Archive for the ‘people’ Category


Disrupting the establishment from within

February 22, 2015

Thanks to my Clore fellowship, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about what I should do next. To be honest I’m in a right muddle. My good friend J may have nailed it when he sat back at the end of an evening together and told me that I’m clearly having some kind of mid-life crisis. My immediate response was that I’m not that old. But then I came down to earth with a bump and realized I’m not that young either…

Anyway the one thing I feel very clear about is that I want to find roles where I can disrupt the establishment one way or another. That might be about direct action; it is also about exposing some of the damaging assumptions and power relationships that underpin the status quo, in order to give people their voices back, whether that’s in politics, in public services, or indeed the communities in which they live.

Now it’s not often you see people disrupting from within. Yet this week, we’ve had Peter Oborne (former Chief Political Commentator of the Telegraph) taking on the free press, and the Church taking on politics. How unlikely do these skirmishes sound! Yet taken together they are a wake-up call about the corrosive effect consumerism is having on our civic life, and a plea for politics to start recognizing this damage (for two brilliant thinkers on this, check out Michael Sandel’s accessible Reith lectures, and Zymund Bauman’s less accessible Consuming Life).

First of all, Peter Oborne exposed the Telegraph’s willingness to put advertising revenue ahead of good journalism in a quite incredible resignation letter that I really recommend reading in full. Here he shows how the commercialization of the free press has rendered it much less free than it should be. He shows how the suits at the top are complicit in maintaining dysfunctional power relationships. He underlines the sway big business has over public life behind closed doors.

Second, an amazing letter from the Church Bishops to ‘the people and the parishes of the Church of England’. Again, it really is worth reading all 52 pages of it. I love that this has come out of an institution which, by definition, is inextricably bound up with the establishment, and depends on that establishment for its special status, and I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the meeting when the Bishops signed this letter off.

If you haven’t got time to read the full letter, check out David Mitchell’s excellent piece on why it matters instead. For me, the main argument is that we have let consumerism seep too far into all parts of civic life, including politics, and that it is time to challenge this state of affairs. The letter is also a plea to see ourselves as more than individuals alone – we are not a ‘society of strangers’, as the Bishops put it. ‘‘We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others”. Amen to that, as someone more religious than me might say.

What is most refreshing about these letters is that they were written at all. There are precious few voices within the establishment calling for a move away from the neo-liberal consensus that currently defines both main parties. So Peter Oborne, and the Bishops of the Church of England, for the first time in my life, I salute you.**

** although really Bishops, is it really so hard to give women equal rights???


real world economics

June 9, 2009

i knew that me and economics didn’t go well together when i tried to study it at A-level. It just seemed so confident in itself, and its view of the world was not one that i recognised: it was too rigid and linear; too eager to present an objective view of Facts. But these sorts of criticisms make me sound like a tree-hugging sandal wearer, so I’m glad that I took some time out this morning to listen to the first of Harvard Professor Michael Sandal’s BBC Reith Lectures.

His argument can, I think, be summarised by his statement that ‘markets leave their mark on social norms’. His brief introduction (looking forward to the development of the themes in later lectures) was simply that we cannot separate the study of economics from broader social, moral and political questions. To only consider what is the right thing to do from the economic perspective (e.g. efficiency) denies the consequences of introducing market mechanisms to new sites of society. They are not morally neutral.

Two good examples he gave. First, the childcare providers who began to charge parents for collecting their kids late. Economists would assume that incentives such as avoiding this fine would mean that there would be fewer late parents. What actually happened was that more parents started to be late. They no longer felt they were putting the teachers out by making them stay late, but instead that they were paying for a service. Second, on blood donation. Sandel argues that we need to consider the social consequences of turning something which had been a gift into a commodity. What does that say about society and its values? It’s not that he was saying we shouldn’t ever commoditise stuff – but rather, that we should recognise and debate the consequences of doing so.

Sandel is not alone in arguing that the dismal science becomes a whole lot less dismal when we start talking about political economics – situated in the real world, where morals and values are given parity with efficiency. Paul Ormerod’s brilliant books – The Death of Economics and Butterfly Economics – make this case powerfully too, arguing that we have allowed economists to believe that they can use their rules and theories to predict the world and to decide how to act. Ormerod believes this betrays economics’ roots, as a science that sought to understand and describe the real world as it unfolded.


bruno latour on design

February 20, 2009

it’s been a bit quiet on sparkthinking recently thanks to a holiday I’m nearly at the end of in Los Angeles. What a place! I’m not sure I like it very much – very taken aback (naively so, I suspect) at the reliance on cars, the extent of huge shopping malls – all lit up and air conditioned, the sheer weight of expectations to consume of the place – so despite marvellous company and a fun week, I haven’t been converted to LA life. in fact if anything it has given even more solidity to a sense I’ve had for a while that I want to simplify life and pare things right down to what’s actually important when I get home. watch this space on that front…

anyway, I’ve spent a bit of time here thinking through what’s going to go into the pamphlet I’m doing with the RSA on social design, service design and the future of design education, and as part of that I’ve been reading a fairly impenetrable piece by sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour. It’s a paper he gave to a design research conference last year, and for me it brings out two key themes that will feature in my own pamphlet.

First, the need for design ethics these days. As Latour says

By expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers take up the mantle of morality as well

This is certainly a theme that has come up in my interviews with design tutors and some of the students: if designers are serious about applying their skills to social challenges then they have to accept that there are ethical and moral dimensions to this work, and that their own activity has impacts that they should think through carefully in advance. Yet design courses have little to say about ethics currently – all the more striking when you compare design to other disciplines interested in achieving social change – in subjects such as psychology, or anthropology, or even political sciences, ethics features heavily and is taken very seriously.

The second theme that I thought Latour’s piece brought out well was about representations and communication of design work. Latour is interested in how design can do more to represent the complexity of real life, rather than objects in a vacuum:

Design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing practical skills for drawing objects… but what has always been missing from these marvellous drawings… are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stakeholders that are born within these.

Many of the students I’ve interviewed raise this question of how to represent complex social or service-based design work. We don’t yet have a language that’s developed enough in this sphere and it seems to me that it’s a prime area for further development in design research.


round about a pound a week

January 25, 2009

i’ve finally tracked down a new copy of Round About a Pound A Week from the marvellous Persephone Books, and spent a very enjoyable evening reading it on Friday. Written in 1913 by the Fabian Women’s Group, it tracks the lives of the ‘working poor’ of Lambeth in minute detail. The project came about as the result of the Fabians deciding to investigate the impact of additional grants for food being given to families upon the birth of a new child. Actually, the book itself hardly dwells on the impact of this specific measure, instead looking at housing, relationships and food (Maslow’s basic needs – there wasn’t scope for much beyond them for these families). The over-riding message is of the impossibility of living on such tiny wages.

So much struck me about this book that I can’t fit it all into this one post. So for now, two things in particular stand out that challenged the assumptions around poverty in 1913, and that remain deeply pertinent today. First, Maud Pember Reeves (the principal author) ridicules the doctors and officials who suggest that women need to be educated about the wonders milk can do for their kids. Women knew this all too well – but managing the household budget when it was so meagre made it an utterly unrealistic choice. Women were already going without – as, often, their children were too – and there was no room to cut spending on other items to purchase milk.

Second, Pember Reeves notes with interest that almost every family in the study put a notable sum of their weekly budget into the burial club. Rationally, this seems crazy: much better to spend every penny possible on keeping the children alive in the first place. But, she notes, the ‘disgrace of a pauper funeral’ meant that £11,000,000 every year was paid in pennies by the poor to the burial clubs. Pride was in operation here and the book takes issue with the middle class moralisers who refuse to see the importance of a decent burial. I am sure that the usual stuff the papers cover about trainers, big TVs and the rest is something of a modern-day equivalent.

The working poor that Pember Reeves studied remain a woefully invisible part of our population today. The equivalent of a 1913 pound is roughly £370 a week now, or £19,250 a year, according to the IFS. Meanwhile the official poverty line is set now at £332 a week for a two parent, two child family. Half the kids living in poverty have parents in work, and our study of ‘Just Coping’ families in Kent indicates that up to a sixth of the kids living there experience conditions that, while unrecognisable to the children of the 1913 study, are still characterised by terrible housing, miserable environments, limited and unhealthy food and deeply unstable or unrewarding work for their parents.

The book didn’t stop at describing the lives of the families – although simply that description, in such detail, had a massive impact on the social reformers and politicians of the day. The study also made recommendations that influenced policy around child benefits, free school milk, and health visitors. I think it’s time to do another study like Pember Reeves’…


not sure Britain’s broken yet…

January 10, 2009

picture-1for a while I’ve thought there’s a fundamental misalignment between two of the key strands of Cameron’s brand of Conservatism. On the one hand, they talk of a civic renewal – not exactly rolling back the frontiers of the state, but rather a notion that communities can do more for themselves, and better, than bureacratic, uncaring public services. On the other, they espouse a view that Britain is broken. Here, the analysis is that societal norms are evaporating, and that this leaves our young people in particular lost in a sea of individualism without a sense of a clear moral or social compass to guide their behaviour. The two just don’t sit comfortably with me, seeming to present two very different views of British life today.

A brilliant and insightful book I’ve been reading recently has made me think again about this stuff. The Comfort of Things by anthropologist Daniel Miller explores the meaning of the relationships people have with material things – their houses, computers, ornaments, clothes – and argues that through exploring this, we can understand more about how individuals relate to the world around them. Part of his analysis is that it is true that there are fewer social norms to guide behaviour these days; but that this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that all that can remain in the absence of society is a set of fragmented individuals.

Far from it, he argues. His book shows us that it is a constant, lifelong project for people to seek to create meaningful relationships with others, and with things, in order to make sense of the world. People’s definition of a ‘full’, rather than an ’empty’, life seems to be determined by the degree of success they have in creating such relationships. As well as being a set of stories about the resourceful way in which people make meaning, his book also suggests that anthropologists, accustomed in the past to studying ‘cultures’ and ‘societies’, may find they need to shift their ethnographic eye to households, networks of relationships, and those very intimate interactions between each of us and the world around us. In other words, it’s not that society’s broken, but that in order to see it, we need to shift our focus to individuals – not as atomised beings but as fundamentally social and engaged with things beyond themselves.

Anyway all of this is probably to read far too much into Miller’s work (you can read his own take on the book here); this aside, I can’t recommend it enough as a read that leaves you feeling touched and moved, and hopeful about human nature.


failure and imagination

January 9, 2009

here’s a beautiful speech from J K Rowling on failure and imagination, given to Harvard students on their graduation. I love this text so much.

On failure, JK talks about the significance of hitting rock bottom for her – as she says, it became the solid foundation upon which she rebuilt her life. For her, finding that she was still alive, even though, to her mind, her worst fears had been realised, set her free to strip away everything but the essentials, and to stop pretending to be someone she wasn’t. Perhaps a little romanticised, and she is pretty candid about the fact it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time, but there’s something in what she says that resonates for me.

However it’s what she says about imagination that I think is even more pertinent:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Talking of her experiences of working at Amnesty during her 20s, she argues that it is imagination that enables humans to put themselves in other people’s places. As I watch with growing depression and horror about what’s happening in Gaza and Israel, her words ring particularly true: those who choose not to imagine risk enabling monsters. Denying our connection to the outside world, refusing to see the impact of our action on others, is in her view a form of collusion and denial that is potentially as significant as committing an act of evil in the first place.


statistical geekery

November 10, 2008

I spent an enjoyable evening at the RSA last week. I am seriously beginning to wonder whether they aren’t the most interesting thinktank in town at the moment – never thought I’d be saying that two years ago, but I think it has a kind of energy and verve (and, dare I say it, playfulness) that is sadly lacking elsewhere currently.

Anyway, I was at a debate involving the ominpresent MORI guru Ben Page, Brown’s pollster Deborah Mattinson (can’t find a link for her that I don’t find mildly offensive), academic Paul Dolan and RSA chief exec Matthew Taylor, and they were discussing why the Brits are so privately optimistic and so publicly despairing. As ever, Ben reeled off some great stats which I’m sure I’ll find a use for at some point… for example:

Fear of crime in London is equivalent to fear of crime in Sao Paulo – but stangely, when quizzed about fear of specific crimes rather than a general worry, no one is particularly anxious

Two thirds of Brits think that Britain really is broken, a la IDS and Cameron – and only a quarter share Boris Johnson’s view that this thesis is piffle

33% of people think conditions will improve in the future, 32% think they will stay the same, and 19% believe they will get worse. No idea what the remaining 16% think.

77% think that in order to change behaviour on environmental issues, the law needs to be changed; and 77% of people think that green taxes are a cynical government ploy to top up taxes

Deborah Mattinson talked a lot about the ‘I’ve been lucky’ syndrome to account for why, despite having positive personal experiences of public services, 70% of people still think the country’s going down. The most interesting thing I thought she said was about what factors determine how people rate an experience of a service. First, the emotional always trumps the rational; and second, people remember two key moments of any experience – its peak, and the closing interaction. (although anyone who’s been through the Pizza Hut training could have told you that).

Paul Dolan basically said that all the polls tell us is how people react to pollsters. He argued we should look at how people really live their lives, rather than looking at what they say to pollsters (vive l’anthropologie!)

Matthew Taylor decided to turn the basic premise of the discussion on its head to argue that it is precisely because life has got better that we feel worse. In this he referred to many of the themes I’ve been exploring so far on this blog – about the need to look for meaning beyond consumption and a growing interest in new forms of collective action to counterbalance the deeply individualistic modes of interaction that have defined the last generation of politics.

Last thought based on the discussion of the evening: as well as understanding what people say to pollsters, I’m interested with how they *act* on their views: if they think their kid’s school is crap, do they have a good moan about it, or do they make a move and do something? It seems to me that we need to believe in our capacity to act – individually and collectively – and that finding a way of measuring this sense of agency would be a very interesting project indeed for the pollsters to take on.