Challenges of the modern world - RSA

Challenges of the modern world

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The RSA has been assisting the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with its fascinating project to identify 'new social evils'. We held a launch event here in July and our Fellows were invited to contribute to JRF's online consultation.

This week, I attended a day long discussion exploring the outcomes of that consultation and implications for the next stage of the project. A stage which we hope will involve further JRF/RSA events at John Adam Street.

I won't steal JRF's thunder by revealing the list of social evils that emerged from the over 3,000 online submissions and more in-depth focus groups.

Maybe it's the wisdom of crowds, or maybe a failure of popular insight, but the list reveals a pretty strong consensus around the kinds of 'evils' discussed at the lecture here, with materialism, poverty, and the breakdown of family and community featuring highly.

The extended seminar this week was an opportunity to look behind the list and explore connections and deeper underlying trends. There was much of interest here, but, for me, three related points stood out:


  • It is not useful to try to explain the widespread pessimism about the state and direction of society by saying lives are getting worse. Indeed many things, for example social tolerance, affluence, educational attainment are getting better. Our unease may instead reflect the sense that we are not equipped to deal with the kinds of new challenges presented to us by the modern world.

  • In physiological terms human evolution is a slow process (although rising life spans and evidence of substantial increases in average IQs suggest it is possible to get much better use out of the equipment we inherit). Thus far, human history comprises a very long period of very limited change, followed by a much shorter period of much more profound change. Is the tragic paradox of modernity that we are able to unleash powerful, unstoppable, processes - most obviously scientific and technological change, and modern globalisation - but we do not have the tools (as individuals, communities or nations) to direct those processes to the achievement of a better human condition.

  • Returning to the RSA theme of the social aspiration gap (between the future we say we want and the future we are likely to create with current modes of thought and behaviour), should we understand this gap less as a failure of will or leadership, but instead as a sign that we need to develop a new collective consciousness? It is only this new consciousness (what our trustee Sean Blair refers to as 'post-enlightenment thinking') that will enable us to thrive in the world we have created, or, as it increasingly feels, the world that is creating us.


In case this all feels a bit abstract let me offer one observation which connects a major social phenomena with the ways our minds work.

We know from the research of Richard Layard and others that economic progress and rising affluence have not been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. This insight has given rise to the development of new policy priorities designed to increase happiness levels.

The impact of Layard's work was seen most recently when the Government announced substantial extra funding for cognitive and behavioural therapy.  Studies of individual behaviour and brain processes suggests one reason for the social phenomenon of progress without happiness may lie in our individual mental processes (for a brilliant exposition of this and other research I can strongly recommend 'Stumbling on Happiness' by Dan Gilbert).

It seems that we are all very bad at predicting the impact of events on our levels of contentment (systematically exaggerating the bad impact of what we fear and the good impact of what we desire).  So, how are we to create a more contented society when we are so bad at predicting what make us contented individuals?

As is the style of my blogs, I am skimming the surface of a deep and complex set of subjects. The idea of a new collective consciousness requires us to bring together insights from areas as diverse as anthropology, philosophy, social psychology and brain science. Unless debate is grounded in robust research and engages with concrete issues there is a danger of falling into a kind of new age mysticism.

But this feels to me like it could be a central project for the RSA, shaping both our thought and organisation for years to come.

Any other views?


This week the Trustees approved a set of interesting new research projects on: learning in prisons; attitudes and behaviours among small investors; social care innovation; and pro-social behaviour.

I'll ask Jonathan Carr-West to summarise these on the programme pages of the RSA site.

Thanks to Christine Richard and Liz Sewell for interesting responses to last week's blog.

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  • One of the most inspiring articles I have read recently is by Bruce Mau, creator of Massive Change in Canada


    He wrote an article on Optimism which relates very neatly to your comments about Lord Layard's wonderful work and happiness. Some quotes from the article:

    "These days, to express optimism in educated company suggests that you are either wilfully ignorant of the facts or simply a fool. To be serious, to be critical, to have a voice, we have to be cynical. To strive for something — something better — is a Pollyanna project for the naive.

    ....In stark contrast to this prevailing wind of negativity, the experience of the team that worked with me on Massive Change was quite the opposite. In the face of global challenges — and there are many of unprecedented seriousness, from the aids disaster in Africa to the environmental impact of our growing population — we nevertheless witnessed action coming to bear on almost every significant problem. We saw new possibilities in collaboration and connectedness, which, along with the Internet, would allow designers around the world to draw on knowledge and expertise that had never before been accessible.

    ...But what we need to be reminded of is our own potential. We have the power to make change on a global scale, to solve the problems we are facing today. We have the means to make the things we love more intelligent and more delightful. We have the imagination and the ability to invent new ways of sustainable living in advanced, courageous, and open societies.

    All we need is the optimism to realize it."

    More on this article:

    There is also very good online information source on happiness studies which state 'Happy people appear to be more concerned with social problems and to be more apt to do something about that. There is also evidence that happiness activates and that it encourages social involvement."

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