The power to create.. what?

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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

Coffee and the RSA

March 12, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The RSA has a history with coffee. The RSA’s eighteenth century founders first met in Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, and conversations they had shaped the society around them.

The coffeehouses of eighteenth century London didn’t just provide a place to meet; they were the focal point of an active community of pamphleteers, publishers and political activists. Their talk wasn’t just talk – it was a means to action.

coffee meeting

In November last year my colleague Matthew Mezey introduced me to NESTA’s idea of Randomised Coffee Trials – an initiative where staff are randomly assigned a different colleague each week with whom to ‘go for a coffee’. We both thought that something like this would be interesting to to try at the RSA. Still new and enthusiastic (although scared of sending ‘all staff’ emails) I agreed to set it up, and since then about half of the organisation has taken part.

I think one of the reasons it is so needed – and therefore has potential for significant impact – at the RSA is because the physical space in which we work doesn’t afford many opportunities for serendipitous conversations.

Randomised coffee trials are a fantastic way to create a networked structure in an organisation that doesn’t allow for casual staff interaction within its building (no staff room/cafe/lunch room). I have had conversations with people that I didn’t even know existed, and am now able to create a much better picture of how we might work together across teams.” (Nat)

It is much more than fun. It’s starting relationships and developing friendships, all of which makes you better at the work you do.

10 weeks on, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been instructive to see something so simple working so well. It stays interesting and fresh because the connections provide something different each time:

“I was lucky enough to be assigned to Sharliza, who works in the same area as me (Communications) but in a different department. Prior to that we hadn’t even met, which just goes to show how important these initiatives are. As a result, I felt much more able to call on her for help with a new project, and got some great ideas that I otherwise would have missed.” (Conor)

“I met with Thomas a few weeks ago (who I had never spoken to before) and we realised that we had both studied International Relations at Portsmouth Uni… a few years apart. I now keep an eye on a blog he writes on Conflict, Security & International Relations! RCT WIN!!!” (Mark)

The project has attracted participants from almost every team and pay grade. A director might be paired with the CEO one week and an intern the next.

Through these meetings we become more visible, more known.

Through these meetings we become more visible, more known. As a consequence, we might start to ask more of one another, but those asks are more discerning and the newly founded relationships make it easier to say no as well as yes.

“Going for coffee’ is always a pleasurable thing to do. So mixing coffee with colleagues seems like a fun idea. In practice though it is much more than fun. It’s starting relationships and developing friendships, all of which makes you better at the work you do.” (Georgina)

A few friends have mentioned that they’d like to try something similar at their own organisation. NESTA have some great tips.

From my experience I would add:

  • Organisational buy-in is a big help – we can build these interactions into our working day without feeling like we’re skiving.
  • I’ve found it easy to run, in a not too labour-intensive way, just using an Excel spreadsheet.
  • I decided to send out the matches on a Wednesday so if someone had a week’s annual leave they’d still be able to keep up with their coffees; this seems to work quite well.
  • I think it was right to start with weekly meetings, so as to gain momentum and normalise it, but after feedback that it’s easy to get behind with your coffees we’re moving to fortnightly matches. 10 weeks seems like a good length of time to embed the initiative.

coffeeI’m now starting to think about how the principles behind the Randomised Coffee Trials could be used to the benefit of RSA Fellows. Could we build structured but serendipitous interaction into Fellows’ experiences of the RSA and in doing so strengthen Fellowship? If you have any ideas, let me know. | @becca_mchase


Is cooking a subversive act? (microwave reheated version)

February 24, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Have you seen our latest RSA Short: How Cooking Can Change your Life?



“Eat anything you like, as long as you cook it yourself?” Pretty intriguing advice, no? Did it make you want to get home and buy, unpack, wash, peel, chop and fry some potatoes?

Not quite? Well this reheated blog post full of hidden salt, sugar and fat from July 15th might help to convince you.

I wrote it after listening to the podcast, which gives a much fuller picture of the important argument, and which I would strongly recommend listening to, ideally in your kitchen with a good chopping board and a few willing vegetables.

More than half a year later, I am even more sure that the idea is worth heeding and reflecting on for its political implications. The basic idea sounds trivial (let’s all cook more, ha ha…) but it might just be the kind of small revolutionary act that could lead to significant systemic change if it really took hold.

The idea that we should (in the pragmatic and moral senses of the term) all cook more might even be relevant to the RSA’s emerging world view around the power to create; at its heart it’s about shifting the balance of power from big to small, and distributing a daily act of creativity much more widely. It’s also fun, good for your health and ecologically beneficial, but those arguments are small fries….

Potentially much more motivating is the Bachanalian carnival of aromatic delights that lies dormant within your very own unsuspecting kitchen.

Why not start tonight by adding some cumin to your beans on toast?


That title (Is Cooking a Subversive Act?) makes the content sound like a combination of self-help and how-to, but it’s much more political than that. The speaker, Michael Pollan, is a professor and activist who sees food in general, and cooking in particular, as a critical driver of the economic and social order.

That might sound a little bourgeois and worthy- Who has the time? Who has the kitchen space? But the evidential case is pretty strong. Processed food generally tends to be much less cheap and convenient than we imagine, for instance, and the relationship between cooking and health is apparently very robust.

He starts the talk with the example of the fries sold at a famous fast food restaurant having to be long to look right in the red boxes, which means a special kind of long potato has to be grown, and that that strain of potato has to free of blemishes, which means you need a certain kind of pesticide which is highly toxic…and this is one example of thousands- the food we see every day carries with it a huge range of generally hidden public health and environmental issues.

The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other. In this sense cooking is the fulcrum around a much broader argument for an economy, promoted by nef amongst others i.e. an economy that properly values time and the costs of not having time, and allows us to be a bit less like time-starved consumers and a bit more like time-plenty producers (who, on balance, tend to be happier).

The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other

A few ideas/quotes from scribbles on a train (check audio for verbatim quotes):

  • Poor women who cook are healthier than rich women who don’t.
  • The food industry don’t speak of fat, salt and sugar in terms of ‘addiction’. Instead they tend to use the words ‘cravability’ and ‘snackability’
  • Food marketing tends to operate by creating anxiety and the providing a solution (at one point Pollan makes reference to feminism giving rise to a domestic redistribution of labour, in which women who work couldn’t possibly be expected to cook as much as they used to…However this change doesn’t happen without resistance, and the ensuing arguments are then placated by adverts that implicitly say – don’t fight about it, we’ll do it for you…)
  • “Special occasion foods become every day foods when we let industry cook for us.”(One example Pollan gives is french fries or chips. They taste great when you cook them yourself, but the process is highly labour intensive(washing, peeling, cutting, pan, oil, splattering, oil, washing up etc) so left to our own devices we might eat them only every month or so as a treat, but many Americans now eat two batches of french fries a day because they have become so convenient.)
  • The diet that would work for everybody is: eat anything you like, just cook it yourself.
  • Michele Obama’s original speech about food and the subsequent ‘let’s move’ campaign was really powerful/radical, but its impact was lessened when she got into a conversation with the food industry about reformulating the ingredients of processed food. The speaker compared this to ‘low fat’ food being a mixed blessing, because it tends to mean other ‘bad things’ are put in to replace the fat.
  • “Slightly improved processed food is a trap”
  • “Health is a collective property of the human microbiotica”
  • “The environment is not just ‘out there’, it’s passing right through you.


By Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre, Follow at @jonathan_rowson



Climate Change and the Creative Industries

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

A few weeks ago I popped into our Folkestone Room  to do a short interview for the good people at Swarm about our recent report A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.



This video was shown at the event #whitepencilswarm supported by D&AD, The Global Association for Creative Advertising & Design Awards, which this year created a #NewBloodAwards brief in partnership with Al Gore around Climate Change. 

The event included a presentation by the intensely honest Kevin Anderson, and focused on helping professionals within the worlds of Advertising, Marketing & Design to come to grips with climate change in particular, rather than just ‘sustainability’ in general, which they tend to find much easier to navigate. (For more on that distinction, this recent Guardian piece on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change is a good place to start).

I gave a similar pitch when I spoke at The Hospital Club about Climate Change as part of their sustainability week, alongside Adam Elman, Global Head of Marks & Spencers celebrated ‘Plan A’, Jez Frampton Global CEO of InterBrand, and Jon Alexander, Director of The New Citizenship Project.

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end).

In each case I had the felt sense that the challenge for those working in the creative industries is that many of the implicit associations relating to ‘climate change’ (emissions, floods, existential threat) are quite different from the buzz surrounding sustainability(chic, desirable, caring).

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end). That’s quite a different vibe for those professionals sometimes termed ‘creatives’ to work with, compared to the challenges relating to waste and broader ecological constraints, which are more tangible and tractable for companies and consumers alike.

Anyway, the video is 16 minutes long, features a yellow jumper, and, in case you’re wondering, there is a cup of coffee at the end of my right arm that you can’t see.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

How are you doing?

February 6, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

I ask this question a lot. I haven’t counted, but I suspect if I did I’d reach triple figures in an average week. Naturally people ask it of me too, and more often than not, I reply “not bad, thanks.” It’s a social ritual, and – if you think about it – quite a nice one: we’re registering to each other that we’re not just concerned about ourselves.

Much of the time, if I actually thought about it I’d answer differently. I might say, “I’m finding today a bit of a struggle.” Or perhaps I’d say, “truth be told, I’d rather be somewhere else than here.” Like most people, I sometimes find life stressful and draining, and for various periods over the years it’s become a serious problem. But unless I’m talking to my closest friends, I don’t comment on it that often.


According to the mental health campaign Time to Change (which is led by the charities Mind and Rethink), I’m not alone. Its aim is to end discrimination against those experiencing mental health problems, and remove the stigma that accompanies them. Today, it’s organising a day of events under the banner of “time to talk”, to persuade more people to have conversations about mental health.

You might know the figure (oft-cited but worth repeating) that one in four people are likely to experience mental illness in any given year; equally, though (as RSA Trustee Andy Gibson, who runs Mindapples, is fond of saying), we all have mental health, even if we don’t think of it that way. So, in that spirit, we marked the day at the RSA by having a drop-in breakfast this morning, where staff could find out more about the campaign and have a chat about their week.

Working here, I’ve always found it a very supportive environment, and there was lots of positivity about the campaign. At the same time, I spoke to one colleague about how difficult it can be to start a conversation about mental health — particularly with someone you don’t know closely — without feeling that it’s an imposition, or somehow inappropriate.

One of the things I like about Time to Change is that it addresses that challenge by inviting us to focus on the small things: like checking in with friends or colleagues to ask them how they are. It’s about recognising that we can be open about the difficulties that we face going about our lives, and that this openness means we can support each other better. It also helps combat the stigma that currently exists around mental health problems, which my late colleague Emma Lindley wrote about powerfully on this blog.

And giving support doesn’t mean that when someone tells you they’re having a bad day, you have to reply with helpful advice, or try and make them feel better. In fact, often that can be unhelpful. It can just mean acknowledging what they’ve said. (I can offer no better illustration of how important this can be than Brené Brown’s recent RSA Short on the difference between empathy and sympathy).

RSA staff meeting for #timetotalk

RSA staff meeting for #timetotalk

Of course, great idea though it is to have a day of conversations, what really matters is talking about mental health all through the year. At the RSA, my colleague Becca recently has been organising Randomised Coffee Trials for staff (an idea that originated at NESTA). Each week, everyone participating agrees to meet with someone, drawn at random, for a coffee to talk about anything they like.

This week my match is Theresa, our HR manager. We get on really well, so it won’t be difficult finding things to talk about. All the same, I’ll try and remember to listen carefully when I ask her how she’s doing – and be honest in return. If you try doing the same, why not let Time to Change know how you get on?

Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. He’s @iamsamthomas on Twitter. For more information on how to get support with mental health problems, visit Time To Change’s list of help and support services

Strategy Tips – Courtesy of a Global Guru

January 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Last week I went to an RSA lecture by Sir Lawrence Freedman, global guru on strategy.  He was there to talk about his book on the History of Strategy from the beginning up to the modern day.

It was a great lecture and one that makes you want to buy the book at the end of it.  However, as I spied the stack of tomes outside the Great Room my enthusiasm quickly drained, at 768 pages it’s not for the faint hearted.  I added it to my ‘books I’ll read at some point in the future when I’m sure I’ll have lots more time’ and headed back to my desk.

people don’t tend to think enough in advance about what to do if their strategy fails

While talking about the History of Strategy he also gave some insights into what he had learnt.  Two of these were that people don’t tend to think enough in advance about what to do if their strategy fails and that people tend to think of a strategy as aiming to achieve a goal – win the war, become the top selling product, win the election – and don’t spend enough time thinking about what comes next.

While they might seem obvious when stated it immediately bought to mind many examples where people had failed to do this.  The Lib Dems strategy at the last election was to win as many seats in parliament as possible.  If they had put more thought into what might come next, such as forming a coalition, they might have been more careful about making promises they couldn’t keep such as on student tuition fees.  Last week-end Harriet Harman made a plea to Labour colleagues not to think about coalition after the next general election but concentrate on all-out victory.  If this is a rallying cry to inspire the troops, fine, if it’s what she really thinks then she could live to regret it.

people tend to think of a strategy as aiming to achieve a goal and don’t spend enough time thinking about what comes next.

If Gordon Brown had thought more about what would happen if his strategy didn’t work, he might not have banged on quite so much about the ‘end of boom and bust’.  The coalition would have done well to think more in advance about what would happen if the Universal Credit Scheme proved more difficult to implement than they had thought and might have started with the slow roll-out they’re now being forced to adopt.

We’re going through our own strategic review at the RSA.  Given we’re already spending a lot of time talking about it, I’m not sure my colleagues would be too happy if I suggested we set aside time to discuss what would happen if it failed!  The talk set my mind wondering what happens if certain parts of the review aren’t as successful as they could be (fuzzy aims, partial staff buy-in, unclear management structures etc) but has only made me think more about how to ensure they do work rather than planning for the worst.

One thing the strategic review is aiming to achieve is to ensure we take a longer term view so that we think beyond delivering the next project or funding the next fellow to a more extended, coherent set of overall change aims.  This is what Freedman suggests and it is challenging to think further ahead with the added unknowns and complexities that each step further into the future entails.  However the benefit of this longer term thinking to the present has been enormously beneficial for us, irrespective of the eventual outcome.

So one out of two isn’t too bad, as the saying doesn’t go.  And perhaps I will suggest discussing what happens if our strategic review fails when our executive team meet on Monday, if only to see their reaction.


Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt

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


Can you have too much creativity?

January 9, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Adam Lent’s rallying cry for creativity met with strong tacit approval from the echo-chamber, and rightly so. What’s not to like? Creativity is a feel-good concept, tapping into to the value of human freedom, with pleasant undertones of productivity, individuality, and style.

No sane person would therefore come out against creativity consciously and explicitly, which is why Adam suggests many vested interests in big business and government are clearly anti-creative in practice, but won’t admit to it in those terms. But what if the fact that creativity is inherently unobjectionable poses a deeper problem for the RSA’s emerging world view?

Creativity is hollow and needs filling out:

I am reminded of Voltaire’s famous reply to the complaint that “Life is hard” –  “Compared to what?”. Creativity doesn’t really make sense as a stand alone concept, and Voltaire’s response would be almost as stinging as a response to “Creativity is good”. Compared to being uncreative might is the obvious answer, but that just kicks the can further down the road.

Sooner or later you have to hook up a particular idea of creativity to some broader patterns of values, ideology and human nature which are much more open to dispute, and any inspiring organisational strategy will be explicit about those links.

Adam has begun to do that in terms of the concentrations of power and vested interests that we believe need to be challenged, but I think it’s important to keep in mind from the outset that we need to do more of that because ‘creativity’, as such, is hollow.

To make sense of this claim, consider the related point that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing(chocolate, wine, holidays…). You can sense the hollow nature of creativity when you ask whether there are optimal levels of creativity, and what the personal and social maturation of creativity would look like.

Adam is right that a lack of creativity can be stifling, but it is no less true that too much creativity could be chaotic, manic, even mad. The point is that the question about where you draw that line does not lend itself to a creative answer, but to an inherently political one, which is why we need to be clearer and more open about what promoting ‘the power to create’ entails.

Before we promote the growth of creativity let’s reflect on the fact that most forms of growth have natural limits.

Most forms of growth have natural limits. To give a related example, the most impressive critique of indefinite economic growth for its own sake is not that it is ecologically hazardous to a self-defeating extent(which it is) nor that it brings sharply diminishing if not vanishing or negative returns to wellbeing (the jury is out on which of those is closest to the truth) but that it’s simply absurd – measuring societal progress through indefinite economic growth makes no sense and has no meaning at a human scale, as the Skidelskies argue in their wonderful book: “How Much is Enough?”.

Just as we need to qualify the need for economic growth with a conception of economic maturity (a concept I picked up from Andrew Simms) we also need some idea of how much creativity is good for us and society. Otherwise this idea of everybody, everywhere, all the time, being as creative as possible, sounds absurd (not to mention exhausting) and will begin to feel like a panacea that is literally incredible.

Moreover, if we don’t clarify the scope and texture of creativity at the outset, RSA calls to ‘unleash’ the power to create will have a cheerleading groupthink quality to them, which are in danger of sounding ever so slightly creepy, and that is definitely not what Adam is advocating, nor what the RSA is or should be about.

(As a provocative comparison, consider Susan Cain’s celebrated TED talk on the value of introversion, where she recalls, with bemused horror, being at a summer camp where all the kids were forced to be more extroverted by being brought together to sing/chant: “Let’s all be rowdy!”).

Creativity: means, end, or a bit of both?

So when Adam says (in jest, I know!) “expect us all to be taking to the barricades yelling “Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité!” I see an instructive category mistake.

Liberty, equality and fraternity (for which we should probably read ‘solidarity’ in the early 21st century) are all contested ideas, but most forms of these concepts are typically viewed as ends in themselves(often somewhat incommensurate with each other) while creativity is surely more like a means towards the ends we care about, in which case the question remains: which ends?

As a non-partisan charity, does the RSA say we are passionate about being creative but ambivalent, indifferent or non-aligned on what the creativity leads to? Surely not.

However fuzzy, we do care about some form of the social good. Adam is right that creativity is in our DNA, but so is our focus on ‘undertakings for the publick good’ (wonderful spelling from our original eighteenth century enlightenment mission).

But here’s the thing: computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity. So if we are for creativity, what kinds of creativity are we against? Are there limits to how creative we should want people or society to be?

What are the nature of those limits in terms of human rights, ecological limits, levels of inequality and so forth – how does supporting ‘the power to create’ help us to draw those lines?

(There’s a separate argument to be made on how the emerging worldview links with cultural theory – at present it reads like a largely individualist view that is vulnerable to solidaristic and authoritarian critiques, i.e. it’s not ‘clumsy’ enough..).

computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity.

The pragmatic response is to say the RSA focus is on creativity and we will lead the way by showing how it can be used for the social good. That’s fine, but it makes us sound more like the honest broker rather than the campaigning organising we are striving to be. To get to that transformative change, we need not so much to define creativity as to give it more definition.

Creativity: Individualism by stealth?

Adam refers to creativity in terms of “an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision (and…) the unique, pro-active and self-determined nature of the activity”.  The argument is on relatively strong terrain when he argues, with Mill, that the quintessence of what it is to be a ‘free’ human being is to be ‘creative’, and it is useful to juxtapose that emancipating vision with the spread of mindless and passive consumption under late(st) capitalism. I also like the general idea of people being less passive and reactive and more pro-active and creative.

At the same time, at present ‘the power to create’ has an implicit individualist and libertarian emphasis, and I would like to see that made more explicit, if only because there are other readings of recent world events that don’t chime with this view.

I am not at all sure modern history appears to be unfolding towards creative economies full of self-generated value, because I think that is only one of many current trends, and by no means obviously the dominant one.

More generally, there are many counter-trends to the rise of the creative individual: Where is the occupy movement? Where is nationalism? Where is the Arab spring? There are also plenty of examples of Governments overreaching – what does the power to create tell us about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor?

What if social media is not just used to enhance creativity but also to support Government oppression, as Mozorov and others have argued it does? There are also many (majority of the British public) who want to see more Government, not less, for instance in their support for rail and energy nationalisation.

while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships


Finally, while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships, and for the last four years we have been arguing that the model of the self-directed individual is partial at best. If humans are, as I believe them to be, fundamentally social (see Transforming Behaviour Change, part one) there is still a place for individual initiative but the power in ‘power to create’ has to be grounded in relationships, and the purpose of creativity has to be about enhancing the range of quality of those relationships.

The call for more creativity is good, sound, and timely. But before that becomes our defining rallying cry, let’s clarify what kinds of creativity we want, and how much creativity we need, for the deeper and more political ends that we really care about.



Creativity? That’s not for me.

In Adam Lent’s recent blog ‘Why is creativity the most important political concept of the 21st century’ he outlines the broadest definition of creativity as being ‘an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision’.

Why is it then that you’ll frequently hear people recoil in trepidation asserting ‘oh, but I’m not creative’?

Is it fear that they’ll be asked to draw? Or worse still, sing? Is it that someone way back told them they were no good at something and it’s stuck? Is it an excuse to get out of doing something? You’re creative, you do it. Is it an underlying lack of confidence in themselves? Is it a lack of birth right or sense of status?

Lent goes on to explain that creativity is important for four reasons:

  1. It’s good for us
  2. It’s economically more important than ever
  3. It’s the only solution to long term austerity
  4. It is under threat.

Do read his blog for more on this, am oversimplifying here to provide context, with this in mind I’d like to add two different thoughts.

Firstly, and perhaps crucially, does it matter then that people claim not to be creative? And often vociferously so.  Is it because they default to the narrow association of creativity = art?  Who are these people?  And what implications does this have for our growing mission of the ‘power to create’ and the broadest definition of creativity.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally, I have to throw into the concept driven mix that creativity is FUN!  Don’t we all want to be more creative?  Personally and professionally?

Creativity enables us to solve problems, to meet people, to feel more human, to relax, to use our hands, to express ourselves, to experiment, to get dirty, to learn a new skill, to be brave, to get something wrong, to have a laugh, to feel fulfilled, to innovate, to feel a sense of achievement, to take a risk, to grow inside, to allow us to think a bit bigger.

But in case you were wondering , think you are not creative? Oh yes you are. It is in us all, it is innate. Embrace it. Follow it. See where you go.

Beware the Coming Drone Invasion

January 7, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

If I added up all the time I’ve spent in conferences and meetings discussing some policy or piece of research and what it meant for society I’d probably scare myself. If I counted up how many of those were about new technology it would be a tiny fraction.

Yet technology has had more impact on society and individuals over the past 50 years than any legislation, research or government initiative. Mass car ownership, computers, the pill have all revolutionised society, and now the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. Since we are, at least in part, what we think, then the internet is changing fundamentally what it is to be human.

Drone delivery

Drone delivery

If you ask policy wonks they will acknowledge technology’s impact on society, but despite this they don’t spend enough time thinking through the societal aspects of technological advance.  Getting through the backlog of interesting reading in between relative hopping over Christmas I came across the news that Amazon aim to start delivering their packages by drones.

So drones are fast becoming cheap enough and smart enough for commercial companies to use. It surely won’t be a year or two more before the rich have their own drones and then continuing downwards until I get my own drone one year for Christmas, delivered by a drone.

What are the societal implications of mass ownership of personal drones?

All modern drones have cameras and they will be constantly flying past windows, including bedroom windows, recording everything. However small the malicious element of this, people are more likely to keep their curtains closed to avoid embarrassment. I wouldn’t want Adrian from two doors down looking at my messy bedroom, even when I’m not in it. Drones will exacerbate the continuing trend of technology making privacy harder to find and us barricading ourselves further in to try and find it.

They will be very useful for police, increasing surveillance of people. While it might start with a team of drones keeping tabs on potential football violence or Saturday night town centre disorder, it will surely expand. Big Brother will edge closer.

There will be a further reduction in small interactions, the social glue that holds communities together. I don’t need to go round to drop back the pliers I borrowed from Adrian, thereby having a chat with him, I’ll simply send the drone instead. The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

As the RSA’s connected communities research shows, these small interactions are vital to healthy communities.

Courier jobs will disappear, likely to be replaced with higher skilled drone repair jobs, whether software or hardware, requiring a higher skilled workforce and less opportunities for those who don’t have the skills needed.

So overall then, a huge increase in convenience counteracted by loss of privacy, continuing isolation of individuals and increased surveillance. These implications are surely enough that policy makers would do well to think sooner rather than later about the impact of mass drone ownership on our lives, including the more subtle impacts, and prepare for it. I’m no luddite, technology is amazing and I can’t wait to get my hands on my own drone, I just hope I’ve spent a few more hours of my life in meetings and conferences talking about their impact first.

Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt

Older Posts »