City connections and city identity

April 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Can you have too much connectivity? At last week’s City Growth Commission seminar on connectivity, Mark Kleinman, (Director of Business and Economic Policy at the Greater London Authority), highlighted that connectivity is not just a factor, it’s the factor in London’s success: economic power in the global economy is defined by connectivity. The seminar considered how different forms of connectivity affect London and other UK cities.

Connectivity operates at many scales. If looking to grow a business globally, London is well-placed. London’s resurgence since the 1980s has depended on movement of both global capital and labour. As well as global links (language, time zone, financial institutions etc.), this is partly because it is well connected to the largest cities in England. The UK’s largest cities are London’s main trading partners, but domestic intercity connectivity has only slowly risen up the policy agenda for London. Since the demise of Regional Development Agencies, London’s leaders have found strategic engagement with other cities more difficult.

The most contentious debate was whether London is reaching limits to growth. Some argued that cities don’t decline simply because they “get too full”. London is desirable, but increasingly expensive and congested as well.

The dynamism of some of London’s sectors could be stifled by the very success of the model of economic development which has been so praised. Rising costs can serve to break up the powerful agglomeration economies which benefit firms locating in urban areas. While supreme global connectivity commands a high value from London’s financial and business services, smaller firms in creative and emerging industries, drawing on local and national revenues, can’t keep up.

Investment in local transport, walking and cycling make a greater portion of territory accessible and liveable, effectively expanding the borders of urban economies. But some speculated on whether a start-up firm, priced out by rising rents in central London, would be more likely to choose Newcastle or Berlin as an alternative – rather than outer London or elsewhere in the South East.

Firms in all UK cities are making decisions affected by the national and global connectivity their location affords. Our image of global connectivity is often businessman rushing through the airport terminal, but enterprise links can come from migration and diaspora.

Along with transport issues, worker visas are always among the top concerns of UK business. Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future, picked up the migration issue, considering how public consent for immigration can be maintained.

PTAL London

London’s public transport accessibility levels

Sunder argued policy makers are complacent about shifting negative attitude, and don’t address the majority of people whose views are not radical but who perceive and feel the pressures and benefits of migration: they are open-minded but concerned about change.

Support for immigration – meeting the demands of business – is a political conversation as much as an economic one. In short, facts don’t win arguments when there is little trust, and trust is undermined by the pro-immigration line that “there is nothing to worry about”. A progressive line of engagement is to ask the public to own the trade-offs; say “this needs talking about; what should we do to manage the pressures and secure the benefits?”

Sunder noted that fast growing industrial cities across Europe in the previous century built strong identities among their new communities through secular institutions such as football clubs, municipal government and civil society institutions. Mark noted that London’s elected mayor helps visibility and promotion globally, attracting media and acting as a single voice for the city, but acknowledged political leadership is not the only form of business diplomacy; influential figures in arts and culture also represent city and national brands around the world.

We then come on to the geography of identity. Comparing UK geography with other parts of the world like the Pearl River Delta or Southern California, much of England might in fact be considered a single large city-region; a proposition explored by the Economist last week.  It was noted that UKTI markets London as a business capital to overseas investors, drawing on the wealth of assets in the UK; but UKTI shies away from giving other cities this “national gateway” status for fear of being fair to all others. Several also bemoaned central government’s vision of fairness in broadband connectivity: money is used to raise speeds in rural areas to urban levels, while urban UK business premises fall behind foreign competitors, reliant on the “last mile” of copper.

Rural broadband has been a government priority

Rural broadband has been a government priority

(Liamfm . via Compfight cc)

In investing in the connections to power city growth, we need to acknowledge and respect the centres of identity people feel. These are inevitably messy. People in different parts of the country respond to infrastructure opportunities in different ways, based on their sense of territory. Just as some Londoners are reluctant to cross the Thames in their job search; some Northerners will be reluctant to commute to a different city by HS2.

One consistent consensus from our seminars is that the elite who make policy have completely different views to everyone else. In particular, they hanker for a neat solution: a “silver bullet” statistic which will prove the case for migration or high speed rail, vaporising opposition with rationality.

Identity issues are thereby seen as parochial and nostalgic barriers to modernising projects. But local and civic patriotism can be a driver. As neighbourhood belonging, civic belonging and national belonging increasingly overlap, LSE Professor Tony Travers, concluding his chairing of the session, noted that business finds itself “oddly, the useful, neutral player” in building consensus on issues like immigration and new transport projects, vital to long term city growth.

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission (@jschifferes)


Big vs. Little: The fight now shaping British politics

March 23, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent 

According to Jonathan Swift, Lilliput was riven by a fierce dispute between Bigendians and Littleendians. The former believed an egg should always be cracked at the big end and the latter argued fervently for it to be cracked at the little end.  How clever of Swift to foresee the row that would shape British politics around the 2015 election and disrupt the traditional allegiances we take for granted.

The core issue in this emerging dispute is, of course, not about how we crack eggs but about how we crack our biggest problems.

The Bigendians hold with the idea that big concentrations of power hold the key to problems like inequality, climate change, public ill-health and unbalanced economic growth. The Littleendians believe power needs to be widely distributed to solve these problems.

Bigendians have faith in the huge resources, co-ordinating power, clarity and universality that the big or centralised state and big business can bring to bear on our thorniest challenges.

Littleendians favour a smaller state working at local level combined with small business and small civic endeavours. They think our problems are complex and fast-moving and require a plurality of solutions.  They also look back on the failing progress made by the big state and big business towards a fairer, stabler world and are sure that there must be a better route.

Both Parties Split by Endianism

This fight is splitting both parties and with ever greater intensity. It is a division that has crystallised out of the rather bewildering array of different perspectives and colours that characterised the period after the 2008 Crash: Red Tory, Progressive Conservative, Blue Labour, Black Labour, Pragmatic Radicalism, Purple Labour.

Many Labour people have recently renewed their belief that a powerful state is key to the achievement of greater social justice. They worry that a reduction in the size of the state, as planned by the Coalition, will lead inevitably to greater inequality between individuals and communities. There is also a mistrust of small business which it is feared pays less and has a weaker respect for employment rights than big business.

But this view has been facing challenge in recent years from a group who celebrate local entrepreneurialism, fear that the big welfare state has damaged the pre-war Labour tradition of small-scale mutualism and charitable endeavour and wants a vigorous decentralisation of power from Whitehall.

The influential figure Jon Cruddas, who leads the party’s policy review, is a firm Littleendian. The equally influential Tom Watson tends to the Bigendian way of thinking. There are strengthening rumours that this battle in Labour may soon be blown wide open as a public fight begins about whether the election manifesto will have a Bigendian or Littleendian feel.

However, the Conservatives are also riven. All conservatives would like to see the state shrink, of course, but what that smaller state looks like and what plugs the gap when it shrinks is a source of Endian dispute.  For part of the Conservative party, a strong if smaller central state batting for Britain’s biggest businesses, particularly in the City, is a cornerstone of their political beliefs. That strong state is needed to defend our shores against immigrants and security threats, to crack down on crime and give the British people a sense of identity and focus.

It’s a traditional Tory view but one that has been challenged recently by an insurgent group who want to see decentralisation combined with a powerful resurgence of small-scale civic activism (alongside the more traditional Tory faith in the market) and who rather suspect that big business often survives only because of its cosy relationship with the big state.

Jesse Norman is probably the most outspoken Littleendian Tory. Bigendianism, on the other hand, much like Labour remains hardwired into the mind-set of the Party’s grassroots activists across the country.

In Whom We Trust?

While so much of British politics is concerned with the distribution of resources, this dispute is really about the distribution of power and who should be trusted to exercise it.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the argument now raging over pension annuities. By changing the rules so that individuals can take their money out of their pension pots in one go, the Chancellor has struck a blow for Littleendianism. Whatever his motivation and whatever the concerns about how it was announced, he has removed a power from the big, universal state and given it to a million little individuals to do as they wish. He has put his trust in those millions to do the right thing rather than the state.

This has immediately made some people very uncomfortable who don’t share Osborne’s faith in those little millions. The Labour leadership’s uncertain response reflected the fact it felt pulled both ways by the Bigendian and Littleendian instincts in the party. While many Bigendian Tories are probably deeply worried about what the Chancellor has just done to one of the biggest industries in the City of London even if they won’t say it out loud (yet).

A Littleendian Centre?

For years the political centre in Britain has been defined by vote-winning pragmatism. The left of the Conservative Party and the right of the Labour Party shared a managerial outlook that was often indistinguishable. Could this be about to change as the Endian dispute heats up?

The Bigendians in both parties are miles apart politically: one side believes fundamentally in a big, high spending state regulating business, the other in big, high spending business free of the shackles of regulation.

Littleendians are much closer in spirit. Both Conservative and Labour Littleendians believe the state should be decentralised, they both believe that small-scale civic activism is a good way of dealing with deprivation and inequality and they value small business. Most fundamentally, they place their trust in the millions of individuals and small organisations that make up the country and believe power should follow that trust.

It’s very unlikely that these two sides of a Littleendian centre could ever work together formally. They are from different parties after all and there are important differences of emphasis, most notably around faith in the unregulated market. For example, some Littlendians may be very comfortable with the idea that pension pots can now be spent on Lamborghinis; others may hope this freedom could give rise to a new wave of mutual savings based on voluntary rather than statutory principles.

But as battle within the parties heats up, we may see some surprising informal conversations spring up across the party divide.

The Power to Create

From the RSA perspective such conversations would be a good thing. William Shipley founded the RSA in a  Littleendian spirit. He launched the Society with a deep belief that the solutions to our problems could be found amongst the mass of the population not just a powerful elite.  For Shipley, there was no monopoly on good ideas and effective solutions. He also believed, unlike hardly anyone else at the time, that small-scale innovation in the commercial sphere had to be matched by small-scale innovation in the social sphere. Creativity had to be released for the wider public good and the poor as well as private benefit and the rich.

Historically, Littlendians have usually lost out to Bigendians. That may be changing now as the big and powerful find it harder to govern and deliver in an age of technological disruption and huge attitudinal shifts. That’s one major reason why the RSA is trying to capture the original Shipley spirit through the idea of the Power to Create: the notion that we will solve our biggest problems and live better lives if we are free to turn our many different ideas into reality.

In other words, we think there’s never been a better time to start cracking your eggs at the little end.


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Megacity 2: the right solution to mending the gap?

March 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

Recently moved from London to Bristol, a friend of mine asked me last month: “How is life in Megacity 1?”. While she moved to be closer to her work as a retail manager, she finds herself frequently coming back to London to buy clothes for her small chain of shops in the South West.

The problem is not that London is getting too big, it’s that other UK cities are too small. This is how the adversarial relationship set up in the two-part TV series Mind the Gap: London v The Rest was resolved last night. As Evan Davis wrote “Britain does not have a second city. Instead, it has a first city and a couple of thirds…it is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one.”

As a recent report suggested, London’s ‘primacy’ – its size relative to the national economy – is not particularly unusual by international standards.

Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK

Other countries have more dominant capital cities than the UK (Source)

It’s not just population size where UK ‘second-tier’ cities underperform. Along with other factors, their smaller size means they are less productive, in terms of economic value produced per resident. As Lewis Dijkstra notes “a range of cities allows each firm to find its optimal city”. Illustrating this point with bar graphs, and noting that costs to firms (wages, rent) and workers (housing, commuting) also increase in larger cities, he likens the ideal city distribution to a staircase. If the steps between cities are well-spaced, as in Germany and the Netherlands, firms and workers are less likely to make a compromise. In short, we can imagine that there are firms and workers who want to “downshift” out of London, but can’t stomach the loss in the benefits of locating in the capital; and firms and workers who want to move to London – but are unsure they can afford the costs relative to the likely benefits. Both scenarios lead to inefficiencies: the gaps in our city staircase are too big.

ESPON staircase

Gaps between cities – measured here in 2007 GDP per person – are smaller in Germany and the Netherlands. (Source)


The solution proposed Monday night was that “the real second city of the UK is a northern, trans-Pennine strip that extends the relatively short distance across northern England, joining the built-up areas that lie second, fourth and sixth in the UK ranking”. This idea has been suggested before. As we highlighted in our Metro Growth report last month, 22,000 people cross the Pennines every day to commute. Other research shows connections and relationships between Leeds and Manchester are less strong than we would expect for these cities given the complementary nature of their economic activities. The Pennines are both a physical and psychological barrier. City boundaries don’t correspond to their economic footprint.


Megacity 2?

Megacity 2?

So, should we use national investment in infrastructure which better connects a ‘northern necklace’ of cities? The Northern Hub scheme now underway will improve the speed and frequency of trains, but over a distributed pattern of urban settlements car travel is likely to be much more convenient for the majority of trips. Without investment, the northern trunk road network is forecast to become more congested in the next decade. Which government – local or national – has the conviction to resurrect the motorways once planned? The M64 (Stoke to Derby), the M67 (Manchester to Sheffield), or the M650 (northwest of Bradford) to slice through the Peak District National Park? Furthermore, at our seminar last week, Henry Overman was sceptical that creating a network of northern cities was sufficient; we may be better off with one city of “over 3.5 million” for ‘agglomeration’ effects to kick in.

Forecast travel times in 2025

Forecast road travel speeds in 2025. (Source)

Evan posed the difficult question as being how to fund public transport infrastructure in both London and other parts of the UK, when the needs of London are so evident. It’s easy to get upset when you consider that, on a per person basis, London gets many times more infrastructure investment than other regions. But much of London’s investment is private, not public; and London’s scale means authorities are able to borrow more affordably against future fare returns. London’s public transport network carries half of all the journeys on public transport across the country every day. On a net basis, each day, London also imbibes over a million workers from beyond its borders and a million visitors from the UK and abroad (tourists and those on business trips). But beyond transport, if government is to guide development of Megacity 2, how will specific policies and priorities change? What sacrifices will be made?

The first question is whether we are confident we can make the right kind of spatial plan. As referenced in the programme, Birmingham’s economic success in the post-war era was stunted by the Distribution of Industry Act 1945 and later the Control of Office Employment Act 1965. By 1957 the council had explicitly accepted that it was obliged “to restrain the growth of population and employment potential within the city.” Seeking the opportunity to rebuild bombed-out British cities at higher housing standards, many planners at the time sought to reduce urban densities, protect the newly created Green Belt around cities, and rely on motor vehicle transport supporting new suburban settlements such as Peterlee and Harlow. This was anti-agglomeration, perhaps even contributing to subsequent inner city decline. Only Milton Keynes – the largest of all new towns – has the scale and location today viable enough to have its own economic dynamism as an employment centre.

We have a poor record of predicting the future dynamics of economic geography, and many of the key forces shaping the UK at the moment are little understood. Despite being important long-term trends, the spatial implications of household dynamics and the changing nature of work remain largely unexplored. As more women enter the workforce, more households are made up of two earners. Larger cities offer the additional benefit of having a higher likelihood that both partners will be able to pursue careers in different sectors, occupations or industries. Some argue London has benefited from a ‘trailing spouse’ effect. For example, with schools benefiting from (otherwise mobile) teachers attracted to London by the work of their partners working in less mobile professions tied to London. And new technologies of production are accompanying different career structures, growing rates of self-employment and different types of workplaces.

Mind the Gap barely engaged with the dynamics of the housing market, where growing anxiety is deepening the British obsession. Cambridge featured in the show as a success story, hungry for growth. Like Oxford, it’s a historic city endowed with a Green Belt and now bursting at the seams and increasingly unaffordable. London housing pressure needs a release valve, and London seems unable to provide it for itself.

The Green Belt in fact covers more land than the entirety of England’s urban areas which it was designed to constrain. It’s the jewel of strategic planning policy, but stifles other strategic thinking. For example, HS2 takes fast long-distance trains off the existing line. New commuter services will therefore offer drastically more capacity: from Willesden and Watford up towards Milton Keynes. Who is talking seriously about Green Belt release for new significant new housing development in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire? Welcome to a property-owning democracy.

Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route; Source:

Planning restrictions and the proposed HS2 route. (Source)


Perhaps, therefore, we need a change in the geography of democracy itself. City growth needs local champions. Central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader.

According to the boldest propositions, perhaps we should consider moving our capital. This question was asked at the launch of the City Growth Commission, and continues to be posed. Moving the political machinery could bring with it not just lobbyists and central government departments, but much of the private sector too – as the links between the two become more complex.

According to Professor Alan Harding “we have slowly redesigned our institutions of government and our major policy frameworks so that they respond to the pressures of growth in southern England and rarely see what happens beyond. We have a national policy regime that not only does not mind the gap, it extends it.” Last week we saw northern Lib Dem MPs calling for a High Speed 3 rail line across the North. The broad debate is gaining momentum and Mind the Gap was a substantial contribution. While cleverly pitched to stir debate, we need to move beyond ‘London or’ to ‘London and’. To be successful, the City Growth Commission will need to build the most important links: those between the political rationale and economic rationale for reforms which will produce a better system of cities. London and other cities will each, inevitably, evolve in their role nationally and globally.

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@jschifferes)

Should the lack of evidence keep us from devolving power locally?

March 10, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Taking an evidence-based approach to policy is rarely questioned. Alongside austerity, its economic logic is particularly obvious. However, trialling wholly new approaches and ambitious reforms is trickier; the evidence base, inherently, can’t be clearly established.

Last week, the City Growth Commission convened an experts’ seminar on metro-regions and the future of local government in which we debated the merits of using international examples to validate devolution in the UK. Speakers Professor Henry Overman from LSE and Dan Corry, the Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, were in agreement that there is currently little to no evidence underpinning recommendations for devolving power to a local level, but diverged on how much this actually matters in convincing the government that it is worth pursuing.

Advocates of decentralisation know this conundrum all too well, but to what extent is it possible for us to justify reforms to governance by using cities elsewhere in Europe and further abroad as case studies?

This image illustrates where citizens edited the open-source map of the UK (Image credit: Peter Miller via Flickr).

This image illustrates where citizens edited the open-source map of the UK (Image credit: Peter Miller via Flickr).

Overman was wary of the traditional ‘logic chain’ for devolution, which he explained often started from the premise that there were economic benefits to be reaped, in order to then make claims about strengthened social and political democracy. In truth, there is a dearth of evidence from within the UK. Pointing to success stories elsewhere has been tried repeatedly to no avail. A report that washes over the risks will be shelved by Whitehall, and to be credible, a narrative must address concerns about local autonomy deepening spatial inequalities.

We were reminded by Corry that the probability of us ever comprehensively proving the case for devolution is slim to none, but that this isn’t a reason to stall. We know that the set-up we have now works best for London; local politics struggles to engage citizens and businesses in the rest of the UK. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader. An agenda for political reform should be tabled on the grounds that staying as we are isn’t an option, especially when other European cities have already taken the leap of faith. Local accountability may be just the bargaining chip that will persuade the Treasury to go ahead with the idea. For example, central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed.

It is clear there are limits to what we can deduce from the successes or failures of devolution to cities internationally. One of our commissioners, Ben Lucas, made the point that since no other country is as centralised as the UK is, our ability to make a like-for-like comparison is undermined. Furthermore, it’s difficult to understand successful efforts to devolve power given the differing historical and political contexts in which arrangements were brought forward. We also tend to gloss over examples of where devolution has failed.

When we begin to make suggestions about how we should begin the process of decentralisation, the key consideration is what would be in the best long-term interests of the UK when it comes to maintaining international competitiveness, rather than rehashing old arguments about ‘rebalancing the UK’. One of the biggest remaining challenges in defining the specifics of how decentralisation should transpire in the UK: whether particular city-regions or metros should be prioritised, sequentially, because of their existing capacity and growth potential; or whether reforms attempt, simultaneously, to offer something for everyone.

Last week, Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities, co-authored a study on the wealth of cities with City Growth commissioner (also called Greg Clark). Highlighting the dynamics of competition and collaboration within and between national and international systems of cities may get us further, in advancing arguments for decentralisation, than chasing evidence ever will.

This article was originally posted by the City Growth Commission.

London v the Rest: Did Evan Davis find the gap?

March 6, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise 

Evan Davis brought the economic geography textbook to life on the nation’s TV screens Monday night, with Mind the Gap (available on iPlayer until March 17th), in which he “asks what the rest of the country can learn from London’s success”. Alex Salmond has recently referenced London as the “dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”, echoing criticisms made by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, who described the city as “a great suction machine”. Mind the Gap featured sweeping shots of London’s skyline and plenty of insight into the property and infrastructure developments underway, alongside snazzy data visualisation of how London’s exceptional economic productivity and worker density, in a UK context. Oh, and some nice archive footage.

London's influence goes beyond its administrative borders

London’s influence goes beyond its administrative borders

Here are five insights and five oversights from the narrative Evan presented.

At the City Growth Commission, hosted at the RSA, we’re funded by the Mayor of London, London Councils, and the Core Cities. Our role is to influence policies which will ensure that all cities (and the wider metro areas) are able to maximise their growth potential.


Cities depends on agglomeration economics: the productive benefits that come when people work closely alongside each other between organisations and between industries and sectors. Firms want to be close to other firms to collaborate and compete, stealing staff and ideas and customers and suppliers. It was great to hear about the importance of networks – social as well as digital. As Evan says, “We were told technology meant location doesn’t matter; but it matters more than ever”. The great irony, highlighted by Manuel Castells 20 years ago, is that the more ubiquitous electronic communication becomes, the greater value we recognise and ascribe to in face-to-face interaction.

Jules Birch ‏@jules_birch Mar 3 Funny how ‘networking economics’ concentrates everything in one place when theoretically it shouldn’t matter where you are #mindthegap


Few people have been able to define if and when there are downsides of ever-greater concentration and densification start to outweigh the benefits. London is building up, more than out, due to the Green Belt, but is still only half the density of New York City. While I’m not as sure as Ed Cox that of IPPR North “all the evidence shows” that London will overheat and topple over, we didn’t hear enough about the co-dependent relationship between London and other towns and villages across the South. Another aspect of London’s economic geography was conspicuous in their absence: the relationship between migration, diversity and urban growth. As well as economic opportunities, do migrants feel especially inclined to settle in London, because of its size and capacity to host multiple communities? And what about evidence that there is an economic benefit from diversity?


Agglomeration plays a role in the economics of urban development, for example leading to infrastructure projects to expand transport capacity. Economic success feeds itself: it’s a self-fulfilling positive feedback loop. “You can’t design an ecosystem, it evolves”, said one tech investor in Shoreditch. The best government can do is shine a spotlight in order to “nudge on” these successes. This means, essentially, “there is no formula to copy” – except perhaps bigger is better?


It wasn’t clear whether these dynamics are particularly strong in London, now or historically, or common to all large cities. Urban development depends on other factors including political power (such as compulsory purchase – used very differently in China and India), and factors such as the international economic climate and currency exchange rates which make London property a particularly attractive place for those with financial wealth to invest. Furthermore, I wonder if Evan has ever been to Silicon Valley? It’s the most exciting tech community in the world, it got a turbo-charge from federal investment, and one of the least exciting suburban landscapes to explore. Economic dynamism and great urbanism don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Apple offices and empty streets in Silicon Valley. Image credit raneko via Flickr

Apple offices and empty streets in Silicon Valley. Image credit raneko via Flickr


London’s leaders want growth, and have won the national argument to invest in growth. “London is the flywheel that drives it” said Mayor Boris Johnson; “the gateway”, which “exports tax and jobs…the better London does the better the UK does”. As Transport for London added: “there are certain sectors which choose locations at an international level; if we don’t get it in London we don’t get it in the UK.”


Part of London’s success has been a projection, nationally and globally, as a place where exciting things happen;it’s a city which can represent itself well visually – with plenty of new skyscrapers crammed upona medieval street pattern. But the programme fell into the trap of assuming “London” speaks with one voice At one point Evan Davis claimed that “Londoners have an insatiable appetite to expand”. Do they? As we highlighted in our recent Metro Growth report, parts of Outer London have fallen behind the rate of recent national economic growth, and there is greater variation in economic activity within each UK region, than between them.


We’re in the middle of the greatest industrial restructuring since industrial revolution, fuelled in part by the ‘Big Bang’ of financial deregulation in 1986. London now has the greatest concentration of “producer services” in the world, and millions of workers are also millions of consumers. Their consumption in turn fuels millions of jobs, locally, in other service industries.


That restructuring was in part a political project. Heseltine’s leadership on redeveloping Docklands created space for a second office district and financial services hub in London.

Malcolm Tait ‏@TaitPlanning Mar 3 Getting frustrated with#mindthegap – regional imbalance isn’t just ‘natural’ – it’s shaped by political decisions

Before the 1980s, things weren’t looking so bright. Evan said “London lucked out by having the right industries at the right time”. But, as the Telegraph noted, financial deregulation was a conscious effort to drive employment growth and economic activity. There was no mention of how the financial value that is captured by different types of activities is negotiated between managers, staff, shareholders and those who regulate the economy. In short, London has always been a financial hub; but finance has not always been the economic nexus of the economy, nor such an extremely lucrative profession.

George Eaton ‏@georgeeaton Mar 3 Worth recalling that London’s population fell between 1960s and 1980s. Not a story of inexorable growth.#mindthegap


There are winners and losers in the process of economic growth. Evan suggested “It’s a much more brutal process than most of us would like”, focusing on the displacement of homeowners on the Heygate Estate. If we want to save national icons like Battersea Power Station from the wrecking ball, we need global investment. But affordability is a concern: “[London] has to watch it, and make sure it is a place open to the nation. It will be tragic if someone from Staffordshire thinks they can’t get a job there because they can’t afford to live there.”


Did Evan find the right gap? According to Evan, “everywhere I go in London, I see signs that the city’s success is becoming entrenched”. But Mind the Gap did not consider the gaps between people in London: walk a mile in any direction from the Shard and you’ll see success is not distributed. Like other places, average wages have not kept up with rising prices.

Median hourly earnings excluding overtime of all employees, UK and London, ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

Median hourly earnings excluding overtime of all employees, UK and London, ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

Having coffee with Boris at the top of the Shard makes for great TV, but we’d learn something different if Evan had coffee with staff at one of London’s 1500 coffee shops. We saw the gold plated plates of a £39.5m Mayfair house, and Evan remarked at how rising prices for such “prime housing” had endured the recession. It would be equally eye-opening to consider the sacrifices many people are making. Those on low wages in London jobs have economised by converting living rooms in shared housing to bedrooms. The number of overcrowded homes in outer East London grew 41% in the last decade.

Ampp3d ‏@ampp3d Mar 3 This is all lovely so far on#MindTheGap, but food bank usage in London has quadrupled in two years

From pubs to think tanks – people struggling with London’s housing affordability wonder whether these two trends are related, and London’s leading academics have denounced London’s latest housing strategy as woefully inadequate. Meanwhile the deputy director of research at the IMF, writing in the pages of the FT, concludes that “measures that governments have typically taken to reduce inequality do not seem to have stunted growth.”

I am sure we could make compelling TV which considered the relative merits of important policy options for mending the gap: how to use taxes, public spending, regulations like the minimum wage, and public services like education to improve the fortunes of a broader constituency: those in London and across the country. We heard from a recent Core Cities meeting that central government policy has a long way to go be more sensitive to the differences between different places. By contrast, Evan’s cinematic homage to a booming place was perhaps insensitive to the policies which have enabled that growth. Filming the differences between places is a visually seductive way of talking about differences between people.

Before the programme heads North, next week, spend two minutes and give the last word to a Londoner: George the Poet

Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@jschifferes)



The UKIP Paradox: Why the party that needs to get serious will suffer when it does.

March 4, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Are UKIP serious?

Is it timely to assume that a party that appears to have a reasonable chance of topping the polls in our next national election and winning seats in our next general election must have solutions for the major problems in our lives? Presumably now that UKIP are about to get more television coverage because Ofcom have reclassified them as ‘a major party’, they will they use that bigger platform to showcase a range of big ideas?

This ‘bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ as our Prime Minister once called them, just happen to be the party ‘viewed most favourably’ and ‘viewed least unfavourably’ by the electorate in a recent ComRes national poll. Surely that indicates they must have some finely honed policies that people resonate with, or at least some coherent organising principles to indicate what they would do with respect to the economy, health, education, crime, and other such sundries?

Well actually, no, not at all, and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage admitted as much on The Andrew Marr Show this weekend. Farage said that his core aim is to continue with popular campaign themes and ideas (principally on The EU and Immigration) to try to finish first in the European elections, but he also openly acknowledged the policy vacuum and wanted to reassure prospective voters that UKIP are currently working hard on a carefully budgeted manifesto in preparation for the 2015 general election.

This might sound like a good idea, but it is likely to hurt UKIP quite badly, and to understand why we need to look more deeply at UKIP’s appeal:

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. 

The moral foundations of politics

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. We vote rather on the basis of unconscious moral frameworks often expressed in metaphors (e.g. Putin is ‘the strict father’) projective identification with leaders (e.g. ‘The barbecue test’ that apparently won George W Bush his elections – people could imagine enjoying his company more than Al Gore or John Kerry), and narratives (e.g. Bill Clinton’s ‘it’s the economy, stupid’; Obama’s ‘Yes we can’).

With this in mind, I believe UKIP’s meteoric rise relates to the way they are tapping into certain kinds of ‘moral’ foundations that have been relatively neglected by the (other) mainstream parties. Satirical takes on UKIP’s distinctive style of righteous indignation capture something important about their appeal, like the ‘UKIP keyboard’ designed “to remind you of the good old days before the country went to hell in a handcart”.

UKIP’s rise illustrates that the three main parties are too close together in spirit and policy, and that huge swathes of the population do not see themselves adequately reflected in this group. On this account, UKIP is not just for people who believe immigration is insufficiently controlled, or who strongly dislike Europe, but more generally for those who do not identify with Westminster, or who have been ‘left behind by the relentless mark of globalisation and glib liberalism’.

A deeper way to make this point is that UKIP, perhaps unwittingly, appear to be tapping into what some social psychologists view as ‘moral foundations’, which appear to be largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties. To be clear, I am definitely not saying UKIP are more or less moral than anybody else, but rather that they are tapping into certain kinds of moral sentiments that a significant number of people feel and seek expression for. Indeed, while it is difficult to be precise without careful research, my reading of Values Modes suggests the values palette of UKIP supporters(principally ‘settlers’ with ‘prospector’ elements) which often finds expression in the tabloid press(The Sun and The Daily Mail are best selling newspapers) in particular, is common to between a fifth and a quarter of the population.

The thing is, most of the rest of the position may not recognise such perspectives as ‘moral’ at all…

Six Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Theory has recently been popularised by Jonathan Haidt, who spoke at the RSA last year, and kindly stayed afterwards to speak to Social Brain about his work in more detail. While I hugely recommend Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, I also recommend the more sophisticated critiques which suggest that the gap between science and morality cannot be bridged with quite as much conviction as Haidt seems to suggest.

The book includes a detailed account of the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological case for social intuitionism, which is a particular account of cognition and morality. Crudely, it says that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly, which forms the true basis of our morality. On this account, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited.

A quick overview of Haidt’s palette of moral foundations includes:

  1. The Care/Harm Foundation is based on concern for others and a desire to protect them from harm.
  2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation relates to a particular sense of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, sometimes called proportionality, as in Aristotle’s famous line that ‘justice is giving each their due’
  3. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation is about resisting domination, and the sensitivity to people being tyrannized. Haidt says this “triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.
  4. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation is about the love of tribes and team mates, about our drive to form cohesive coalitions, whether through families or nations.
  5. The Authority/Subversion Foundation is tradition and legitimate authority, grounded in respect and an appreciation for the structures provided by hierarchies.
  6. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation is about avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions but it extends to a broader conception of purity or disgust, and our ideas about what is sacred

The claim is that we all have these moral foundations to a greater or lesser extent, but the degree to which they matter to us varies hugely depending on our political outlook. More to the point, our political outlooks are shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise. Those with what Haidt calls WEIRD morality (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) may struggle with this message, because we have a set notion of what moral means, but the social intuitionist perspective forces you to reconsider.

Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of his argument “What Makes People Vote Republican?” offers evidence to show many vote against their economic self-interest because they are motivated mostly by the extent to which candidates speak to the values above, and those on the right tend to speak to all of the moral foundations, while those on the left usually only offer a very concentrated form of the first and a little of the second and third. You might say progressives are ‘morally outnumbered’, which is not to say they are wrong, because there is no empirical way to determine how much weight we should give to each of the touchstones – that’s the value judgment that determines who we are.

Why UKIP Press Buttons others find hard to reach

***Disclaimer: What I’m about to say should not be read as an endorsement of any position, nor a justification for why it is held***

(Image via:


If you tune in to the tone and language of what UKIP say, rather than analyse the claims rationally, you begin to see the breadth of their appeal, because they are touching lots of these moral foundations,

  • When UKIP ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into the liberty/oppression foundation, resisting dominance of a foreign power, and relatedly activating ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into loyalty and sanctity.
  • When UKIP opposed gay marriage they were appealing to sanctity and degradation.
  • When UKIP speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression.
  • Note that UKIP actually say very little about ‘the care foundation’, which is why people on the left, who see the world mostly through the care foundation, tend to think of UKIP as barmy, extreme, or callous.

Political Psychology

When you think about these moral foundations, you can see that the risk of getting serious is partly that UKIP might lack the ideas, intellects and infrastructure to develop a credible and creative manifesto, and also that UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all.

UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all. 

However, the most profound risk for UKIP lies deeper, because people are voting for them for ‘moral’ reasons that the other parties do not view as moral at all, and which are ‘moral’ in ways that are inherently anti-policy in spirit. The fifth or so of the electorate that are currently inclined to vote for UKIP are finding nourishment from UKIP’s manner and message, which appears to me to be a mixture of lionised ‘common sense’ and self-righteous indignation. ‘Policy’ is antithetical to both, because it requires details that are technocratic in spirit, and a position of one’s own that makes indignation more self-conscious, and vulnerable to counter-attack.

The other risk of developing policies is that the nature of the messenger changes from being a particular kind of anti-politics, anti-policy morality, to being another political party that looks less moral for fraternising with the enemy. UKIP are therefore in an interesting bind. They need policies to get serious, but getting serious about policy will dilute and diminish their ‘moral’ appeal.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA.

You can follow him here.

Decentralisation is no longer a question of ‘if’ – it’s a question of ‘how’

February 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Last week in Greater Manchester, the City Growth Commission welcomed a dozen individuals from academia, businesses and local authorities to publicly share their thoughts on the role of cities in stimulating economic growth. On the heels of the Commission’s first report, Metro Growth: The UK’s Economic Opportunity, the Commission is seeking to identify the main factors limiting cities’ growth and the policy levers needed to maximise growth potential.

Manchester Town Hall (image by Thomas Barnes)

Manchester Town Hall (image by Thomas Barnes)

Those providing evidence were incredibly forthcoming in their analysis of what was holding cities back, but also optimistic about the ability of cities to overcome these barriers in future. The consensus in the room was that while there may be specific issues with skills, connectivity, and housing for example, problems in these areas continue to persist because ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies are rolled out across the nation to address differing needs locally. Autonomy at a local level is denied because, as Lewis Atter (who leads on Infrastructure Strategy at KPMG) explained, “Central government doesn’t have a view at all on local growth. There is only a cost side, scorecard and resource capture. There is no sense of how interventions contribute incrementally to national growth.” For instance, cities would be better equipped to raise qualification levels and tackle worklessness if they could oversee skills provision, which is a prospect the Commission will be exploring in our next report.

Where efforts have been made to decentralise power, government should still be cautious about claiming success. Eammon Boylan, Chief Executive of Stockport Council, warned that there is danger in seeing combined authorities and elected mayors as a panacea. What may work for one city is not necessarily right for another, a point which also clearly emerged from a retrospective of the past 30 years of attempts to devolve power to the UK. The Institute of Government categorised the success of combined authorities and elected mayors as ‘mixed’, concluding that the limited adoption of such evolutionary or ‘opt-in’ models of reform signals that the shift in power has yet to be embedded.

It’s not that Whitehall is oblivious to calls for decentralisation. When Lord Heseltine proposed devolution of funding from central government to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in 2012, heads in government were quick to nod along in harmony, although hands unfortunately didn’t loosen up on the purse strings of the Treasury – fiscal devolution creates anxiety at the centre. Drawing on her experience from local government, Lorna Fitzsimons of The Alliance Project and former MP of Rochdale, explained to the Commission that while central and local government may agree on the outcomes they want to achieve and roles they each play, but the centre often has difficulty letting go. The Treasury in particular needs to feel that the risk of relinquishing control is minimal, which is why phases or pilots should be seriously considered as devolution is pursued.

The feeling in the room was that in spite of previous setbacks, devolution of political power to the local level is inevitable. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, highlighted the recent lecture given by Ed Miliband, committing to a reimagining of public services which aims to put power back in the hands of people and their local government. Leese felt that Miliband made it clear that politicians had not only been listening to arguments in favour of devolution, but are now ready to respond in a meaningful way. If the next election hinges on who can be the most radical on this front devolution will certainly be back on the table. The most pressing question is how powers should be best distributed at different scales. In making the rhetoric a reality, the economic outlook for cities will improve as cities are allowed new freedoms to pursue their growth agendas.

Follow #citygrowth and @CityGrowthCommission on Twitter for updates.

Metro Growth: the UK’s economic opportunity

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Today marks the launch of the first output of the City Growth Commission, featured on Building on feedback from our launch event at the RSA in October 2013, the report takes on a striking infographic-led template to deliver the message.

Report thumbnail

We argue that the UK’s opportunity for strong economic growth – which addresses wider long-term challenges – requires strengthening our urban system. Our scale of analysis starts with looking to the 15 areas with the largest population, which we term ‘metros’. The Commission will consider the potential of UK cities large and small.

In Metro Growth: the UK’s economic opportunity, we argue that a new global picture of growth is taking shape. This is not about a transfer of economic power from North to South, or West to East. It is about the rise of cities.

Global growth

The UK is home to one of the world’s truly global cities. But too many of our urban areas outside London are failing to achieve their growth potential. We will explore what political powers and governance arrangements are needed to deliver this; and how public service reform can improve fiscally sustainability in all UK cities. The report highlights that public spending Greater Manchester exceeds tax take by £4–5bn – equal to roughly £2,000 per person per year, yet metros have little power to change this: over 90% of all tax is collected by central government.

Led by renowned economist Jim O’Neill, the City Growth Commission will argue that UK cities have the potential to foster higher, more sustainable productivity, growth and living standards. Metro Growth sets the scene for the Commission’s work.  It explains why ‘metros’ not only drive most of our economic activity, but shape how nearly all of us live and work.  Cities, and their economic success, matter to us all.

Manchester-Liverpool population 1981-2011The data tells us that we need a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of population. For example, while both Manchester and Liverpool grew over the last decade, Manchester added 11,000 young people (under 15) while Liverpool lost 9,000 young people.

Focussing on skills, infrastructure and devolution of fiscal and policy-making powers, Metro Growth makes an early exploration into some of the factors currently limiting UK cities’ growth. The report found that:

Skills are consistently identified by businesses as a big barrier to growth. Whilst universities play an important role in developing skills and clustering talented people, graduate retention and attraction strategies are relatively unexplored aspect of economic development.

Pennines commutingAlthough many UK cities are close in distance, weak infrastructure links between regions mean that potential economic relationships are under-developed. Despite the 22,000 commuters that cross the Pennines every day between the largest metros of Yorkshire and the North West, the economic relationships between Manchester and Leeds are less strong than might be expected for cities of their size.

Qualifications ratios

There remain large differences between metros in qualifications. South Sussex Metro (Brighton, Hove, Worthing, Littlehampton and Shoreham – combined population of half a million residents) was found to have 23 residents who are university graduates for every 10 who have no qualifications. By contrast, the Potteries Metro is home to 22 residents with no qualifications for every 10 university graduates.

Metro Growth concludes by looking at the wider conditions in which people are able to contribute economically. The social context matters – for example health and well-being varies greatly between and within metros. Having people will low mental well-being, and poor physical health, limits the opportunities for productive participation in the economy.

Limiting long-term healthAs we develop more in-depth research over the next eight months, important areas of investigation remain for the City Growth Commission. Most fundamentally, how can we ensure that the case for metro growth is connected to salient issues for citizens – how to improve living standards – and for government – how to reform public services in light of long-term challenges.

The City Growth Commission runs for 12 months and will seek to influence all political parties in the run up to the next General Election, and make the case for cities to take a new role in our political economy. Following an open call for evidence which ran from October 2013 to January 2014, the Commission will host its first evidence hearing on Tuesday 11 February in Manchester Town Hall.

Follow #citygrowth and @CityGrowthCommission on Twitter for updates.

The Spiritual and the Political: Beyond Russell Brand

January 26, 2014 by · 29 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

For me, the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political.

–Russell Brand


About three months after Russell Brand’s iconoclastic call for a ‘revolution in consciousness’ on Newsnight (c10 million views on Youtube) and in New Statesman (103,000 Facebook ‘likes’) the dust has settled, and, well, nothing much has happened.

That’s a real pity.

Perhaps Brand’s fame, his main asset, proved to be a liability, in the sense that the messenger subsumed the message. That big story of October 2013 proved to be more about who Brand is(former drug addict, now celebrity, with challenging political views) how he got the better of Paxman, and what he did(edited New Statesman) than the content of what he was saying.

The minor tragedy is that beyond Brand’s sizzling ego, zealous eloquence and sharp eyebrows lies a coherent argument that we need to take deadly seriously. 

The minor tragedy is that beyond Brand’s sizzling ego, zealous eloquence and sharp eyebrows lies a coherent argument that we need to take deadly seriously. He is absolutely right to say that we need a deeper appreciation for who we think we are and why we think we are here before we can face up to the inadequacy of our existing social, political and financial institutions. Only then might we build the requisite will and insight needed to create a better world.

(In case you still have no appetite for the message due to the messenger, one of the world’s most respected Philosophers, Robert Unger, has a view of political change that, while several orders of magnitude more complex, is similar in its insistence on starting from a more spiritual account of human aspiration: “The commanding objective must be the achievement of a larger life for the ordinary man and woman”).

However, while Brand’s call to spiritual arms spoke to millions, it did not convince everybody. The message sounded fresh, but on examination it appeared half-baked because there was no clarity about the nature of the meaning of ‘spiritual’ or the link between the spiritual and the political, nor what it would mean to develop it in practice (in his own defence, he said he was busy that week being a magazine editor…).

And his suggestion that a corollary of his view is that we shouldn’t vote sounded overblown, because as anybody who takes spiritual progress seriously knows, a shift in consciousness may place your work in perspective, but it never does the work for you. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

But his intervention was timely and profoundly important and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

Modern political debates have become too tactical and technocratic to inspire political hope, and the idea that politics has lost touch with deeper foundations of human nature and aspiration not only rings true, but chimes with the RSA’s emerging worldview. As Adam Lent suggests, we have lost faith in conventional politics, and as Matthew Taylor argues, it is questionable whether better policymaking will ever change that.

Curiously, at least for those who believe in Zeitgeists, Brand’s public statements came out a few days after the first of six public events on taking spirituality seriously. I gave a short speech there, which I developed further and published in New Humanist in December. The editor Daniel Trilling kindly allowed me to repost that piece (some of which is lightly edited above, and some of which is lightly edited below).

If Russell Brand were ever to ask me for advice on how to flesh out the idea that the spiritual is primary and the political is secondary, here is the material I would draw upon to help him advance the case (Warning, c3000 words ahead).

To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

Taking Spirituality Seriously:

The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.

There is little doubt that spirituality can be interesting, but what needs to be made clearer by those who take that for granted is why it is also important. To be a fertile idea for those with terrestrial power or for those who seek it, we need a way of speaking of the spiritual that is intellectually robust and politically relevant.

This goal looks achievable when you realise that Spirituality is not centrally about ‘beliefs’. The conventional notion that to believe something means endorsing a statement of fact about how things are is an outdated and unhelpful Cartesian relic, grounded in a misunderstanding of how our ideas and actions interact.

Consider the story of two rabbis debating the existence of God through a long night and jointly reaching the conclusion that he or she did not exist. The next morning, one observed the other deep in prayer and took him to task. “What are you doing? Last night we established that God does not exist.” To which the other rabbi replied, “What’s that got to do with it?”

The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.

The praying non-believer illustrates that belief may be much closer to what sociologist William Morgan described as “a shared imaginary, a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms”. This perspective chimes with the emerging 21st century view of human nature as fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational. This perspective helps to move beyond simplistic accounts of ‘belief’ and sheds light on the three main perspectives on spirituality in the UK today.

Three forms of spirituality

First, there is religious spirituality, in which religions can be understood as the cultural and institutional expression of the spiritual. This association explains why those who feel antipathy towards religion are wary of bringing spirituality into the public realm. As the Humanist Anthropologist Matthew Engelke put it at a recent RSA workshop on the idea of ‘spiritual commitment’: “the word spiritual has a history, and that history has a politics.”

Second, there is the ‘spiritual but not religious’ category, an expression that does little to illuminate the nature of the spiritual beyond the disassociation with religion. ‘SBNR’ is now a bizarrely demographic box to tick that serves mainly to carve out a space on the census form for amorphous worldviews. Indeed, this large and heterogeneous group does not have anything resembling ‘class consciousness’, nor culturally recognised institutional forms.

One of the reasons we tend not to take spirituality seriously is that people in this category get attacked ‘from both sides’; from atheists for their perceived irrationality and wishful thinking, and from organised religion for their rootless self-indulgence and lack of commitment. However, while survey findings on such matters have be treated with considerable caution, this broad categorisation arguably captures the majority of the British population. For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis of attitude surveys by the thinktank Theos, revealed that about 70% of the British population is neither strictly religious nor strictly non-religious, but rather moving in and out of the undesignated spaces in between.

Thirdly, there is a perspective that might be called secular spirituality, which is typically atheistic or humanistic but does not disavow the idea that some forms of experience, ritual or practice may be deeper or more meaningful than others; a perspective that still finds value in the term ‘spiritual’ as a way to encapsulate that understanding.

Consider, for instance, humanist celebrants giving dignity to marriages and funerals, or the completely open nature of the ‘higher power’ that participants in alcoholics anonymous are asked to place their faith in, or ecstatic dancing, sublime art, the charms of nature, the birth of a child, or even the sexual union that led to it. For all the problems with the word spiritual, there are forms of life where we seem to need it to point towards an appreciation that would otherwise be ineffable.

Personal transformation and Social Transformation

So spirituality can come out the closet. It is by no means a minority issue, and there is no need to be embarrassed by the term. Indeed, we need to talk more freely about it to understand the connection between these diverse and widespread spiritualities and the social, economic and political challenges we face.

For all the problems with the word spiritual, there are forms of life where we seem to need it to point towards an appreciation that would otherwise be ineffable.

I see the connection in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line that “we must be the change we want to see in the world”. These evocative words are a distillation of a much longer statement rather than a direct quotation, but they nonetheless landed on t-shirts, posters and bumper stickers around the world, because the expression speaks to us deeply. We must be the change we want to see in the world.

When I read that line I think to myself: Yes, that’s what I want and need – to close the gap between my actions and my ideals; to make my daily decisions speak to the vision of the kind of world I would like to help bring into being.

But how on earth do I go about that?

Gandhi’s statement highlights the forgotten imperative to connect social transformation with personal transformation, which his leadership of the Indian Independence movement exemplified. The contention here is that we struggle to make this connection because, unlike Gandhi, our identification with the spiritual in private realms is not manifesting publicly. Indeed, our public discourse seems to be becoming spiritually illiterate.

Perspectives, Experiences and Practices:

When it comes to the very practical business of aligning our vision and values with our actions on the word, we look like amateurs, unfamiliar with the tools we need. Spiritual experiences, perspectives and practices are wrongly framed as otherworldly, rather than precious human resources to bring our ideals into being.

By spiritual experiences, I mean experiences that make the world feel viscerally meaningful; moments of aliveness, rapture and homecoming that, as Psychologist Guy Claxton puts it, make ordinary experience seem vapid and attenuated by comparison.

By spiritual practices I mean the disciplined and creative activities that support human development, like meditation and yoga, but also for instance writing, art, or even running – things we do to strengthen our inner lives.

And by spiritual perspectives I mean the value-rich visions of what it means to be here, to be human, our worldviews that contextualise our experiences and practices.

This question of perspective is important, and formative for many, but the science-religion debates of the last few decades struggled to find traction because they said so little about practices and experiences, which for many are closer to the heart of why the spiritual matters.

Our Ground and our Place

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. 

Such moments illustrate a useful and generative distinction. Common to the three main manifestations of the spiritual highlighted above, and therefore fundamental to the concept, spirituality is about our ground, rather than our place. This contrast stems from Buddhism, but it can also be inferred in Heiddeger’s emphasis on the philosophical primacy of the lived experience of being human, or as he puts it, ‘Being-there’.

By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’

As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.

And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

And this shouldn’t surprise us. In 21st century Britain the average urban adult is exposed to about 3000 adverts a day, and we find ourselves caught up what Economist Tim Jackson calls ‘the social logic of consumption’.

There is no simple causality in such matters, but while our attachment to our place fuels consumption, our experience of our ground may provide immunity to the idea that we need to consume to validate ourselves.

Our failure to come back to the basic conditions of our existence may also be closely connected to the gradual and relentless shift in the public being described as consumers rather than citizens, a shift meticulously documented by the Public Interest Research Centre in national broadsheet references. Consumption predates capitalism, and is part of being human, but consumerism is less benign, a vision of human life that takes us away from our existential ground and threatens our ecological ground in the process.

Of course we need governments and markets, but their qualities and priorities depend on our qualities and priorities as citizens. And where are we in that respect? And how would we know?

Spiritual practice indicates that our everyday consciousness is not a particularly reliable or benign set of states – in fact we are more or less deluded most of the time. Meditation is the best teacher of this troubling fact, which might sound provocative, but is a completely uncontroversial idea for the millions engaged in regular spiritual practice. For instance, former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor characterises our default functioning in the world in terms of ‘compulsive becoming’ and ‘existential flight’.

In this respect, Tocqueville comes to mind. He argued for the moralising power of participation in his classic book, Democracy in America, but on his account religion was a prerequisite for that moralising process, and in lieu of church attendance, which is declining everywhere except, curiously, London, we may need something that serves a similar function to revive collective political will.

This will not be easy. We scramble away from our ground because the alternative is deeply disconcerting. When we succeed in slowing down, it can be quite a shock to glimpse the machinations of our own minds from an unfamiliar vantage point. In most cases we find that our mind’s default state is not to be calm and focussed and judicious, but more like a noisy self-serving storyteller, fuelled by self-concern and anxious justification.

When we succeed in slowing down…in most cases we find that our mind’s default state is not to be calm and focused and judicious, but more like a noisy self-serving storyteller, fuelled by self-concern and anxious justification.

It is hard for us to accept that we rely on such wayward minds to act on the world, but when you begin to sense this inner confusion, you are less inclined to look outside of yourself for answers. For starters, the familiar saying, that if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, begins to look entirely misconceived. American academic Bill Torbert suggests it’s the other way round: “If you don’t realize you’re part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”

Our refusal to face up to our ground, and experience it more viscerally on a regular basis has also made most of us complicit in allowing public policy to become pseudo-objective in its emphasis, characterised by forms of evidence that squeeze out the emotions and experiences that they seek to promote.

We document patterns of social isolation rather than emotionally connect with those who are lonely. We tweak institutional design to improve social care, but say little about showing kindness to neighbours in need. We confidently debate the efficacy of treatments for clinical depression but often conceal our own experiences of sadness. We strain to justify the arts instrumentally, expressing their value in economic terms, while knowing in our hearts that that’s not what they are for. And a growing number of environmentalists, increasingly desperate for traction, now find themselves referring to mother nature – God bless her? – as natural capital.

The neglect of our ground goes beyond political discourse. In every day life ubiquitous technology, abundant news, and an uncomfortable awareness of all the things we will never do or be make our lives feel increasingly centrifugal, in the literal sense that we are drawn away from our centre. Spirituality can therefore be seen, helpfully, as a centripetal force, bringing us back to our ground, back to the fuller version of ourselves that we need to act constructively in the world.

Spirituality as a Radical Perspective

So while spirituality is often charged with escapism, is it not the evasion of the spiritual that is the real escapism? A renewed activism, grounded in spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences may be precisely the radical stance towards the world we now need.

So while spirituality is often charged with escapism, is it not the evasion of the spiritual that is the real escapism? A renewed activism, grounded in spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences may be precisely the radical stance towards the world we now need.

It is no longer radical to suggest that it is mad to fetishize economic growth measured in percentiles of gross domestic product – a measure of human progress that is, above all, completely unrecognisable at a personal scale.

It is no longer radical to suggest that the default five-day working week is not the only way to structure our lives, and looks like an unhelpful convention when many are ill due to overwork, and others, especially the young, remain unemployed.

And it is no longer radical to suggest, along with our finest scientific minds, that the climate alarm cannot be snoozed away, and we urgently need to wake up to plug more than 7 billion people in to an almost entirely different source of energy, to retain a liveable planet in the second half of this century, not some point in the unimaginable future.

What is somewhat radical, however, is to suggest that the reason we are not acting on such imperatives with sufficient conviction is because we are not paying attention to our ground. We have lost sight of the potency of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences in bringing the fundamentals back to our attention.

Former Mayor of Vancouver Sam Sullivan offers an inspiring example. He suffered a skiing accident when he was nineteen, which left him quadriplegic, in a wheelchair for life. A spiritual experience brought him out of despair and sustained spiritual practice related to stoicism helped him forge a celebrated career in disability activism and public service.

Soon after the accident, while contemplating suicide, he imagined his own death in vivid, visceral and bloody terms. After carefully simulating the gunshot in his imagination, he describes how he felt as the witness to his own continued breathing, witnessing the sensation that remained in his disabled body but highly functional mind; now from a renewed, life-affirming perspective: “Somebody could do something with that,” he thought. “Hey, I could do something with that.”

Knowing our Ground.

We need to know ourselves more fully because the resulting awareness helps to make sense of why the gap between the way we are living and the world we would like to create endures.

We need to know ourselves more fully because the resulting awareness helps to make sense of why the gap between the way we are living and the world we would like to create endures.

But how much do we know about our ground, experientially, relationally, scientifically? For most of us, not much (see the seminal essay for the project as a whole: The Brains Behind Spirituality) The experience of spiritual practice, and a growing body of scientific research, reveals just how far our common understanding of who we are is mistaken. Three features of what makes us human illustrate the validity of this broad point.

We are not the isolated, conscious minds often assumed in our folk psychology. Rather, we are fundamentally embodied. Any spirituality that ignores how the body influences what we think and do will not be usefully transformative. The success of Yoga in the west may be precisely because it is grounded in that understanding.

We also need to challenge the modern presumption of automaticity, the idea that we are forever doomed to be creatures of habit, condemned to live in a preoccupied fog, vulnerable to whatever is thrust upon us as salient. So much of the recent emphasis on ‘behaviour change’ in public policy takes our automatic natures as a given. However, the growing mindfulness movement, for instance, speaks to the possibility of individually and collectively waking up from the habitual rumination that keeps us experientially absent, and less than fully alive.

And we need to think about what we call the deep social – not merely that we are social creatures, which is a truism, but that we are physiologically social – that we have evolved through and for each other. While empathy for our family and friends may come naturally, we can also dramatically expand this sense of who ‘we’ are in space and time, through particular forms of spiritual practice – like loving kindness meditation – that have been honed precisely for this purpose. Such practices are not merely nice, but rather essential for international and intergenerational problems like climate change, which we seem to lack political motivation to solve, partly due to the biological limits of empathy.

Coming back to the connection between the spiritual and the political, unlike Russell Brand, Martin Luther King clearly lived and breathed this link and combined both to great effect for civil rights. His reference to love in the following statement is by no means synonymous with the spiritual, but it serves a similar function:

“Power properly understood is …the strength required to bring about social political, and economic change… One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites- polar opposites- so that love is identified with the resignation of power and power with the denial of love.

Now we’ve got to get this thing right…Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

Spirituality, for me, is about tapping into the deep sources of our own power and love, and the lifelong challenge of bringing them together in practice.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets at @Jonathan_Rowson


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


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