Regeneration: from time lords to transforming cities - RSA blog - RSA

Regeneration: from time lords to transforming cities


  • Picture of Martin Wright
    Martin Wright
    Writer, editor, speaker, enthusiast
  • Design
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Economy

Martin Wright reports back from the RSA’s sessions on the regeneration of capabilities, social infrastructure and cities at the Anthropy ‘think fest’ in Cornwall.

Regeneration - regen to its friends - is the buzzword of our days. Type it into Google and up pops everything from renewable energy think tanks to social housing associations to “Back to Berkley Regen Lifestyle Boots for Men”. (No, me neither.) More regenerations are going down, it seems, than were ever experienced by Dr Who…

And for good reason. Buffeted by today’s polycrises, a spirit of renewal, of fresh thinking, is surely needed more than ever – whether it’s regenerating our ecosystem, our agriculture, our cities, or even our faith in the future.

So it’s apt that regeneration lies at the heart of the RSA’s Design for Life mission. This has the simple but (I hope you agree) essential aim of making our fiendishly interconnected social, economic and natural systems more resilient in the face of some pretty brutal challenges. It’s about taking the sustainability mantra of ‘first do no harm’ and turning it into ‘do more good’. And plenty of it.

And that made it the perfect fit with the aims of Anthropy, the three-day ‘think fest’ held amid the vast bubbly biomes of Cornwall’s Eden Project in November. Featuring everyone from Tony Juniper, Sharon White and Lord Deben to Imogen Heap, Vicky Pryce and Eden’s own Tim Smit, Anthropy unfurled a host of visions to “inspire a better Britain”. The RSA played its part in that with three sessions on the theme of regeneration, which I was lucky enough to chair.

We need a significant shift in education, allowing students to excel at creativity, collaboration, curiosity and empathy – and these should be the methods through which we’d assess students, rather than the retention of knowledge.

Senior Qualifications Manager, Pearson Phil Holton

Regenerating capabilities

First, we tackled the question of how to regenerate our capabilities. Following Einstein’s advice that “we cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them”, our panellists set out fresh ideas on what habits in education and training we need to leave behind, and what we can take forward. Leading educationalist Phil Holton (currently driving new thinking at Pearson’s Extended Curriculum) argued powerfully that we need “a significant shift in education, allowing students to excel at creativity, collaboration, curiosity and empathy – and these [should] be the methods through which we’d assess students, rather than the retention of knowledge”.

From the corporate world, Andy Brown, Chief Sustainability Officer of Anglian Water, and Katherine Wasser – who has the delightful title of ‘Head of Purpose and Culture Transformation’ at Jaguar Land Rover – spoke of how they, too, look to fresh approaches on capabilities within their respective companies, to keep staff curious and invigorated.

Building capabilities

Change starts with supporting people to learn and lead. At the heart of Design for Life is the commitment to build the skills, connections and confidence people need to fulfil their potential.

The RSA’s Joanna Choukeir, Director of Design and Innovation, imagined a future where around the Cabinet table sat a ‘Minister for Change and Citizenship for People, Place and Planet’; where every boardroom would boast a Group Care and Compassion Officer; and every charity a Trustee for Courage and Creativity.

I would love to see a world where people who wanted to move from one job to another had easy access to a system – an app – that would tell them the skills they needed to learn, and how they could get them really easily.

Head of Open Learn, Open University Patrina Law

Regenerating social infrastructure

In the second session, we turned our attention to the thorny challenge of regenerating our social infrastructure. A big ask, in a society that at times seems to be teetering on the edge of broken, with crumbling schools, a creaking health service, punishing costs of living, struggling public finances and precious little in the way of social mobility.

Can we really make the sort of changes required to regenerate society at a speed and scale commensurate with the challenge? And when we think about social infrastructure, do we focus too much on ‘stuff’ – buildings, roads, beavers, peat bogs, etc, or targets, even – and not enough on less tangible elements – knowledge, values, and the way disparate systems interact, for good or ill?

Where, in short, do we start? For Kim Bohling, who leads the RSA’s Research Directorate, it was important to acknowledge the scale of the task: “It’s harder to move up the social mobility ladder now than at any time in the last 50 years.” But that should be a challenge, not a deterrent, she argued, suggesting that the RSA could start close to home by exploring how to become a model of social mobility within its own community.

Patrina Law, drawing on her experience as Head of Open Learn at the Open University, made a passionate call for democratising learning by moving away from traditional qualifications towards a model featuring ‘micro-credentials’.

“I would love to see a world where people who wanted to move from one job to another had easy access to a system – an app – that would tell them the skills they needed to learn, and how they could get them really easily; that was personalised to them, so they take clear steps to move on in the career of their choice.” Such ‘digital badges’, she argued, could prove their capabilities in a way that’s simply not provided for in conventional learning.

Thomas Viegas approached the challenge from a different angle: one that makes clear the connections between a healthy society and economy on the one hand, and the natural systems on which they depend.

Viegas has done more than most to set up a framework which makes those links crystal clear: first at the Bank of England, and now at the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures.

Social connections

Our social connections work will oversee a step-change in encouraging approaches and practices that value and commit to stewarding social capital.

He argued that we need to embrace natural limits and work out how we do what we want to do within them – a path that’s not only radically different from the journey we have been on since the Industrial Revolution but which can unleash all sorts of creativity as we do so.

Everyone needs something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to.

Dame Julia Cleverdon

Regenerating cities

Creativity cropped up liberally in our final Anthropy panel, around the theme of regenerating cities. For Polly Mackenzie, Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of the Arts London (which groups together institutions such as Central St Martin’s, the Chelsea College of Art and the London College of Fashion), “creativity is the power behind cities, and what drives people to them”.

Formerly CEO of think tank Demos and one of the expert commissioners in the UK Urban Futures Commission, Mackenzie argued that creativity should be front and centre of any discussion of city futures, And that means creative experiences need to be part of everyday urban living, not just confined to galleries or concert halls. “Things will go right for cities if they allow creativity and culture to thrive not just in elite art forms, but as an absolutely central part of who we are and how we live together.”

Bringing life and hope into the heart of cities was a driving passion of our other two panellists. As chief executive of the UK’s newest city, Doncaster, Damian Allen shared his enthusiasm for regenerating the community by boosting local skills and tackling the climate emergency in a way that makes the city more beautiful: a thriving place to live in every sense.

Meanwhile, Dame Julia Cleverdon, who has a lifetime’s experience in “connecting the unconnected”, particularly by linking business at the most senior level with local communities to make change happen, inspired the audience with her very practical approach to urban regeneration in Blackpool. Her commitment over many years to the town and its surroundings has made real strides in boosting educational and job opportunities.

Business, she argued, has a vital role to play in lifting spirits and life chances: “Everyone needs something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to.”

A fitting motto for regeneration across the board, in fact.

UK Urban Futures Commission

Unlocking the potential of UK cities, to drive economic, social and environmental improvements for people and for the country.

Martin Wright FRSA is a speaker and writer on sustainable futures and a director of Positive News.

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