Friday, 23 December 2016

2016: Beyond laments

It’s that time when reviews of the year appear, looking back over the key events, remembering the successes, regretting missed opportunities and lamenting those who have left us.  God knows there is plenty to think on from 2016, a litany including Trump, Syria, terrorist attacks across Europe, Brexit, Jo Cox, & the seemingly irreversible descent into polarised factions across the political landscape.  Combined with the loss of voices as diverse as Ali, Bowie, Gill, Cohen – it all adds up to a bitter harvest indeed.

2016 is also a year of personal loss for me, with the death of my father in April being a profound & lasting shock.  If possible my dad would, no doubt, have enjoyed celebratory dinners & drinks & the company of those closest to him whilst looking forward to the New Year. But my dad died in April, & so this will be another of the “firsts” that people mention when you lose someone close to you – “the 1st year/ Christmas/ anniversary is the worst”, & so on. & this is the first, & quite possibly the last, time I’ve ever written about something so personal in this blog.

Born in 1940, my dad’s childhood was shaped by two major factors: being a “war baby”, & being a son of Stoke-on-Trent.  I think this heritage always informed his values, his understanding of the toil & hardship that most families working in North Staffordshire’s pots, pits & steelworks gave him the hunger to succeed.  But alongside this grim reality, post-war Stoke was also my dad’s playground, from the terraces of the Victoria Ground to the steep Moorland hills of Brown Edge.  What we’d now call “place”, & that feeling of belonging, was second nature to my dad.  He might have dreamed of escape from the hardship, but never from “the City”.  Always “the City”.  Always proud to be a Potter, but not bound by limitations or insularity.

The post-war years of growth, rebuilding & social ambition also, I think, imbued my dad with a spirit of opportunity & optimism. I don’t mean this is in any Polyanna-ish sense, but more in an implicit commitment to work, aspiration and constructive engagement with wider society – family, community, friends.

This is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip.  The grief, & the process of coming to terms (whatever that means) with a sudden, unexpected loss, is beyond my capabilities of description.  But it seems to include the incredible capacity of the human memory to dredge up long-buried moments of bitterness, disagreements or (in my case) father/teenage son bust ups, & to slap you in the face with them at the most unexpected moment[1]. 

But, & this is crucial for why I wanted to write this blog, the grieving process[2] has forced me to reconsider & reflect on the lessons, or perhaps more accurately (he wasn’t a great one for lectures or life instructions) the principles I absorbed from my dad & how they connect to where I go next, & how I think about the future.

So, first & foremost the “urgent optimism” so brilliantly laid out by Marina Gorbis in her piece The Future as a way of life from July this year, & mirroring what I take from my dad’s life, is the North Star. “It’s up to all of us to imagine and create” our futures, as Gorbis says, & “there are seeds of the great, new, and wondrous being planted every day”. In the wake of the tragedies & setbacks of 2016 some of us it may feel as though everything has broken, & that if 2017 does indeed develop into the “year of betrayal” this sense could snowball. We can succumb to disillusionment or we can summon the will to hope, explore, & renew the future.  & as Alex Massie has pointed out, 2016 may seem to be a year of national & international disasters but when viewed from a longer lens it may be that “the world, despite appearances to the contrary, really is becoming a better place”.  The challenge is how to broaden, deepen & democratise this progress yet further.

Entwined with this is another implicit tenet of my dad’s: the necessity of challenging ideas, opinions, & standpoints. As a child of the 1980s I grew up hearing the miners in my family championing the NUM strike & the opposition to the Thatcher government.  The one dissenting voice was, always, my dad’s.  Some of this was purely contrarian, to provoke a response & challenge sacred cows (& to be fair, everyone involved enjoyed a good row).  But it was also a counterpoint to the dogma of the union leadership[3]: groupthink, & the regurgitation of the party line, no matter what party, was anathema.  Think for yourself, try to see things from different angles, don’t receive wisdom – instead test & understand wisdom.  As a kid hearing these loud debates I couldn’t understand how the high tempers & harsh words would disappear as quickly as they’d arrived, & eventually the talk would return to the more certain ground of Stoke City’s deficiencies.  But the lessons stayed with me.

“Read as widely as you can.  Listen to the “other side”.  Don’t be a conformist.” Good advice it took me a while to assimilate. Some of this relates to a recurring theme of 2016: that of the echo chamber, via social media or elsewhere, & the polarisation of discourse[4].  The actual extent of this trend is open to debate, but in my view it’s apparent that the willingness to engage across viewpoints, to find common ground & consensus is getting rarer.  Constructive challenge or provocation in good spirit is the lifeblood of new ideas.  The refusal to listen to or engage with views you don’t share is its antithesis.  & so the constant “everyone who says x is wrong/evil/stupid/uneducated/out of touch elitist” etc etc etc drains the well of the energy, serendipity, goodwill & collaboration required for concepts to develop & advance.

So urgent optimism, & the enabling futures to be a “massively public endeavour” as Gorbis puts it, is for me the essential lesson to take forward from 2016.  In the last piece I wrote, I set out the concept for Humboldtweb, a new forum & think space for ideas, conversations & projects working towards an understanding of the new landscapes around us.  It’s taking a little while longer to get there than we’d hoped, but we’ll be launching soon. I hope that, in some part at least, this can be a tribute to the memory of my dad & his principles of hope, learning and challenge.

Here’s to the New Year.

The website will be live shortly - in the meantime if you'd like to get involved please get in touch via this blog or via Twitter @futuresinfinite & @wearehumboldt


[1] These episodes, & the sheer absurdity of trying to explain or understand what’s going on during grief, are explored in Helen MacDonald’s “H is for Hawk”, a truly mesmerising book that I kept close to me during the worst times.
[2] A quick aside – there has to be a better phrase than this, surely?

[3] Years later he told me he’d never disagreed with the reasons put forward, just the tactics of the strike.  To paraphrase: “Scargill’s analysis of Thatcher’s intent was correct.  His response was self-defeating”.

[4] Exactly the kind of phrase, btw, that would have my dad’s eyes rolling.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Things Have Changed

Two weeks on from the EU Referendum & despite all angst & exuberance the inescapable feeling is that, for good or ill, things have changed beyond all expectation. We've had innumerable analyses, interpretations & explanations of the results but the hard truth is that, like any instance of momentous change, the factors behind it are complex, intertwined & difficult to assess.  What (R)remains is the sense of unchartered intellectual & political territory, a void beyond experience.

Beyond the political flux, commentariat frenzy & despairing attempts to claim prescience is, I believe, an opportunity to be grasped.  Although it seems beyond comprehension that there was never a plan for what might happen in the event of an exit vote, it would appear that is the case (food for thought for the futures community btw). So the possibilities exist for a fundamental reframing of what we understand to be democracy in the UK. Almost everything, from taxation to international relations, from local accountability to the very existence of the major political parties, is now open to question. Our core institutions are creaking. Whilst the Tory Party struggles to understand the impact of its internal schism on the United Kingdom's future, & as the Labour Party continues its long descent into insignificance through battles over ideological purity, it seems to me the real prize - moving beyond the politics of anger to "the diffusion of prosperity" & the restoration of social progress - is there to be claimed. Or, at least, strived for.

None of which is to say there are easy answers.  & that is, at least in part, the point.  Easy answers are almost always facile, simplistic, & doomed to failure. £350m a week to the NHS, anyone? But the potential for new kinds of dialogue, debate & approach has been noted by many fine voices in the last fortnight (some, but by no means all, links below).

In this vein, & in the spirit of open, rather than closed, debate - I'm proud to be a part of Humboldtweb, a new forum & think space for ideas, conversations & projects working towards an understanding of this new landscape. We see Humboldtweb as a place for open, constructive engagement with the issues: too often debates are framed as arguments from opposing, unmoveable positions. What we hope to create is a space for ideas to be put forward, challenged & refined in a spirit of collaboration. Rather than focussing on a narrow subject, we'll be looking at the interrelationships of art, politics, science & beyond with a view to the "unity in variety" that Humboldt himself espoused.

The website will be live shortly - in the meantime if you'd like to get involved please get in touch via this blog or via Twitter @futuresinfinite & @wearehumboldt

Some further reading

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Devolution, Evolution & sitting on a barb-wire fence

It’s been a while since I blogged about devolution and the futures of local government.  A great deal has changed since I began posting, initially focussing on the possibilities raised by “DevoManc” & the (then Coalition) Government’s new found appetite for subsidiarity.

It’s worth reflecting on how different the landscape looks now, compared to only 18 months ago.  The Greater Manchester deal is, of course, the tower that dominates the skyline.  But alongside GManc we have devolution deals for Cornwall, West Yorks, West Mids, Tees Valley & more.  Local government, in the doldrums for so long, has (to some extent, at least) been reinvigorated intellectually if not financially by the challenges & opportunities at stake.  Economic growth, seemingly the Government’s prime consideration in all of its dealings, is crucial to localised approaches but in tandem with welcome emphases on health & wellbeing, skills & infrastructure, & the challenges of the future.  Chasing small pots of money to fund sticking plasters for problems is yesterday’s game: everyone seems to be talking root causes, complex interdependencies & long-term solutions now.  Public services have some of their boldness back, driven in part by the reality that the traditional approaches of the last twenty (or more?) years are gone.

& yet the last couple of weeks or so have seen a significant shift in mood.  Cracks have started to show in several areas looking to agree devo deals & Combined Authority agreements.  The “North Midlands” (an aside: I truly dislike that label) proposal covering Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire has seen almost daily renditions of in, out & shake it all about.  Districts in Oxfordshire have apparently gone rogue with a plan for new unitaries. The Norfolk & Suffolk plan is now spreading into other parts of East Anglia.  Or is it? & so the questioning starts: is it worth it? Might it be better for us to wait & see what happens? See who fails? Should we sit on the fence?

The vagaries inherent in a deal-based, rather than a methodology-based, approach from central Government were always going to result in an imbalanced & unequal patchwork of arrangements around the country.  The GManc deal, although held up as a trailblazer & model to follow, is the result of a unique situation.  It would be folly for rural areas or combined shires to simply copy the “Northern Powerhouse” (another pet hate); but then it is equally unhelpful to have the Mayoral model imposed from Whitehall as a pre-requisite for substantial decentralisation.  Calls are getting louder for more clarity from central Government about what exactly is on offer, & what is the quid pro quo?

Personally, I’m all in favour of asymmetry: local deals need to suit local circumstances & ambitions.  That may well mean large areas of the country don’t get a deal for some time, & it may mean that some arrangements are significantly diluted in comparison to others.  The deals already done are surely only first stages: proof of concept (& accountability) will lead to more responsibilities.

So the emphasis should be on local leadership (across organisational boundaries) working with their communities to pinpoint what is needed, & making a convincing case for it.  A compelling vision for the future has to be the key, not a compelling structure chart. If that means tearing up the blueprints & starting again, so be it; but that can only happen if there is an appetite in Whitehall for genuine & variable change.  The proof of concept needs to work both ways.

& above all let’s not forget that devolution will be a process of evolution. A new era for local democracy & accountability is not going to happen immediately or neatly. Steps forward will, as ever, be followed by steps back.  But democracy, accountability, politics, geography; these are all messy, complex, disputable notions without obvious solutions. & surely it’s better to be wading through the mud than sitting on a barb-wire fence.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Alexander's Amazing Adventures

 “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science”

By Andrea Wulf. Published by John Murray, 2015

 Alexander van Humboldt, the subject of Andrea Wulf’s Costa Book Award winning biography, lived a remarkable & singular life.  Born into privilege in aristocratic Prussia in 1769, outstanding academically & from a young age a fixture in Berlin’s intellectual circles, the young Humboldt did not lack ambition:

“According to family lore, the Prussian King, Frederick the Great, asked the boy if he planned to conquer the world like his namesake, Alexander the Great. Young Humboldt’s answer was: “Yes, Sir, but with my head.”

Nevertheless, Humboldt was constrained by family obligations to a career as a civil servant in the Prussian Ministry of Mines until his mother’s death freed him from any such ties.  Along with a significant inheritance, this emancipation from expectation provided Humboldt with the opportunity to pursue his dreams: travel, exploration, scientific enquiry & investigations into the “Gordian knot of the processes of life.”

Humboldt’s journey to South America, and subsequent writings, became the foundation stone of his career & of this book.  Both a picturesque adventure tale & an extraordinary account of scientific discovery, Wulf’s retelling of the relationships, travails & encounters during the three years the Prussian spent in South America resound with awe & wonder for the natural world.  It is during this journey that Humboldt develops his concept of “Naturgemalde – an untranslatable term that can mean a ‘painting of nature’ but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.” This interconnectedness, & the importance of systems, networks and interrelationships to the “unity in variety” in nature mirror Humboldt’s own curiosity & desire for understanding beyond specialisms & academic frameworks.  “If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist.  He required information about everything and from everywhere.” Fittingly, to convey this approach Humboldt dispensed with tradition & produced a drawing, at first a sketch & later published as a three foot by two foot colour illustration with supporting information, pioneering the development of what we now know as infographics.  “Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everyone.”

The fame & adoration which followed Humboldt’s return to Europe & the publication of his accounts of scientific discovery are reflected in the fact that more things – rivers, mountains, ocean currents, cities, penguins – are named after him than anyone else. Later works, especially the five volume Cosmos, sold in enormous quantities & confirmed him as a pre-eminent thinker of the age.  Interestingly, Wulf devotes several later chapters of her book to the influence & continuation of Humboldt’s ideas in the careers of subsequent acolytes whose current fame exceeds that of their hero; including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, & John Muir.  In doing so, the author re-establishes Humboldt’s importance having been relegated (at least in the English-speaking world) to the margins of history.

The Invention of Nature is a biography on a grand canvas, reflecting the multifaceted career & interests of its subject.  Scientist, adventurer, author, data visualisation pioneer & mentor for subsequent scientists & writers amongst many other things, Humboldt was no mere cataloguer of nature.  He “was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them”, & in reconnecting her subject & his works into the grand sweep of the Enlightenment, Andrea Wulf’s vital book more than succeeds in her quest “to rediscover Humboldt, and to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon”; it reclaims the importance of her subject’s work & its legacy far beyond the confines of the history of science.