been surprised at the range of businesses we’ve found, from complete beginners to established on-line shops. Our ethos is to look for the “bright spots”, inspired by the Heath brothers’ book Switch: we look for what’s working and how can we do more of it, the don’t solve problems – copy success.
Connecting young people already running successful businesses to those just starting out creates amazing enthusiasm: when young makers meet those of the same age who are making a living from their creative skills it shows them what’s possible. It has been extraordinarily exciting for everyone involved – the market traders, the business community and ourselves – to find just how much drive and talent is already out there.
We offer free business advice during the markets and we’ve been astounded at the requests so far. Our assumption was that our traders might ask about setting up a business, accessing government loans or writing a business plan. Instead, we are answering questions from young people about exporting to multiple countries, registering for VAT and employment versus outsourcing. Taking part in a rolling programme of markets and training means the young people can access learning when they feel they need it, from realising that they’re struggling to make sales at one market, to learning vital sales techniques before the next.
We want our young people to be excited not just by the opportunities that are open to them, but those which they can create themselves: to make their mark on their community, be visible and to inspire others.
We’re working in Kent and have been given an opportunity to extend our work into Folkestone to create a month long pop-up shop and Festival of Youth Enterprise. We’ve been given a beautiful old arcade building for the whole of December, where we are planning a programme of inspiring talks and workshops covering a wide range of subjects, from crowdfunding and social enterprise to printmaking and digital manufacturing. A production space will enable those without facilities to create work for the markets and a Christmas shop will enable everyone to sell what they make!
How you can get involved
In partnership with the RSA we have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support this initiative. The building we’ve been given is large and empty; we need to equip the production space and create a fabulous shop for visitors.
Our funding campaign is live on Kickstarter and we are aiming to raise £2,000 by 2 November. We would be very grateful if you could pledge your support, or help spread the word by sharing our campaign with your contacts. To find out more please contact me by email (email@example.com) or via Twitter @StudentMakers.
Take advantage of a special launch offer to the first 200 crowdfunding pledges made by RSA Fellows. The RSA will match the campaign(s) you have backed to a maximum of £10 if you tell your network which project you’ve backed via: a comment in the RSA Fellows LinkedIn group discussion on crowdfunding; tweeting using the #RSACrowdfunding hashtag; posting a status update on the RSA’s facebook group.
To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our website.
By most accounts, life is pretty tough for young people growing up in the UK. Just over 1 million are classed as ‘NEETs’ – not in education, employment or training – and this is having predictable consequences for their health and wellbeing. Research by The Prince’s Trust indicates that 37 per cent of NEET young people are often or nearly always depressed. And even for those who do find work, there is a good chance their jobs will be characterised by zero hour contracts and part-time work.
So far, so gloomy. Yet there is one piece of good news amidst all the pessimism. Figures just released by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey* show that entrepreneurial activity among young people has jumped once again, so that it is almost twice the rate it was at the outset of the economic downturn. Whereas 5 per cent of young people in 2008 were in the early stages of starting a business, today it is closer to 9.5 per cent (see graph below).
The question is, what’s caused the growth in start up activity? The most obvious answer is that it’s a desperate response to a lacklustre economy and frozen job market. The argument runs that young people are now creating their own jobs because they can’t find any elsewhere. Therefore as soon as the economy picks up pace and things ‘get back to normal’, we’ll see the line in the above graph dip back to its usual lows.
There is no doubt some truth in this – indeed you can’t ignore the fact that entrepreneurial rates were stationary until the great recession hit. Yet it is clear that economic ‘necessity’ is only one driving force among many. Our own conversations with young people reveal that the search for meaning, greater freedom and the chance to leave a mark on the world are just as important motivators for starting a business. It is striking how many of the young people we spoke with talked of the urge to ‘create’ and vent ‘frustration’.
What the recession did was to shake things up and bring these tensions to the surface. True, it destroyed jobs and forced people to look elsewhere for work – often in the form of self-employment. But it also prompted deep reflections on the nature of work itself, what it is we really want from life and whether starting a business could help us achieve those ends.
For that reason, it feels as though this dramatic increase in young enterprise is unlikely to be a temporary blip, but rather a permanent feature of our economic landscape.
*Thanks to Professor Mark Hart of Aston Business School for the data.
Benedict Dellot is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Enterprise team. Follow him on Twitter using @BenedictDel
We at the RSA believe in the power of making, especially when it involves newly emerging approaches; our intention is to help grow the infrastructure and opportunities for designing and making at a local level, both in London and around the country.
Our first venture into this arena was held at Somerset House last Wednesday, and was a resounding success. We introduced and connected the varied and rather fragmented groups interested in this agenda and showcased some of the great work already happening. 300 people came to this inaugural event and the basement of Somerset House’s west wing was filled with professional makers and designers, hobbyists, 3D printing companies, technologists, schools, educators and many more groups that defy easy categorisation. You can see the full list and links here.
One of the surprising and heartening things about this emerging area is that in terms of age it’s a level playing field: age is no barrier to entry at either end of the spectrum. The Ideas Foundation brought several groups of children from schools in the north west, all of whom were collaborating across various subject areas: English, Art, DT, and ICT students had been working together to create award winning projects that they brought to the event. Many of these teenagers had never been on a train before, let alone to London, yet clearly had huge talent, and were more switched on to the possiblities of emerging technologies than some of the adults in the room.
For many, the most surprising speaker and workshop leader was 14 year old Amy Mather, a remarkable girl who held a workshop for 15 adults making conductive thread circuits after speaking about her adventures with Raspberry Pi.
The confidence of all these young people around technology reminded me of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms work at MIT which I first discovered when studying Human Computer Interface Psychology in the eighties. One of his theories about the power of computers which really struck me and has stayed with me throughout the years is that computers are non-judgemental; you program something and it either works or it doesn’t. If you’re struggling at school and feel misunderstood, technology can be your saviour. The picture above doesn’t look that different from what we saw this week – kids playing with robots. The difference is that with the invention of Arduino and Raspberry Pi, combined with the knowledge transfer powers of the internet, the technology is now available to many more of us.
However, the event wasn’t all about robots and new technology, exciting though both areas are. Sophie Thomas ran a Great Recovery teardown workshop taking apart electronic products, exposing the elements that we throw away so casually and looking at ways we could re-design them from scratch to re-use our valuable resources. The Restart Project showed us how to fix and repair products that we might previously have thought were destined for the dustbin. Technological innovation is always exciting: developing ways to deliver consumer electronics in a sustainable way is just as important and this conversation was at the heart of the event.
What I found most exciting about the event was the amount of cross cultural connections that were being made as the day went on. On the face of it, we followed a standard trade show format of stands, talks and workshops, but what was different about this event was that everyone was meeting people from beyond their usual networks who were interested in the same subject as they were, but from a different angle. We had educationalists connecting with design innovators to inject a new way of thinking into schools, product designers hatching plans for research papers with RSA Fellows, RSA Student Design Awards winners (see video above) talking to chemists and finding out that there were less harmful chemicals that they could be using, and many more people connecting over their passion for this area. The excitement in the room was palpable all day long and everyone left having had their brains “rewired” in an unexpected and powerful way.
We are currently developing plans for an ambitious and innovative project in the areas of making and education, which will be rolled out both in London and around the country. Also look out for the RSA FutureMaker Premium; a prize for innovation in this area.
Thank you to all stallholders, speakers and workshop hosts for your fantastic contributions, to the Comino Foundation who initiated and funded the event, to everyone who attended the event and to Somerset House for kindly letting us use the recently vacated HMRC mailroom to host the event.
The event was a collaboration between the Design and Enterprise strands of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA.
Nat Hunter is Co-Director of Design at the RSA
You can follow her @redfish66
Want to create more entrepreneurial schools? Then give someone in DfE the responsibility to work on it
What happens in schools determines to a large extent what happens in people’s lives. Schools are where our world views are constructed, where we learn what is possible and what is not, where we develop the competencies needed to fulfil our life ambitions.
The task of creating a more entrepreneurial society therefore naturally starts here. Indeed, it’s the reason why so many enterprise support organisations operate in the education sector. MyBnk, Enabling Enterprise, Gazelle, Young Enterprise – all of these plough serious efforts into promoting entrepreneurship in schools up and down the country.
I was surprised then to hear at an event I recently attended that nobody at all in the Department for Education has a remit to work on this issue. I had already heard from a civil servant at BIS that DfE had other priorities, yet still this is very surprising. Not least because No 10 has worked so hard to put business and enterprise at the centre of its policy agenda. It’s no coincidence that David Cameron chose the theme of ‘aspiration nation’ for his speech at this year’s Conservative Party spring conference.
This is all for good reason. Though some may dispute it, entrepreneurship is an important vehicle for change. It creates employment where none else is available, and drives innovation where markets are stagnant. Much more than this, it gives meaning to people’s lives and allows them the freedom to do as they wish. For this reason alone we should be promoting it among young people.
Currently, however, too few are being exposed to high quality enterprise education. According to research by RBS and the Prince’s Trust, nearly three quarters of NEET young people say they received no business training whatsoever while in school. Recent research by the Carnegie Foundation reveals much the same result. Only half of the FE students they surveyed said they’d been exposed to enterprise education while studying.
These responses may exaggerate the facts. No doubt most schools would say they provide some form of enterprise activity for their students. But they do reveal something about the content of what is available. Indeed, there are numerous questions over the quality, not just the quantity, of enterprise education in schools. There are concerns, for instance, that too much effort is spent on teaching entrepreneurial skills via ‘chalk and talk’ methods, at the expense of ‘learning by doing’ approaches that give young people direct experience of working in a business. Likewise, there are complaints that enterprise teaching can be too mechanical and overly directed, leaving no time for reflection.
Although it is not hard to understand why head teachers might direct shrinking resources into other activities, it does not mean poor or non existent enterprise education should be condoned. High quality enterprise education should be a right for every child, no matter what school they go to. Not least because the skills derived from it – networking, creativity and acting on opportunities – will be essential for every career, not just for starting a business. As an OFSTED report put it, “… only a small proportion of the working population will become entrepreneurs [but] all adults need to be enterprising both in their work and their personal lives.”
There are numerous ways to encourage and support schools to do more around entrepreneurship, but they are all undermined if the Department for Education doesn’t even bother promoting it. So come on Michael Gove, recruit someone to work on enterprise education. It could be the cheapest, most simplest thing to help more young people in the UK start and run successful businesses.
Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:
The size of the problem
Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).
While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).
The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:
- As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
- There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
- Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.
Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.”
(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”
(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”
(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”
(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”
(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”
Turning problems into opportunities
It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.
Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).
One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)
There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.
The RSA as a Catalyst
Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.
As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.
There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via firstname.lastname@example.org
RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien RachelO.email@example.com
Every government wants entrepreneurs in its economy. They’re the innovators, the leaders, the job and wealth creators that any modern nation needs to compete and grow. The UK Government is no different: all sorts of initiatives and reforms are underway to encourage people – particularly younger people – to set up a business.
But the UK has a problem: there isn’t the same appetite for entrepreneurialism here as there is in other countries. For example, a recent study found that while 1 in 17 young people in the UK are actively involved in early stage entrepreneurial activity, the figure is 1 in 12 in Germany and 1 in 10 in the US.
Bring together a group of young entrepreneurs (as the RSA has done a lot recently) and pretty soon the conversation turns to the cultural barriers that exist in the UK to entrepreneurial activity. There just seems to be a greater fear of risk and maybe a whiff of moral doubt about going into business. Unfortunately, the conversation tends to stop there because while we can all dream up government policies on tax and regulation no-one really knows how to change culture.
no-one really knows how to change culture
So here’s a modest proposal (suggested only half in jest) to start breaking down the barriers: abolish the use of the word ‘entrepreneur’. This is why:
1. ‘Entrepreneur’ is associated with the wrong types of people.
From my own highly scientific straw polling, the word seems to conjure up two sorts: either the highly belligerent types seen on The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den or the money-grubbing untrustworthy characters that make regular appearances in soap operas such as Ian Beale in Eastenders. The underlying message being that unless you are very aggressive or morally dubious, the life of an entrepreneur is not for you.
Not only is this hardly a great incentive, it’s also untrue. The dozens of young entrepreneurs I have met in the last few months have (what a surprise) displayed a wide variety of personality types. A fierce commitment rather than a boorish aggression seems to be the only common feature.
2. ‘Entrepreneur’ is too closely associated with money.
I think many people probably believe that personal enrichment is the key motivation for entrepreneurs. Most all of us would like to be well-off, of course, but the young people I have met have their eye on a mission not money. They may be attracted by the idea of being rich but they seem to recognise that money flows naturally from the fulfilment of the drive to solve a problem or seize an opportunity not from the pursuit of wealth itself.
Those I have spoken to want greater literacy, more renewable energy, superior delivery of mental health services etc. etc. And they are convinced they have a better way of achieving those things. That’s what drives them, what gets them out of bed in the morning not the possibility of a bigger bank account.
In fact, a view of entrepreneurialism that captures this spirit far better than existing TV portrayals can be found in the rather brilliant Moo.com adverts.
This issue is important because it goes to the essence of those British concerns about the turpitude of the entrepreneur as a money-grubber rather than someone who has the wider good of the community at heart.
3. ‘Entrepreneur’ is associated with a narrow business model.
I think most people probably see the entrepreneur as someone who runs a limited liability company with the main eye on generating profit and maybe ultimately the sale of the firm to a bigger player. It’s a view which reinforces the belief that being an entrepreneur is about technical stuff like cash flow projections and company accounts. As well as reinforcing the view, once again, that entrepreneurs care more about the money than the mission.
But again based on the people I have met this seems a simplification. The young entrepreneurs I have spoken to value a diversity of forms including social enterprise, non-profits, co-operatives, charities, loose networks, partnerships as well as the more conventional limited company. And the diversity of legal forms speaks to a diversity of motivations and goals for young entrepreneurs that goes well beyond the standard ‘build it up and sell it on’ approach we are told afflicts the UK economy.
Of course if we do ban the word ‘entrepreneur’, we need to know what to put in its place. But ‘business person’ or ‘company director’ certainly don’t cut it.
Ian Beale has never called himself a ‘venturist’
My humble suggestion is ‘venturist’ meaning someone who sets up a venture. The reason is that ‘venture’ better captures the diversity of forms now attracting young people than ‘business’ or ‘enterprise’. It’s also a word that signifies an activity designed to achieve a goal or mission rather than being primarily about money. And, thankfully, Ian Beale, as far as I know, has never called himself a ‘venturist’.
And I realise I’m losing the plot now but ‘venturism’ has a solid teutonic feel to it while I can’t help feeling that that air of French ethereal intangibility that hangs around ‘entrepreneur’ does nothing to endear it to the anglo-saxon ear.
What do you know about autism? Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s some kind of brain condition that is linked to genius. Maybe you have a vague notion that it’s caused by childhood immunisations, or affects children not adults, boys not girls. Maybe you’ve read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and therefore know everything there is to know.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so I can’t help but give the topic some attention, especially as the Action and Research Centre here at the RSA is in the early stages of planning a piece of work involving improving opportunities for people with autism.
It feels timely to mention our intention to do this work, not least because of the emphasis in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2013: “This international attention is essential to address stigma, lack of awareness and inadequate support structures. Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential”.
Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential
A few facts, then. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability – on its own, it isn’t a learning disability or mental health condition, although some people with autism might also be affected by these. Autism is characterised by a ‘triad of impairments‘, which refers to difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Importantly, it’s a spectrum condition, which means that the way the three types of impairment affect people varies, and rather than being a single fixed condition, it encompasses many different subgroups of experience.
There’s a lot that is still not known about autism – how it is caused, whether ‘cure’ is possible. There’s also a lot of controversy surrounding how these unknowns should be approached, including a growing movement that advocates for celebrating difference instead of looking for a cure. It can all get quite divisive, especially between parents who passionately believe, for example in behavioural modification therapies and those who prefer to find ways of accommodating autistic self-expression.
Until a few years ago, I didn’t know all that much about autism, and I certainly still wouldn’t profess to have much in the way of knowledge about it. But, I do have a bit of experience, as a result of having had the privilege of being an occasional support worker for children and young people with autism.
Through the independent support agency, Time Specialist Support, I’ve got to know a number of young people with autism and, for fear of descending into cliche, have learnt a huge amount as a result. Many of the important lessons haven’t been about the ‘problem of autism’ so much as the problems created by our social world and the norms we work within. Considering these things from the perspective of a child with autism throws up a gamut of frustrating and bewildering challenges, but when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity.
when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity
Only 15% of adults with autism have a job, although most are able and would like to work. The challenges involved in getting and doing a job are massive, but not necessarily because of the autism itself so much as the structures we take for granted as being integral and neccessary. It’s these challenges, and how employers can help diminish them that we’re interested in finding out more about at the RSA. It’s very early days, but, the Enterprise team and Social Brain Centre intend to collaborate to examine the processes of change that might need to happen in order to properly support adults with autism to work.
We are currently in early discussions with organisations interested in creating more autism-friendly work places, and helping autistic people realise their employment potential, to address the rather shocking unemployment statistics among this group. One of the options we are exploring is to run a challenge prize on this subject, combining a mixture of specialist expertise, entrepreneurial business models, design and technology.
There are a few examples of trailblazers in this area, but there are also plenty of disappointing and tokenistic attempts to employ autistic adults. As we develop our ideas and plans, we would very much welcome anecdotes, examples, comments and suggestions, so do get in touch with me or Julian Thompson.
Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces. In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops.
The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year. For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.
What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces. Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.
I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be. It was going to be beautiful.
What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town. We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods. We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500. By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.
Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale. An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all. He came to visit.
We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street. This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily. You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.
There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.
Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop
- Research your target property’s landlord
- Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
- Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
- Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
- Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
- Be flexible, and be resilient
Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.
To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below
- The Empty Shop Network
- The Pop Up People Report
- Pop Up Business for Dummies
- Meanwhile Space
- Meanwhile Project
Get in touch
For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson would be willing to help – again via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!
Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video
I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes. But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.
RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School
Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012. It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.
Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.
I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:
- Work with your local schools. You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships. Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables. In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
- It is hard to involve local business. Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them. This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
- Use your RSA network of local Fellows. In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event. A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools. National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town. A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school. And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods. He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
- Only do what you feel comfortable doing. When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough. But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.
Which brings me to my own learning point. When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.
We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling. Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.
This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working. It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon. It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact. Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.
This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
What next? Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14. And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.
All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.