Sunday, 9 February 2014

Executive Summary - High Speed Sheep and Irradiated Trains

Sometimes it is hard to stay on track...

As part of its new Sustainable Husbandry and Integrated Transport Technology programme, the government recently began consultation on its intention[1] to build a new railway line for the purposes of transporting transgenic irradiated sheep from their grazing lands in the north to the nation’s dining tables, in the south.

InnoThink consultants were commissioned by the Department of Innovation, Change and Engagement to consult with a randomly selected[2] sample of the population so as to gauge public perceptions of the proposal and to find ways to ensure those perceptions could be shown to be misguided.

The consultation process involved: a series of discussion groups held around the country with consumers aged between 18 and 50; in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders; a meeting with a scientist; a meeting with a non-scientist; and innovative ethnographic research with some sheep.  This report presents the main findings from the consultation process.

First and foremost, the consultation revealed that the general public are shit scared of irradiated transgenic sheep[3]

Secondly, the thought of having sundry towns, gardens, hills, woodlands, rare species, livelihoods and irreplaceable views casually destroyed by the construction of a gigantic railway simply so that some sheep can get from Birmingham to London a bit more quickly fills the overwhelming majority of the public with incandescent rage.

Thirdly, the consultation established that although the rage and fear will enable the great British public to complain bitterly throughout the media coverage of the construction period, these emotions will rapidly evolve via a state of sullen tolerance into one of blissful ignorance.  The public will express dulled surprise when asked in future consultations how they feel about eating irradiated transgenic sheep.

Fourthly, the sheep are fine. Really.  Relaxed, well fed, surprisingly articulate when they get onto one of their preferred subjects.

Fifth, the scientist clean bowled the non-scientist with a beautiful yorker, swinging in late and taking out middle and off.

In light of the findings, we recommend re-branding the scheme as Horse Show: The Sequel, or HS2 for short, and using the tactics of ‘Just Pretend’ that InnoThink set out in its previous research for the Department on ‘The Roll of Luck in Policy Formulation: How to Convincingly Claim Credit When Good Things Happen and How to Avoid Flying Shit’.

[1] ‘Intention’ should be taken in this context to mean ‘decision’
[2] Recruitment of members of the general public was conducted on the basis of the Department’s new guidance; and the DICE sequence was 1,4,6,3,3,4,2,5,4,3,1,1,1,4,6,3,4,5,2.  See technical appendix for details.
[3] Reactions to alternatives – i.e. transgenic irradiated sheep – produced no discernible differences in response.

Beyond consumerism - a design challenge

What follows is an attempt to capture my presentation to the Schumacher Institute’s ‘Alternatives to Austerity’ conference, 21 November 2013.

It is scheduled to be published as part of an Ebook, a link to which will appear here in due course.

It is forty years since the publication of ‘Small is Beautiful’.  I first read it just a few years after that, in 1980, when I was fifteen. I had no idea at the time that it was still relatively new; nor did I have any sense of its position in the firmament of all that has been written about sustainability.  And I certainly had no idea that I would one day be an economist spending his time concerned with sustainability.

I say economist.  It would perhaps be more accurate to describe me as a ‘recovering economist’.  I certainly received a long and formal education in economics; and for some years I was employed in a role that entailed the day-to-day use of orthodox macroeconomics; and I founded Brook Lyndhurst in 1999 in large part to try to bring to bear the disciplines of economics on the manifold challenges presented by sustainability.

It’s true, too, as my teenage children sometimes wearily point out, that I’ve been thinking about some feature of what we call ‘economics’ pretty much every day for more than thirty years. 

This in itself might be a good justification for the need to recover.  But I’m referring, of course, to the state in which economics as a discipline finds itself: a discipline with exalted status in the world’s financial and governance infrastructure, yet whose basic tenets are increasingly exposed as deeply flawed and whose role in the most severe economic recession of the twentieth century is widely acknowledged.

It is with this in mind that I offer what follows.  It seems to me that our current travails – severe and persistent environmental degradation; shocking and enduring injustice and inequality; widespread stress, distress and mental ill-health – have their common root in the way in which our economy functions.  And the structure and functioning of our economy, and the character and focus of economics, have co-evolved for more than two centuries (most especially in the late nineteenth century, when economics successfully repositioned itself as the social science analogue of Newtonian physics) to bring us to this deeply uncomfortable pass.  Mere tampering is not enough.  A truly profound reformulation is required.

Schumacher believed this too, of course.  One of the questions raised by the Institute in preparing for this conference was: why has Schumacher’s work not had the impact of, say, a Keynes or a Marx or a Friedman?  In passing I suggest that, whilst the human centeredness and ethical passion of his arguments remain powerful and inspiring, he does not – in ‘Small is Beautiful’, at least – present an explanatory account of how an economy works; which in turn makes it difficult to build a proposition for a coherent set of policies or strategies.

I cannot claim that this paper presents an ‘explanatory account’ of course.  It is a personal statement, drawing upon a mix of formal work undertaken by others, various research projects I’ve had the opportunity to conduct in recent years, and interwoven reflections I’ve explored through a variety of speeches and articles.  It is concerned with the ‘demand side’ of the economy.  There has been much attention in recent years upon the supply side – the ‘circular economy’ is the latest manifestation – but I am firmly convinced that unless and until we tackle the demand side – what it is that we want – we are not really engaging with the problem.

I want to touch on four things:

·         the process of change – and what this might tell us about where we are and what needs to happen next;

·         a design challenge – to suggest that we need to ask: “What is an economy for?” and to design it accordingly;

·         the demand side – to give a flavour of what might happen with some initial demand-side design principles;

·         preliminary propositions – some suggestions for actions at key leverage points that have the potential to accelerate the process of change.

As this last mentioned implies, I approach the entire phenomenon from a systems perspective: indeed I conceptualise the economy as a complex, open, adaptive, path-dependent system.  Space prevents a full exposition of the implications of this approach; but I have included potentially useful references in the bibliographical endnote.

The Process of Change
At any given time a complex socio-economic system has a mix of extant, co-evolved institutions and structures that explain and comprise the system’s behaviour.  The ceaseless pressures of change, emanating from the agency that exists at all levels – from individual citizens to global governance – perpetually act upon the system’s structures.

Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a ‘paradigm’ describes that set of interdependent rules and structures that prevails at any given time.  He proposes that pressures upon a given paradigm can build for some while before a ‘tipping point’ is reached; whereupon rapid change can ensue.

Examination of the logarithmic curve that typically characterises such processes of change reveals the crucial importance of the ‘tipping point’ or the ‘take off’ zone, the phase of change beyond which self-perpetuating processes do the work.  This is where the key leverage points are to be found.  Many transformations never occur because, for one reason or another, they stutter in this crucial zone.  And many analyses of these processes neglect to attend to the fact that the ‘pre-take off’ zone - in which hopes are perpetually raised and then dashed - can persist for a very long time.

Such persistent non-take off occurs in many cases because a system transition implies profound loss for those that benefit most from the existing paradigm; and prospective losers resist the change.  In the case of the western economies in the early twenty first century, the prospective losers hold an interlocking set of positions throughout commerce, government and academe, and have great power.  Their ability to resist change is formidable. 

But the pressure for change is irresistible; each grain of sand builds upon those that came before.  We cannot know precisely when the avalanche will occur.  But we can be certain that it will.

A Design Challenge
The economy is widely treated as a disembodied phenomenon.  It is described using metaphors from the natural world: there are earthquakes and storms, whirlwinds and tides.  An economy is ‘returning to health’ when we espy ‘green shoots’. 

Such language helps us to conceptualise the economy as some sort of inevitable force in the world and to forget that it is, in fact, an entirely human construct.  It is us.  We make it.  Yes, of course, it is a complex system so it has ‘emergent properties’ that are distinct from the individual choices we in our billions make.  But it is, unavoidably, a human construct and, as such, is subject to human agency.

Most human constructs are designed; and there seems no reason not to ask something similar of an economy.  Rather than restrict ourselves to the questions “What is it?” and “How does it work?” let us ask: “What would we like it to do?”

In surveys, when asked what they consider most important, citizens most frequently cite “health” and “spending time with friends and family”.  If we were to take the latter as a design principle for an economy, what would it look like?  And how could we make it do that? 

The focus here is on the economy, not economics.  Deciding upon the design criteria is a socio-political project; the engineering is the domain of economics.  At the moment it’s the other way around.

The Demand Side
In ‘Small is Beautiful’ Schumacher discusses education, land, industry, nuclear power and intermediate technology – and all from the supply side!  His demand side remarks, though deep, are confined to the requirement that humanity needs a spiritual transformation, a revolution in consciousness, if the economy he envisages is to come about.

Whether or not this is the case, there would seem to be insufficient time available: the environmental limits to continuing along our present path are already becoming manifest and we may have less than a century before the problems become acute and irreversible.  Three centuries on from the Enlightenment, it is hard to imagine the kind of transformation Schumacher implies taking place so swiftly.

In the quest for a more practical and optimistic position, we might usefully consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and start with some basics. 

Thinking about food, for example, we have to acknowledge the enormous complexity of the world’s food systems, and the ways in which the diets and preferences of the majority of consumers have been and continue to be manipulated by profit-oriented corporations.  We should acknowledge too, however, the potential power of insights such as that from Michael Pollan, who managed to condense into just seven words an entire ethos of health and sustainable living: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.” What might achieved by the indefatigable promulgation of this simple entreaty? 

And, thinking about housing, consider the following[1]:

Here we have a graphical image of the various functions performed with respect to Maslow’s notion of ‘shelter’.  It is immediately clear that a ‘home’ is a great deal more than just ‘shelter’.  But how many of these functions – these needs, these wants, these demands – can only be met by a ‘house’?  If, wearing our design hats, we think about how we might best meet these (perfectly legitimate) wishes, we might well come up with not just a different but a better solution than the bubble-dependent system that we have at present.

This is only a sketch, of course, but it points to the underlying argument: if we adopt a design perspective to the demand side, we may find very different solutions to the answers by which we are presently surrounded.  And if we don’t even try, then we shall have to endure the spinning froth of ‘resource efficiency’ until it’s simply too late.

Preliminary Propositions
By way of illustration, and without by any means having the space properly to link the preceding case to the subsequent propositions, here are four suggestions for action at key leverage points in four different levels of the ‘take off’ zone, all of them feasible in the short and medium term:

·         Individual – Cook food, and eat in company.  We can re-connect farm to fork and re-build conviviality.

·         Civic – De-monetise elder care.  What we want when we’re elderly is not the freedom to choose between different annuities; we want to know that someone will look after us.  Let’s start trading in units of care: it’ll siphon money from the financial system and will give us what we really want.

·         Societal – Change the frame.  Speak of collaboration not competition; argue for enough instead of more; challenge conspicuous consumption; express sympathy for those whose self-esteem is so low they need to buy preposterous yachts and sports cars.

·         Governmental – Smart taxation.  Use modern technology to re-calibrate consumption taxes on a continuous basis, with high and higher VAT on unsustainable goods and services, and low – even negative – VAT on sustainable goods and services.

In the longer term, as I have suggested, we need – I believe – a comprehensive re-think of what we want from an economy; and to do that requires something far more sophisticated than the medium of a general election.  For such a purpose, I propose nothing less than a Royal Commission on the Economy.  We could of course wait for the avalanche; but it would seem prudent to move more quickly if we possibly can.

Bibliographical endnote
Selected sources of particular relevance are:

“The structure of scientific revolutions”, T Kuhn (1962)
“Metaphors we live by”, Lakoff and Johnson (1980)
“Choosing the right pond”, R Frank (1987)
“On kissing, tickling and being bored”, A Phillips (1994)
“The diffusion of innovations”, E Rogers (1996)
“Strategies of commitment”, T Schelling (2007)
“The diffusion of environmental behaviours: The role of influential individuals in social networks”, D Fell et al (2008)
“In defence of food”, M Pollan (2009)
“On being a good grain of sand”, D Fell (online, 2013)
“New Paradigm Economics versus Old Paradigm Economics”, E Fullbrook (online, 2013)
“Food and Sustainability: Consumer psychology - a tool for policy making?” C Moschaki (unpublished)

[1] © D Fell, produced using the online tool Wordle

Monday, 3 February 2014

Square birthday - part three

Some weeks ago I was invited to participate in a strategic planning exercise by and with the International Water Association.  (My good friend Inge Wallage is their new Communications and Engagement Director.)

Unable to forge the two and a half days required last week to participate in corporeal form, as well as travel to and from The Hague (I have been a bit too busy of late to maintain my time forge in full working order) I offered instead to contribute by means of a presentation delivered through the medium of Skype.

There's a first time for everything.

I'd been asked to offer any lessons I might have learned from previous experiences of scenario planning (or horizon scanning, or forecasting, or future thinging, or whatever) and I began (for my own benefit really) by reviewing that previous experience.  The highlights looked like this:

1990   Towards 2020 (reviewing long term social trends)

1993 High speed link (exploring what an economy built from scratch might look like in NW Kent)

1997 Towards the sustainable consumer (a failed attempt at a multi-client study)

2000 What about the Euro? (deliberative exercise with London business decision makers)

2001 Ageing society (mixing demographics and the views of 'tomorrow's older people')

2002 Liveable cities (pan-European work bringing social research into spatial planning)

2003 Low carbon cities (stylised ultra-low carbon scenarios for UK cities)

2005   Lifestyle scenarios (how possible future lifestyles will influence waste volumes and composition)

2009 Food system scenarios (system modelling focusing on agent reactions to different trajectories)

2011   Waste sector scenarios (mixed qual and quant tools to look for key leverage points)

As well as making me feel old (it's nearly 2020 already) I felt that this actually looked like a reasonable (albeit non-aligned, meandering and heterodox) body of work from which to draw some general lessons, so I had a go.  Naturally, I distilled eleven; and I used Italo Calvino for structural inspiration:

1. Clarity
Be as clear as you possibly can about what you are trying to achieve.  In general, scenario planning is not actually about the scenarios; they are simply tools for improving your analysis and your planning.  It is very easy to get lost, or carried away, and to discover in a workshop in a year from now that there are only three of you left and you are all confused.

2. Gentleness
It's not easy.  Be gentle with yourselves, and with your colleagues.  Try not to get frustrated if it seems slow, or worried if it seems messy.

3. Time
It takes time.  It's difficult to say how much.  ("When should you pick the cherries?" I asked my father.  "The day before the birds eat them" he sagely intoned.)  But don't think you can hurry this kind of stuff.

4. Engagement
If you are going to think as a group, you must attend to how you keep everyone interested and engaged.  Easy (and perhaps obvious) to say; but too often I've seen people with important things to offer get left behind through simple lack of forethought by others.

5. Testing
If it goes well, you will emerge with some findings, or some insights or some pictures or whatever.  Make sure you test them on or with someone who has not been involved.  This is important: it may seem very sensible to you and your colleagues, but that's because you've been working on it since that great meeting a couple of years ago and you know all about the insides and the history.  I test things with my mum.  If it makes no sense to her, then there is a high chance it is indeed nonsense. 

6. Vulnerability
Allow yourselves to make mistakes.  Be respectful of others making mistakes.  Don't worry about blind alleys or diversions.  It's all about the process: how do you, as a group, explore and learn so that you can, together, make the world a better place.  If it was easy we'd have done it by now.

7. Depth
Go deep, but no further.  Remember to keep an eye on what you are trying to achieve.  If you can no longer see daylight, you've probably gone too far.

8. Simplicity
"Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." Einstein, apparently.  And he's clearly right.  If you can't explain what you've been up to in all those scenario planning workshops in less than 30 seconds, you're in trouble and so is your scenario planning exercise.

9. Scariness
Big thinking is scary.  Trying to save the world is scary.  Making stupid errors in front of colleagues you're trying to impress is scary.  And so on.  Scenario planning should be scary.  If you're not slightly anxious at a minimum, you're not doing it right.  (You should be having fun, too, of course.)

10. Fitness
This is a Darwinian thing. You may think that the best way to do something is for it to be the best.  The best scenario planning exercise.  But this is not true.  To be effective, it needs to be the fittest, the most well adapted, the one most likely to flourish in this particular environment.  I have seen fabulous initiatives fail not because they are anything less than brilliant, but because the world around them doesn't get it.  And I have seen quite mediocre initiatives achieve remarkable things simply because they were the right shape in the right place at the right time.  So make sure you think very hard about not just what you are trying to achieve, but the operating environment into which your work will be fledged.

11. Influence
In almost all cases a scenario planing exercise will have the intention of influencing one or more people, one or more organisations, one or more institutions.  Think very hard indeed about this, particularly in terms of how you present and represent and describe and explain your work.  Think hard, too, about precisely who you can really influence, and how they line up with the leverage points in the system as a whole.  Tactics may matter as much as strategy.

Or something like that...

Good luck on your mission.  

Square birthday - part two

I wrote on the Brook Lyndhurst website last week with a summary of my speech to a conference on waste prevention.

I also received a transcript from the conference organisers that included the Q&A session following the presentation, and it turns out I answered a couple of questions like this:

Question: "My question is to talk about the whole concept of growth because it seems at most levels in society we seem to have aspired to have growth as the thing we all want, either in GDP or if you are a company you want to get bigger and at individual level to buy more stuff, own more stuff, bigger house, more cars, more clothes, more stuff.  Now it seems to me that a growth driven economy is always just going to consume masses and masses of materials and therefore generate more waste.  Is it feasible to continue with the concept of growth as a measure of success in society or do you have to break that first before you stop people thinking that maybe a Saturday going shopping is a sort of socially fun thing to do."

Fell: "I think this question goes all the way down.  I think we actually need to ask: what is an economy for? Once we can answer that, then we can say whether we want it to be bigger or not, or whether we want it to go round in a circle or a triangle, or whether we want it to go round fast or slow.  An economy, I think, should be conceptualised as a human social construct that’s rather got out of hand.  I’m always struck by the way people refer to it, they use metaphors that are meteorological, there are always earthquakes or tidal waves or storms, and it’s a way of us distancing ourselves from responsibility for it.  It’s us, we make it, and I think we need to be clear about what we want it to deliver.  It's a design challenge: we want an economy that will give us these things, which means it needs to be like this.  For example, if you ask people in surveys what they want, one of the things they consistently place near the top of the list is that they want time with friends and family.  When was the last time you heard a politician suggest that the economy next year will enable you to spend more time with your friends and family?"

Question: "I’ve just got a question to ask the panel’s views about the use of iconic measures such as the ones that have been mentioned, we’ve heard a lot about carrier bag levies for example, so on the one hand they can have a very positive impact within a very narrow sector perhaps, but also they can divert a lot of attention in getting them through and dealing with those, and there’s perhaps a risk of consumers thinking that they’ve sort of done the job if they participate in that, but forgetting the bigger picture, so I just wondered whether the panel thinks they are a good or a bad idea?"

Fell: "At Brook Lyndhurst we did a big piece of research for Defra, 3 or 4 years ago, exploring this very question: are there catalytic behaviours that foster broader changes in attitudes and behaviours?  And the answer is a resounding no, absolutely not.  People categorise the world in ways that prevent the kind of read-across you're talking about, as I mentioned in my presentation.  Encouraging people to switch off the lights or reduce their use of plastic bags might have some very short-term narrow impacts, but does not spread across.  Most people get by with what I call 'ethical glow': they know that they are doing bad things, but they don't want to feel bad, they want to feel good, so they do just a few 'good' things to give themselves the glow of having done the right things...  You buy one fair trade chocolate bar as you go round the shops and don’t worry about the rest of it.  

The single most influential thing in your life is someone who you think is like you but who you think is a bit better.  Someone you admire.  We need people who are admired, not superstars, because I know I’m nothing like David Beckham and anything he does is irrelevant to my life.  I'm influenced most by someone I know who I admire.  If they start changing their behaviour, I will.  And so if we're serious about this we don't need headline-grabbing moves that actually have narrow short-term effects; I think we need a much more distributed way of thinking about how we can bring this kind of change about."

And I think I largely agree with myself.

Square birthdays - part one

Life, as we know, proceeds in fits and starts; and the events that comprise the starting and fitting are as variegated and incommensurate as soliloquies and sand.  We nevertheless mark the passage of life with equal units of equal length; and we are especially fond of decimal multiples.

Having been inordinately busy of late with sundry starts and fits, I have only recently realised that the birthday I celebrate today is a square birthday.  This, it seems to me, is at least as justifiably noteworthy as a birthday ending in zero; and the gap between my last square birthday (in 2001) and the next (in - gulp - 2029) is surely as portentous.

It is portentous, too, to consider the fact that there may be 20 million other people celebrating their birthday today.

Happy birthday to all of them.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Let’s sing, not shop: an economist dreams of a sustainable city

(Last night I attended the launch of 'London 2062', a compendium of essays put together by Sarah Bell and James Paskins of UCL, to which I contributed the text below.  It was lovely to have been accompanied by my son Alex, who stands a decent chance of actually seeing London in 49 years...)

When imagining a London of 2062, it is easy to get excited about the possibility of personalised jet packs, hover cars and low-cost space travel.  My personal hopes are just as fantastical: I want to see microwave oven-sized waste disposal machines, which generate energy and heat as a by-product, in every home; and 3-D printers that use nano-materials to build the products I want at the touch of a button.

As these imaginings immediately illustrate, there are dangers in looking far ahead: we may simply be left looking absurd, either now or in the future, once it arrives.

Nevertheless, there are uses for long-range scenario-planning.  Firstly, it can help us to make normative judgments - do we prefer this possible future or that one? And, secondly, by navigating back from our preferred future, we can begin to think about the kinds of things that we might do now, or soon, that would steer us in the direction of our preferences.

The idea that we can choose our direction of travel is not merely an expression of belief in the power of democracy.  It is also an assertion about the nature of an economy.  An economy is not  a closed system that tends towards dynamic equilibrium, the parameters of which are deterministic: it is, rather, a complex, adaptive system, the rules of which are socially determined and contingent.  The economy is a human construct and, as such, we have the ability – and, indeed, the responsibility – to shape it to suit our needs.  Over a period as long as 50 years, we should certainly be able to make the kinds of choices that will steer our economy in one direction rather than another.

The ‘steering’ is not, however, some mechanical act, in which we pull various levers and pulleys to make the ‘machine’ go in the direction we want.  It is, rather, a more subtle and ultimately powerful process in which underlying behavioural norms are challenged and modified in a far more organic fashion.

I want to suggest that there is available to us a much more sustainable London in 2062: and a much less sustainable one; and which one we end up with will be, in large part, a function of the way in which a variety of norms pan out and interact.  Here are three examples:

·         Masculine/feminine – London is presently a macho city, characterised by needlessly tall buildings, aggressive corporate behaviour, narcissistic decision-making and damagingly ruthless individualism.  Left unchecked, these behaviours will continue to generate extreme levels of social inequality, the unrestrained consumption of finite physical resources and an environment of profound psychological stress for the majority of London’s citizens.  A more femininised city – attending to notions of care, concern, inclusion, small-scale production and consumption – would, by contrast, inherently counter such trends.  A more sustainable London in 2062 would come about not through direct measures to – say – reduce CO2 emissions but, instead, indirectly and more powerfully through the development of a greater ethic of care.

·         Walled/open – a great deal of London’s economic life currently happens behind walls.  Corporate decision making is opaque: wealthy citizens immunise themselves from their ‘neighbours’ by living in gated communities; political processes are dominated by lobbyists and careerists conversing in inaccessible settings.  A London of 2062 in which these barriers persist would probably function as a city, but it could not possibly be described as sustainable.  A sustainable London would be one in which inclusion and participation was ordinary, in which openness and transparency were normal.  In this more open London, social injustices, environmental harms and wealth inequalities would be more apparent to all, increasing both the demand for change, and the political will to act.  Improved outcomes would emerge organically from the change in the underlying logic of social interaction and would not need to be ‘engineered’ through interventions from ‘the top’.

·         Material/de-material – the London of 2012 remains a citadel to consumer-led capitalism, even in the teeth of recession.  Londoners, and the tens of thousands of tourists that visit the city, go shopping as if the world is going to end (!) and spend stupendous amounts of money on largely pointless products.  It is conceivable that this could continue and that a London of 2062 will be wealthy enough to protect itself from the reality that will by then have come about, in which the effects of climate change will have become severe and in which a great many natural resources are either seriously depleted or have already vanished.  But better, surely, to begin the process of weaning ourselves off our addictions, and to de-materialise our economy and our lifestyles. Let’s learn rather than spend; let’s sing rather than shop; let’s stop with all the stuff.

At a time when unemployment in London – and, indeed, the rest of the UK and across Europe – is so high, and when governments and politicians are frantically seeking the economic growth that will save us from the present debt crisis, there is a risk of appearing somewhat disingenuous when offering suggestions for the short term that do not appear immediately to address the urgent problems faced by so many fellow citizens.

But it is at precisely such a time that the ‘new’ is required.  It would surely be a mistake of the worst kind to spend inordinate efforts to return to some mythologised ‘business as usual’, for the sake of short term credit, when it is so obvious – to everyone? – that it was ‘business as usual’ that got us into this mess.  In such a spirit, and in light of the three longer-term themes just discussed, I offer three propositions for immediate action that could, I believe, not only begin steering London in the direction of genuine sustainability but could also deliver some shorter term gains that would benefit us all.

Firstly, I would like to see the language of competition replaced by the language of collaboration.  Individuals and communities naturally collaborate with one another, but the discourse of business and politics has become monopolised by notions of endless competition.  We need to reclaim the discourse, and reshape the space within which we make our decisions.

Secondly, I’d like to see a dramatic increase in the extent to which social and economic assets are under the direct ownership and control of communities.  This would help to de-couple the ‘real’ economy from the financial economy; and would give individuals and communities a much more direct stake in the future.

Thirdly, I’d like to see us attend to the notion of ‘sustainable play’.  Human beings are inherently creative, sociable animals, but this better side of our nature has – like so many other aspects of our lives - been appropriated by market capitalism.  We need to claim it back and demonstrate – to ourselves, as much as anything – that we can interact, exchange and be fulfilled without reliance on a piece of branded equipment.  We don’t see many advertisements encouraging us to go for a walk, for example, for the simple reason that is exceptionally difficult for a corporation to make money out of us if we’re out and about doing nothing so complicated as having a stroll.  But going for a walk could, from such a perspective, be the most radical thing you do all day.  Go ahead: take that step.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A theory of almost everything in four-and-a-bit diagrams (with no apology to Ken Wilbur)

[Correct title, from 12 October, is: 

"On being a good grain of sand"]

Today I gave a valedictory presentation to my friends at SmartCSOs.  Since the presentation consisted of a series of diagrams sketched at speed on a flipchart, I thought I'd translate it into blogspeak just in case.

Diagram 1

It looks like a hierarchy, but it is in fact a pile of sand.

Above the pile, obviously, is a grain of sand, falling in the direction of the arrow.

Mathematicians whose names regretfully escape me wanted to know if they could predict what would happen for any given grain of sand: would it cause some sort of landslide? And, if so, how big?

After no doubt thousands of hours of experiment, and a no doubt similar amount of time doing maths, they demonstrated conclusively that it is formally impossible to know what will happen: it is a partially chaotic, complex system.  All you can know - and this you can know with considerable certainty - is that, if you drop many grains of sand, over a long period of time there will be a LARGE number of small slides, and a SMALL number of big slides.  A bit like this:

Diagram 2

This hyperbolic curve, Mark Buchanan demonstrated in Ubiquity, is, well, ubiquitous.  Across a whole range of both physical and social systems one sees the same patterns - lots of small changes, and only a small number of big ones.

SmartCSOs, of course, is concerned with a big change.  A very big change.  It is concerned with nothing less than a 'great transition' in the entire global economy; indeed many involved with SmartCSOs are concerned with and/or working on a great transition in global consciousness, whereby we all finally become one.  (See the 1937 sci-fi novel 'Starmaker', by Olaf Stapledon for an explanation of how this works.)

The implication of the sandpile experiment for SmartCSOs - and, indeed, for anyone else working with the hope of producing a dramatic change in how things are -  is rather sobering: there is no way of knowing whether the efforts you are making will cause a big landslide or a tiny one.

HOWEVER one other thing you can be sure of is - there cannot be a landslide unless there is a pile.

Gandhi put it thus: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

You may not be the one that causes the 'big one'; but unless you're in the pile, then there is no chance at all.

(My ambition these days, in light of this, is: be a good grain of sand.)

Diagram 3

This is what the landslide is up against.  It's a stylised network diagram with three dominant nodes.  (You could think of it either as a structure inside the sandpile, like a lattice holding the thing together; or perhaps as a netting, wrapped around the base; in either case, it's a crystal-like structure that holds the sand pile in place, enabling it to grow bigger or remain (apparently) stable for longer than would otherwise be the case.)

In this example, the diagram represents the world of economics - no, more accurately, the world of economists.  There is, I suggest, an inter-locking nexus of economists in locations A, B and C:

A - the Treasuries of major (and most minor) world governments

B - the world's fat financial institutions

C - a number of elite universities around the world that teach economics

The universities are in the business, of course, of supplying well-trained economists into the labour market, the demand for which comes almost exclusively from either A or B.  A and B engage with one another closely in running the economy, so it makes sense to have them able to communicate in the same language.  That language is orthodox neo-classical economics; and there we have it, a closed, self-reinforcing and ever-more-powerful sub-system with its own language, narratives and energy.

(Refinements such as OECD, IMF etc would all fit very neatly into the diagram, of course: they're the same people, trained the same way, speaking the same language, believing the same 'stories'.)

If you want a big landslide, this sub-system is in your way.

Diagram 4a

Here's your bog-standard S-curve, time along the bottom, quantity up the side, an almost-invariant pattern illustrating the uptake of a new thing-in-the-world (normally thought of as applying to products, because it's easiest to get the data, but applying just as fiercely to behaviours and beliefs - automatic washing machines, mobile phones, the internet, major world religions, you name it) (And here's a reference, just in case...)

Diagram 4b

It's easiest to think of the process as occurring in four stages:

A - initially the new thing (in the jargon, an 'innovation') is used or believed by a tiny number of people - the vanguard, the avant guard, the prospectors - the weirdoes

B - some stuff happens (the really important stuff, it turns out) and 'early adopters', normally 'cool' people that the rest of us admire, start to use or believe the thing

C - it goes mainstream, as everyone starts to copy the cool people and everyone starts to copy everyone else (conformance to social norms is either the single most powerful factor influencing our behaviours, or one of a very small number of such factors)

D - and by now it's simply 'normal'

But hang on just a moment...

Diagram 4c

There are two big, big issues.

Firstly - for how long might, or will, or could or should a new thing hang out in the A zone?  What if it's decades, or centuries?

Secondly - some magical stuff happens in the B zone.  This is the place where it is determined whether the new thing will go mainstream and provide us with the new normal D1; or whether the new thing will perish, vanish, peter out into the unrealised possible future and now perpetually marginal D2.  It is the place where the lattice-work of institutional resistance has its tightest knots, where those with anything to lose from a transition to D1 will inevitably focus their energy.  (They really don't mind if you hang out in the A zone; indeed, it can sometimes be helpful to them if you do, because then it doesn't look as if their stopping you...)

For something like SmartCSOs - or, indeed, any ambitious programme of change - it is imperative, in my view, to think long and hard about these two things.

If, as the data is increasingly showing and many increasingly believe, the environmental and human damage being inflicted by contemporary capitalism requires urgent action, then we simply can't afford to spend much time in the A zone.  Our introspections and our personal journeys; our favourite metaphors and our preferred 'models'; our fervent discussions and our thought-provoking blogs; all lovely.  But we really don't have much time.

And if we don't look very carefully indeed at what happens in the B-zone, and prepare accordingly, then even our finest deliberations may get us simply to the place of being treated as interesting and irrelevant by the cool people, and as a marginal distraction by the power-nexus.

As grains of sand, we can't guarantee anything of course; but if our aspirations to wisdom and ethics are to be of any value, then they oblige to at least maximise the odds of success.

Or something like that.