Friday, 19 June 2015

Joining the dots

Since I started Infinite Futures I’ve been working around approaches to a number of themes, originally focussing on public services and foresight or futures thinking & along the way taking in forays into economics, finance and politics.  Having the opportunity to review books & talk with writers & thinkers & entrepreneurs has helped me to expand the horizons of this work, & working without a definitive roadmap has proved (for me, at least!) to be a liberating & fulfilling experience.  New challenges, original thinking, & creative solutions have come to light on a regular basis.

At the same time, I’ve felt as if there is something bigger tying together all of these things & more.  It’s been difficult to pin this down, & a definitive version still escapes me despite several attempts to write this piece.  But a recent blog from Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA, provided a catalyst for this attempt to develop a more coherent approach.  In his piece, Taylor argues that following the general election there is an opportunity to develop a radical public debate about Britain’s political economy.  The central question to consider is “how would we judge the economy to be successful in 2030 based on the criteria of long term human welfare and flourishing?”

This question, & some of the potential answers Taylor suggests, have helped me to gather my thoughts & experiences with Infinite Futures.  As I’ve already mentioned, this is far from a completed prospectus, but then one of the beauties of futures thinking is that tomorrow “does not just happen by itself, automatically.  It is created through our actions or inactions in the present”[1] and thus is constantly subject to change.

The context

During the last 12 months or so it seems there’s been a groundswell of opinion from new voices & old seeking to challenge the orthodoxies in business, public services and wider society.  The general election success for the Conservatives may be considered to be a victory for the status quo & vested interests, but in reality we’re in a state (& State) of flux.  Amongst some of the critical issues are:

·           Economic & social stasis & the continuing reliance on credit that underpins the recovery

·           The promised EU Referendum, the continuing “Scottish question” & the challenges these will contain for UK Government structures & business.

·           Calls for greater Devolution (in different forms) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

·           The “Greater Manchester” model & moves towards devolution to regional & sub-regional areas & the redefinitions of life in urban areas across the country

·           Perceptions of inequality, the stagnation of social mobility & the failures of neoliberal economics

·           Technological changes & how society evolves in kind; with new types of skills, employment, service design and infrastructure

·           Demographic trends, with an ageing population leading longer active lives whilst public services contract; and generational shifts: Generations Y & Z have been born into the internet age, with different values, different priorities & different expectations

·           The ebb and flow of political movements & changes to voting patterns

·           Environmental issues – with natural resources being eroded by short term growth focussed economy (& society)

This is far from a definitive list, and there is much debate to be had regarding how priorities for the future can be determined.  But as Taylor says, new questions demand new answers & his initial shortlist of ideas is a starting point for this wider debate.  This is a debate beyond the old arguments of Left vs Right & more an evolution of new mindsets.

Infinite possibilities

Several of Taylor’s proposed answers (which, it should be noted, he does not advocate specifically but uses to indicate “a sense of what radical new progressive thinking might actually look like”) chime with some of my work with Infinite Futures.  The call for a more strategically focussed central state that encourages enterprise & fosters social innovation echoes the main thrust of Will Hutton’s How Good We Can Be, a return to the fray from a seasoned political economist who identifies both opportunities & threats from new technological & economic challenges, & who challenges neoliberal business orthodoxy with proposals for greater recognition of public interest.  Hutton also champions devolution of power to local areas, specifically cities, beyond the confines of current Whitehall control.  This is a recurring theme in the RSA’s work, & is again reflected in Taylor’s proposals for local taxation, welfare & policy diversity.  Working in local government during a time of unprecedented challenge, I am an enthusiast for local devolution beyond cities, & have written several times on the possibilities & responsibilities this movement could bring. Subsidiarity, in Graham Allen MP’s words “an ugly word for a beautiful concept”, is in my opinion a central element of any new social economy.

The challenge of inequality is ever present in current public discourse.  Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, & most recently Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality have all analysed & drawn attention to concentrations of wealth & distributions of income.  A radically different solution is proposed by Andrew McNally, a 25 year veteran in the banking industry who in Debtonator exposes modern finance’s reliance on debt & argues that through broadening access to equity investment, inequality be addressed through productive assets.  Like Hutton, McNally highlights examples & calls for greater employee share ownership in companies & a reassessment of the neoliberal economic tenets of the invisible hand of the market & unbiased rational investors; flawed theoretic constructs that, as Richard Thaler has recently written, have nevertheless underpinned the perception of economics as “the most powerful of the social sciences in an intellectual sense”[2].  To contest, challenge & reimagine economics with a human dimension is a recurring aspiration.

In addition to the human dimension, the Capital Institute’s goal is to reimagine capitalism to focus on sustainability & well-being.  The Institute was founded by John Fullerton, a former Managing Director of JPMorgan who, like McNally, has an insider’s perspective on finance & banking.  Fullerton’s insight that modern economics is the “root cause of the(se) systemic crises” such as the 2008 financial crisis is hardly unique, but his diagnosis of “regenerative” capitalism following principles of systemic evolution is undoubtedly radical.  I am currently writing a feature based on Fullerton’s story & the ideas he proposes to affect change to “the future of Finance”.

But as much as the books & manifestos & blogs have inspired my thinking during this time, equally important have been the conversations with innovators & demonstrations of new approaches I have been fortunate to be involved with.  Within the public sector, & despite the well documented issues arising from austerity, the desire for progress & new approaches is obvious. A distinct advantage of living in an era of constant change is that adaptability & agility becomes normal, despite the popular perceptions of the sector.  This is not a claim of woolly-minded utopianism, but in my experience it is especially true of current generations who are bringing new perspectives of collaboration, design & customer focus to address the challenges we face.  Battles over sovereignty (particularly with regard to devolution) & politics remain, but the opportunity to provide a new generation of the civic functions & public goods demanded by citizens is obvious.  The challenge for local government leaders and local representatives is to live up to the expectations, accept the responsibilities available & prove their capabilities in order to help their communities flourish.  The development of scenarios for future versions of local public services continues to be an area of strong focus for me.

Beyond the public sector, my own experience of an emerging cohort of entrepreneurs, creative thinkers & social businesses indicates how & where employment may develop for future generations.  I’ve written before about ImpactHub Birmingham & similar ventures that are re-embedding enterprise, creativity & pride into local communities.  Other examples include the Creative Quarter in Nottingham, & I’ve recently come across the website for the Civic Systems Lab & its goal to develop a local “participatory & civic economy”.  Principles of ethical working, sustainability, collaboration & social commitment are recurring themes. This is not to say these examples are the answer to future employment, which will necessarily be as diverse if not more so than the labour market of today: of course there will be no one answer.  The questions of inequality & mobility will not be washed away by a Flat White Economy alone.  But a growth in what John Howkins[3] defines as a creative ecologies (& not necessarily in so-called “creative industries”) provides “the seedbed for creative economies” necessary to adapt, shape & invent the new human economy proposed by Matthew Taylor.

Joining the dots

As I said as the start, this blog has gone through several versions, & is by no means the finished article, so to speak. Howkins refers to the online platform Ideolab setting out to “always be in beta…(i.e.) draft, unfinished, open to change and improvement.”[4] Hopefully what this blog does is summarise in beta form some of the themes & interests I’ve been working on within a broader canvas of the propositions set out in Matthew Taylor’s blog.

There are many voices in this debate, & many different perspectives on the question of “what kind of economy do we want in 2030?” It would be impossible (& foolish) to try to include them all in a piece such as this, but the conversation should take place as widely as possible. Again referring to Ideolab, my hope is that these dialogues can be “inclusive, community-centred, collaborative & optimistic.” In the run up to publishing this blog, I’ve been requesting feedback on twitter & will continue to do so now.  Please do contact me, post a comment or send me a tweet if you’d like to join the dialogue & contribute to the debate & Infinite Futures’ development.


Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA lecture will take place on 7th July 2015, entitled “The Human Welfare Economy”. 



[1] Ziaddun Sardar, Future: Hodder & Stroughton (2013), page 5.
[2] Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: Allen Lane, 2015 page 5.
[3] John Howkins, The Creative Economy: Penguin (2013), page 5 & pages 31-3.
[4] Ibid, page 36.