Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise, Innovation, Social Brain
The RSA is, almost fundamentally, a place of debate. We debate at lectures with speakers; we debate online with the media; but most of all, we debate amongst ourselves. We debate the morning’s news over breakfast; we debate project and report details at lunch; we debate existentialist dilemmas and the meaning of life over late-night drinks; and the cycle begins anew.
But lately we’ve been debating even more than usual, because the topic of discussion has not been about this or that, but about us and what we stand for. A consensus on a new agenda is (slowly) building around the idea of ‘the power to create’: the belief that “all should have the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality”. This emerging worldview was first articulated by Adam Lent, Director of RSA’s Action and Research Centre.
It’s a concept that embodies two of our core principles:
- Creativity: that individual and collective ingenuity will be key to successfully addressing the complex web of social, economic and ecological challenges we now face as a society
- Inclusivity: that the best solutions to these challenges will emerge from the bottom-up, rather than be imposed from the top-down
Where debate has broken out, it has typically concerned the lack of stipulation of which ideas we want to help people turn into reality. Jonathan Rowson posted a full discussion of this issue, but for brevity I quote Paul Swann‘s comment, which put it thus:
“Calling for an ‘unprecedented explosion of creative endeavour’ is all well and good, but to what ends? Perpetual growth, short-term profits and increasing greenhouse gas emissions..?”
Paul’s question highlights that ‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility. In other words, are we advocating a kind of capitalist creativity which rewards any innovation that is profitable, regardless of externalities? Or are we, with tonight’s speaker, David Harvey, promoting a revolutionary creativity to oppose capital’s exploitation of people and planet? I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I find the question interesting as an exercise in questioning my own ideals.
‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility
“Ultimately”, it was said in our latest round of debate, “what will give any prospective agenda meaning is not the words we use, but the work we do.” And perhaps the work I am doing is illustrative of the kind of creativity I want to see in the world. Following on from a productive round table discussion with manufacturing representatives, policy makers, academics and NGOs, I am exploring the potential for a new project to accelerate the transition towards sustainable manufacturing. The creative, inclusive and responsible vision here is one of a circular economy, in which production is localised rather than centralised, mass customisation replaces mass production, and pollution and waste become inputs rather than outputs of manufacturing.
Continuing the theme of working with business rather than against it, I am working on the RSA’s new Premium, which addresses the fact that we are chronically under-investing in our workforce, leaving people unproductive and unfulfilled. Grounded in the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Valuing Your Talent is a crowdsourcing challenge open to all, generating practical innovations to help businesses (particularly SMEs) recognise and make the case for greater investment in their people – get involved today!
What these two projects have in common is that they seek radical, transformative change in the way businesses work, but they do so through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach. So if our work says more than our words about who we are, then to the question, ‘what kind of creativity do I want to see in the world?’ I say:
‘This kind of creativity!’
Conor Quinn works in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre. Follow him @conorquinn85
Richard Blissett is Co-founder and CTO of EduKit, an online platform that will help disadvantaged students by matching them with organisations that can provide specialist educational and personal development support. Edukit has recently received RSA Catalyst funding. This is a guest blog from Richard.
Just days before Christmas we received the amazing news that we’d been offered a £2k Catalyst grant to develop a prototype of our ambitious EduKit application – an online platform that will connect schools in deprived areas with youth programmes being run by social enterprises and charities (aka providers). Our prototype is important as it will help us to demo our planned online tool to teachers and students and to collect vital feedback that we will need before we start system development. In addition to this, we had also selected three schools with whom we decided to pilot our approach manually. We were all set for 2014 to be truly eventful – and momentous.
And we have certainly not been disappointed. In early January we handed our system design to our developer Christian, a bright new graduate, who set about turning our vision into reality. After two months of hard slog we have now almost finished developing a prototype which demos the different log in screens i.e. for teachers, school admin staff, students etc and shows the results and analysis that will be available for users. We have also finished our paper pilot during which we matched 29 students (each with interesting, high quality local programmes that they would otherwise have been unaware of) and are just waiting to hear back from schools as to which programmes they will be enrolled for. The feedback from the schools has been exceptional and each has provided us with a testimonial of the service!
“The students have been able to access support from programmes that are tailored to their specific needs and we have already connected with local organisations recommended by Edukit, who offer support/services to young people. Some of the students are receiving free, regular mentoring, and for others we are hoping to give them an extensive experience of living and working on a farm for a week. The whole process has been so helpful in finding targetted programmes to ensure the needs of our students are being met.” Debbie Coloumbo, Eltham Hill School
“The matches between providers and our students have been ideal. For a number of our students, having an additional resource to support and engage them has meant that they are no longer at risk and are much more engaged in their education. This is equally true of those in Year 11 as those in Year 8″. Amanda Desmond Assistant Headteacher, Southfields Academy
But what has really surprised us is how much we’ve learnt about how schools work. During just three or so weeks, we’ve been able to find out so much about what their challenges and expectations are and how users will use and value our tool. For example, we’ve learnt that whilst schools are entirely committed to helping their students in whatever way they can, they can usually take far longer than we had hoped to get back to us so it’s best to either organise drop-ins to help them fill in their data or build an very user friendly online system which would allow both teachers and students to easily enter their data. We also learnt about how schools plan their budgets in order to finance external support.
It’s been a great learning experience but we’re not quite done yet, based on the feedback we have received we now plan to build a Beta version of the online service. This will allow us to test the online functionality and onboard many more charity programmes into our database. if you’d like to find out more about our progress so far please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch this space for further updates!
Starting up on your own is certainly no easy feat – in fact we often discuss the potential obstacles that lie ahead at the RSA’s monthly Social Entrepreneurs breakfast. However, one thing I have noticed is that the first barrier is not (as you might think) imagined lack of capital; it’s simply getting started.
Seemingly, a number of skilled, imaginative people are just unsure how or where to begin.
It wasn’t until I began working at the RSA that I fully appreciated the value of having a support structure. I thought breaking out on your own was something you should do…alone? I soon learnt that successful leaders do quite the opposite: they join a network, get training and tap into all the help that’s available.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted an evening event at RSA House for thirty individuals currently undertaking the Clore Leadership Programme which focuses on those with experience working in the Arts, and the Clore Social Leadership Programme which is primarily for people with careers in the social sectors. We were privileged to have a mixture of current Clore Fellows join us for some drinks, networking and an historical tour of the building.
For those who don’t know, the Clore programmes are designed to develop strong leaders in the cultural and social sectors so that more individuals are better equipped to engender positive change in their communities, organisations and the world around them.
Given the electic mix of experience and knowledge in the room a number of interesting conversations were initiated – from discussing the trajectory of the Walt Disney corporation, to the role of art in school curriculums – Clore Leaders are inspiring and inspired company. For more information about the current cohort of Clore Cultural and Social Leaders you can view full profiles on the respective websites.
We were also joined by Asma Shah FRSA who spoke to the room about her social enterprise Ladies Who L-EARN. Asma demonstrates exactly how transformative the Clore programme can be. With a background in the Arts, Asma was a Clore Cultural Fellow though as she pointed out, you wouldn’t know it now as her current work sits firmly within the social sector.
Upon finishing the programme she joined the RSA Fellowship and by applying to RSA Catalyst, Asma was able to get her project off the ground. Since then she has been able to access further funding, attract more volunteers and ultimately, help more women.
Asma was keen to point out the combination of the Clore Fellowship and RSA Fellowship is a powerful one. This cannot be overemphasised. Asma began working with women in her community who had limited access to the kind of training or social capital that she had gained from joining influential, supportive networks like Clore and the RSA.
The RSA has partnered with Clore Leadership for nine years now and we continue to work together because of our mutual belief that investing in individuals is one of the fundamental ways to improve society.
Part of investing in people is offering them a framework to carry their ideas, so that getting started is never an obstacle.
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordiantor at the RSA
If you would like more infromation about RSA Fellowship or any of people or projects mentioned above, then contact email@example.com
The RSA’s Social Mirror project was featured on BBC points west yesterday. Footage will be available online until 7pm tonight, and our slot starts around the 18 minute and 50 sec mark.
Social Mirror is a way of operationalising network analysis and wellbeing science to make tangible differences to peoples’ lives. In the Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions project, people waiting to see GPs in Knowle West, Bristol, are asked to complete a short questionnaire via an app on a tablet computer and are then given a ‘social prescription’. This directs them to community activities or groups such as coffee mornings, sports classes or local history clubs – instead of being prescribed drugs or other health interventions. It’s essentially a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, Social Mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interest: from a walking group to a photography class.
In the BBC Points West video I explain why Social Mirror is important, and why our human and community-based approach to health and social care demand management is so necessary and timely.
“We know that social isolation can be as bad for you as smoking, with effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease. It’s often very small changes that make big differences in our lives; and Social Mirror is that first step from being alone or feeling that you are not doing great things in your life, to feeling part of your community”
From small acorns, great oaks. What has been described by Radio 4’s Giles Fraser as a ‘small local project’ is one participants have claimed has made their ‘life is worth living’. One participant who was given a prescription for a walking group has never looked back. He says:
“It has changed my life. I would recommend it to anyone. I wasn’t doing anything; I’d been a recluse and for three days a week I wouldn’t go out of the flat and the weight was piling on. I’ve now lost a stone and I can talk to people quite freely which I couldn’t before.”
The benefits are also being felt by local activities. Mary Hall runs a lip-reading group at Knowle West Health Park for those with hearing loss. She has had referrals from Social Mirror and says her group really benefits those who attend. She explains:
“They come and meet other people like themselves and compare notes to their heart’s content – it’s much less isolating for them. I reckon I keep people out of doctors’ surgeries because of depression. They come once a week and we are like a family here.”
As I have said elsewhere, my hope is that one day Social Mirror and other community approaches that change social relations to transform economic and community potential will be available for all. For now, fingers crossed!
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters
Some good news for a Friday morning: Despite our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Pupil Design Awards pilot falling just short of target (we had £8,000+ pledged), our Academies have agreed to support this pilot project using their own resources, meaning we are able to go ahead! We have begun working with teachers to transform three RSA Student Design Award briefs, and work with pupils will begin in April.
Mollie Courtenay, who was shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Awards in 2013, is one of our alumni who is keen to get involved. Mollie studied graphic design at Kingston University and graduated with a first in 2013. She has recently taken the new position of Junior Designer in the Design Council Challenges team who use design to tackle big social issues, working on a variety of projects including the Knee High Design Challenge. Here she reflects on her own experience of the RSA Student Design Awards, and why introducing social design thinking into schools will inspire pupils to think beyond the classroom…
“Yes Miss! I believe introducing the RSA Pupil Design Awards to schools would offer a practical method of inspiring pupils to think beyond the classroom. How incredible would it be if young people began to build and use their skills and imagination to tackle real social issues?
My personal reflection of school, is that it could often make me feel like one of many others; year by year I was in the same class, in the same uniform, answering the same exam questions. Even when it came to Design and Technology, the end product was always prescribed; each of us designing perfume packaging or a place mat.
The Pupil Design Award project briefs would offer an opportunity for pupils to embark on an individual journey, to create a project that provides unique insight, and to design an innovative solution to a challenging question. There is no single correct answer with these briefs, which is often why they exist and why they are so exciting.
I took on a RSA Student Design Awards brief at University, as I was motivated by the realness of the issue I was designing for (encouraging safer driving among young drivers). At one point I remember I had covered a whole wall in my flat with my research. When my flatmate got home, he looked at me as if to say- ‘er, are you alright..?’ I was great – I had found something that I was interested in, and discovered the issue I wanted to solve through design.
I am currently working on a project that focuses on the development of children in their early years, up to the age of five. When working in this environment you can’t think about design in a way that produces shiny, perfect and one off things.
One of the most important factors when designing for society is to really understand the issue or problem you are trying to solve, whilst building empathy for people and situations you are working with. It is unlikely that this can be done without spending time with people where they are. This means getting out and about, learning from many sources, observing, monitoring, questioning, recording and interpreting. Having an agenda and going out to fulfill it.
Giving pupils an opportunity to take responsibility for their own project is a fantastic way of encouraging individuality and creativity. Unlike some school subjects, these design projects allow for mistakes; and that’s where the really interesting learning happens. It’s so important to continually look back and challenge your own thinking and not rely on your own assumptions.
I am super excited for the launch of this project and hope that schools can see the value in adding it to their existing curriculum.”
If, like Mollie, you want to get involved in the Pupil Design Awards, there are plenty of ways to do so!
- Become a mentor or judge We are looking for a handful of designers to help mentor the pupils through the briefs.
- Donate a prize This could be an industry placement or some design-related goodies – we’re open to suggestions!
- Help take the project UK-wide We are already looking for other schools and especially sponsors to take this project beyond our Academies.
If you would like to get involved, or receive project updates, please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy
The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.
2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.
UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.
Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets. For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.
The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.
The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag #unmon on twitter.
Progress so far?
Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.
So, how will we know if it is working?
Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans
The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.
Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.
1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.
2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.
3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.
4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.
2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!
— Edgeryders (@edgeryders) February 8, 2014
Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.
You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia
The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill.
As Chief Executive of RSA Academies I travel regularly to the West Midlands to work with our four RSA Academies, in Coventry (Whitley Academy), Redditch (Arrow Vale RSA Academy and Ipsley CE RSA Academy) and Tipton (RSA Academy). Yesterday I ventured even further north, to speak at the Academies Conference in Manchester.
In a programme that included some essential but somewhat dry topics such as governance structures and admissions arrangements, I was delighted (and not a little relieved!) to have been asked to talk about an area that lies at the heart of RSA Academies’ work: preparing students for life beyond the school gate. The talk was a timely one, with yet another survey published this week showing that the vast majority of young people don’t feel they received enough information about post-secondary education and careers. If there is a crumb of comfort to be found in the survey, it is that UK students are not alone – the survey found a consistent pattern across Europe, with the possible exception of Germany.
So, what are we doing in the RSA Family to ensure that young people in our schools are informed about and prepared for the world beyond the school gate?
Well, firstly we’re recognising that Universities and employers are looking for more than just good qualifications, and so we’re helping our pupils to develop a range of skills and competences. One essential component is the development of leadership skills. Our annual student leadership conference at the RSA in London are a high point of the school year, and the students themselves are setting the agenda for the year’s work, which has included a series of student voice podcasts, and a student led peer review of the schools in the Family. Students at Whitley Academy recently participated in a debating competition, and this clip of the winning entry shows just how far they have come. Our next step is to increase the number of opportunities for younger children by introducing a Family-wide year 8 leadership programme, which will be targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who may be lacking in confidence, to develop their skills in this area.
We are also developing a strong partnership with Warwick University, building on their existing widening participation programmes, to increase the number of applicants from lower income families or those who would be the first in their family to go on to higher education. The programme has been informed by children themselves, including those at Ipsley CE RSA Academy. These pupils convinced the partnership of the need to start working with children when they’re young, and so it will give children from Year 7 upwards the opportunity to meet lecturers and students from different faculties, and to visit Warwick, giving them the confidence to believe that a University education really is for people like them.
And we continue to benefit from the generosity of our Fellows and Royal Designers for Industry who give their time and expertise in various ways to bring new experiences to our students. The RSA Academy in Tipton have just had their first student provisionally accepted into Oxbridge following coaching and support from Bill Good FRSA who was on hand to support students at a Post 16 evening before the winter break. Other recent examples include a project with Ben Kelly who has encouraged students from Arrow Vale RSA Academy to think differently about the school’s entrance hall. The students successfully pitched to the Governors for funding to realise their designs with Ben coming back to school in the coming months to support the conclusion.
For 2014/15 we want to make it even easier to enable Fellows to connect with our Academies, by developing a menu of things that they might offer e.g. a work-place visit, a careers talk, to be a mentor for a sixth form student. If you have ideas about how this might work, or would like to make an offer, please do let me know.
“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”
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.
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
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters, Innovation
In recent months I have had the privilege of developing new opportunities with the RSA Academies and the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI). The aim is to assign at least one RDI to each school every year. As reported by my colleague Georgina Chatfield in her blog post ‘What’s the secret to learner engagement’, interior and exhibitions designer Ben Kelly RDI, recently visited Arrow Vale RSA Academy to set a radical ‘live’ brief.
The initial project for Year 12 product design students was to design a shelving system for the school entrance hall in which to display student’s work. However, as communications developed between Ben and design tutor Paul Taylor, the brief, much to the students’ excitement, became a more daring proposition to completely re-design the reception space.
During the visit Ben shared his design path with the students, from school days, to a career-defining commission to design the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester, and beyond. When discussing the project he challenged the students to “dare to be different”, and to “challenge convention by breaking the rules”.
I joined Ben for the presentations and tutorials and it was evident that the students were engaged throughout, asking searching questions and listening attentively. But could this experience really make a difference to them? Our intention from the outset was that it should.
Following the visit we were encouraged by a report of the day written by two students from the group; Bren Heald and Chantelle Pollit. It was a heart-felt and incredibly rewarding account of the experience from the group’s point of view which they described as “thought-provoking and inspiring”. The group continues to develop its’ design proposal as I type, and Ben Kelly will be returning to the school at the end of term to assess the outcome.
This project is a unique opportunity for the students to take ownership of a space that could redefine the character of their school, and that will enable them to be confident about taking risks when testing their ideas. It is also a valuable example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership with the RSA can offer.
It is a truism that investors like certainty. They also like a return on investment. This cannot even be described as economics – it’s just common sense. If, as a Government you intervene in a market, then you had better ensure you don’t create uncertainty and that you enable market players to secure a return on investment. This is precisely where Labour’s newly announced policy to cap energy prices fails: certainty and opportunity.
Essentially, price caps suspend the market. The price mechanism is a vital signalling device. When it is disabled then the market doesn’t really function anymore. The information about incentives to invest is silenced. When a Government caps price, in itself this is a signal. The Government is willing to essentially suspend this market. Investors and entrepreneurs read this as ‘avoid at all costs.’
So we are still left with a concentrated, poorly regulated energy market in sore need of investment to meet our energy, living costs and environmental needs. There is a trade-off between these three objectives. Vertical separation between retail, wholesale and generation prices might be necessary. Providing capital and wholesale price support for new entrants who help us meet our energy and environmental needs might also be a worthwhile intervention. Even a break-up of the big market players on horizontal as well as vertical lines could work. Price regulation could well be a component element of a functioning market in the short-term at least. These are all possible and necessary components of a new institutional structure for the market. However, the last thing you want to do is cap prices- especially if you want to encourage new entrants, new innovation, new ideas, new competition.
What happens when you start controlling prices in a market that has a degree of volatility? I’m afraid it’s difficult to get away from the Californian power catastrophe in the early 2000s- bankruptcy and under-investment.
Come 2017 when the price cap came to be reviewed, a Miliband Government would be faced with a choice: lift the cap and prices explode or keep it in place and increase the chance of market failure. That’s if the market failure hasn’t already happened. Keep it in place and you are basically nationalising the energy market. Remove it and prices may pop, encouraging another intervention. The Government gets politically locked in. Both routes are likely to eventually pass financial responsibility to taxpayers. Do we really want to choose between investment in power stations and investment in healthcare? Hayek would recognise this unintended mission creep from politics to state expansion very well – assuming it is unintended.
Elsewhere, in Ed Miliband’s conference speech he articulated, in a very clear fashion, the importance of promoting small business and safeguarding the environment. The price cap denies opportunities for new players to enter the energy market – including the type of municipal suppliers common in Europe and the US. New investment could accelerate progress towards environmental objectives; without it progress will stall.
There is a bigger point here. This energy example marks a shift in Labour’s approach. The ‘use it or lose’ it policy on land has similar deficiencies which would end up in the expansion of central state power too. Labour orthodoxy over the last twenty years has involved an accommodation with the market as one element of driving growth and providing opportunity. Justice and efficiency are bound inseparably together in this model. The market can be reformed, regulated, and loaded but it had a place in Labour’s worldview.
Miliband’s speech yesterday – in a seemingly harmless fashion – broke with that orthodoxy. The policy on energy price caps is clear and it will be popular. Its consequences wouldn’t be and significant damage can be done. Once you give up on the market mechanism – albeit one that is regulated or has a mixed economy form – then that will create its own dynamic. If you are going to have price controls or property confiscation in energy and housing, why not food, petrol, pharmaceuticals, internet and mobile telephony, sanitary products, baby’s clothes, foreign travel, books, or funeral services?
These are all choices ultimately. They are all things which impact on the cost of living. They all have varying degrees of regulation and market structure currently. But it’s a bad idea to remove the price mechanism from the markets that govern them- regardless of how heavily regulated they are.
You can write a very long list of reasons why price controls are a bad idea. Essentially, they kill innovation in the name of a public good and cause harm as a consequence. There is one good reason for them from a political party’s perspective – short-term politics.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His new book ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ is now available.