From Eggs to Education: why diversity allows the flock to flourish

October 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

In the most recent RSA Journal, I read with interest the piece on competition by Margaret Heffernan – particularly, the part that describes an experiment designed to engineer a ‘super flock’ of golden-egg180x180hens. To see whether increased competition would create higher levels of production, geneticist William Muir pulled the top egg-producing hens out of a regular flock and put them together. After just two generations of this new flock, the results were remarkable – six of the super hens had been pecked to death by the remaining three, whilst the original flock was performing better than ever.

This experiment suggests that if you only value the so-called ‘cream of the crop’ you are probably missing a trick or two. Societies need variety and balance in order to function healthily – you simply can’t have everybody doing the same thing, no matter how valuable it is deemed.

The article got me thinking about our education system and the levels of competition and selection. My own experience saw my peers divided into two camps at age 11: clever, and not so clever. Even for those who weren’t required to take the dreaded 11+, academic pressure remains a dominant feature of school life. Certainly, an element of competition can be motivating, but just as the ‘cream’ ought not to be scooped off the top and isolated at their own expense, nor should the rest feel their particular strengths have no value to society.

Many of the RSA Fellows I’ve met over the past year have been teachers, and all were unequivocally passionate about the difference a good education can have on the trajectory of a person’s life. Whatever the challenges in the classroom might be, Fellows have a wealth of ideas about where improvements can be made that will potentially transform the confidence of their students.

One such teacher is Jo Taylor FRSA, who, having participated in Teach First’s leadership programme, has gone on to co-found Wall Display – an education project which has recently applied for an RSA Catalyst grant.

“As a teacher I saw how much of a difference an engaged parent could make to their child’s aspirations. I also saw how hard it was for parents to be involved in their child’s education. I wanted to create a way for them to see the great things their children were doing.”

With children from disadvantaged schools, parental disengagement can be a big problem because if the parent had a bad experience at school themselves, they may be less inclined to encourage their children to participate. Many of these parents may have become disengaged because they did not perform well in exams, and with the continual emphasis on exams and grades, it’s increasingly important for teachers to find ways to celebrate the diversity of students’ skills and ensure they do not become disenchanted with learning altogether.

Wall Display has addressed this issue by creating an online platform for teachers to share their pupils’ work in such a way that it displays the creativity and individuality of the work whilst pushing it beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

“Students can get really demotivated producing amazing work which nobody ever sees, the idea is that Wall Display provides them with an audience for what they do in school.”

The public can award badges to work they like

The public can award badges to work they like

When teachers post work from students, members of the general public can give badges to work they like and other teachers can offer feedback.

I think this responsive aspect of the project is critical because if your teacher does not like your work, it might feel like theirs is the only opinion that counts. Wall Display’s strength is that it allows an array of opinions to reach the students – an experience which is far more representative of life after school.

Jo spoke about the progress of the project at a recent RSA Engage event, and asked other Fellows to get involved in the following ways:

- Do you know a teacher or school who might like to use Wall Display?
- Do you know anyone who works for Ofsted or an education body?
- Do you know any business leaders who are passionate about education?

If you’d like to know more about Wall Display, help Jo or get involved then you can contact him at, or find out more on their website:

The RSA has partnered with Teach First for seven years, and we are able to offer a reduced rate of Fellowship for all Teach First participants – contact Alex Barker for more information.

State or private – it’s the wrong question

July 22, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

A recent twitter spat about which of the new set of DFE Ministers are privately educated has got me thinking about whether and how far it matters where the DFE Ministers went to school. My conclusion: state or private is the wrong question.

I’m tempted to leave it there – it’s a hot day and there are other things I should be doing – but let me explain…. Read more

No justice, no peace: An introduction to the Fair Education Alliance

June 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The lead singer of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson last week claimed that the Glastonbury Festival was “the most bourgeois thing on the planet.  Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.” My unsubstantiated guess is that this weekend’s Festival of Education, held at Wellington College, might smash Glastonbury in any game of bourgeois Top Trumps. However, the Festival yesterday hosted the launch of a new campaign that RSA Education is delighted to have helped initiate and excited to be playing a continued role in.

The Fair Education Alliance aims to work towards ending the persistent achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers. Our aim is hardly novel; in some ways, it’s been an implicit ambition since 1870’s Education Act, made more explicit through the birth of the comprehensive movement. This is why Gove and others’ flippant dismissals of those with different views about how to close achievement gaps as ‘enemies of promise’ can be so corrosive. In contrast, the Alliance carefully brings together partners who may have very different routemaps to a fairer education system, but are prepared to collaborate to achieve common goals.

Our five Impact Goals, all measurable statements of progress, are as follows:

  1. Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school
  2. ​Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school
  3. Ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations
  4. Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment or training one year after compulsory education
  5. Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 per cent most selective universities

The Alliance recognises that the “the underlying causes of educational inequality are complex and interconnected, and they need to be addressed across the education system and society. No single organisation has the knowledge, resources or expertise to bring about the changes we need to make our education system fair for everyone.”  Today’s silly Times leader column, which gave an outdated, un-evidenced view of Universities’ role in teacher training, and claimed that the best way to improve the performance of white working class pupils was to “motivate them with more vocational training”, exemplifies the kind of rhetoric we do not need. Michael Wilshaw’s speech yesterday, reclaiming the comprehensive agenda with a more nuanced account of recent progress and current predicaments, was far more balanced and helpful. For once, read the speech, not the headlines.

The Education Endowment Foundation amongst others has recognised that most interventions which successfully improve outcomes also widen gaps in outcomes. This serves as a useful precis for the last few decades of schooling in England. Leaving doubts about grade inflation aside, the performance of white working class pupils at GCSE has risen significantly, and now outperforms the average… of twenty years ago. The problem is that overall average performance has risen faster.

The Education and Employers task force’s latest publication, exemplifies this dilemma. Taken in totality, employer engagement in education reproduces social inequalities. Put simply, if all employer engagement, from informal internships to formal programmes in schools to work experience, stopped tomorrow, this would probably narrow gaps in education and labour market outcomes. This, of course, is undesirable, and does disservice to the many initiatives that are designed to work with those who most need them. Yet it chrystallises the issue: If you don’t target resources with precision, a terrible thing happens. The Pupil premium has become a powerful, helpful nudge on school spending and wider strategic planning, supported by the new accountability rules which will make sure, that, to borrow a much maligned phrase, every child matters.

Teach First has achieved a terrific job in initiating the Fair Education Alliance without hubris, pulling in favours and resources, and carefully constructing some early theories of change around each change goal. yesterday’s Telegraph article by CEO Brett Wigodrtz cogently explains the organisation’s rationale for creating this alliance. It’s now up to us, as twenty-five organisations with our own priorities, deadlines and baggage, to work collaboratively, involving thousands of others to maximise our collective impact.

Too often, alliances such as these become a half-hearted bolt-on to each individual organisation’s ethos creating inertia rather than momentum, smugness rather than anger. Agreed actions can feel a million miles away from the task at hand – (“What do we want? Mapping our activities across localities! When do we want it? Soon!”). To quote Whitley RSA Academy’s mission statement (a school which puts huge efforts into closing achievement gaps, with increasing success), we need ‘deeds, not words’.

Words may matter too, however. Effective alliances dare to speak truth to power in a way that individual alliance members (many of whom will be reliant on ‘Power’ for funding) cannot.  We should be brave enough collectively to think radically about school admissions and segregation, funding, teacher choice and allocation, and practices such as setting and streaming. We may want to challenge the current, confused orthodoxy around school autonomy, and the extent to which is a route to or a reward for successfully achieving our impact goals. Nick Clegg’s social mobility strategy seems heavy on indicators and light on everything else. I still haven’t met any of these oft-quoted academics who argue that ‘deprivation is destiny’, but as an alliance we should be prepared to question broader government approaches to poverty and regeneration, whilst remaining passionately optimistic about what schools can achieve, regardless of wider contexts.

Key to our success, as one alliance member suggested, may be to “reposition education as a public good”. In other words, am I prepared care a little less about my own children’s performance, and a lot more about the outcomes of their poorer peers? This is challenging terrain. Education has always been couched largely as a private, positional good, and the forces of consumerism and an increasingly unstable economy has reinforced and positively encouraged this attitude. As a society, we generally agree that closing class gaps in health outcomes is desirable (unless you are particularly callous, health is not seen as a positional good). In terms of education outcomes, if we’re honest with ourselves we aren’t so sure how much equality we really want, so continue to hoard advantage whenever possible (and it’s usually possible).

RSA Education has always engaged in issues relating to social justice in education – my predecessor Becky Francis’ review of social justice in education, and report on progression in further education, provide fantastic foundations. Last year’s report on in-year admissions highlighted one cause of injustice, and our Academies work daily to address educational inequality.  As a founder member of the alliance, will now make a simple commitment. We won’t engage in education programmes, whether policy research or practical innovations, unless ‘closing the gap’ is built into the design and ambition of these programmes. Our own focus will move increasingly on what we are calling ‘closing the creativity gap’ across all stages of life, always connecting this agenda with attainment and other broad outcomes. That’s for another blog. For the moment, we hope that thousands of RSA Fellows and others participate in the alliance and sign up to our goals. We don’t care how bourgeois you are, and even if you’re an Iron Maiden fan, you’re welcome.

Wealth and power: Piketty- a users’ guide

April 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

So Thomas Piketty has the Pope onside. Given that the book is outselling the bible currently that really is something. There have been so many reviews of the book that the Washington Post even published a ‘how to write a Piketty think piece’ guide. The one disappointing aspect of the book so far is that the response has been dominated by economists. No offense, but that is only a very narrow contingent of the total potential audience. And Piketty goes out of his way to make this point. Read more

Creative Connecting: the Magic Bullet?

January 7, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Innovation, Social Economy 

“It’s almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy … the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling”

Gaia Marcus


On Saturday I was invited to speak to BBC Radio Bristol’s Dr Phil Hammond about the Social Mirror project we are currently piloting in Knowle West, Bristol, with our local partner, the Knowle west Media Centre. Social Mirror is a project in which people waiting in their GP’s surgery are invited to carry out a short survey on a tablet computer that ‘diagnoses’ their levels of wellbeing and personal connectivity, and that can suggest local community prescriptions if there is a need. These community prescriptions can be anything from walking groups to Tai Chi to Woodworking.

Not for the first time, I was asked why the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce would “be doing good work like this” quite so close to the coal face, and quite so practically. It is easy to think that hyper-local projects might be too ‘small’ to be of interest to an organisation with such international reach, but it is only through trialling out our innovations in the real world that we can allow them to take real roots.

As Adam Lent – the RSA’s Action and Research Centre Director – laid out yesterday, the RSA has hoisted a new flag: the power to Create. Adding a new ending to the French enlightenment refrain -  Liberté, Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité! – our interest in the power to create helps explain why an organisation such as the RSA might be interested in connecting isolated people in Bristol to activities in their area. As I explained to Doctor Hammond, social connections – who we know, who we rely on, who we  get our information from – are almost the magic bullet; a friendly elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to operate.

The truth is that who you know massively influences who end up being, just as you influence all those around you. In our research with 3000 people in deprived areas in England, we found that people‘s social connections affected their life satisfaction and sense that what did they did in life was worthwhile. Indeed, those people who did not have people they felt close to or who did not have people that might give them small-scale, practical help or that did not have any connections in the local area, had both life satisfaction and feelings of life being worthwhile that were lower in statistically significant ways, independently of other factors.  For groups that might generally be at a wellbeing risk, for example older people or single parents, we often found that social support seemed a determining factor in their subjective wellbeing being either very positive or very negative.


If we are to open up the power to create – the ability to ‘act in ways that are unique to [your] own capacities or vision’ [in a] unique, pro-active and self-determined nature’ – then we need to start paying serious consideration to the effect of an individual’s social context on their understanding of their own capacities or vision. Like Sir Young’s originally satirical understanding of the term ‘meritocracy’, the power to create is not a phrase that we can accept uncritically, even as we welcome it into the arsenal of tools that we can use when seeking to help create the world we would like to live in.


Image by Josh C, taken from×735.jpg,


The perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant – is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is. People often need a push, a spark, a catalyst. The act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. By connecting people to others and activities in their local area, by helping them open that front door and get out there, we ultimately might be that spark.


“I can’t say enough about [the social mirror project] because it has changed my life… if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before… I’ve stopped drinking alcohol -I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”

  Social Mirror Project Participant



Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project, and leads the Social Mirror project.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

Social Mirror has recently been featured on BBC Radio Bristol (at 1h :23 minutes) and on BBC Radio 4.


A Question of Confidence?

October 28, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

 “The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything…or nothing.” – Viscountess Nancy Astor, the first woman to be seated in the British Parliament

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the graduation ceremony for fifteen female entrepreneurs who had recently completed Make it Real – a business support programme for aspiring women run by The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CEWE) at the University of East London. Held in the impressive surroundings of the Museum of Childhood amid a live market place which allowed the finalists to showcase their work, the event saw each winner congratulated with a cheque of £2,000 to grow their business.

The ceremony kicked off with a lively speech from Lisa Burger, Head of Customer Experience at easyJet. Lisa has been with the airline right from its entrepreneurial beginnings and she outlined how this has shaped her approach to life. During her speech she passed on many words of wisdom to the audience, but there was one thing in particular that stuck in my head:

Don’t be afraid to ask the question.”

Lisa Burger is a confident, successful woman but she was keen to relate to her (mostly female) audience and acknowledge the psychological barriers that often stop people from achieving – specifically, the fear of speaking out and being seen to be wrong.

So, honouring her request, here is the question I am slightly fearful of asking: are women inherently less confident than men when it comes to putting themselves forward and creating the career they newspaperreally want?

Are women hiding away?

I am not the only one to consider this question. Since the RSA set up its Catalyst fund, it has supported ventures lead by some inspirational women and many of these have focused specifically on helping other women. Dr Catherine Fieschi FRSA was inspired to set up her enterprise – 50 Foot Women, precisely because she happened to notice a worrying trend whilst recruiting for positions in her role as Director of Counterpoint.

 “While male applicants were more inclined to over-emphasise their skills and ability, the women tended to under-sell them­selves -”

This direct experience was enough to merit the birth of 50 Foot Women, a mentoring scheme that she hoped would boost women’s confidence and their potential. Cooking with Mama is another Catalyst supported enterprise specifically targeting women. Set up by Jennifer Fong FRSA, the project offers cooking classes run by mothers who might otherwise be out of work or not have the confidence to return to work. The classes address both problems by employing and empowering at the same time.

Discovering a problem in your locality and working to address it is the essence of RSA Fellowship. When it comes to tackling inequality in the workplace, things are definitely changing and entrepreneurship is a big part of the equation. Unfortunately, the question of why there are less female CEOs is a highly politicised issue, and my worry is that this will lead many women (and men) who have great capacity to help, to steer clear of the problem altogether.

RSA Great Room Mural | Distribution of Premiums The lesson illustrated by our Fellows is that it pays to ask the question but not get too caught up in trying to solve the whole problem – instead, focus on what you can do, and who you can help, right now. Do not become overwhelmed by trying to change everything at once and risk changing nothing. It was not until 1928 that Viscountess Nancy Astor became the first women seated in British Parliament, yet the RSA has been offering woman a platform to participate in public life and improve society from its inception in 1754. This in turn influenced other societies to do the same and slowly, things changed.

The Fellowship continues this legacy by letting innovative people like Catherine and Jennifer change the landscape for women, one bit at a time.

If you’d like to find out more about the projects mentioned, or would like to apply for Fellowship then contact If there is someone you know who would make a great addition to the network then why not nominate them?

Alex Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA, @alexandrabarke1


Supporting Social Mobility

October 7, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The South Central Region of the RSA are holding a series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events are run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:

  • Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
  • Meeting and networking with other Fellows
  • Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
  • Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.

On Thursday 12 September, at the Leadership and Training Centre at Shenley Brook End School, Tom Welch and Lesley King gave a presentation and led a discussion on the idea: Supporting Social Mobility.  This is a guest blog from Tom Welch.

Tom WelchOur talk for the RSA South Central Region’s Ideas in Education Series started from the premise that exam results are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure social mobility.

The forty or so people who took part in the evening needed no encouragement to engage. So free-flowing was the conversation before the presentation proper, that we were considerably late starting, but all knew each other much better for it.

Only 23% of white boys on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 55% of all pupils.

We began with an examination of some previous research that we had carried out called Bucking the Trend – a study of white boys of British origin, eligible for free school meals who had gained 5 A* to C at GCSE or equivalent. This study aimed to give these academically successful students, a huge minority in their demographic, a voice that could be heard by educators – why did they think they had managed to buck the trend? How could schools learn from their experience of their nascent upwardly mobile journey?

The most pertinent finding for the purposes of the evening’s discussion, however, was that over 45 of the boys we interviewed had spoken, without prompting, of the social and psychological challenges of their social mobility. Their descriptions reminded us of Richard Hoggart’s ‘Uprooted and Anxious’ in The Uses of Literacy written some 50 years prior to the boys’ experiences.

The room entered into a lively discussion about how the challenges associated with social mobility, for the individual students themselves, could be ameliorated, while ensuring that the benefits of the rich experiences that are part of their journey could be accentuated and brought to the fore. 

How can we ensure that upwardly mobile students are not left floundering between two worlds, feeling uprooted and anxious?

There was a broad consensus that, while helping the most disadvantaged students academically is important, and can facilitate mobility after compulsory education ends, broader societal changes - particularly in terms of what we, as a society, value and aspire to - are necessary if we are ever to ease the passage of social mobility and move toward social justice.

I would be interested in discussing further, with attendees and Fellows, the challenges of social mobility – both facilitating it and the psychological challenges faced by the upwardly mobile students. How can we ensure that they are not left floundering between two worlds, feeling uprooted and anxious?

Tom Welch is Co-Director at EdYou.  You can contact him via email at or on Twitter at @tom_w_welch.

You can book now for upcoming events in the Ideas Education series:

17 October 2013: Ideas in Education: Conserving Creativity in Early Years, Reading

30 October 2013: Ideas in Education: Building Learning Power, Winchester

6 November 2013: Ideas in Education: Revolutionising access to science and research through technology, Portsmouth

14 November 2013: Ideas in Education: Planning Educational Spaces, Winchester

5 December 2013: Ideas in Education: DIY higher education in the global swamp? Oxford

To find out more contact Fellowship Councillor for South Central Bethan Michael.

Political geography bankrupted Detroit

July 19, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Yesterday Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy. The fate of public services for 700,000 residents is uncertain. The statistics we’ve read are horrific: the average police response time is 53 minutes, the city has shut half its parks since 2008, 38% of revenues went to servicing debt last year and 47% of properties didn’t pay their property tax bill. But as Neil McInroy wrote, “feeling the pain is not enough.  We need also a thorough analysis of the economic and socio-political forces which cause it.”

In recent years Detroit has led the dubious club of shrinking cities providing post-industrial ruin porn. The images of decay are mesmerising: promising a futuristic glimpse of what a city looks like when capitalism and government fail together. Most accounts assume Detroit’s problems stem from severe de-industrialisation. This is entirely insufficient. The root cause of this is administrative geography: growing suburban wealth has mirrored urban decline. American political geography and property-based tax collection colludes against Detroit: local authorities rely heavily on local property taxes, which are dependent on property values. The rich have literally bought into relatively small well-funded local administrations on the outskirts (see map below). Across the US, such enclaves can protected through “exclusionary zoning”, preventing low-income residents through ordnances which require minimum housing sizes and limits on land use density.


Let’s recap the story but ensure our geographical lens zooms out. Detroit was once metonym for the American car industry (“Motown”). Detroit attracted economic migrants rapidly between 1900 and 1930, including many African-Americans from southern states. Like other American cities, Detroit’s suburbs grew rapidly after World War Two, and mass ownership of cars made that possible. By 1956 the last streetcar line in a 500 mile networks was ripped up and Detroit pioneered the construction of motorways which carved through dense urban neighbourhoods. Those with jobs followed the relocation of companies to the suburbs. Many poor black people were left behind. Social challenges and physical decline have a long and painful history: the Army was deployed in riots which killed 43 in 1967. 80,000 people left the city in 1968.

Poverty by race Detroit 2010

Poverty by race Detroit 2010 (Source)

But in the Metro Detroit region today – the city including its suburbs and exurbs – lives 5.2 million residents spread over 6,000 square miles. The car industry is not dead, and is recovering from its 2009 bailout and still employs 130,000. Half a million people still work in manufacturing in the state of Michigan; many of these jobs are unionised, paying wages typically 75% above the state average. Other sectors are growing around Detroit – science, technology and finance – while one of America’s top universities sits 40 miles west of Detroit. Some companies have recently chosen to consolidate their offices in the city centre, but city residents have remained poor through the decades.

Metro Detroit highlights is the inability of America’s economy, government and social infrastructure to offer social-economic mobility. In the country where people believe most frequently that personal determination can overcome disadvantage, the poor more often than not remain poor through generations. They receive poor public services because their local government is poor. Incomes have stagnated as productivity growth hasn’t been distributed to workers through wages: the minimum wage is far below historical precedent.

Regional inequality is the crucial context for Detroit’s bankruptcy. In short, as the economic geography of Metro Detroit evolved, the geographical administration of government did not evolve with it. The localised nature of the tax base meant the city became stuck in a downward spiral.

One of the negative feedback loops in racialised poverty is the education system. Arguing that education policy and racism in the housing market conspired to segregate the region’s children by race and class, the NAACP won a legal case in 1971 forcing Detroit to form plans with it 53 metropolitan school districts to integrate student. In 1974, the Supreme Court overturned this on appeal by the State and suburban districts.

The physical environment has been blighted with abandoned buildings and subject to mass arson on Halloween: depressing the property market and further depressing Detroit city government tax revenue. Declining prices (50% between 2005 and 2011) mean residents complain their property is overvalued by tax officials and refuse to pay their taxes. The city witnesses a race between blight-fighting bulldozers performing urban excision and investors who seek to land-bank them for as little as $500.

The only big effort in the US to proactively pool tax revenues locally are the seven counties around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Even here redistribution is limited to 40% of growth in commercial and industrial tax revenue, not residential property tax. There is a precedent for cities in the US to annex nearby land and expand, but state government must consent. Phoenix has doubled in territorial size since 1970, allowing a broader tax base and for the city to profit from rising land values on its rural outskirts. Generally, its been politically impossible to force affluent suburbanites to share tax revenue and expenditure decisions through joint metropolitan government which includes poorer neighbours in the inner city.

Political administrative geography matters greatly in economic development, financial management and social integration. In the UK local authorities are experimenting with cross-borough arrangements and policy and investment based on “functional economic areas”, while new unitary authority status creates challenges and opportunities. The bankruptcy of Detroit calls into question the scales to which our psychological associations extend. Detroit remains the heart of a dynamic city-region. It seems unlikely that lawyers and administrators will be able to draw on that wider wealth in the resuscitation efforts.

Economicon: Why global economics is child’s play.

July 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Guest Post by Karim Secker.

A new project by the Equality Trust aims to ask some important questions of the game-theory model of economics. The project, called Economicon, is part of an ESRC initiative to develop educational tools focusing on inequality for 16-19 year olds.

There is no shortage of games that model themselves on complex real-life problems like economics, or politics, or warfare. From some of the oldest known games like chess and morabara (an elegant and complex African boardgame about herding cows efficiently dating from around 800AD), through modern boardgame classics like Risk, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, right the way up to some of the more epic contributions of the computer game era like the Civilisation series (which let you nurture an entire civilization all the way from inventing sharpened sticks up to space travel), games about the fundamental rules of human society appear across cultures and throughout history.

Whether they use pebbles or pixels and are passed on through word-of-mouth or fibre-optics, what these games all have in common is that they try to capture the strategy and conflict of real-world, large-scale problems in all their staggering complexity using nothing but a set of abstract rules.

 Believe it or not, game theory and the minimax mathematical equation on which it is based are this year celebrating their 300th anniversary. And that may be a problem. Three centuries on, it is still the basis of most modern economic thinking. 

Games are so deeply ingrained in how we think and learn about complex human interactions it is perhaps not surprising that economists trying to devise a science of financial decision-making decided to name it ‘game theory’. Believe it or not, game theory and the minimax mathematical equation on which it is based are this year celebrating their 300th anniversary.

And that may be a problem. Three centuries on, it is still the basis of most modern economic thinking. And it is, at best, a paradox. Game theory’s most famous example, the prisoner’s dilemma, describes two captured bank robbers faced with a choice between ratting the other out for a better chance at their own freedom, or staying silent and trusting their partner. And unfortunately for theoretical criminals everywhere, the logical thing for both bank robbers to do is to rat out the other. Which of course will land both of them in prison, eyeing each other over soggy porridge for the next ten to fifteen.

Being logical, according to game theory, makes you lose.

Of course, this changes if you play the same person more than once, meaning you need them to trust you next time. But is this good enough? In our own society, we often have to trust people we may never see again, or that we never see at all. Where do morals fit in? Reputations? Social responsibility? Community?

There is something missing from the game theory model of society, and not just at an emotional or ideological level. In a real world prisoner’s dilemma, even if you win and walk free, your incarcerated ex-partner in crime may well have friends and family who will have something to say about it. They may well know where you live.

Game theory is based on the assumption that each interaction happens in a vacuum, and that once it is finished, there are no other consequences to deal with. Perhaps this is why economists are so bad at predicting and planning for the future, such as insisting on austerity policies that irrevocably damage the health and education levels of the coming generation, or arguing that promoting economic growth is more important than dealing with climate change when even a small environmental crisis will bring with it the mother of all recessions. What the game-theory model of society misses out is, well, the society.

What the game-theory model of society misses out is, well, the society.

A new project by the Equality Trust aims to ask some important questions of the game-theory model of economics. The project, called Economicon, is part of an ESRC initiative to develop educational tools focusing on inequality for 16-19 year olds.

Economicon is a computer game that lets small groups of players model real economies. It lets you play with society-wide factors like inequality, tax and anonymity and then see how these shape the decisions of the individuals within those societies. It offers players similar choices to the prisoner’s dilemma, but crucially, it is for more than two players, allowing students and researchers to better understand how societies work and how co-operation happens, or why it fails to.

Modern economics has been accused, with some justification, of being an ideology masquerading as a science, as putting mathematics before real people, and treating us all as nothing more than logical, gain-maximising automatons. Well it may just turn out that not just the attitude but also the mathematics of modern economics are due an upgrade.

Maybe we need a mathematical model that can account for the effects of an interested third party, or a fourth, or a seven point something billionth, and maybe, just maybe this will start to look a little more like the way actual humans do things.

So, is it time we expanded our economic model to allow for the effects of society? Or rather; what type of game do we want to be playing?

Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

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Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

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